The Dream Chamber

I have removed the individual posts entitled: The Dream Chamber 1-6. I send my heartfelt gratitude to the many readers worldwide who have sent me comments and responses. Your responses have significantly influenced my final revisions.

The Dream Chamber is now available for sale at:

www.amazon.com/Dream-Chamber-Memories-American-Family/dp/1434887057/ref=sr_1_24?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1313034780&sr=1-24

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The Dream Chamber is a full-length work of memoir shaped as a novel. The story is told from the perspective and in the voice of the child whose life it narrates.

The child’s family emigrated from a shtetl in Ukraine to the United States at the turn of the century. The Dream Chamber takes place in the State of Maine from 1945-1955. The narrator describes the first ten years of his life, from the perspectives and in the voice of his evolving consciousness.

This story is profoundly personal. Yet it captures and conveys the manner in which many children come to consciousness, accomplish identity, enter a family, and in time depart to construct an adulthood of their own.

The story’s soul concerns forgiveness: how one child and potentially all children can exert the power of love to move from suffering, mystification, error, and anger to understanding, compassion, peace,and productivity.

The Dream Chamber is about hope and healing.

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I authored The Dream Chamber, but throughout the years I worked on its many drafts I felt as though I received it – received it from what I know as The Divine.

Writing this radically unusual book has helped me understand, embrace, and forgive the struggles and suffering I experienced during my childhood. In particular it helped me comprehend and rescue the learning in my sustained effort to create my intellect, spirit life, and moral imagination.

The Dream Chamber is a work of autobiography, but I always knew as I was writing it that it would help others with their life journeys. The spirits (I know them as Loas) who shepherded me told me this. They said this is why I must write and publish my otherwise intensely private, extraordinarily intimate narrative.

Many readers tell me The Dream Chamber recounts the story of their life, not mine. They say the book makes a magical impact on their relation with their own childhood and filial consciousness. They say the work transforms their crippling confusion, grief, and rage into clarity and compassion, and grants them a pathway to release and renewal.

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 Here are several samples of the responses readers have sent to me:

I hold your book and feel that it is a bit of sacred writing. It is exceptional.

Your opening pledge is one of the most poignant pieces on childhood I have ever read.

I stayed up to read as much as possible – a second reading only deepened the magic. Peter, your work is profound, living, and as all true narrative does, it teaches what is beautiful, profane, sacred, eternal.

I am moved to literal tears. Blessings on your “invulnerable and sacred soul.”

I try to read your book slowly but I can’t. I’m reading it too quickly. And I can’t put it down. Your book is a wonder.

You have achieved your goal, but the pain is unavoidable. I found myself laughing loudly and then after a few more sentences, crying for you and your childhood self. You have really captured the innocence of the boy narrator.

I cried and cried after reading it for the first time. Your story helped me to remove the lid I had covered on my past. I was able to let it go. I don’t love my mother but I’ve forgiven her.

The passages of you protecting your brother and sister will always tear my heart out, but strangely, also make me smile to think of you, so young yet so adamant to keep them safe.

Jane Austen in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

 

 

“If I Were Determined To Get a Rich Husband”: Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Austen, and the Life of the Common Human Routine

 ‘Your plan is a good one, where nothing is in question but the desire of being well married; and if I were determined to get a rich husband, or any husband, I dare say I should adopt it’.

Early in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet and her intimate friend Charlotte Lucas share a conversation that prefigures one of the most celebrated novels in the English language. Charlotte insists it must be the first priority of every sensible woman to attract the love of a prosperous man. Her emotions and convictions are anything but sentimental: she correctly conceives that the situation unmarried women confront in nineteenth-century Europe has all the characteristics of a Darwinian survivalist struggle.

Charlotte realizes that in the civilization in which she and her friend must make their lives, women exist as virtually a different species from men. Certainly single women exist at the financial and psychological mercy of men. In the early nineteenth-century world, unmarried women essentially are forbidden access to their own capacities and talents. They cannot support themselves economically. They are denied any autonomous position in polite society. Indeed, they are deprived of almost all independent structures of self-knowledge, identity, and purpose. The sole function of a single woman in nineteenth-century Europe is to make a marriage. A female can enter into adulthood and claim her small measure of sovereignty only by bonding herself to a male – to any male who will have her.

Charlotte believes an unwed woman must recognize this actuality, accommodate it, and achieve definition and support by making the best marriage she can. Either that, or suffer the perils of penury, pitifulness, loneliness, and irrelevance. In the context of her gender’s desperate circumstances, she contends, every unmarried woman may claim the exoneration of necessity. The imperative to avert immobility, subsist, and project herself as effectively she can is categorical. It licenses all means, and every measure.

An unwed women, she concludes, has virtually a biological duty to entice and ensnare the most established unattached male she can find. A single woman must conceive of life as a chase, and of men as quarry. With the coldness, trained skill, and dispatch of a huntress, she must launch her attack the moment an eligible spoil either opportunely or by her own design crosses her path.[i]

Elizabeth, who commands considerably greater resources of intellect, imagination, and, not incidentally, beauty, dissents from her friend’s bleak, cynical but undeniably reasonable conclusions. With her characteristic discernment, humor, and flair, she remarks: “‘Your plan is a good one, where nothing is in question but the desire of being well married; and if I were determined to get a rich husband, or any husband, I dare say I would adopt it.’”[ii]

We who are the auditors of this exchange cannot help but respect, like, and side with Elizabeth. Elizabeth is irresistibly attractive in her prideful, confident faith in her personal sufficiency. Compared with her cheerfully independent ambitious friend, Charlotte lacks all creditability and charm. She seems woefully materialistic, crass, and calculating. She possesses neither sweetness nor spontaneity. She has drive, and she has pluck. But she lacks the psychology of possibility, and she has abjured the spirit of romance.

At every stage as we read Pride and Prejudice, we feel certain that Jane Austen supports our judgment. But we cannot ignore the fact that the novel reacts in a protracted and most complicated manner to the issues Charlotte raises. In its drama, symbology, and language, the narrative often appears to affirm Charlotte’s austere sense of life and approve her implacable pragmatism.

This is apparent from the novel’s opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (1). This famous sentence does not necessarily support Charlotte’s character or endorse her mordant ethos. However, it does emphasize that she is neither eccentric nor pathogical. Within her community and culture Charlotte’s mentality evidently is normative, even conventional. Elizabeth’s is unusual and provocative.

Let us examine this daedal opening more closely.[iii] Austen proclaims every unmarried man needs and wants “a wife” – any wife – in order to complete his character and accomplish a due measure of happiness. She implies every unmarried woman at least equally needs and wants to marry “a single man of good fortune” – any single man of good fortune.

She does not explain why this is the case. Her brief perfect sentence is so forceful exactly because she assumes we already understand the reasons; and because she presumes the reasons discomfort us. She is observing that men and women marry principally for motives of economic and social necessity. Marriage gives adults access to cultural identification, financial security, emotional stability, and perhaps – this is not stated – appropriate and appropriately contained erotic satisfaction.

Austen knows the nature of these gratifications has everything to do with subordination and stasis. Marriage expresses its participants’ unqualified assent to the primacy of civilization. In return, civilization provides its communicants with definition and finality. In the absoluteness of their declared sociality, the husband and wife acquire immunity from further expectation. They may settle into an impregnable contentment, rooted in the comforting concept of their suitability and wholeness.

To be sure, their experience will continue. They will commence new relationships, undertake new roles, and create unique and important wedded histories. As essences, though, as psyches and souls, they have fulfilled their purpose and accomplished the apotheosis of their potential. Because they have discharged their communal obligations, they need do little or no more work of invention and delineation. Partners, pillars, permanences, a husband and wife constitute a statuary of maturity, an iconography of culmination.

In its inspired opening sentence, Pride and Prejudice declares the nineteenth-century European culture regards married persons as having attained moral and psychological completion. As metaphors and facts, married people are “universally acknowledged” to be entirely complemental to the prevailing civic and psychical order.

It is notable that in this society persons who marry may procreate, but they need not. They may care for one another, love one another, and find happiness. But they need not. Their necessary and defining act is to wed. Procreation and contentment are so secondary as obligations or choices as not to require statement.

2.

Austen’s deliberately disconcerting language carefully distinguishes between the authorities and motivations that characterize men’s lives and those that shape women’s. Her sentence asserts it is males who are the active, construing agents in the formation of human relationships and social events. Men desire. Men decide. Men define.

Austen affiliates with men the authority to intend and the ability to determine. She also ascribes to men the power to own. Possessing is the primary political and behavioral masculine characteristic. Proprietorship delineates and fulfills a male’s most significant purpose. Acquiring goods and exhibiting their concomitant social and psychical status constitutes a man’s fundament, and discharges his primary passion.

Austen associates opposite traits with females. She refers to women solely in the terms of their potential or actual spousal role. She speaks exclusively about “a wife,” not “a woman.”

What is a wife? What elements and aspects of a woman’s wifehood may be conceived as parallel to a husband’s will and wealth?

