Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Stillwater - 38

This section takes place before Ian and Rene get back on Monday afternoon.  I'll have to make it all flow the right way in revisions one day.

***

On Sunday morning after the ball, Alys Winter woke up weary, achy, and thoroughly dissatisfied with herself. The ache manifested not in her bones but in a restless mental affliction which flared up whenever she considered her evening’s interactions with Malcolm. Things had been strained, and the strange discomfort kept insisting that she was somehow to blame. Melly would have quickly pinpointed the disturbance as pangs of conscience, but that kind of language was foreign to Alys (or anyone brought up in the circles of Carson Winter), and the malady grew acuter for being undiagnosed.

She couldn’t understand him. Malcolm was unusual, she would grant that. He was gentle and solemn and unfailingly courteous. Whenever he disagreed with something she’d said, he criticized ideas, not her personally. He was sweet to his mom and civil to his sisters, and it was the cutest thing ever to see the way he sheltered poor Melly from the big bad world, the innocent leading the innocent. But still, he was a man, and men were men. She was absolutely sure he wasn’t gay, and she was almost positive that he was attracted to her, so why didn’t he show it? There was this layer of formality that she couldn’t seem to budge; he always seemed to want to talk. And his kind of earnest talk was so disconcerting that although she wanted to be near him, she kept squirming away. Serious questions left her feeling unprotected. Alys would far rather have bared her body than her soul.

Her body was what was at stake here. She was waiting for some sign that Malcolm was serious about her. He was trying to go about everything backwards, trying to get her to commit to… She didn’t even know what he wanted her to commit to, but she definitely was not going to have a serious conversation about relationships until he showed that he really wanted her. It was exhausting to try and follow his opaque mental processes, but passion was a universal language. She needed some physical sign that he wasn’t just out to play mind games with her, to trap her into saying something incriminating that he could analyze and reject.

The more she thought about it, however, the more she felt at fault. Alys was a sophisticated woman, wise and discriminating in the ways of a man with a maiden. This undefined point in a relationship was awkward for anyone — goodness knew she herself didn’t like it  — and Malcolm in particular was so reserved that without the right opportunity, he might never move on to the next stage. And now that she knew him better, she realized that she’d been putting the wrong kind of pressure on him. How could she have expected a sensitive man like him to respond to her in public, at the ball? She had gone about things too hastily, not giving him the kind of privacy he needed to let himself respond to her. Poor guy: it was likely that he’d barely touched a woman in his life, except his mother, sisters, and Melly, and they didn’t count. Why had she not helped him to be spontaneous? For being in the middle of nowhere, Stillwater seemed to be remarkably crowded. They’d barely had a moment alone except in their drives in Malcolm’s Morgan, and even that would have required the mood-killing formality of moving to the back seat. No, it was up to her to set the stage and remove every obstacle, to give him every chance to show how he felt without the constraint of every eye on the place freezing him back into a strict intellectual posture.

The contradiction of creating a perfectly staged opportunity for a spontaneous headlong dive into passion was not something Alys had considered deeply. Again, Melly would have found words for this kind of tension: “lead us not into temptation”. But that was more language that Alys didn’t comprehend. It would have sounded to her like something Malcolm would say in some attempt to nail her down to some cold moral position. If she could get him to relax enough to make the first move, the progression ought to be fairly simple. There was a way that relationships worked: first you had to establish a base of mutual desire, and once that had been acted on and a connection formed, only then did you move to the stage of discussion. The discussion was where people got hurt, where doubts were raised and insecurities revealed and rejection occurred. You needed that cushion of sexual attraction to soften the blows. Without that physical bond, there wasn’t even any point in talking about Us. There wasn’t even any Us up to that point, just two people and a concept which usually collapsed under the harsh light of interrogation.

And so, after an increasingly restless day of reflecting on the mistakes of the past and the perfections of the future, after casting a practiced eye around the living room of the cottage and testing the comfort of the chintz-covered couch and love seat, she sent an evening text to Malcolm: Ball+too many people= oddness. You+me+drinks at my place= evenness.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Gay Marriage Weakens Marriage, And That's Considered a Plus

One is treated, every so often, to the "conservative case for same sex marriage" in which it is rosily imagined that if we only redefine marriage so as to be agnostic as to the sexes of the people involved, the wider world will start treasuring chastity and fidelity a lot more. I've never found this particularly persuasive. It seems to me that the push for same sex marriage has much more to do with a demand for full recognition (we want everything they have) than any intent to abide more the sort of moral norms with which marriage was once associated. After all, in mainstream culture the idea that marriage demands chastity before or afterwards is something of a punchline these days anyway.

Be that as it may, this line of argument I recently read from an old acquaintance who is very much of the pro-gay-marriage side of things struck me as instructive:
But the real reason I support gay marriage these days is simple: it's for the sake of women. And for the sake of straight men, too.

I've seen marriages poisoned by the usual hetero script; I've had friends who stayed in severely abusive marriages because they felt it was their "wifely duty;" and of course I've seen my women friends (of any orientation) battered and tortured and constrained by the traditional view that men are superior and women are inferior.

So along comes gay marriage. Quite visible these days -- and what is it that people see? A way that people interact with each other that is DIFFERENT. Where are the "wifely duties" in a gay marriage? Who is "the man" in a lesbian partnership? By simply existing, gay & lesbian marriages disrupt the status quo. And the status quo, to my mind -- with its millennia of abuse and rape and discrimination -- could use a little disruption.

So I support gay marriage because it shows that the traditional "man and his little woman" pattern of relationships isn't the only way. Which is beneficial for women because it means they might not stand for this shit any more, and is beneficial for men because it means they can lay down the burdens of being "tough" and "manly," with all the violence and disrespect that the culture expects of such roles.

All these are sweeping statements, of course, and gay marriage itself is imperfect. But that's the long and the short of it: I support gay marriage for the sake of women, and for the sake of the men who oppress those women, because it's the only way they've known to live.
Now, I don't find his portrayal of relationship dynamics at all persuasive. He wants to read people who stay in bad relationships "too long" as being somehow oppressed by a cultural paradigm of marriage, when what I think is actually going on here is the relationship equivalent of people's drive to send good money after bad. We want our relationships to work out. Even when they're going badly we keep holding onto the idea that maybe, with just a little more time, just a little more work, it'll all come right. People in same sex relationships do this just like people in opposite sex ones do, and I don't think that knowing that there are marriages out there with different sex roles is going to hasten people toward abandoning relationships that they've built history and hope around.

However, the thinking about the desirability of breaking up the dominant marriage paradigm is something that I've read elsewhere as well. Keep in mind, one of the key beliefs in this new modern synthesis about sexual relationships is that they can take whatever form consenting adults want them to take. This is why many gay marriage supporters also support giving legal recognition to plural marriages.

If you don't believe there's anything particularly binding about what has in the past been the normative cultural understanding of marriage, then weakening it isn't a problem. Indeed, it's desirable, since sticking with one type of relationship might keep you from embracing something else that would make you happy. Here as in so many other places in our culture, we see choice set upon a pedestal as a near idol. If by breaking down social expectations and norms, we can give people more options in forming relationships, that will be seen as a good thing.

The key issue, I think, is whether human nature exists, and whether sexual relationships have an objective form, a way they are supposed to be.

The modern view quoted here seems to hold that there is not a necessary form that sexual relationships may take: anything that makes you happy. So if societal expectations can be broken down such that you are more free to move on to whatever makes you happy, so much the better.

I think this is incorrect. There is a way that we are supposed to be, and when we deviate from that form we will generally make ourselves less happy, not more so. As such, having social expectations which guide people towards following that pattern is a good thing, it helps people avoid mistakes which will only make them unhappy.

Either way, though, I think it's important to be clear that for those who take this modern view of relationships seriously, the social acknowledgement of an ever wider variety of relationship as "marriage" is intended to weaken marriage as a social institution. Because from that point of view, a shared social understanding of what a marriage should be is a restrictive barrier which potentially keeps you from finding just the right kind of relationship for you -- not a social buttress that helps provide you with strength from outside.

