A “sneaking suspicion of our own badness”

Claire Dederer
from clairedederer.com

current reading 2Not everyone will like (or should like) this fascinating piece by Claire Dederer (@ClaireDederer) in The Paris Review: “What Do We Do With The Art of Monstrous Men?” [link] She begins by contemplating the unassailable fact that many people who have created great art have also done monstrous acts (think of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen).

How do we deal with what they have made after we know what they have done?

As such, it is an interesting piece. What makes it more than another of the many think-pieces about the Trump-Weinstein-Spacey storyline is the fact that she becomes introspective about it without letting go of her appropriate moral outrage:

When you’re having a moral feeling, self-congratulation is never far behind. You are setting your emotion in a bed of ethical language, and you are admiring yourself doing it. We are governed by emotion, emotion around which we arrange language. The transmission of our virtue feels extremely important, and weirdly exciting.

Reminder: not “you,” not “we,” but “I.” Stop side-stepping ownership. I am the audience. And I can sense there’s something entirely unacceptable lurking inside me. Even in the midst of my righteous indignation when I bitch about Woody and Soon-Yi, I know that, on some level, I’m not an entirely upstanding citizen myself. Sure, I’m attuned to my children and thoughtful with my friends; I keep a cozy house, listen to my husband, and am reasonably kind to my parents. In everyday deed and thought, I’m a decent-enough human. But I’m something else as well, something vaguely resembling a, well, monster. The Victorians understood this feeling; it’s why they gave us the stark bifurcations of Dorian Gray, of Jekyll and Hyde. I suppose this is the human condition, this sneaking suspicion of our own badness. It lies at the heart of our fascination with people who do awful things. Something in us—in me—chimes to that awfulness, recognizes it in myself, is horrified by that recognition, and then thrills to the drama of loudly denouncing the monster in question.

In the end, she properly calls attention to the fact that even in the midst of doing something apparently praiseworthy — finishing her writing project — she may do (does do!) some “little savageries” to come to the end of her work.

Either way, the questions remain:

What is to be done about monsters? Can and should we love their work? Are all ambitious artists monsters? Tiny voice: [Am I a monster?]

And the question is a fair one, not just about art, but about all accomplishment.

It is not a comfortable question, and the answer is not that their/your/my monstrosity is a fair trade for the art or the accomplishment, never that. The answer must include the incredible fact of the monstrosity in all of us.

Still, there is a grace that comes in the introspection itself. It is not the final grace, but it is an elegant beginning.

Thank you, Ms. Dederer.

An Old Friend

The ManticoreSometimes it is nice to revisit a novel you have not read in a long time:

“The procedures of the law are much discussed, and people know about lawyers and courts and prisons and punishment and all that sort of thing, but that is just the apparatus through which the law works. And it works in the cause of justice.  Now, justice is the constant and perpetual wish to render to everyone his due.  Every law student has to learn that.”

Robertson Davies, The Manticore (1972) (p. 62 in the Penguin ed.).

Some people find the re-reading of novels to be odd, but it seems to me not unlike listening to a favorite piece of music, or viewing a well-loved painting, or returning to a known hike, or visiting an old friend.  You do not return for an identical experience, for you yourself are different.

Another nice passage, this one about about advocacy from David Staunton’s legal mentor: 

“I think you’ll make an advocate,” said he.  “You have the two necessities, ability and imagination.  A good advocate is his client’s alter ego; his task is to say what his client would say for himself if he had the knowledge and the power.  Ability goes hand in hand with the knowledge: the power is dependent on imagination.  But when I say imagination I mean capacity to see all sides of a subject and weigh all possibilities; I don’t mean fantasy and poetry and moonshine; imagination is a good horse to carry you over the ground, not a flying carpet to set you free from probability.”

p. 227.

R!-town

The-Real-Town-Murders-by-Adam-RobertsAdam Roberts’ new novel The Real-Town Murders (2017) is more like the author’s Jack Glass (2012) than The Thing Itself (2015), in that it is plot-driven and accessible rather than idea-driven and deep. Roberts entertains with insight and ironic disapproval,* producing a very enjoyable blend of SF and whodunit, with most of the social commentary safely hidden under the hood.