Austen does not say. She knows it is not necessary to say. She expects every reader will realize a woman is indispensable and therefore adjunct to “a single man in possession of a good fortune” because she possesses a quiver of commodities he desires: a satisfactory measure of attractiveness, a suitable repertoire of social skills, a general compliancy of temperament. This “property” is in her keeping. She exchanges it – she sells it – in order to obtain a share of a man’s civil establishment.

Nothing is said here about compatibility, caring, needing, or cherishing. At its core, Austen archly tells us, marriage is a transaction. Male property acquires by purchase the commodity of female propriety and its emoluments. Female property acquires by sale the commodity of male financial support and social sanction. Marriage is a tort in which validation, rank, entitlement, and, possibly, planned or accidental happiness are contracted and bought.

Austen does not infer men consciously conceive, coherently interpret, and actively seek their domineering roles in this construct. Nor do women in a fully aware manner identify themselves as passive, subservient, willingly expropriated creatures: a type of merchandise. The fact that a mythos is “universally acknowledged” does not mean it always is completely comprehended, rightly interpreted, or thoroughly accepted.

Nor does it mean the mythos is true. The multiple ironies of Austen’s language require us to realize she is lampooning rather than sharing a universal misconception. In reality, she delicately suggests, men only delude themselves into believing in their own primacy. Women merely affect to be pliant, obsequious, and helpless possessions.

In the narrative that follows upon her renowned opening sentence, Austen makes it hilariously clear that beneath their public and internal masks of decisiveness and strength, men are often irresolute and inept, easily maneuvered, and frequently gulled or outright controlled by women. She makes it equally evident and amusing that, beneath their social façade of hapless acquiescence, women are at least as motivated and manipulative as males.

This is one of the novel’s major themes. Throughout Pride and Prejudice, we are made to realize that nominally disenfranchised women are in truth determinedly and often maliciously directorial. At many junctures in this seemingly lighthearted narrative, we confront a spectacle of “universal” sordidness in which willful, contriving mothers connive to capture for their daughters husbands of real or imagined utility. Daughters conspiratorially tease and tantalize men for whom they feel no emotion other than that of most unabashedly venal cupidity. Almost every woman in Pride and Prejudice regards every passably presentable male as “the rightful property of some one or other” (1) unmarried female. Women of all gradations of intelligence and refinement routinely regard all bachelors and widowers as if they were objects of possible possession, sources of potential entitlement, beasts of privileging prey.

Let us examine several examples.

At an early point in the novel, Mrs. Bennet ebulliently identifies Mr. Bingley as a wealthy, unattached, acquirable “thing.” She exclaims to her long-suffering husband: “‘Oh! [Mr. Bingley] is single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune, four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!’” (1-2).

Much later, after many Gordian contretemps, Mrs. Bennet feels confident that her daughter Jane successfully will “get” or snare this prize game trophy:

“Mrs. Bennet … was in very great spirits; she had seen enough of Bingley’s behaviour to Jane, to be convinced that she would get him at last; and her expectations of advantage to her family … were so far beyond reason, that she was quite disappointed at not seeing him there again the next day to make his proposals” (255).

 

Mrs. Bennet is an extraordinarily vulgar being. We soon learn, however, there is nothing merely characterological or idiosyncratic about her viewpoints and behaviors. Virtually all women in Pride and Prejudice share Mrs. Bennet’s instinct to define every unwed male as a prospective source of personal and familial “advantage.”

This is particularly the case when the unwed male is moneyed. Consider the lenient manner in which Darcy is regarded. Everyone in Hertfordshire originally perceives him to be an unpleasant, arrogant, caustic, even crude person. However, the fact he is stupendously affluent exempts him from many women’s adverse judgment. In their unapologetically rapacious view, a male’s wealth establishes his worth. With no satiric intent, Charlotte explains:

‘[Darcy’s] pride does not offend me so much as pride often does, because there is an excuse for it. One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man, with family, fortune, everything in his favour, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud’ (13).

 

There evidently are no limits to the lengths the novel’s women will go to accomplish “the business”  (39; 93) of nuptial recruitment. About Charlotte, Austen comments:

Her reflections were in general satisfactory. Mr. Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband.—Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without ever having been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it (93).

 

Caroline Bingley carries the imagery and activity of hunt, ensnarement, and premeditated “captivation” (29), to its logical extreme. She targets Darcy, and systematically discharges upon him the full gamut of her sexuality:  “Miss Bingley … got up and walked about the room. Her figure was elegant, and she walked well, —but  Darcy, at whom it was all aimed, was still inflexibly studious” (41).

3.

Is there no woman in Pride and Prejudice who can resist the magnetism of money? Is there no woman in the novel who consciously recognizes, resents, and rejects her society’s dehumanizing dynamics of feminine vassalage, insecurity, and greed?

Only Elizabeth. She alone among the novel’s women feels aware of and outraged by the materialism and manipulativeness that characterize her civilization’s attitudes about love and marriage. She alone can discriminate between the allure of wealth and the claims of character; the demands of socialization and the authority of her own individualism.

She cannot often speak openly about her dismay and anger. She does speak when she can. To the relative with whom she most unreservedly can communicate, she cries: “Pray, my dear aunt, what is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive? Where does discretion end, and avarice begin?” (116).

Austen tells us Elizabeth’s rejection of her community’s distorted values is holistic, and is infused with commitment, mettle, and tenacity: “Elizabeth’s courage did not fail her. She had heard nothing of Lady Catherine that spoke her awful, from any extraordinary talents or miraculous virtue, and the mere stateliness of money and rank, she thought she could withstand without trepidation” (122).

The fearlessness with which Elizabeth receives her insights is a constituent component and an important indicator of her heroic identity. Many of her statements and actions give heartening evidence of her sanity and wholesomeness. But as we read the novel and delight in its heroine’s mental and moral strengths, we cannot mistake or overlook the significance of the fact that she loses much of her perspicuousness and even something of her integrity when great wealth and immense prestige are attached to a male rather than a female. Specifically, she is not proof against the power Darcy commands.

For example, she is not in the least ashamed to define Darcy as his ownership of Pemberley. Without embarrassment, she describes him as coessential with his estate; consubstantial with his acreage, his manor, and its trappings: “[Darcy] is a man of very large property in Derbyshire, I understand” (58).

Later Austen provides a far more direct indication that Elizabeth is subconsciously susceptible to her civilization’s culture of materialism. Elizabeth initially detests Darcy, and she indignantly rejects his first overture of marriage. Her aversion notwithstanding, she realizes she cannot distinguish the man from his money and his status in the world; and she receives it as a pleasing laudation that a male of his magnitude and consequence should desire her. Austen pointedly comments: “In spite of her deeply-rooted dislike, she could not be insensible to the compliment of such a man’s affection … (142).[iv]

It also becomes evident that Elizabeth is not immune from the reflexive, in this society the gender-instinctive, impulse to entice a male by orchestrated flirtation. When she feels attracted to Wickham, she conceives of him and behaves toward him in a manner that does not differ morally from the attitudes and behaviors of such lesser persons as Charlotte and the odious Caroline. It is startling and disturbing when Austen shows us how methodically, how insidiously Elizabeth bedecks herself for a ballroom beguiling of Wickham: “She had dressed with more than usual care, and prepared in the highest spirits for the conquest of all that remained unsubdued of his heart, trusting that it was not more than might be won in the course of an evening” (67).

Elizabeth is the focal point of merit and hope in the novel. Yet, even she is frequently drawn into and subsumed by the social system in which she lives.

4.

As we read Pride and Prejudice, we do not ever find ourselves pitying the men whom Mrs. Bennet, Charlotte, Caroline, and all the other women in the book misconceive and mistreat. It is true that females implicitly or explicitly objectify and ill-use males. But males misunderstand, machinate, and maltreat women with equal propensity.

Throughout the narrative we discover men compulsively think about and respond to women as repositories of their parents’ social station and income, sexual vessels, and incarnations of various rarefied bourgeois adornments and talents. We repeatedly see that men regard women first and foremost as instruments for vicarious distinction and symbols for appetitive gratification.

Mr. Bingley, for example, first reacts to Jane Bennet as an aesthetic currency. It does not occur to him to conceal this distortion. Indeed, he trumpets it: “O,” he exclaims. “She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! … [I] could not conceive an angel more beautiful” (7;11).

Darcy always admires and in time learns to love Elizabeth’s intelligence, humor, and moral intelligence. Yet, he finds it in no respect inappropriate or discomforting to say about her: “I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes can bestow” (19). He later declares: “It has been many months since I have considered her one of the most handsome women of my acquaintance” (201).

Caroline, who obsessively records and maniacally attempts to satisfy all male tastes and desires, concludes men demand from the women with whom they consort nothing more than attractiveness and compliance. She exhaustively catalogues the multitudinous qualifications – the properties – men believe a woman must manifest and supply:

‘A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and the modern languages, to deserve the word, and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved’ (29).