Monday, August 26, 2013

How To Think About Hell

Kyle Cupp has a post up about hell which I think merits some response. I'm going to quote rather extensively in order to try to be sure that I'm responding to Kyle's thoughts and not my own.
From childhood through my teenage years and into college, whenever the topic of hell arose in conversation or whenever I was presented with some depiction of hellish torments, I would feel my heart descend into my gut–sometimes gently and noticeably only a little, at other times with the momentous speed of a great plunge. I would on occasion awaken, heart pounding, from nightmares of demons and devils and their hunger for my soul. Satan and his minions were very real to me and very active in my imagination. To keep them at bay, I wore a scapular and held on to other pious arms.

These terrors have long since passed. I no longer live in fear of hell, a state that, for me, is somewhat irrational. As someone who does not rule out the existence of such a place or the possibility that I may find my flesh eternally cooked to well done (unwell done?), I really should still respond to these prospects with at least a little fear and trembling. Such would be the appropriate responses, no?

That I don’t fear eternal tortures suggests perhaps that I presumptuously believe myself to be safely among the elect or perhaps that I really, deep down in unexplored pits, disbelieve in the existence of hell. After all, if I were captured by terrorists and threatened with torture, no doubt I’d be a nervous wreck, unable to eat or relax or function in a dignified manner. I face the possibility of eternal torture, and yet my bowels work just fine. I don’t lose sleep. I don’t worry. I don’t think about hellfire when diving headfirst into some delicious sin or even afterwards when I feel guilty for having done wrong. I make no efforts to feel the appropriate fear that the prospect of hell should elicit. I’m troubled only be the hurts I cause this side of eternity.

If I wanted to be optimistic, I would say that I am not afraid because I recognize that God, who loves me and died for me, is perfectly trustworthy. I can trust him and be not afraid. This is the reasoning of apologist Mark Shea, who argues that hell should not keep believers forever in a state of servile fear because God wants everyone to be not afraid and to be rather in happy, loving communion with him. Speaking to the overly scrupulous, Shea remarks:
Hell is not a threat by God. It’s a diagnosis of the stakes for which we play and the consequences of being the sort of fallen creatures we are in the sort of universe this is with the sort of God who made it. When the doc says “If you persist in your behavior without change you will get liver cancer and you will die” he’s not threatening you. He’s stating a fact. The cancer is not being sent by the doc to kill you. It’s the fruit of the stuff you are doing. The doc is there to heal you. But the healing requires the diagnosis.

Jesus’ diagnosis is that our race is sick with sin. Hell is the fruition of a life obstinately ordered toward sinful selfishness. The endstage of sin is hell just as the endstage of cancer is death. It’s not an extra added punishment for sin. It’s just what sin fully is. So it’s not something God does to us. It’s something we do to ourselves.
This sounds awfully nice, but the comparison here doesn’t really work. God doesn’t just diagnose the sickness of sin and promise healing; God created a universe in which horrific eternal suffering is a consequence for not living according to the moral rules of the universe–rules everyone, everywhere breaks. Rules that are almost always difficult and impossible to follow all of the time. Hell may not be a threat from God, as Shea says, but if it’s part of the universe and might be the whole of your future, then it’s rationally something to fear. Like, a lot. Any religion that preaches the possibility that you will go to hell preaches the message, “Be afraid.” That God has also said “Be not afraid” doesn’t cast the reasonableness of fear into the outer darkness.

Let me start with Kyle's claim that the existence of hell is a message of "Be afraid!" from God to us. What do we mean when we say that we fear something? I think in this context, we are afraid of things that we consider bad which might happen to us against our will.

But in Shea's description of sin and hell which Kyle is responding to, damnation is not something that happens to us against our will, it is something that happens to us because of our will. If we utterly reject God and refuse to be with Him for eternity, God will grant our wish. Having endowed us with the dignity of free will, it would be inconsistent with God's nature for Him to do otherwise.

Kyle doesn't attack this conception of sin and hell, but some of his statements seem to suggest disagreement with it. For instance, he says, "God created a universe in which horrific eternal suffering is a consequence for not living according to the moral rules of the universe–rules everyone, everywhere breaks. Rules that are almost always difficult and impossible to follow all of the time." The implication seems to be that the unfortunate sinner could want very much to be happy with God for eternity in heaven, but without thinking much about it he committed some little sin that everyone does all the time -- that it's almost impossible to avoid -- and now, against his will, he finds himself in the fires of hell.

However, what Shea is saying (and what I think is indeed the correct way to understand sin and hell) is that sin is not just the performance of some action which God arbitrarily imposes heavy penalties upon. Sin is the rejection of God. Sin is putting oneself in God's place and following our will rather than his, consciously and deliberately.

This necessarily means that our damnation can never happen against our will. We can't reject God without rejecting God. I could perform some action which, if I fully understood its meaning and gravity, would constitute a rejection of God, but if I did so without fully understanding the action's meaning and import I would not incur the full effect. My action might have the same destructive effects on the temporal lives of myself and others that it would have if I had committed it in full knowledge and culpability, but it would not have the full effect on my relationship with God (of which my eventual salvation or damnation is the culminating expression) if I performed the act without full knowledge and intent.

Now, there is a sense in which we should be afraid of hell, but it's a different kind of "be afraid". We should regard our relationship with God with gravity, and make an effort to think seriously about how our actions affect that relationship -- just as we would with any other relationship that we treasure.

Take, for instance, your relationship with your spouse. It doesn't make sense to be afraid that you will somehow end your marriage and leave your spouse without meaning to. However, it does make sense for you to examine your actions in terms of how they affect your marriage. After all, if continuing your relationship with your spouse is important to you, it would make sense to examine your actions in terms of whether they bring you closer to or further from your spouse.

Sure, no one can be a perfect spouse. Just as Kyle says that it's well neigh impossible for us fallen creatures to do God's will every single time, we none of us are perfect spouses. We do things that are selfish or short sighted. In our human relationships, this means that it's at times even possible for us to hurt another so badly, without meaning to make a definitive break, that we find ourselves with an irreparably ruptured relationship before we realize what we're doing.

With God, however, we have a relationship with One who is both all knowing and all merciful. There is no point when God is going to say to us, "I just can't trust you anymore and I need to cut myself off from you lest you hurt me again." We can't, after all, hurt God. And He knows what goes on in the depth of our hearts better than we do ourselves. Thus, the only rupture that can occur between us and God is the one we make. We are only cut off from his mercy and forgiveness if we refuse to accept it.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Music for Saturday: God Only Knows

Some weekend tunes for you: here's me and the siblings singing some barbershop harmonies at my sister's wedding.




See that tall guy with the beard? That's my baby brother. He's turning 20 today. Nothing makes me feel old like my siblings getting old.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Saga of Un-Breakfast

I knew things were getting low in the pantry, but it was okay, because we could eat cheerios for breakfast. But no, the box was gone, and as I stared at the empty shelf I suddenly remembered picking up the empty box in the living room yesterday and vacuuming up a bunch of scattered, crunchy Os. Eating all the breakfast, in the living room even: two strikes already. I summoned everyone and had the obligatory yell about how we don't eat in the living room, you know that, and when you snack on all the breakfast food we don't have breakfast the next day.

But there's leftover cake? Yeah, two pieces among six people? No.

Fine, then, how about toast and jam? The only bread was a loaf of garlic bread.

Well, we could make biscuits. Lo, no butter. And no flour.

Yogurt? We finished it yesterday.

Cottage cheese? The day before.

Eggs? Only three.

Milkshakes? No frozen bananas. No bananas at all. Alright, chocolate milk with protein powder? No sugar, not even scrapings at the bottom of container. No oatmeal. No fruit, fresh or canned.

So, to tide us over until the quickly approaching lunch time, we're eating garlic bread (all the garlic carefully removed) and leftover hummus for breakfast. Eleanor, who finds this disgusting, dug up an old container of grits and is making her own meal, though grits with no butter is pretty dry stuff. And everyone is more or less satisfied except for me, because the state of the foodstuffs here makes me mad and it's my own fault for not keeping track of what we have in the house.

I could keep food in the house if only people would stop eating!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Strange Legalities Of Not Quite Persons

The worst lies are the ones we tell ourselves, and to my mind one of the worst in current circulation is the designation "potential person" used to justify treating unborn children as having only as much value as their parents want to endow them with. The legalities resulting from this cultural self deception can be truly strange.