Recommended.

*”And the government departments are still there, of course, because that’s how the inertia of history works. They still have legally mandated and budget-supported real power. So they mostly use that power in a series of jockeyings for position.”

Worth reading

Three stimulating articles, without any obvious common theme except the most common of all — a fallen world with fallen people in it:

current reading 2
“Ultimately, God is still good. And he is still enough.”  Bekah Mason, “Finding My ‘True Self’ As a Same-Sex Attracted Woman,” Christianity Today (June 2017) [link].

“I am capable of any sin. And God loves me in spite of my sinful nature.”  Sanya Richards-Ross, “My Abortion Broke Me, God Redeemed Me,” Christianity Today (June 2017) [link].

“What explains a person or a group of people doing things that seem at odds with who they are or what they think is right?”  Malcolm Gladwell, “Thresholds of Violence,” gladwell.com (October 19, 2015) [link].

But still, there is always the offer of God’s grace.

Congratulations, Peggy!

peggy-noonan-illo-0213-jqdkhr-xlgPeggy Noonan, who once wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan, just won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.  It is well-deserved.

For a list of her pieces that won, go to “The 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary,” The Pulitzer Prizes (Apr. 10, 2017) [link].  My favorite is “Imagine a Sane Donald Trump,” Wall Street Journal (Oct. 22, 2016).

The other winners are also listed at http://www.pulitzer.org.

On “book lust”

ScreenShot164David Bentley Hart writes a nice piece on “book lust” (that’s what my wife and I have always called it) in First Things: “From a Vanished Library” (April 2017) [link].*  In this piece Hart reminds us that

I learned from the experience [of losing my library], in the end, that all vanity is vanity, all lust is lust, and all excess is excess, no matter what the objects of one’s desire. The aesthetics of bound volumes is unique and exquisite; but there are more important things.

In the end the article was somewhat deflating as I have not read a single one of the books in his “catalogue of suggestions.”  But it is good to remember that books, marvelous as they are, can be distractions from the common purpose of every human.


*Coming across this piece was particularly poignant (and ironic) as my church gave me two first editions as a (sabbatical? retirement?) gift after teaching Genesis, ExodusLeviticusNumbers, DeuteronomyJoshuaJudgesRuthSamuelKingsDanielEzra- Nehemiah, and Matthew (with some help, and a few detours) 2003-2017.

Selling yourself

ScreenShot164A short piece on selling your attention span from the CTO of Basecamp, suggesting that there should be a warning for many things you are ostensibly getting for “free”:

[WARNING:] Everything you say and do on Facebook will be used against you by advertisers for targeting that’s most likely to catch you at your most vulnerable, needy moment. Your consumption of the echo chamber timeline will lead to a narrower field of vision of the world. We may try to tinker with your mental well-being at any time, if we determine that a depressed state increases engagement on the A/B by any margin.

He goes on to say:

It wouldn’t surprise me if twenty years from now we view the likes of Facebook with the same incredulity we do now to smoking: How could they not know it did this to their health?

David Hansson, “The Price of Monetizing Schemes,” Signal v. Noise [link].

J.R.R.T.

jrrt “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

     J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

J.R.R. Tolkien (January 3, 1892 – September 2, 1973) was born 125 years ago today.  He has been singing at the throne of God for 40 years.

The Man in the High Castle

This is not entirely true, of course, but a provocative thought, nonetheless:

“We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious.”

61BMpmDw23LPhilip K.Dick, The Man in the High Castle 260.

Indeed the truth is that too often, knowing perfectly well what is moral, we find that we do not choose to do it. See Romans 7:18b-19 ESV (“For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.“)*

PKD’s quotation does remind us, however, that our choices are obscured by our inability to perfectly perceive reality — we have very imperfect knowledge about many of the choices we have to make — and yet we still must make them.

Paul goes on to explain the only escape from this dilemma:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.  Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Romans 7:21b-25a ESV.  Only Jesus delivers.

And so we should pray for guidance from the one whose perfect knowledge and perfect love are necessary for correct decisions in life and in less momentous choices like elections.