 

Darcy insists a woman’s “power of pleasing” (193) must incorporate even more than this voluminous inventory includes. “‘All this she must possess,’” Darcy solemnly intones, “‘and to all this she must yet add another something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading’” (29).

No man in the novel (with the important exception of the satanic Wickham) wittingly intends to express anything pernicious, exploitative, or destructive in his biases about and conduct toward women. Nevertheless, every male character to whose mentality we are given access systematically misconstrues the true character and violates the dignity of every woman he knows. Males in this community invariably fail to register the fact that women are independent, self-governing persons. They cavalierly regard every married woman predominantly as an asset or chattel of her male spouse. They blithely designate every unmarried female as the potential accouterment of “a single man” who is “in possession of” that other elusive and indispensable accessory, “a good fortune.”

The psychologies and processes of the sexes’ mutual misrecognition and mistreatment are reciprocal. They also are incrementally expansionary. Men malign and maim women. Women abase and abuse men. Each gender unwittingly confirms the other’s most absurd and injurious fallacies. The parallel perversities grow ever more extensive. Eventually the delusions and damages they cause evolve into impermeable structures. Ignorance, error, and pain become endemic in the culture and in each citizen’s sensibility.

Even the most excellent characters share the misguided cognitions and corrupt judgments of such less developed beings as Charlotte Lucas and Caroline Bingley. Like Charlotte, like Caroline, they cannot identify what is genuinely distinctive and of pure and constant value in themselves, in other people, or in any of their relationships. For almost every person in the novel property, income, social position, superficial attainments, and physical beauty are prepotent commodities. They perceive synthetic, factitious endowments as real competencies and stable capabilities. Intellect, compassion, tenderness, and loyalty scarcely matter to them.

Consequently, these persons rarely can create informed and genuinely intimate human interactions. In all their relationships and in most of their colloquies we commonly observe miscoding, miscommunication, bewilderment, and frustration. Individuals seldom can function as precious and persisting resources for one another.

Many of the book’s women and men persuade themselves that they give and receive love. Many wed. However, attraction, devotion, and sheer congeniality do not seem importantly to condition these people’s experiences of romance and union. They cohere rather than love; and they cohere mainly for the purpose of obtaining material advantage from one another.

In this respect, the large majority of the novel’s characters are unalloyed capitalists. They associate with one another chiefly with the goal of extracting from each other perceived emotional or actual monetary profit.

5.

The social order these people inhabit requires more than gender-based misconstruction and manipulation. It necessitates misconstruction and manipulation in every arena of ideation and every arena conduct. Throughout Pride and Prejudice, Austen shows us that the European culture of her time – by extension, civilization in general – almost invariably enforces exploitation and hypocrisy as its preferred ethos and style. Frequently it demands overt imposture.

The falsity the novel describes is intricate and encyclopedic. It manifests itself partially as a subliminal, seemingly innocuous system of decorum; and partially as a conscious, continuous contriving of affect and expression. In both its benign and malignant forms, the social organization is hugely fictitious, deceitful, and harmful.

With few exceptions, no one in the novel is straightforward. With few exceptions, no one is spontaneous. In almost all situations and settings, the characters shrewdly fabricate or artfully conceal their nature, thoughts, feelings, motives, wishes, and drives in order to mislead others.

Let us examine the grounds upon which Bingley first wins and later sustains his character and place in the community:

He was quite young, wonderfully handsome, extremely agreeable… Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. His sisters were fine women, with an air of decided fashion (5-6).

 

Jane exemplifies her community’s reaction to Bingley when she says of him: “‘He is just what a young man ought to be, sensible, good humoured, lively, and I never saw such happy manners!—so much ease, with such perfect good breeding!” (9).

The effect of this language is to introduce us to the most benevolent of the civilization’s emphases on exteriority, confusion of surface for substance, and elevation of stylized “manner” above unmediated fundament. We see that in the social landscape of Pride and Prejudice people literally present themselves as their “countenance.” It is the essential tactic of the self in this culture to represent: to exhibit one’s looks, preferably “handsome” or beautiful, as the authoritative summary of one’s essence; and to broadcast a way of acting, a bearing preferably “agreeable,” as the indicator of one’s inmost nature and the image of one’s quality as a person. As if Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela were to be discerned and responded to chiefly on the bases of their “countenance,” costume, and “air.”

The community endorses this scheme, and continually reinforces it. Everyone in Hertfordshire is at some level aware that Bingley’s character is merely mimed by his outward appearance and ingratiating deportment, and therefore is not knowable. Yet everyone consents to receive him as a gentleman – a broadly empowering category – because he is “gentlemanlike,” and because his sisters seem chic. Everyone construes Bingley to be a good man because he is “good looking.” Everyone likes and welcomes him into congress with their lives because he is “pleasant;” because his “ease” and civility, his expert self-portraiture, suggest he is of like mind and spirit with themselves. Everyone treats his sisters as “fine women” – they are anything but – on the basis of their feigned, replicative elegance. Their “air of decided fashion” trumps their palpable shallowness, vanity, greed, and cruelty.

The key construct of this conspiracy is to emit, receive, and reciprocate intimations as though they were realities; to treat “airs” as though they comprised actual and perseverant elements. The conspiracy is incompletely conscious among all concerned. Yet, we soon discover, it is principled, perhaps even ideological. Throughout the novel, character and community cohere in perpetrating an ongoing art of collective auto-suggestion.

6.

This process works inwardly as well as outwardly. Bingley seduces not only his new neighbors but also himself with his elaborate social grammars and skillful algorithms of “countenance.” He knows himself to be agreeable because he observes that other people behold him to be. He supposes himself to be an exceptional and consequential person because he discerns that other people admire, enjoy, and defer to him.

To one or another degree, every character in the novel shares Bingley’s warped social science. To one or another extent, they all derive their ideas about themselves from the impacts their representations produce upon others. Their commitment to disguise, pretense, stratagem, and deception eventually becomes double-edged. They dupe, gull, and con not only their neighbors but also themselves. They expropriate and exploit not only their fellows and friends’ deepest emotions and ultimate interests, but also their own.

This circumstance of universal codependent circularity frequently leads Austen to create original, bewitching, but bizarre distortions of language. About Darcy’s cousin, for example, she writes: “Colonel Fitzwilliam entered into conversation directly with the readiness and ease of a well-bred man, and talked very pleasantly” (129). Later she adds: “Colonel Fitzwilliam’s manners were very much admired at the parsonage…” (129).

Austen is suggesting here that the Colonel is recognized in society and in the narrative as the sum of his courtesies. He is perceived by other persons and presented by the author as a satisfaction of a cultural type. He is less a being than a brand.

No one feels aware of or connected to Colonel Fitzwilliam’s psyche. No one feels inclined to react to his presumably intricate humanity. He is knowable to his neighbors, his novelist, and himself solely as an incarnation of what “a well-bred man” is and invariably ought to be. His “manners” incarnate the totality of his personhood. His topographies and techniques are “admired.” His intellect, sensations, spirit, and soul are ignored.

This “well-bred” individual is anything but an isolated instance. Even the novel’s hero conceives of himself as an embodiment of a taxonomy. In one of his most passionate utterances, Darcy tells Elizabeth:

‘I cannot be so easily reconciled to myself. The recollection of what I then said, of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of [our conversation], is now, and has been for many months, inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: “had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.” Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me…’ (274-5)

 

Darcy feels shock and shame about Elizabeth’s “reproof” because he believes his identity inheres entirely in his “conduct,” “manners,” and “expressions.” He conceives that he is what he is “like.” He feels “tortured” he once failed to present “a gentleman-like manner” because he fears this is proof certain that, at least during one brief period of uncontrolled but sincere emotion, he lacked socially approved value; and, as a result, forfeited at least momentarily his significance, his selfhood, his actuality.

Darcy’s profession as a personality is to win other people’s assent to his social display. His foremost desire is to have his idea of himself and all other persons’ perception of his social identity flawlessly coalesce. He wants and needs to “become perfectly reconciled to [himself].”

Elizabeth, too, is vulnerable to this mirror mentality. In one of the novel’s most striking passages, Austen comments: “The remarks of her companions on her absence of mind roused [Elizabeth], and she felt the necessity of appearing more like herself” (187).

We must struggle to parse this strange but vitally important sentence. Elizabeth does not wish to reveal her true state of consciousness. She does not wish, indeed, to be herself. She wishes to be like herself. She conceives that she must strive to be a suppositious self, even when – perhaps especially when – she is not actually that artifice.

Her life in society has taught her that her artificial identity, her manufactured manifestation, constitutes her obligatory form and closest approach to meaning. She must endeavor to be “more like” her theater, so that other people mistakenly will understand her to be fulfilling their assumptions about her and satisfying their expectations of her.

Elizabeth believes she must be approbated by her neighbors if she is to feel content with herself; if, ultimately, she is to feel real and valid. She needs to conceal what she genuinely does feel; and, in so doing, obscure who she genuinely is. Presumably this is because Elizabeth’s veridical nature would excessively confuse or disturb other people. They no longer would know her. They might not approve her, or continue to acknowledge her present place in their community.