There's an article making the rounds about a NASA scientist who adopted and gave birth to an embryo which had been frozen for 18 years. The utterly surreal thing that struck me out of the article, however, was this description of the legal process:
Because embryos cannot be sold (although the ethics of that were recently challenged in the New England Journal of Medicine), those that are donated must be “adopted,” with the receivers going through the same adoption procedure they would face if adopting a baby. So Burke quickly put together her adoption portfolio for the Oregon couple, and then endured a five-month wait as they pondered who to ultimately get the embryos.

“A lot of people wanted those embryos, so they had a pretty arduous process to go through,” Burke said, although she admitted the wait, plus endless rounds of personal questions, became frustrating. “I wanted to know what was going to happen, so that if they didn’t pick me I could move on.”
So apparently our laws are such that adopting an embryo requires the same paperwork as adopting any other child -- yet at the same time it is perfectly legal for a couple which has created a number of embryos during an IVF procedure to have the "left over" embryos destroyed at any time and for any reason. They're treated as persons or as waste depending on the wishes of their biological parents.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Decade Nostalgia

The Economist ran a poll asking people (divided by age and political affiliation) what decade they would most like to travel back in time to.

Noah Millman has a couple interesting observations about the results. I would assume that the popularity of the '20s among young people is mostly aesthetic. Also, it struck me as interesting that those old enough to have been adults throughout the 1990s view it least favorably, while those who were under 5 in 1990 view the period most favorably, followed by those who were 6-20 in 1990.

Personally... Well, actually, I don't have a strong opinions about decades. Best of times and worst times and all that. Though I notice that the current focus of my historical attention (the teens) is everyone's least favorite decade. There's some fairness to that, though if it has to do with the Great War people should arguably dislike the '40s even more.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Back When We Knew It All

Every now and then I run across one of our old posts, and I shake my head at the arrogance of the young. My stars and garters, we knew everything back then! But few things make me roll my eyes as much as one of our most popular Google hits, What Your 18-Year-Old Needs To Know, as decreed from on high by the 27-year-old Darwins.

It's good penance to read this kind of stuff seven years later, as a kind of time capsule of preciousness. I'll point out right here that I don't know at least one of the things on my own list, and several from Darwin's. Here's a few choice additions that didn't make the list then:

  • Knowing how to make a gracious apology
  • Knowing how to keep your mouth shut when you haven't anything constructive to say
  • Knowing that although you are unique in the eyes of God, your feelings, experiences, and opinions are probably not so in the eyes of man. 
  • Knowing that although sarcasm gets quick laughs, kindness builds more enduring relationships.
  • Knowing that you don't know everything, and that's okay.
I'll tell you what: having eight years of writing archived for public consumption punctures any puffed-up belief I may have had in my own vast maturity of years past. Egad.

Romance, with a strong underpinning of reality

Darwin's post on arranged marriages sent us back down memory lane. We were about as close a case of love at first sight as makes no never mind, and I don't doubt that had we, by some odd twist of fate, been an arranged marriage, we would have flourished from the first moment. As it was, about a month after we'd been together, we were sitting one evening in the kitchen of Darwin's dorm. It wasn't a particularly comfortable or romantic (or hygienic) place, but women weren't allowed in men's rooms except for four hours on Saturday and Sunday, and all the common rooms were taken. We were snuggled up in the least objectionable corner of a couch, books and assignments all around, talking about the most absorbing subject in the world: Us. The future lay before us, open and rosy and full of potential, and we were talking about what we wanted to do with our lives. And I, in a moment of apprehensive daring, said, "I want to spend the rest of my life with you."

"And I want to spend the rest of my life with you," he said. We basked for a moment in a glow of mutual happiness. Then he said, "This doesn't mean we're engaged, does it?"

"No, of course not," I said, shocked. Talking about getting married was one thing. Actually getting engaged, at 18, with four years of college still ahead of us? That would just be impractical.

And we sat on in harmony. Romantic tension is plenty nice in its way (though really, it's more exciting in books or in retrospect than in the awkward longing of the moment), but even better is the joy of perfect mutual understanding and unity.


Evolution, Sex and God's Creative Power

One of the things that seems to really unsettle people about the idea of evolution is that they imagine is sidelines God's creative power. Did God create the world directly, people ask, or did He simply stand aside and guide some process of evolution which did it?

One problem here is that we tend to fall into thinking of God as rather like us, and God's creation as rather like our "creations" of art or engineering. As creatures within creation, it's reasonable to ask "Did you create that or did someone else or did it just happen naturally?" If I paint a picture of a sunset, one can refer to the paining as my "creation", but the horizon and the sunset are clearly not my creation. They "just happened naturally". If I were to set up a giant frame through which you could see a distant vista and say, "Look what I made!" you would reasonably reply, "You didn't make that. That's nature."

However, God is not a creature within creation. God is the creator of all of creation. He holds it in existence by His constant act of the will. The natural laws that we observe are the product of His ordering will. God is the answer to the question, "Why does anything exist?"

As such, it makes no sense to say that if something happens "naturally" that it is not God's creation. Imagining again that giant frame set up so that one could, through it, view some distant vista, one would not tell God, "Oh, you didn't make that, that's just nature," since, of course, nature is God's creation.

Even our knowledge that there are natural processes that shape the things around us does not change this. We know, for instance, that a mountain is the result of tectonic pressures that push up the rocks of the earth, and erosion that wears them down into their current shapes. Glaciers, wind, water and plants leave their marks upon the landscape. But this doesn't make them less God's creation, because all of these, and the ways that they act, are in turn part of God's creation.

And yet, somehow the idea of biological evolution throws many people off. If humans are the result of some long ancestry of proto humans, if we somehow share common ancestors millions of years ago with the great apes, how can we be really made in the image of God? How can we really have a divinely created soul? Doesn't it take away from the belief in God's creation to hold that we were created by a natural process?

I think the scale of the question tends to throw us off. After all, each one of us was created by a natural process. Via a natural process, a man and a woman have sexual intercourse. The man's sperm comes in contact with the woman's egg. The egg is fertilized. DNA from the two parents joins to form a unique, new set of DNA and that first cell of that new human being splits and then splits again. There is a continuity of being between me and the joining of an egg and sperm 35 years ago. I was formed by this natural process, a process which the biological sciences have managed to come to understand in great detail over the last few centuries.

And yet, we don't consider God to be "sidelined" by the fact that his creatures can, through their act of intercourse, cooperate in the creation of a new human being. That we have a detailed biological understanding of how I descended from my parents does not mean that God did not create me, that I do not have a soul, or that I am somehow "only a natural process" and not a product of God's will.

We accept, as Catholics, both that a new human being is the product of the natural process of conception, and also that a new human being is the creation of God. We accept that the natural process in which the bodies of the parents take part is also a part of God's creative power. We accept both that we can have a complete biological understanding of the natural process of conception, and also that that biological understanding does not mean that humans are nothing more than cells -- that explaining the biological does not mean explaining the whole of reality.

What we need to remember, then, is that evolution is nothing more than the repetition of that process (reproduction) over many individual over a great deal of time. If my natural descent from my parents is no threat to our belief, then our natural descent with modifications due to variation and selection over thousands and millions of generations can be no more of a threat to our belief in God's creative power and providence.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Yes "Falling In Love" Does Help Make a Good Marriage

Move around long enough in conservative circle, and you'll run into an article in which the author states that there's too much emphasis on emotion in our expectations for marriage. People want to "fall in love" and "find the perfect one" and what they fail to realize is that love is a decision and you could successfully be married to lots of different people if you just got over this American idea that it has to be like a fairy tale and that if it doesn't work you can leave.

Like a lot of mistakes, there's a certain truth in this. A lot of the work that it takes to stay happily married is similar to the work that it takes to get along with other people in less chosen relationships (parents, siblings, children, co-workers, etc.) You know:

- Don't make that frustrated statement that begins "You always..." or "You never..."
- The satisfaction of making that angry crack now will be much less than the pain of dealing with the fight it will cause.
- Don't keep tally of who does the most, because you always over-count what you do and under-count what you don't do.

Those kind of things.

So yes, the work you need to do to get along with your spouse on a daily basis is a lot like the work you to have to do get along with anyone else. But that doesn't mean that attraction isn't important. While "falling in love" is not all that it takes to be married, it does give you a very strong reason to want to do the right things. When you share a house and kids and bank account and bed with someone, you could find an awful lot of things to be frustrated about. One of the things MrsDarwin and I will find ourselves saying to each other at moments when we're dealing with trying circumstances is "I wouldn't want to do this with anyone but you," and that attraction to the person (interests, personality, looks, the whole thing) is a hugely helpful motive to keep doing the right thing.

This struck me with particular force reading this Atlantic piece by a woman whose marriage was arranged by her family:
When I tell people here in America that I have an arranged marriage, they react in one of two ways. Some love my story because it appears to confirm their belief that America is doing it wrong: "Kids nowadays—having sex in middle school! All the single moms! The institution of marriage is dying! Your culture is just so beautiful."

Others are more cautious. If Alex happens to be around, they appraise us both, searching for signs of trauma or misery. Eventually, they lean in and whisper, “Well, it ended up just fine, right? You’re both happy? You’ve made it work and it was all for the best? Right?”

These aren’t really questions. They’re Statements Designed to Make Everything OK, and I know my cue well enough by now to smile big and say, “Yes!—Yes, of course.”

The “yes” is not exactly a lie. Alex and I have been married for 17 years, and our relationship is stable. But the life we live together is still difficult for me to reconcile.
...
In ways I’m still coming to understand, it's our not-choosing that has reverberated across the years of our marriage, breaking us in ways we can’t mend, and recreating us in others. Arranged marriage, as I’ve come to experience it, is far more complicated than either its champions or its critics understand.
...
Alex and I weren’t married three months before our differences—the kinds of differences we couldn’t have discovered in each other’s CVs— started to baffle us. He disliked my seriousness. I found him shallow. He craved adventure. I craved stability. He resented routine. I thrived on it. Though it took years to parse these differences, it didn’t take long at all to recoil from them.

The point, of course, is not that two people with this constellation of differences can’t marry each other. Couples do it all the time. The point is that something compelling (Love? History? Common interests? Great sex?) has to transcend the differences. Arranged couples start out with none of that. When Alex and I got married, all we had was our raw selves.

Conventional Indian wisdom would say, “It doesn’t matter. You adjust to each other. You sacrifice, you compromise, you accommodate. For the sake of preserving the marriage, you change.”

I don’t disagree, exactly. All marriages, arranged or not, eventually hinge on compromise and change. But accommodating a spouse is an entirely different activity from enjoying her. Yes, we’ve changed, and yes, we’ve accommodated, but isn’t framing marriage in terms of adjustment and compromise (instead of pleasure, or even affinity), an admission of defeat from the get-go?
...
On the other hand, I’m married to a good man who is my partner and my equal. He’s a committed provider and a loving father to our two children. We have a comfortable life, rooted in tradition, family, and culture. My parents would say I've hit bedrock, a foundation far stronger than the shifting sands of American romance.

But the losses are significant, and Alex and I still grieve them. On the rare occasions when we talk about this, we express sadness on each other's behalf: "I wish you had married a best friend." "I wish you'd found a spouse who excites you more." "I wish delight would replace acceptance." To arrange a life, after all, is to control it. To write its script so exhaustively that there’s little room left for improvisation. And a lot of good stuff happens when you are improvising.
It's worth reading the whole thing. It's both sad and kind of inspiring at the same time.

Friday, August 16, 2013

40 Days of Dating

Via the Korrectiv, I give you for your Friday goof-around reading: 40 Days of Dating.
What do you do when you’re tired of the prospect of dating? Two good friends with opposite relationship problems found themselves single at the same time. As an experiment, they dated for 40 days. 
Love is a central theme in humanity across time and cultures. It’s one of the main topics in music, film, novels, poetry, and art. But what exactly is it, and why do we all approach it so differently? How does it affect us so deeply that sane people have gone mad over it? 
The dating life in New York City can grow tiresome and wearing. Tim is afraid of commitment, often dating many girls at once, and he’s losing sight of what a healthy relationship means. Jessica is a hopeless romantic, jumping into relationships too quickly, always looking to find “the one.” 
It’s been said that it takes 40 days to change a bad habit. In an attempt to explore and hopefully overcome their fears and inadequacies, Tim and Jessica will go through the motions of a relationship for the next 40 days: the commitment, time, companionship, joys and frustrations. Can they help each other, or will they fall into their same habits? Will they damage their friendship? What if they fall in love?
Going through the motions, indeed. All the tropes are here: he's a player, she wants commitment, can they trust each other, weekly couples' therapy, and of course, eventually, sex -- is that a spoiler? Did anyone expect that there wouldn't be sex? All that's missing is the love, but maybe one of the pair will be able to drum up a small act of self-giving by day 40 to give the weary reader a sense that maybe there's actually a spark of humanity in these two, that self-absorption and endless analysis have not rendered them so sterile that they're incapable of even the smallest act of self-giving.

Still, someone's poured a lot of energy and effort into filming interviews, capturing text screenshots, pasting in emails, and creating graphix graphix graphix to pep up this sad, strange look at what passes for human interaction in a media-saturated age.





Thursday, August 15, 2013

Little House Books as Libertarian Snow Job?

Megan McArdle, now ensconced at Bloomberg, has a piece up dealing with libertarianism in the Little House books. It's written in response to a Boston Globe piece by Christine Woodside, which claims that Rose Wilder Lane turned her mother's memoirs into an "anti-New Deal fable". (Let the record state that I pulled off the title Little Libertarian on the Prairie six and a have years before. Just saying.)

I think McArdle is pretty spot on in regards to Woodside's tone-deafness and odd moments of not recalling the stories very clearly. There is indeed a type of libertarianism that comes through in the Little House books, but Woodside does little to show why we should think that this comes from the daughter and not the mother. For instance, Woodside writes:
From the start, there was tension between their approaches. Wilder argued for strict accuracy, while Lane, the seasoned commercial writer, injected made-up dialogue, took out stories about criminals and murder, and—most significantly—recast the stoic, sometimes confused pioneers as optimistic, capable people who achieved success without any government help.
...
The Little House books barely mention the obvious, which is that the impoverished Ingallses never could have gone to Dakota Territory without a government grant: Like most pioneers, their livelihoods relied on the federal Homestead Act, which gave settlers 160 acres for the cost of a $14 filing fee—one of the largest acts of federal largesse in US history.
Now, this is a really odd complaint, because as McArdle points out the characters talk numerous times about how homesteads are gained by government grant. In By The Shores of Silver Lake, we get an extended sequence (and a return of a character from Little House on the Prairie) dealing with Pa's effort to file a claim down at the government claim office. And in Long Winger, Little Town on the Prairie and Happy Golden Years, Almanzo talks repeatedly about how his homestead claims are a bet with Uncle Sam that he can farm the land.

In another case, Woodside takes what's arguably an anecdote which shows the power of community standards and solidarity over market forces, and acts as if it cuts the opposite way. Here's her claim:
The next book, “The Long Winter,” stops for a moment of free-market speechifying almost certainly added by Lane. When a storekeeper tries to overcharge starving neighbors who want to buy the last stock of wheat available, a riot seems imminent until the character based on Wilder’s father, Pa, Charles Ingalls, brings him into line: “This is a free country and every man’s got a right to do as he pleases with his own property....Don’t forget that every one of us is free and independent, Loftus. This winter won’t last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it’s over.” It’s an appealing, if perhaps wishful, distillation of the idea that a free market can regulate itself perfectly well. Wilder rarely wrote extended dialogue in her own recollections, the manuscripts show; her daughter most likely invented this long exchange.
Now, here's what she leaves out: The wheat was obtained by Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland taking a near fatal trip to get the wheat from an outlying farmstead. Loftus provides them with the money they take on the expedition. He would have lost his money if they men had died on the trip and never been found. Almanzo and Cap don't charge for their trip, but Loftus tries to charge a big markup on the wheat on the theory that he took the risk and there is no other wheat to buy (except Almanzo's seed wheat which he's keeping secret because he doesn't want to sell it.) There is indeed a near riot, Pa does talk people down, but then Loftus (realizing that he needs to live with these people afterwards) sells the wheat at cost. The incident becomes an example of community solidarity under stress with the young men and the shop keeper both providing free help to the community despite extreme risk.