Also, we must suspect, Elizabeth’s veridical nature might excessively confuse and disturb Elizabeth. Perhaps she herself no longer could comprehend and accept who she is if she were to emancipate impulses and energies that contradict her usual social performance. She finds it more comfortable to be her customary enactment of herself – her dramatic literature.

Elizabeth reveals the full extent of her sensitivity to other persons’ perceptions and her solicitousness of their approval when she falls in love with Darcy. She feels mortified that Darcy understandably identifies her as the daughter of her parents and the sibling of her sisters Lydia, Kitty, and Mary. She feels overjoyed when he receives an opportunity to expand this awareness and associate her with a more impressive lineality. In another of the novel’s arresting passages, Austen remarks:

As she named [the Gardiners’] relationship with herself, she stole a sly look at [Darcy]… Elizabeth could not but be pleased, could not but triumph. It was consoling that he should know she had some relations for whom there was no need to blush. She had listened most attentively to all that passed between them, and gloried in every expression, every sentence of her uncle, which marked his intelligence, his taste, or his good manners (189).

 

Because Austen’s tone is so charming and her timbre so light, we may fail to recognize that once again we are in the presence of extraordinary material. Elizabeth is making a monumental avowal. She is averring that her uncle’s linguistic performance is an emblem certain of his superior essence, and a predicating imprimatur or badge of her own.

This identification makes an occasion of fulfillment for Elizabeth. She regards it as a potent personal “triumph” that the man she loves must now apprehend her as a woman – as a potential wife – who is genetically conjoined with a fully enfranchised social performer.

It is not her own “intelligence,” “taste,” and “good manners” in which Elizabeth luxuriates. Nor is it even her uncle’s qualities that gratify her. She relishes, rather, her uncle’s craft. She delights in his ability to dramatize his monetary and stylistic distinctions, and to confer them by bloodline to her. She feels legitimized as a person worthy of being loved by such a man as Darcy because she is genetically related to a person who knows how to articulate his identity as a set of advanced social competencies that indisputably emanate from a secured base of wealth[v].

All the novel’s characters share Charlotte, Mr. Bingley, the Miss Bingleys, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Darcy, and Elizabeth’s dependence upon exteriorized identification. Austen makes it clear their global dependence upon exhibition and reaction is an imperial social modality rather than an exercise of individual volition.

The world in which these characters live ascribes coherence, legitimacy, virtue, and value primarily to one’s social standing and its public representations. Performance in communal forums establishes the characters’ mirage of “intelligence,” “taste,” “air,” and “manners,” and refracts it back to them as their intrinsic nature.

Everyone in the civilization Austen examines needs to be a virtuoso of virtuality. In Pride and Prejudice, sociability is substantiating. Presentation is essence[vi].

7.

In almost every interaction Pride and Prejudice dramatizes, the most accomplished characters choose to protect their masquerade of sociability rather than project their true percepts and defining desires. They defend their “countenance” at the expense of their emotions, their convictions, and, often, their needs.

For example, Jane thinks she must apologize to Elizabeth when she conveys a thoroughly natural reaction to their younger sister’s disgrace. She begs forgiveness for her brief outbreak of grief and fear: “‘To be guarded at such a time is very difficult… The horror of what possibly might happen, almost took me from my faculties’” (217).

Like Jane, Mr. Darcy occasionally experiences moments of impulsive, unprompted expressivity. Each time this occurs, he battles with gallant, if perverse might to sublimate his actual sensations and display in their place an appearance of affectlessness. During an excruciating conversation when Elizabeth gravely wounds his self-esteem, he nearly detonates from the intensity of his effort to achieve – or, rather, pretend to achieve – untroubled imperturbability:

His complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. He was struggling for the appearance of composure, and would not open his lips, till he believed himself to have attained it… At length, in a voice of forced calmness, he [spoke] (143).

When, much later, he enters a hotel’s drawing room an finds Elizabeth prostrated with suffering of her own, he cannot permit himself to behave emotively: “‘Good God! What is the matter?’ cried he, with more feeling than politeness; then recollecting himself, [he left the room]” (204).

“Politeness” is a supreme value in this culture. “Preserving “an appearance of composure” is sacrosanct. If one becomes surprised by “feeling,” one must swiftly reorganize or “recollect” one’s pretense of genteel placidity. In the milieus Pride and Prejudice records, it is permissible to feel passions. But it rarely is permitted to acknowledge or impart them.

Of all the novel’s memorable characters, it of course is Elizabeth in whom Austen feels most interested. This is because Elizabeth experiences ideas, ideals, and sensations more intelligently and more passionately than anyone else in Pride and Prejudice. Arguably more than anyone else in English literature. Accordingly, it is in every respect significant – as we shall see, it is tragic – that Elizabeth cannot express herself any more authentically than the novel’s lesser personalities. She cannot invent a means by which to accept, evince, and advocate for her true opinions and emotions. Like her family, friends, and fellow citizens, she finds it necessary constantly to regulate, constrain, and ultimately trivialize her most urgent characterological impulses.

The manner and method of her self-effacement may be observed throughout the novel. When Mr. Collins insists upon her consent to his outlandish proposal of marriage, Austen comments: “[Elizabeth] sat down again, and tried to conceal by incessant employment the feelings which were divided between distress and diversion” (79). When Colonel Fitzwilliam inadvertently interrupts her at a time of extreme spiritual emergency, she reacts by “putting away [her] letter immediately and forcing a smile…” (137). During a later moment of abject confusion and despair, Elizabeth realizes she must return to her family and guests. We are told: “[she] entered the house with the wish of appearing cheerful as usual, and the resolution of repressing such reflections as must make her unfit for conversation” (157).

In the unremitting conflict between the requirements of her sociability and the claims of her internal life, Elizabeth almost always gives precedence to the demands of demeanor. She habitually authorizes “a sense of her situation” (206) at the expense of her actual consciousness and genuine personality.

Like all the other cultivated people in her community, she conducts her life with “the resolution of repressing.” Her modality is “concealing.” Her method is “forcing.” “Putting away” her true feelings is her central conscious activity. “Appearing” is her prevailing endeavor and characterizing art.

This exceptionally refined, nuanced, and acutely self-aware person is the antithesis of a narcissist. She serves the not-herself.

She is a strong, hungry personality. Yet, she is the antipode of a hedonist. She neither seeks nor welcomes but does accede to unpleasure.

8.

The novel’s leading characters do more than make inconsequential compromises with their civilization. Often they migrate from requisite propriety to meticulously calibrated prevarication. They drift from polite discretion into intentional insincerity. They equate simulation and mendacity with courteousness and correctness; and they name this not iniquity but respectability.

Let us consider several instances.

As she returns to her family’s home after her long visit to the unhappy household of Charlotte and Mr. Collins, Elizabeth “privately [thinks]: ‘How much I shall have to conceal!’” (163).

She does not restrict this making of secrets, this deliberate deception, to those persons whom she cannot respect or trust. She also “conceals” when she speaks with her beloved aunt:

Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth talked of all that had occurred,… except what had particularly interested them both. The looks and behaviour of every body they had seen were discussed, except of the person who had mostly engaged their attention…. Elizabeth was longing to know what Mrs. Gardiner thought of him, and Mrs. Gardiner would have been highly gratified by her niece’s beginning the subject (201).

 

Elizabeth also “conceals” – she lies – in a conversation with her treasured father. When Mr. Bennet teases her about her relationship with Darcy, “his daughter replied only with a laugh…. Elizabeth had never been more at a loss to make her feelings appear what they were not” (272).

She also lies to her mother. When Mrs. Bennet asks why Lady Catherine has visited their home, Austen tells us: “Elizabeth was forced to give a little falsehood here; for to acknowledge the substance of their conversation was impossible” (268).

These passages are not trifling. Austen intends that they will shock us. She wants us to comprehend that the commandments and customs of her characters’ complex social situation often interdict their honesty and contort everyone’s “sense of” actuality. She wants us to understand that her characters’ commitment to courteous imaging seriously threatens the quality of their communions with other people and the integrity of their own humanity.

This unacknowledged but ever-present tension lies at the heart of the novel’s seemingly jocund action and spirit. Within and beneath its delicious comedy, Pride and Prejudice examines a crisis that may be eternal and certainly is contemporary. The novel covertly concerns the ageless internecine struggle between civility and sincerity.

Certain among the novel’s characters have forsaken this struggle. They are not recoverable, and therefore are not deserving of our respect or their author’s. Mr. Collins – how can we in good faith call him the Rev. Mr. Collins? – Mr. Wickham, Mrs. Bennet, Lydia Bennet, Lady Catherine, the Misses Bingley: these individuals have become so dazed by their cupidities and so entirely mastered by their artifices that they have lost all right relation with veracity and, consequently, with reality.