The issue here, I think, is that Woodside sees the fact that Rose Wilder Lane was a libertarian as a big find, and so she wants to read a conflict in between the mother and daughter's values and imagine that Lane wrote libertarian messages into Wilder's books. What she doesn't seem to imagine as possible (which from the books and from anecdotes I've read about Laura and Almanzo themselves seems to me a pretty realistic idea) is that Lane's libertarianism sprang, to a great extent, from the self-reliant agrarian values of her parents.

Mapping Your Chances of a Better Life

A group of economists at the Equality of Opportunity Project have a fascinating map out showing income mobility in different parts of the US.
Darker colors indicate lower income mobility while lighter colors indicate higher mobility.
They also provide a listing of the cities according to the chances that someone born into the bottom 10% by income will reach the top 10% by income. The results are interesting. The top 10 cities include Salt Lake City (#1 with a 11.5% chance of making it from the bottom 10% to the top 10%), San Francisco, Seattle, Pittsburg and New York City. The bottom 10 include Milwaukee, Jacksonville, Detroit, Indianapolis and (dead last with a 4% chance of making it from the bottom 10% to the top 10%) Atlanta.

An article at the NY Times about the study provides some information on factors that correlate with income mobility (and a really fascinating interactive map.
The team of researchers initially analyzed an enormous database of earnings records to study tax policy, hypothesizing that different local and state tax breaks might affect intergenerational mobility.

What they found surprised them, said Raj Chetty, one of the authors and the most recent winner of the John Bates Clark Medal, which the American Economic Association awards to the country’s best academic economist under the age of 40. The researchers concluded that larger tax credits for the poor and higher taxes on the affluent seemed to improve income mobility only slightly. The economists also found only modest or no correlation between mobility and the number of local colleges and their tuition rates or between mobility and the amount of extreme wealth in a region.
...
All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods.

Income mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.

Regions with larger black populations had lower upward-mobility rates. But the researchers’ analysis suggested that this was not primarily because of their race. Both white and black residents of Atlanta have low upward mobility, for instance.

The authors emphasize that their data allowed them to identify only correlation, not causation. Other economists said that future studies will be important for sorting through the patterns in this new data.
As you can see from the map, some of the areas with the highest income mobility are rural areas. Using the interactive map, I think I've identified income mobility paradise. Move yourself up to Bismark, North Dakota where someone around 30, whose parents in the 1990s were at the bottom 1% of the income distribution, now have a 19% chance of being in the bottom quintile, a 21% chance of being in the 2nd quintile, a 21% chance of being in the 3rd, 19% chance of the 4th, and a 20% chance of being in the top 20% of incomes.

Now, to be fair, before you buy a parka and move north, I kind of wonder if this may be thrown off a bit by out-migration from the area. Via google it looks like Bismark has been growing more slowly than the US as a whole, so it could be that people who are doing very poorly tend to leave. However, one could also imagine that the sorts of factors listed above by the researchers apply pretty heavily in the northern plains.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Snows of Yesteryear: Nostalgia and Pseudo-Nostalgia

Among other books, I'm reading The Snows of Yesteryear by Gregor von Rezzori, a memoir about the author's childhood in the Carpathian Mountains between the wars. The introduction says that "the milieu that Rezzori writes of so vividly is that Mitteleuropa which disappeared into the maelstrom of the Second World War." Mitteleuropa: a term so evocative of the glamour and history of all the beautiful places that I love to read about and yet find, in modern times, still too alarmingly close to their sad Iron Curtain days to want to visit in real life.

Each of the book's five chapters are devoted to memories of a formative character from his youth: father, mother, sister, nurse, and governess. Rezzori's sister Cassandra, four years older than he, died at age 22. Of her he writes:
For fifty-six years -- a whole life span -- there has not been for me a single happy or unhappy moment, neither success nor failure, no significant or even halfway noteworthy occurrence on which she might not have commented. She is mute but she is there. My life is a wordless dialogue with her, to which she remains unmoved: I monologize in front of her. In the sequence of images in which I experience myself in life, she is included in every situation, as the watermark in the paper bearing a picture...
This passage is fraught with such love and grief that I enter into it and almost feel that I, too, am mourning the loss of my sisters, both alive and well and in perfect health and spirits.

Elegant memoirs of lost times and places, such as Rezzori's, or Patrick Leigh Fermor's lapidary books about his walking tour of Mitteleuropa circa 1933, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, have such a gracious power of casting the net of memory over the reader that I almost feel that I'm watching my own forgotten experiences brought wonderfully to life on the page. When I look up, I have to shake my head and recall that not only is this nostalgia completely vicarious, but that I can't live in this glorious haze of the past because my golden days are this very moment and they're too sharp and immediate, for better or worse, to have the gauzy allure of What Once Was.


Should We Teach Our Girls Not To Be Nice?

A couple weeks ago I ran into this NY Times column on parenting which struck a very discordant note in my mental ear. The author announces that her daughter isn't "nice", and he's trying to make sure she stays that way.
My 10-year-old daughter, Birdy, is not nice, not exactly. She is deeply kind, profoundly compassionate and, probably, the most ethical person I know — but she will not smile at you unless either she is genuinely glad to see you or you’re telling her a joke that has something scatological for a punch line.

This makes her different from me. Sure, I spent the first half of the ’90s wearing a thrifted suede jacket that I had accessorized with a neon-green sticker across the back, expressing a somewhat negative attitude regarding the patriarchy (let’s just say it’s unprintable here). But even then, I smiled at everyone. Because I wanted everyone to like me. Everyone!
...
My mostly pleasant way might get me more freelance work. And friendliness tends to put people at ease — loved ones, neighbors, waitresses — which is a good thing. Plus, smiling probably makes me feel happier, according to all those studies about self-fulfilling emotional prophesies. I know that our sweet-hearted son, who is 13, has always had the experience of niceness being its own reward. What can I do to help? he asks. Please, take mine, he insists, and smiles, and everyone says, “Oh, aren’t you nice!” and “What a lovely young man!” ... But, if I can speak frankly here, you really don’t worry about boys being too nice, do you? He still has the power and privilege of masculinity on his side, so, as far as I’m concerned, the nicer the better.

Birdy is polite in a “Can you please help me find my rain boots?” and “Thank you, I’d love another deviled egg” kind of way. But when strangers talk to her, she is like, “Whatever.” She looks away, scowling. She does not smile or encourage.

I bite my tongue so that I won’t hiss at her to be nice. I tell you this confessionally. Because do I think it is a good idea for girls to engage with zealously leering men, like the creepy guy in the hardware store who is telling her how pretty she is? I do not. “Say thank you to the nice man who wolf-whistled!” “Smile at the frat boy who’s date-raping you!” I want my daughter to be tough, to say no, to waste exactly zero of her God-given energy on the sexual, emotional and psychological demands of lame men — of lame anybodies. I don’t want her to accommodate and please. I don’t want her to wear her good nature like a gemstone, her body like an ornament.
As with so many problems, part of Ms. Newman's problem appears to have to do with faulty categorization. She seems to think that if you are polite and friendly in your interactions with people, that you won't be able to turn it off when people treat you badly. Thus, she seems to think that she needs to decide between encouraging her daughter to treat everyone with an unspoken "whatever" and encouraging her to eagerly accept bad treatment. However, this is a fundamental misunderstanding about what friendliness and manners consist of. Being friendly and polite does not mean being a doormat for bad behavior. It means being pleasant during normal and acceptable social interactions. When people behave badly to you, a whole other set of rules applies, with the correct response depending on whether the affront is a matter or rudeness (in which case one may make clear that the behavior is unacceptable, but one should try to do so within the bounds of politeness) or of actual threat (in which case the gloves are off.)

That is, after all, why the traditional advice is "speak softly and carry a big stick", because if someone assaults you, you cease speaking softly and pound him with the big stick. To my knowledge, "surliness is the best defense" is not a similarly hallowed piece of advice.