They have become almost literally surreal. They can perform more or less plausibly in the polite world. However, they nullify themselves with every word they speak and each act they undertake. Because they so excessively have surrendered their sincerity to the social surround, they can do no more than take delivery of and disembogue delusions.

What these abject people may at any primal level comprehend, will, desire, or feel is knowable neither to themselves nor to the artist who has invented them. They have doomed themselves to caricature rather than characterization.

They are debarred even from the energy and possible glamour of evil. We cannot fear or hate Mr. Collins, Mr. Wickham, Mrs. Bennet, Lydia Bennet, Lady Catherine, and the Miss Bingleys. Nor can Jane Austen. We cannot even compassionate them. We must treat these persons as parodies rather than personalities. They are banal, not wicked; insipid, not pitiable. They are substantive and serious human beings only in their emptiness. Their sole achievement is to render themselves subjects for satire.

This is the greatest failure that can befall a person in the novel. The specific form of ruin that most direly imperils every woman and every man in Pride and Prejudice is not sin. It is not disgrace. Nor is it suffering. Characters most terribly are threatened in this work with loss of character. They can become so conditioned by their civilization’s programs and protocols that they may vacate their identity and make travesty of their significance.

Nullification is the ultimate jeopardy in this extremely subversive and presciently modernist work.[vii]

9.

As Pride and Prejudice proceeds in its deceptively lighthearted way, we realize this mortal danger threatens to afflict even Elizabeth. We see that time and again this most lovable of the novel’s people responds to the imperatives of her culture by becoming unconsciously contriving or manifestly dishonest. She repeatedly feels herself obliged to think and act in ways that not only “conceal” but contradict and betray her supremely gifted nature.

When Elizabeth and the Gardiners return home to help with the search for Lydia, we are told she impulsively writes “notes to all [her] friends in Lambton, with false excuses for their sudden departure” (208).

When she yearns to know the truth about her lover’s actions on her behalf, she writes to Mrs. Gardiner to ask for – to demand – information. She promises “to be satisfied with ignorance” if her aunt should choose to honor Darcy’s chivalrous request for anonymity and secrecy. But Austen allows us to know how insincere this pledge is, and how conniving Elizabeth is prepared to become if her polite phrasing should fail to entice her aunt into betraying Darcy’s confidence. Austen tells us that as she completes her letter, Elizabeth thinks:

‘Not that I shall [remain ignorant], though; and my dear aunt, if you do not tell me in an honourable manner, I shall certainly be reduced to tricks and stratagems to find [the truth] out’ (238).

 

Another of these compromising moments occurs when Elizabeth returns to her family after engaging herself to Darcy. Her dearly loved sister Jane asks where she has been. Austen comments: “Elizabeth had only to say in reply, that they had wandered about, till she was beyond her own knowledge. She coloured as she spoke; but neither that, nor anything else, awakened a suspicion of the truth” (278).

The frequency, ease, and fluency with which Elizabeth is willing to misinform, dissemble, and fib may be most clearly discovered in her reaction to her first meeting with Darcy’s family. Austen writes: “Elizabeth, on her side, had much to do. She wanted to ascertain the feelings of each of her visitors, she wanted to compose her own, and to make herself agreeable to all….” (193-4).

“Make,” indeed. Both in the sense of compulsion and that of construction, Elizabeth often feels impelled to manufacture herself. She feels so dedicated to the requirements of her life in community that she often relinquishes her commitment to her own character. In her scrupulous service to her civilization, she frequently fabricates her behaviors and sublimates, hides, or misrepresents her emotions. In “all the forbearance of her civility” (133), Elizabeth routinely betrays the spontaneity, integrity, and splendid integrality that constitute her natural identity.

This is not an esoteric or hypothetical problem. Elizabeth often feels wracked with frustration by the excessive circumspection and artificiality of her life.

For example, she dislikes lying to her aunt. Yet with her aunt as with everyone else, she feels “obliged to assume” (180) sham sentiments and affected attitudes.

She chafes at her inability to communicate openly with Darcy. However, she believes she can do nothing more than deflect or rebuff the frank interchange and genuine fullness of experience she craves. In the midst of a characteristically restrained evening with her lover, she feels most painfully thwarted: “She was in hopes that the evening would afford some opportunity of bringing them together; that the whole of the evening would not pass away without enabling them to enter into something more of conversation than the most ceremonious salutations….” (254).

At other times, the reserve that typifies her colloquies with Darcy provokes her into bitter disappointment and annoyance. Austen tells us that during one especially constrained and circumlocutory encounter, Elizabeth “longed to know what at that moment was passing in [Darcy’s] mind” (187). On another occasion, the cost of her “manners” is sufficiently afflictive that Elizabeth cannot suppress her discontent. She feels so balked that she cries: “‘The liberty of communication cannot be mine till it has lost all its value!’” (170)[viii]

This constitutional lack of “liberty” makes a barely governable dilemma for Elizabeth. She abominates the imprecision, artificiality, and sterility that limit most of her relationships. She longs to develop more spirited and truthful associations with the people she respects and loves. But these needs are neither discussible nor achievable in her culture. In common with all the other persons “of perfect good breeding” in the novel, she believes that openness and naturalness expose a deficiency of social imagination and, therefore, a failure of morality. In her “sense of her situation,” candor and authenticity operate as lapses of propriety. Intimacy and honesty function as violations of tact.[ix]

Elizabeth must fulfill her character and create her destiny in a community that accords little importance to realism, statement, and loving interaction. Deprived of the elemental “liberty” of truthfulness and impulsive, artless “communication,” she must either revolt against her entire social order or become encased in its delusions and distortions.

“Not one and twenty” (125) years of age, Elizabeth Bennet has the genius and fortitude to understand she is locked in combat with her seemingly sustaining civilization.

10.

Elizabeth feels frustrated and menaced for yet another reason. She fiercely resents the fact that her gender circumscribes much of her mentality, and precludes the large majority of behaviors she otherwise would choose. She hates the multiple restrictions her civilization imposes exclusively upon women’s minds and movements. She loathes the perpetual necessity to affect feminine passivity, ineptitude, and impairment. She despises and feels degraded by the unrelenting pressure to become acted upon rather than initiate, to receive rather than seek.

She abhors these restrictions. She realizes their repercussions are dire. But she does not know how to escape them. The socialization of gender was accomplished in England long before her birth. Its terms are pervasive and ingrained. Its mandates are ubiquitous and, in her cultural circumstance, not publicly questionable.

No other woman in Pride and Prejudice consciously perceives that her oppression is oppressive. No other woman experiences her civilization’s harsh infringements as a source of suffering and a stimulus for anger. Only Elizabeth does.

To what avail? She possesses formidable intellect, energy, and courage. However, she can find no point of fulcrum upon which to apply pressure for movement, upheaval, change. Her community’s assumptions and dictates have no seams, welds, or fault lines that may be breached. Because her subjugation is socially determined, it has become institutionalized. Because it is institutionalized, its assumptions and provisions are omnipresent, invisible, yet intransigent. They cannot be challenged by a single individual, no matter how endowed and valiant she may be. Elizabeth can contradict and reform the conditions that devolve upon her and all other women in her society only if she can contradict and restructure civilization itself.

Elizabeth is well suited for irritation, even outrage, but not for revolution. Because she is a woman, she possesses neither authority nor mobility. She can do little more than internally register her senses of imperilment and indignation.

In her exercise of even this minor “liberty” she must be discreet. Since she cannot significantly modify her social order, she must be careful not to impugn its dictates and conventions too blatantly. Innuendo and irony are the sole forms of expression available to her. As instruments of resistance, she can command only interior perception and masked ire. As devices of assertion, she can deploy only cautious gesture, symbol, and nuance.

Certainly she makes the most of her limited opportunities and muted resources. Elizabeth conveys her antipathy to her community’s ideals of femininity in almost everything she thinks, feels, says, and does. She most openly proclaims her inherent subversiveness in her two-mile walk through the mud to nurse her sister; in her irate mockery of Mr. Collins; in her initial incensement with Mr. Darcy; in her continuous, brilliantly biting satiric wit; in her constant attitude of bemusement and scarcely concealed contempt toward that manner of life all the other women in the novel seem to desire and welcome.

Elizabeth Bennet would be an intriguing character if this were all that she achieved in her life. However, her symbolic insurrections could not in themselves compel our admiration, command our respect, and secure our affection. Nor could they make us root for her so fervently.

We do root for her. We laud her. We cheer for her. We do not wish this keenly intelligent, captivating person forever to consign her clarity, resentment, and magnificent powers of mind and feeling to merely metaphorical reactions. We wholeheartedly hope she will succeed in creating a more completely courageous relation with her insurgent imagination. We want her to release the full force of her vision. We want her to define and promulgate an entire system of transforming defiance. We want her to become a warrior.

11.

Elizabeth eventually does openly embrace her wrath, her vision, and her will. Her decision to commit herself to her adversary consciousness produces several major consequences. It precipitates the first crisis in the narrative. It establishes her dominant position in her novel. It situates Pride and Prejudice as one of the indispensable and prolegomenous works of the modernist tradition in European literature. And it confirms the centrality of an emerging new ethos in the history of western thought.

The critically important moment when Elizabeth first breaches her caution and mutinies against her confinement occurs as an eruption of her long-suppressed dissatisfaction and ire. When the baroquely presumptuous Mr. Collins repeatedly presses his proposal of marriage, she explodes.

The insolence of his insistence is too much for her to endure. Mr. Collins is slack and stupid; she is an incandescent being. He is a monster of pretension and conceit; she is a paragon of earnestness and modesty. He is a fool; she is a most extraordinary human being.

Only the stark fact of his maleness possibly could authorize Collins in his awful impudence and audacity. He marry her? He refuse to accept her refusal? Elizabeth cannot bear to behave. With the accumulated potency of twenty years of stifled rage, she cries:

‘I do assure you, Sir, that I have no pretension whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere… Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart’ (82-3).

 

This is a momentous occasion in Pride and Prejudice, and in the civilization that provides its surround. Elizabeth establishes herself here as her narrative’s heroic character, as well as its most modern personality. She identifies herself as the only person in her society who believes a person’s selfhood inheres in her rationality and sincerity. She is the only person who comprehensively rejects the diseased belief that a woman is not as wholly and authoritatively human as a male. She is the only person who asserts that a woman is entirely at liberty to determine her own definition, decisions, and destiny.

In this volcanic speech Elizabeth registers more than her uniqueness and her contemporaneity. She also records her awareness of emergency. She discriminates and maps the seemingly insoluble dilemma that she and every other woman in the novel must confront. How can Elizabeth – how can any woman in Pride and Prejudice – know herself to be a person rather than a set of proprieties? How can she establish herself as a sane and sentient being rather than her parents’ or some man’s property?

Can she do this? Can she make herself recognized and honored as a living soul rather than as a comfort station or a decoration? Can she disengage herself from all that is so invidiously limiting in her civilization, yet preserve and act upon her profound civility? Can she develop and present her sensibility and character, yet continue to exist as a communicant of her culture?

Can she create a means by which to live as a socialized woman, yet be true to herself as a “sincere… rational creature”?[x]

12.

These are primal questions. Elizabeth confronts another, almost equally urgent issue. It is the problem of isolation. To whom can she communicate her insight, fear, anger, and resolve? With whom can she join in “sincere” and “rational” society?

Elizabeth lives within a population. She inhabits a venerable community. She resides in a highly sophisticated nation. In a multitude of vitally important contexts, though, she exists apart, detached, separated from all others, alien and alone.

The heroic rejection she delivers to Mr. Collins heralds and highlights this circumstance. By any measure her speech is a remarkable proclamation. Yet, it is futile. Its only auditor cannot comprehend her ontology. Every aspect of her consciousness bewilders him. Every cause for which she pleads baffles him. She may as well have addressed her mother’s sofa, or implored the wainscot.

This is not an accident of narration. Austen needs Elizabeth – and she needs us – to apprehend in this most graphic manner how isolated she is within all the milieus she so wonderfully incarnates, graces, and invests with dignity.

Mr. Collins cannot fathom the human being to whom he desires to betroth himself. Who can? With what woman or man can Elizabeth converse truthfully and fully? With whom can she exist in genuine rather than putative company and companionship?

With whom, indeed? Her mother is a doltish but dedicated agent of the society she inhabits. Her sisters Kitty and Lydia are materialistic, licentious, and vapid. Her sister Mary is too young to receive confidences, and in any event is hopelessly mired in puerile bookishness. Her elder sister is sweet and appealing, and Elizabeth loves her; however, Jane is an essentially accommodated person, thoroughly quotidian in her mentality and purposes. Her friend Charlotte shares many of her percepts, but none of her responses to them.

In her entire circle of acquaintance, perhaps only her father could understand and empathize with her fear, exasperation, sorrow, and suffering. However, Mr. Bennet has steeped himself in narcissistic self-pity and sarcasm, and has withdrawn himself from virtually all forms of sincere involvement with his family, friends, and fellow creatures.

Elizabeth must deal with her pain and rebelliousness altogether on her own. The world in which she lives seems to be beautifully committed to intimate relationships, complex unity, and humane caring. In fact, though, it is not. Within their individual positions and preoccupations, all the novel’s characters are essentially solitary and almost entirely enisled.

As we noted earlier, society in Pride and Prejudice consists of meticulous probity rather than authentic sociality. The book’s characters commit the preponderance of their intelligence, imagination, and energy to exchanging reciprocally validating exhibitions of shadow play, puppetry, mirage.

These ritualized interactive behaviors contain little that is genuinely personal in purport, content, or delivery. How, then, can the people who engage in them become meaningfully interpersonal? Discerning and sympathizing are not skills that lie within their range. Sensing, sharing, supporting, and solacing are not talents readily available in their repertoires of accomplishment.

The men and women who inhabit this ceremonial society are implicitly estranged from all other persons. They are estranged from themselves as well. Their alienation and aloneness are virtually absolute.

To make matters worse, the bewilderment and hurt of their solitude are literally unutterable. They do not know how to speak about their isolation to themselves, and their rigid customs bar them ever from seeking earnest discourse with any other “rational creature.”

Like everyone else in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth must assent to the reality that no person in her body politic can completely comprehend or effectively console any other person. She must tolerate the fact that, within her culture’s glittering charade of community and communion, inexpressible selfhood and unrelievable aloneness may well become her lifelong fate.

Her heartrending plea that she be treated as a soul, not a serf, is courageous and moving. But it is ineffectual. “A rational creature speaking the truth from her heart” is neither recognizable nor includable within the polity of Pride and Prejudice. In the universe the novel describes, integration into society invariably involves the acceptance of alienage.

Elizabeth is a young person. She has yet to learn that, like everyone else in Pride and Prejudice, she has become captured and contaminated by her acculturation. She has yet to learn that, from the point of view of Mr. Collins and every other agent of their civilization, she simply is not a “rational creature.” She is a category.

No matter how individualistic and noble her qualities of mind and soul, her potential is meant by the social order in which she dwells to be predefined and perfectly uniform with her peers’. Like all other unwed women in England, Europe, and the wide world beyond, she is and can be no more than a prospective wife.

13.

Elizabeth’s twin perils – the danger that her maturing life ineluctably may force her to become psychically and behaviorally absorbed into her civilization; and the danger that she may become ever more dehumanized by her aloneness – constitute the novel’s principal theme and interest.

Suspense in Pride and Prejudice does not ultimately have to do with the outcome of its romantic plot. As we read the work, we quickly intuit who will wed whom. The novel’s subject matter and fascination rather concern Elizabeth’s spiritual journey: her pilgrimage. Pride and Prejudice keeps us in a state of both delight and uncertainty because as we read the narrative we cannot foretell what Elizabeth’s moral condition will become within the confines of her exceedingly limited social opportunities.

We wonder with apprehension what will be the fate of her astonishing individuality. What will happen to her stunning appetite and capacity for independence? Can she possibly continue to define herself as “a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart”? Or must she in the end surrender her mind and will to her environment, and become merely “an elegant female”? Can she remain “almost wild” (26)?[xi] Or will her experiences, especially her experiences of love and matrimony, complete her encirclement?

Everything that evokes excitement and anxious uncertainty in Pride and Prejudice involves this vexing question. When Elizabeth marries Darcy, will she evolve? Or must she devolve? Will she decline into a socially suitable uxorial ornament? An “elegant” asset? Or will she remain one of the most interesting and important characters in literature?

Elizabeth’s decision to marry brings this problem into full salience, and makes the climax of the novel’s storyline.

Elizabeth did not before believe it compulsory or even desirable that she should enter into a marriage. Indeed, she once told her aunt that she rejected men altogether: “‘I am sick of them all… What are men [compared] to rocks and mountains?’” (116; 117). As we remarked at the outset of this essay, she once confided to her closest friend that she did not know “if she intended to get a rich husband, or any husband.”

Her contempt for men[xii] and her skeptical attitudes about marriage set loose mammoth energies of subversion in the novel. We find no other person in Pride and Prejudice who conceives of marriage as being volitional. We find no one else who supposes it may be mandatory or even feasible for a woman to create an autonomous position in society.

Elizabeth reinforces and expands her principled devotion to her personal independence in any number of her thoughts, sensations, statements, and actions. She achieves the apotheosis of her valor and directness in the statuesque protest she delivers in her parents’ garden to the imposing Lady Catherine De Bourgh. In a mood of fiery indignation, she announces: “‘I am only resolved to act in a manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me’” (267).

Every reader’s reaction to this famous speech surely must be respectful and admiring. Elizabeth is seeking – she is demanding – personal happiness as her appropriate motive, characterizing objective, and inalienable right. She insists upon her “own opinion” as her only trustworthy source of knowledge, and sole legitimate validation. She ascribes final ethical and political authority to herself rather than to her society, its strictures, its sensitivities, or any of its executors.