However, rather than making this rather basic distinction, Ms. Newman instead decides that a defensive sullenness is the best approach to life. And yet, within her own piece she acknowledges that friendliness has been a tactic which has been both fulfilling and useful for both herself and her son.

The problem is, Ms. Newman is replacing one tactic dangerously simplistic social tactic (be accommodating towards everyone whether good or bad) with another (be sullen and standoffish towards everyone.) Neither of these will serve one well, and I'm not clear why girls in particular should be relegated to one or the other. Her son is apparently to be trusted to know when to be accommodating and when not to be. Why not her daughter?

Monday, August 12, 2013

What Makes A Novel Anti-War?

I've run out of good WW1 era history books on Audible (unfortunately a lot of both the history and fiction on my list isn't available except in good old fashioned print), so my latest listen is a novel Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer It opens during World War One, and I'd heard it recommended as a good war novel. Apparently it has something of a history on various military reading lists:
The book is on the Marine Corps Commandants' Reading List, making it required reading for all marines. The United States Army War College holds an annual leadership seminar that uses the book. For West Point cadets, who are assigned the book in classes and seminars, reading ''Once an Eagle'' has become a rite of passage, much like discovering ''Catcher in the Rye'' as a teen-ager. Favorite passages are quoted routinely, especially Sam Damon's dying words: ''Joey, if it comes to a choice between being a good soldier and a good human being -- try to be a good human being. . . .''
Though I gather that in more recent years it's come in for it's share of poor review from military readers as well.

Published in 1968, the novel follows a main character, Sam Damon, who joins up shortly before World War One, is promoted from the ranks during the war, and apparently goes on to a career in the military that spans World War Two and beyond. (The author had left Harvard in 1942 and joined the Marines, where he spend several very formative years fighting the Pacific.)

The introduction to the edition I'm listening to is by General John W. Vessey Jr., and therein he describes it as an anti-war novel, comparing it to The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front. I can see a bit of why that might be. Damon is a very good officer, who cares about his men but is also good at fighting and deeply committed to seeing his objectives through. He's horrified by the things that he sees while at the same time seeing them as necessary. In a long conversation after the Armistice with his mentor/commanding officer (one of the weak points of the novel one has to ignore is that there's a tendency of the author to pontificate a bit through his characters) Damon talks about how there must never be another war, how after seeing the horrors of this war politicians and nations must find anohter way to solve their disputes, while his mentor (who is urging him to consider staying on after the war) points out that war has always been horrific and people have yet to overcome the evils that drive them into violence.

At the same time, I can see why the books has been popular with military readers. It provides a viscerally realistic portrayal of combat, a by turns uplifting and sad portrayal of the friendships and emotions shared by men under constant threat of death, and most of all a clear (at times to the point of heavy-handed) portrayal of what it means to be a good officer who leads from the front and seeks to get the utmost effort out of his men, while caring about their lives more than is own.

This got me thinking a bit about what makes a novel "anti-war". Of the novels that I've read which I've heard described as "anti-war", the description often seems earned by conveying sentiments such as "combat is horrific", "war creates terrible destruction" and "doing violence wound even the victor". And yet, these don't seem like ideas that are necessarily in the sense of "pacifist" or "believing that war is always worse than its alternative". They are incompatible with the claim "war is a positive good in and of itself", but one would have to be pretty appallingly deluded to think that.

If conveying the idea "violence is deeply horrific" constitutes being anti-war, then all non-psychopaths are anti-war. Yet I've never had a pacifist describe me as anti-war. Nor do some of the favorite books of people who describe themselves as pacifist make a whole of of sense to me. For instance, why would Lord of the Rings not be a fairly objectionable book if one is serious about non-violence? And yet, not only is it liked by some people who describe themselves as pacifists, but I've even heard it too described as anti-war.

The hypothesis that I'm leaning towards is that if a book dealing with war is a sufficiently realistic description of the human experience, it will ring true both to people who consider violence never to be acceptable and to those who consider it to at times be necessary to stave off even greater evil. Though even so, I can't help thinking that Occupy Gondor would consider Aragorn to be a warmonger and Sauron to be merely the misunderstood victim of economic oppression.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Dragons, Spies, Changers, and Spy-Dogs

As I assemble papers from various corners of the house to put in files for our homeschool assessment tomorrow, I'm running across all kinds of forgotten gems. Here, the prologue of Eleanor's book (spelling slightly retouched):
Prologue 
At the ages of 9 and 10 I wrote a few books (two or three to be exact) but this book is different. This book is special. It is the first complete book I've written about things like dragons, spies, changers, and spy-dogs. It is the favorite book I've written so far. It is not one of those books that says "How once upon a time I met my uncle." and is finished. Nor is it one of those "call me 'Bill' or so-and-so" books that tells you to call the author some silly short or long name. It is a book that tells the story from everyone's point of view so no one is left out. I nearly had a complaint from one of the dogs the other day. He said that he was almost completely left alone in the story. So I said I'd change that. I nearly had to change half the book to make him happy. But I hope you like it. 
Chapter 1 
The Bun Gang 
The most annoying thing about moving into any neighborhood is that there is almost always a gang of some sort. Dog gangs are usually all right.
Alas, that's all she wrote, and now we'll never know about how the story was changed to satisfy the dog.

A Horrific Article and Several Thoughts

I read a really horrific article yesterday, about a series of rapes in a colony of Mennonites in Boliva. I'm not going to quote from or summarize the article, but although it goes to a very dark place it caused a lot of thought and discussion for MrsDarwin and me last night. Read at your own risk.

Several main things struck me:

Forgiveness

There's a very worrying definition of forgiveness at play in the community described. Victims are told that if they don't forgive the crimes against them, then God will not forgive them their own sins. There is a certain truth to that, but the definition of forgiveness this community has is deeply flawed. By forgiveness they seem to mean some combination of

- Acting like it didn't happen
- Not wanting anything further to happen to the perpetrators
- Welcoming the perpetrators back into the community

Forgiveness does not, however, mean acting as if something did not happen.

Nor does the fact that you forgive someone mean that you have to want their punishment ended or to welcome them back. The perpetrators (or at least, those who were caught) are now in a Bolivian jail, but several members of the community interviewed say that they would be welcomed back if they would only admit they were wrong and ask forgiveness.

If pressed to define forgiveness I would say that forgiveness means not hating the person (as in wishing them harm) for your own sake: leaving that person's earthly punishment up to the relevant earthly authorities, and his eternal punishment up to God.

The Dangers of a Reactionary Culture

One of the things that stuck out to me here is that this Mennonite community has put so much emphasis on being different from the world (dress, technology, schooling, language, etc.) that this has become their single most important thing. It's more important to them to keep together than it is to stop horrific crimes going on in their midst. But, of course, at that point, it becomes impossible to stay together anyway. You can't have a society which refuses to protect its members. Reaction itself (we are not like those people) or specific identifying traits (we speak this language, we wear these clothes) can be turned into an idol, and made more important than any other moral law.

I think this kind of excess in-group identification and self-protection is always a heightened danger for sub-groups that define themselves against a dominant culture.

Dealing with Trauma

One of the things that horrifies the author is that the victims have never had a chance to receive post-traumatic counseling. Doubtless, this would have helped, but it got me thinking a big because modern counseling is something that's only existed for about a hundred years. What filled this niche before? It may be that modern counseling is more effective than ways that past societies helped people deal with trauma, but it seems like there must have been some way that people dealt with trauma -- something that then seemed as obvious a solution as counseling does now.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

The Read-Aloud List

I'm writing up the past year's homeschooling for our assessments -- one week before the public schools start -- and since I am not a great record keeper I'm scrounging through my planning book trying to see what we read this year. I often feel like I haven't done anything all year, so writing up what we've read is always encouraging to me.