In effect she is issuing a manifesto: a statement of belief and pledge of resolve that must thrill us for its insight, loftiness, dignity, and daring. Yet, we cannot help but feel troubled. Outside the frontiers of peroration, how will Elizabeth sustain her brilliantly assertive imagination? How will she protect her intrepidity and advance her visionary will in the face of her civilization’s assured belligerence, her community’s entrenched mores, her family’s and her neighbors’ bewilderment and opposition?

Can she – can anyone – become utterly self-sufficient? Can she – can anyone – unilaterally reconceive and reconstruct the social universe?

We feel especially concerned because Elizabeth does not seem aware that her apostasy is extreme. She seems scarcely to understand how forcefully her ideals and creeds will be feared, scorned, and resisted.

This is especially worrisome with regard to her forthcoming marriage. She does not permit herself to realize that the condition of marriage may be inimical to her freedom of thought and autonomy of action. She does not allow herself to recall what she once understood and rightly dreaded: that the state of wedlock – a disturbing term – is likely to lock her as thoroughly as it has contained and controlled every other woman in her society who has convinced herself that joining in loving lifetime union with a man will grant her a magical access to her highest self and most lofty aspirations.

Elizabeth’s insouciance is disconcerting and disturbing. Even more naïve and dangerous is her certitude that Darcy loves her specifically for her wildness.

We can observe her naiveté about this subject with particular clarity in one moment of confident repartee with her intended. Darcy perhaps guilelessly, perhaps cleverly, assures Elizabeth he fell in love with her “‘for the liveliness of [her] mind’” (284). When he makes this blithe pleasing comment, he has no idea what she has been supposing about the primacy of her volitions, and the extremism with which she means to pursue and practice self-sufficiency.

Elizabeth, though, conceives that Darcy somehow is privy to her innermost consciousness. She incautiously replies:

‘The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them. Had you not been really amiable you would have hated me for it; … In your heart, you thoroughly despised the persons who so assiduously courted you!’ (284)

 

O Elizabeth, we must think. Take care. Be more cautious. You are staking your liberty and your happiness on an impression that may not be completely true.

No doubt a “really amiable” man can be “roused” by a woman who refuses to defer to him. But this does not necessarily mean the man will expect his culturally approved – his culturally mandated – dominance always to be resisted. Especially when he takes the “lively” woman for his wife. When wedded, will he not emphasize the possessive syntax: his wife?

We must feel alarmed on Elizabeth’s behalf. We feel impelled to ask on her behalf the discomforting questions that, in the flush of her infatuation with Darcy, with romance, and with emerging adulthood she fails to ask herself.

Has she underestimated the commitment of males to their own prerogatives and perquisites? Particularly the commitment of so immensely puissant a male as her fiancé? Has she mismeasured the might her civilization confers upon husbands? Particularly upon so enormously empowered a husband as hers?

Has she altogether understood the mettle of her lordly mate? Has she completely comprehended the likelihood that Fitzwilliam Darcy may well regard himself as the regent and ruler of his literal castle, and the master of his lithe and wild spouse?[xiii]

14.

Our unease intensifies when we become aware that the two people who know Elizabeth most intimately feel distraught about her motivations in marrying Darcy, and her prospects for achieving happiness with him.

Her sister Jane greets Elizabeth’s announcement that she has engaged herself to Darcy with astonishment and trepidation: “‘My dear, dear Lizzy, I would – I do congratulate you – but are you certain? forgive the question – are you quite certain that you can be happy with him?’” In an access of distress, she asks: “‘And do you really love him quite well enough? Oh, Lizzy! Do anything rather than marry without affection. Are you quite sure that you feel what you ought to do?’” (279).

Her father is yet more amazed, and by nature more blunt. In the single moment of unaffected emotionality he exhibits in the novel, he cries: “‘Lizzy, what are you doing? Are you out of your senses, to be accepting this man? Have you not always hated him?’” (281). With heartfelt tenderness, alluding with unprecedented candor to his own torment with his unloved wife, he begs his daughter to reconsider her decision:

‘Let me advise you to think better of it. I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You know not what you are about’ (282).

 

Like Jane, Mr. Bennet believes Elizabeth’s motives are mercenary. Like Jane, he concludes with horror that she is making a purely economic, an entirely cultural choice. In deepest worry, he cautions his beloved child: “‘[Darcy] is rich, to be sure, and you may have more fine clothes and rich carriages than Jane. But will they make you happy?’” (281).

It is no wonder her sister and father suspect Elizabeth of materialistic motivations. It is no wonder they fear she may have become mesmerized at last by the civilization she and they must inhabit. For Elizabeth does feel fully cognizant of and instinctively attracted to Darcy’s prodigious consequence in the world. She responds not avariciously but aspiringly to his wealth, his genealogy, and his power.

We cannot put aside our memory of the fact that, when Elizabeth first views Darcy’s sublime home, she instantly wishes she might share in its possession. “At that moment,” Austen tells us, “she felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (181).

When she first enters Darcy’s hallway her emotion intensifies:

‘And of this place,’ thought she, ‘I might have been mistress! And with these rooms I might now have been familiarly acquainted! Instead of viewing them as a stranger, I might have rejoiced in them as my own, and welcomed to them as visitors my uncle and aunt’ (182).

 

Later in the narrative, our suspicions receive confirmation. When pressed by Jane, Elizabeth acknowledges Darcy’s wealth and social station have been a factor, perhaps a decisive factor, in the history of her emotion for him. When asked when she first realized she loved Darcy, Elizabeth jocularly replies: “‘It has been coming on me so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley’” (279).

Elizabeth is a consummate wit, and she obviously intends that her comment will be regarded as a joke. Jane does understand her to be bantering. However, Elizabeth’s josh expresses a subliminal recognition of a truth natural and real. She has felt affected, influenced, at least to some degree enchanted by her fiancé’s singular stature in the world. It scarcely is conceivable that she would have aligned herself with any less formidable a person.[xiv]

15.

In engaging herself to the man she once loathed, Elizabeth does not experience a merely mercenary motivation. She is able to give her sister “solemn assurances of her attachment” (279) to Darcy. She is much more direct when she addresses her father. “With tears in her eyes,” Elizabeth tells Mr. Bennet: “‘I do, I do like him, I love him’” (281).

This is not to be doubted. The final pages of the narrative make it clear that Elizabeth unreservedly adores her fiancé. Austen reinforces this impression in her closing chapter. Her concluding paragraphs of epilogue describe the marriage in terms that make it clear Elizabeth’s love for Darcy will remain absolute and ardent throughout her life.

Nonetheless, her readers must continue to feel troubled. Our sense of worry is not sourced in the fact that Elizabeth’s love predictably involves some interest in Darcy’s majestic social position, and some pleasure in the fact it will become extended to herself. We feel concerned, rather, by her ability to preserve her originally transcendent insight; her grand autarkic vision; her staunch commitment to unfettered liberty of feeling, thought, enterprise, and deed.

Like Jane and Mr. Bennet, we doubt Elizabeth can be fully happy after she weds. We wonder if she may need to purchase her conventional fulfillments by allowing herself to become a conventional person. When she exchanges the lonely liberty of her young womanhood for the secure glory of her marriage, will she let herself accommodate the malignant stereotypes she rightly dreaded and despised?

Will Elizabeth Bennet reduce herself into “a wife?” Will Mrs. Darcy attain her gargantuan social comforts by adopting a normative social identity?

Austen engages this question frontally. In one of the novel’s most remarkable passage, she permits us to see precisely how Elizabeth plans to manage her husband, her marriage, and her ongoing quarrel with her civilization.

Immediately after betrothing herself, Elizabeth thinks to make a joke at her fiancé’s expense. At the last moment she restrains herself. Austen comments:

Elizabeth longed to observe that Mr. Bingley had been a most delightful friend; so easily guided that his worth was invaluable; but she checked herself. She remembered that [Darcy] had yet to learn to be laught at, and it was rather too early to begin (278).

 

This privileged access to her consciousness allows us to understand how Elizabeth intends to protect and preserve her autonomy. She conceives that she can have all things. She believes she can receive all the benefits of marriage without suffering from any of its menaces.

Her strategy will be to deploy her wondrous wit: the exemplar and instrument of her “wildness.” She believes she can defend her distinctness and her dignity by impugning Darcy’s. She supposes she can repel her husband’s inevitable attempts to subjugate and control her “disposition,” nobility, and independence by attacking his with her “lively, sportive manner of talking” (290).

Elizabeth is judicious enough to repress this programme until she is safely wed. For she thoroughly understands her attempts to defuse and mould Darcy’s character, will, and entitlements are sure to meet with vigorous resistance. She realizes she will need the support of actual wifehood, an established – indeed, an irrevocable – position of her own, if she is to wage successfully what is certain to be an enduring and hazardous contest.

16.