Belles on Their Toes
David Copperfield (first third)
Betsy-Tacy and Tib
Confessions (selections)
Little Women (second half)
Interior Castle (opening sections)
Evangeline
The Gospel of John
The Little World of Don Camillo
Three men on a boat (to say nothing of the dog)
Julius Caesar (selections)
Romeo and Juliet (selections)
Twelfth Night
The Book of the City of Ladies (selections)
My Man Jeeves
The Hound of the Baskervilles
Miss Hickory
The Swiss Family Robinson (started)
Around the World in Eighty Days (bedtime read)
The Hobbit (bedtime read)

Poetry memorization for speech meet:
Isabel: Ozymandias
Julia: scene from Twelfth Night
Eleanor: Jabberwock and scene from Twelfth Night


There are plenty of other stories and whatnot that we read at various times, but these are the major works.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

99 Years Ago: The Week The World Caught Fire

Certain historical events are remembered in terms of a single event which, in the course of minutes or hours, ushered in a new era. People who lived through Pearl Harbor could remember exactly where they were when they heard about the Japanese attack, a point when the course of US history (and world history) changed in the course of a couple hours.

Ninety-nine years ago, as the world plunged into the First World War, the experience was different. Rather than a single sharp event which plunged the world into cataclysm, there was a long series of events, at first not much noted, which in late July and early August of 1914 plunged all the major European powers into war over the course of a week.

There's a certain tendency to look, with historical hindsight, at the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 as an incident very likely to lead to world war. There were hints of such a possibility. German Chancellor Otto von Bismark famously observed in the late 19th century that the next great European war would start with "some damn fool thing in the Balkans". When Archduke Ferdinant was assassinated, some people immediately worried that this would lead to a general war. (H. G. Wells was among those with the dubious honor of predicting a general war was coming after hearing news of the assassination on June 28th.) However, there had just been two full fledged wars in the Balkans during the last ten years, and neither had led to general war. Indeed, the great powers, for all their diplomatic entanglements, had been able to negotiate satisfactory (at least to themselves) peaces to both prior Balkan wars.

The assassination was a slow fuse. A week after the assassination, Austria-Hungary secretly sought assurances form Germany that Germany would support the Hapsburg Empire should it go to war with Serbia over the assassination. Having received these assurances (now known to history as "the blank check"), it was not until July 23rd that Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum to Serbia, demanding not only that Serbia hand over Serbian citizens implicated in the plot, but also that Serbia allow Austria-Hungary discretion to act within Serbia to bring to justice those responsible.

The attention of other countries was elsewhere.

The British Parliament was debating home rule for Ireland, which it was inclined to grant. In response, Unionist groups in Northern Ireland were rapidly arming, and there were serious concerns that should a rebellion in the North occur, the British army (which had a large representation of Orange men within its ranks of men and officers) would refuse to fight.

In France, the public was gripped by a sensational murder trial: Madame Caillaux, the second wife of former Prime Minister Joseph Caillaux, had, on March 16, 1914, walked into the editorial officers of Le Figaro, which had published private letters by Prime Minister Caillaux which potentially brought scandal on him, and shot the editor dead. The trail ran from July 20th to July 28th and resulted in Madam Caillaux's acquittal on the basis that she had been overcome with feminine emotions due to the threat to her husband's reputation and thus had not been responsible for her actions.

Serbia, anxious to avoid war, agreed to all but one point of Austria-Hungary's ultimatum, however Austria-Hungary (which had withdrawn its ambassador as soon as the ultimatum was delivered) was determined to put an end to Serbia's role as a regional destabilizing force and declared the concessions insufficient. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on Tuesday, July 28th and immediately began bombarding the Serbian capital, Belgrade, by means of gunboats sailing on the Danube.

Russia, which had ties to Serbia, immediately ordered a partial mobilization of its army: putting its four military districts bordering Austria-Hungary on a footing of preparedness for war. It did not, however, initiate any military action against Austria-Hungary, much less Germany.

Germany was pledged to support Austria-Hungary should Russia take any military action against it. However, key leaders of the Germany military also saw responding to a Russian threat against Austria-Hungary as a way to provoke a war between Russia and Germany which they saw as inevitable, and do so before Russia's rapid industrialization and expansion of its railroads made it a more formidable enemy. On Wednesday, July 29th, in meetings of the German leadership, generals Falkenhayn and Moltke advocated war against Russia in response to Russian mobilization -- even as Kaiser Wilhelm was still conducting his famous direct telegram correspondence with the Tsar in an effort to secure peace. Further, since France had a military alliance with Russia, and France was perceived as the faster-moving power, German war plans for a war with Russia involved first attacking France and knocking it out of the war in a month-long campaign, then turning to deal with the larger, slower opponent. Thus, what the German high command was advocating was that they initiate a continent-wide war in response to a partial Russian mobilization along the Russian/Austro-Hungarian border.

In Russia, arguments were ongoing between Tsar Nicholas and his military leaders over whether it was possible to have a "partial mobilization", with the military insisting that logistical operations required that the entire army be put on a war footing. On Thursday, July 30th, Tsar Nicholas complied and ordered a general mobilization of the Russian army. On the same day Germany ordered a full mobilization of its army to commence the next day.

German mobilization, however, was not simply a matter of calling up their reservists and having troops ready at the borders. The German was plan was a detailed timetable designed to successfully prosecute a two front war against Russia and France. Thus, as German soldiers assembled and armed, the boarded trains that took them directly to the Belgian border, setting in motion an invasion of France through neutral Belgium.

On Saturday, August 1st, Germany declared war on Russia. Prepared for all eventualities, the German Ambassador delivered two copies of the declaration, one stating that Germany was declaring war because Russia had refused to respond to German demands that it stand down its armies, the other stating that Russia's response to German demands was unacceptable. That evening, France, seeing what was the wind was blowing, issued an order for immediate mobilization of its own army, including all reserves, to begin the next day, Sunday.

On that Sunday, August 2nd, Germany invaded Luxembourg, which it would use throughout the rest of the war as a staging area. That same day, The German ambassador to Belgium delivered the following communication to the Belgium's Minister for Foreign Affairs:
RELIABLE information has been received by the German Government to the effect that French forces intend to march on the line of the Meuse by Givet and Namur. This information leaves no doubt as to the intention of France to march through Belgian territory against Germany.

The German Government cannot but fear that Belgium, in spite of the utmost goodwill, will be unable, without assistance, to repel so considerable a French invasion with sufficient prospect of success to afford an adequate guarantee against danger to Germany. It is essential for the self-defence of Germany that she should anticipate any such hostile attack. The German Government would, however, feel the deepest regret if Belgium regarded as an act of hostility against herself the fact that the measures of Germany's opponents force Germany, for her own protection, to enter Belgian territory.

In order to exclude any possibility of misunderstanding, the German Government make the following declaration: --

1. Germany has in view no act of hostility against Belgium. In the event of Belgium being prepared in the coming war to maintain an attitude of friendly neutrality towards Germany, the German Government bind them selves, at the conclusion of peace, to guarantee the possessions and independence of the Belgian Kingdom in full.

2. Germany undertakes, under the above-mentioned condition, to evacuate Belgian territory on the conclusion of peace.

3. If Belgium adopts a friendly attitude, Germany is prepared, in cooperation with the Belgian authorities, to purchase all necessaries for her troops against a cash payment, and to pay an indemnity for any damage that may have been caused by German troops.

4. Should Belgium oppose the German troops, and in particular should she throw difficulties in the way of their march by a resistance of the fortresses on the Meuse, or by destroying railways, roads, tunnels, or other similar works, Germany will, to her regret, be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy.

In this event, Germany can undertake no obligations towards Belgium, but the eventual adjustment of the relations between the two States must be left to the decision of arms.

The German Government, however, entertain the distinct hope that this eventuality will not occur, and that the Belgian Government will know how to take the necessary measures to prevent the occurrence of incidents such as those mentioned. In this case the friendly ties which bind the two neighbouring States will grow stronger and more enduring.

In 1839, all of the great powers had agreed to permanent Belgian neutrality. However, German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg now dismissed that treaty as "a scrap of paper". King Albert of Belgium rejected the demand that German armies be allowed to pass through Belgium on their way to France.

On Monday, August 3rd, Germany formally declared war on France, it's armies already rapidly moving to attack. The next day, August 4th, one week after Austria-Hungary's declaration of war against Serbia, German soldiers crossed the Belgian frontier, opening fire on soldiers and border guards who opposed them. That same day, Britain, the last of the major powers to become involved, followed up on its commitment to defend Belgian neutrality and declared war on Germany.

The general European war had commenced.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Mark Twain's Joan of Arc

One of the most consistently interesting series of book blog posts I've run into is Brandon's fortnightly reads at Siris. Every two weeks Brandon picks a book off his shelves to read, profiles it, then reports back two weeks later with a detailed review including favorite passages, etc. His latest review is of Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, a book I'd vaguely known about but never read, but now find myself very curious about after reading Brandon's review.

From the review:
Personal Recollections is the story of Louis de Conte, a quasi-fictional character based on occasional mentions in historical documents of Joan's page. He is, in effect, country gentry who grows up with Joan in Domremy, as the above opening suggests. He, along with two others, Edmond Aubrey, usually called by his satirical nickname, "the Paladin", and Noel Rainguesson, end up attending Joan on her incredible journey first to the King then to victory, then to her capture and trial. Especially with regard to the latter, Twain makes an effort at sticking to the evidence, but this is not a cut-Joan-down-to-size exercise; for one thing, Twain himself actually admires Joan, and his narrator adores her (Twain occasionally has to bring in the fictional translator to defend Louis's accuracy), and for another, we're talking about a seventeen-year-old girl who took control of the armies of France and turned a losing war into a winning one, despite having no military background, so trying to treat her as unremarkable is going to fail, regardless. But Twain's Joan is also in many ways a plausible seventeen-year-old girl. She hates fighting; she's just not afraid to do it. She weeps for the deaths of enemies as well as the deaths of friends. She doesn't want to fight wars; she wants to be done with it and go home, and is sometimes impatient with the fact that people keep delaying her. The only reason she is there is because the Archangel Michael, and Sts. Catherine and Margaret, told her to do it. It turns out that she has a natural talent for it: she has the 'seeing eye' and can thus estimate very well what a man can do in battle or where the weaknesses of an enemy are. And much of her success is purely military in nature. One of France's problems was that its command was highly disunified, and she suddenly brings a unified command. Her popularity with ordinary people increases military recruitment massively, and sometimes additional funds. Other aspects of her success lie simply in the fact that she is a peasant girl: she sees immediately what the nobles, whether French, Burgundian, or English, miss, namely, that as far as the majority of people are concerned, what really matters is legitimacy. All the nobles on both sides are so concerned with territory that they simply don't realize until after the fact the sheer devastation to the English cause of Charles being anointed King of France in the right place and in the right way, because until that point they were fighting merely one possible contender for the throne, and after that point they are fighting a person widely recognized by the peasantry as the legitimate King of France. Most of what Joan does is not miraculous, but just talent and shrewdness. But she never claimed to be performing miracles; from her perspective, she was just following the advice of her Voices who, being saints in heaven, could be counted on to know what to do. And Twain captures this very well.

Twain does not stint on the arts of storytelling here; he pulls out at one point or another almost every tool in the toolbox. We have brutal, ghastly description, like the opening scene of Paris with rotting corpses. We have hilarity, in the form of the buffoonery of the Paladin, the perpetual exaggerator, who can never tell a story again without making it even bigger than it was previously. The story is structured not just by plot, but also by narrative voice, by recurring themes, by symbolic images. One of the more interesting cases is Twain's use of the Fairy Tree, which we know of from Joan's trial. It is used to capture her childlikeness, and her peasant roots, and also her ability to be somehow ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. It gets a lot of discussion at the beginning, and only occasional mentions afterward, but it is not a minor feature, even later: whenever it is mentioned something very significant is happening. It is a sign of the Something More, the Legendary in Real Life, of which the common people have always had a sense, however much courts and scholars may try to exorcise it.

Twain's book seems to me to be a model of how to do historical fiction well. His fictionalizations and historical details are both carefully chosen, he adapts his language to the occasion without jarring shifts, he knows when to tell and knows when to show, he is profoundly aware of the importance and dangers of the particular narrative voice one uses, he gives the reader more to look at than museum pieces while not turning the history into mere background, and, perhaps most important of all, he genuinely loves the story he's telling. George Bernard Shaw accused Twain of being infatuated with Joan, but this is not definitely the flaw he assumes it is (how flawed the storyteller who can only tell of things he does not profoundly love, and how flawed the reader who cannot stand to read of things that are so loved!), and even Shaw was forced to concede that, however he might dislike the goody-goodiness of Twain's Joan (which he exaggerates), she shows the marks of having been written by a storytelling genius, someone capable of taking a character who could easily have been implausible and making her very credible. But, of course, it is Twain's love of Joan that makes her story so vivid, and makes him take such care in writing it. This is a crafted story, and it is told in a way that gives us the illusion of having the full experience of those who were there, from the brutality of war to the humor of the pub to the piety and blasphemy of the camp to the smooth unreliability of the court. Sometimes this diversity gives us a bit of a disjointed picture, it should be said -- but this is inherited from the material, and the disjointed character of France itself in the fifteenth century.

Where Twain most succeeds, I think, is that he gives us a Joan of Arc capable of becoming JOAN OF ARC. It is clear from things that Louis says that Twain realizes fully that this is the standard a tale of Joan of Arc must achieve. It is one that is rarely achieved, due to modern flaws. Despite modern contempt and dismissal of hagiography, historical figures don't get hagiographies for no reason. Twain's tale is not a hagiography, but his Joan is one that someone might write hagiographies about. Despite the modern love of characters stuck in the banal, a banal Joan would not have taken charge of the armies of France; Twain's very plausibly could. Many modern portrayals make her too bland to lead, or too hardened to be loved, or too delusional to be shrewd; Twain avoids them all, because, wonder of wonders, he actually likes Joan and is not out to 'uncover' her dark secrets or hidden flaws. And the inevitable result is that Twain's Joan makes much more sense as a character, and seems much more vivid and real, like a real person, however extraordinary, than all these supposedly knowing portrayals.

This is arguably too long a quote to include in-line from another post, but it's also not long enough. Do go read Brandon's whole post. The last paragraph strikes me as particularly key, and it gets with a long-running gripe I have with a lot of modern story telling: that it seems to conflate realistic characterization with focusing on a character's conflicts and insecurities to the extent that it seems rather impressive that the character ever does anything particularly notable at all. This works well with a certain kind of story telling, but for others it is particularly unsuited. (See, for instance, the complete inability of Peter Jackson to write Aragorn in his LotR movies.)

One of the things I found myself wondering about is how Twain would read writing about a period subject. My familiarity with him comes from Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and so it seems hard to picture him writing about medieval France. An excerpt that Brandon quotes, however, both sets my initial concerns to rest and makes me more curious to read the book:
At eight o'clock all movement ceased, and with it all sounds, all noise. A mute expectancy reigned. The stillness was something awful—because it meant so much. There was no air stirring. The flags on the towers and ramparts hung straight down like tassels. Wherever one saw a person, that person had stopped what he was doing, and was in a waiting attitude, a listening attitude. We were on a commanding spot, clustered around Joan. Not far from us, on every hand, were the lanes and humble dwellings of these outlying suburbs. Many people were visible-—all were listening, not one was moving. A man had placed a nail; he was about to fasten something with it to the door-post of his shop-—but he had stopped. There was his hand reaching up holding the nail; and there was his other hand in the act of striking with the hammer; but he had forgotten everything—his head was turned aside listening. Even children unconsciously stopped in their play; I saw a little boy with his hoop-stick pointed slanting toward the ground in the act of steering the hoop around the corner; and so he had stopped and was listening—-the hoop was rolling away, doing its own steering. I saw a young girl prettily framed in an open window, a watering-pot in her hand and window-boxes of red flowers under its spout—but the water had ceased to flow; the girl was listening. Everywhere were these impressive petrified forms; and everywhere was suspended movement and that awful stillness.

Joan of Arc raised her sword in the air. At the signal, the silence was torn to rags; cannon after cannon vomited flames and smoke and delivered its quaking thunders; and we saw answering tongues of fire dart from the towers and walls of the city, accompanied by answering deep thunders, and in a minute the walls and the towers disappeared, and in their place stood vast banks and pyramids of snowy smoke, motionless in the dead air. The startled girl dropped her watering-pot and clasped her hands together, and at that moment a stone cannon-ball crashed through her fair body.