In her epilogue paragraphs, Austen assures us Elizabeth does indeed prosecute her strategy after she becomes espoused with Darcy. She divulges that, as his wife rather than his fiancé, she feels free to make Darcy “the object of open pleasantry.” We are told she eventually feels so secure in her situation and so comfortable with her tactics that she takes on an acolyte: she teaches Darcy’s endearing younger sister how “a woman may take liberties with her husband” (290).

We have been assured. Yet, we do not feel assured. We continue to wonder how often Elizabeth will have to “check herself” in order to assuage her husband’s feelings and meet the expectations of her own elevated station.

How “lively,” how “sportive,” how “wild” can “the mistress of Pemberley” possibly be? How frequently will the obligations that attach to “the wife of Mr. Darcy” (265) compete with and depreciate Elizabeth’s radical metaphysics? How commonly will the requirements that attend upon her new social prominence “check” this fearless woman’s subversive spirit and insurgent behaviors?

Elizabeth’s life-determining decision is to marry. But this is precisely the decision her civilization has assigned to her and every other unwed female in her village, shire, and kingdom. In consenting to a necessary, predetermined experience, is she not acceding to all the other ways of defining and valuing her culture has imposed upon her?

As instructed, Elizabeth agrees to affiliate herself by legal tort with a male – albeit a male of abundant property, handsomeness, and propriety. Is this a choice, or is it a capitulation? Is this an exercise of will; a blissful response to an intensely personal need? Or is it a consent to a vast intimidation: a reflex reaction that Elizabeth, like every other eligible woman in Pride and Prejudice, defines and embraces as a wholly free, entirely individualistic determination?

In making her marriage, Elizabeth turns out to be a good girl. As her society evaluates human life, as her community appraises women’s lives, she turns out to be the best girl. Certainly she pleases her Aunt Gardiner, who earlier had warned her: “‘You must not let your fancy run away with you. You have sense, and we all expect you to use it’” (109).

Elizabeth uses her “sense.” She does not permit her “fancy” to abscond with her. She loves truly and deeply, but she makes certain she marries wisely and well. She sensibly locates a supernally enfranchising space for herself within the suffocating conventions and attitudes she once had found unnecessary, repugnant, and perilous.

In marrying Darcy, Elizabeth converts the liabilities of her gender into assets. She creates a compromise between the claims of her sociability and the original requirements of her imagination. She does not submit to conformism, Austen tells us, but she does accept a quantum of consonance with her civilization. In return, she receives an abundance of personal fulfillment.

We fear, however, that Elizabeth purchases her stature and solace at a significant price. We suspect she accomplishes her respectability and happiness by sacrificing a significant portion of her miraculous hunger for untrammeled autonomy, authenticity, inventiveness, and intimacy. We reckon that when Elizabeth Bennet marries Fitzwilliam Darcy, she commits on the grand scale a version of the prostitution Charlotte Lucas – her only close friend – performs on the mean.[xv]

17.

Pride and Prejudice does not provide us with information sufficient to predict how soon or to what extent Elizabeth will feel confined by the new circumstances of her life. The novel does give us the means to realize that her creator very quickly feels stifled.

The moment Elizabeth determines to marry, Austen loses her subject matter and many of the distinctive qualities of her voice. She should be able to describe her heroine’s prospects in discourse exalted and exultant. But she cannot. She can speak of her heroine’s wedded life only in the most hackneyed terms. She tells us Elizabeth will achieve with Darcy “the comfort of ease and familiarity” (282). She will live with her husband in “open pleasantry” (290). She will accomplish with him a buoyant, expansive “uniting” (291).

These phrases are sweet, but they lack the lambent vigor and particularity that previously have characterized their author’s singular art. Austen is unable to invent locutions that can represent Elizabeth’s conjugal life as unique, consecrated, or in any respect consequential beyond the orthodoxies of “comfort” and “ease.” Because Elizabeth ultimately succumbs to cliché, because she elects to embrace the stereotyping taxonomies and protocols that surround her, her author can develop nothing other than stereotypic idioms to characterize her future experience.

This situation is especially evident when Austen attempts to describe the actual scene of her heroine’s avowal and betrothal. In this crucial passage, her language coagulates. The prose that throughout the narrative has intrigued and thrilled us grows cankered. Its cadences contort with inversion, congeal, clot, and at last neuter themselves:

Elizabeth feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change … as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he probably never felt before; and he expressed himself as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eye, she might have seen how well the expression of heart-felt delight, suffused over his face, became him; but, though she could not look, she could listen, and he told her of his feelings, which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable (273-4).

 

What odd work this is. At the very moment of her characters’ decisive statement and dramatic fruition, Austen’s writing courts neutralism. A climactic paragraph devoted to ultimate passion manufactures an occlusion: a boatload of gorgeous syntax, but not one syllable of actual dialogue.

Elizabeth wants to talk, but she cannot. Darcy can speak, but he has to be seen in order to be wholly understood. Elizabeth wishes to look, needs to look, but does not. She is defeated by her delight. She will not permit herself completely to receive the requital Darcy longs to proffer. She must intuit, imagine, invent the experience she craves. She must author the elation her lover yearns to provide.

As must we. At this critical juncture in this wonderful book, we too must conceive and compose. One of the most fluent stylists who ever has written English literature finds it impossible to record what actually is said by the characters she so vividly has concocted, cherished, and caused us to adore.

Austen’s sudden stylistic sterility occurs because her characters are choosing to express categorical rather than characterological emotions. Darcy is anything but a mundane or trivial human being. Yet, in this scene he decides to become a convention: “a man violently in love.” Elizabeth chooses to become a convention, too. She determines to become culturally feminized.

Elizabeth never will be mistaken for that paradigm’s epitome: a shy, bashful, shrinking, overmastered prototype. However, once she conceives of herself as an extraordinary yet common woman she no longer proposes herself as a subject for distinguished fiction. From this point forward, she can be written about only in trite, contrived, convoluted dialect because she has reduced herself from a mutineer to “a wife”: a person who is most uncommonly human but who also is merely human, and therefore too presupposed, predefined, and predictable to offer herself as the inspiration and muse for an imagined topos.

That Pride and Prejudice quickly, even hurriedly expires after Elizabeth agrees to marry Darcy is necessary and not avoidable. About an Elizabeth who lives in an oppositional relation to civilization a narrative can be – as it were, must be – created. But an Elizabeth who elects to become unambivalently included in her prevailing social order is not a commanding presence.

Such a woman lacks sufficient singularity to support the novel’s originally insurgent intention. Such a woman forfeits too much of her originating idea of possibility, too much of her inaugurating passion, and all of her pioneering purpose. Miss Bennet may be said imaginatively and morally to diminish into essential ordinariness when she becomes Mrs. Darcy.

Of course, the administration of this event differs diametrically from my account of it. It is the writer, not the character, who makes the decisions. It is Austen who determines what Elizabeth can think, feel, and do. And, as we have seen, it is Austen who pays the final tariff. As a philosopher and as an artist, she becomes quiescent when she concedes that her heroine must renounce “wildness” and become subsumed into the community in which she lives. Several pages later, the tariff becomes absolute: the narrative halts, and the author is silenced.

For Elizabeth and her creator, the movement of the narrative is from awareness, anger, and defiance to complacency, compromise, and concession. Pride and Prejudice is a radically innovative and immensely important novel when its author permits herself to investigate the possibility that the claims of a single, solitary, rogue imagination may supersede the power and jurisdiction of civilization. It becomes a more pedestrian work, a sedate musing epilogue, when Austen concludes every individual consciousness, no matter how gifted, eventually must become subordinated into her prevailing social order.

Adversariness activates this novelist’s genius. Quietism sterilizes and swiftly terminates her ability to invent. Frustration, indignation, and resistance inspire Jane Austen. Docility domesticates her ingenious imagination, and rapidly stills her dazzling art.

18.

Austen treats her heroine’s normalization and her book’s ending with surprising equanimity. The novel’s epilogue is striking for the calmness and good humor with which it closes the present, summons the time that is to come, and summarizes the lives its characters will live.

The epilogue does not invoke an idyll.[xvi] In a tone of composed serenity, Austen describes a future of stability, gentleness, and gentility. The characters she has treasured – Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley, Mrs. and Mr. Gardiner – will discover joyful contentment in their marriages, and in their relationships with one another. These decent and prosperous people will use their wealth and its privileges to sequester themselves from their community’s few maleficent persons, minimize their contact with the irritating, and look after the needs of the deserving. Elizabeth, Jane, and their husbands particularly will protect Mr. Bennet, whom despite his imperfections they love. They shower him with esteem, and flood him with happiness. From Mrs. Bennet, alas, they cannot defend him.

Austen does not directly address the issue of how much Elizabeth may relinquish in order to engage and sponsor these fulfillments. In the novel’s concluding paragraphs, she suggests only that adult life inevitably involves some degree of expediency, discomfort, and distress; and that adjustment, moderation, and restful settlement are needful and appropriate psychical conditions.

After all, she gently suggests, what else is there for Elizabeth to do but become gracefully acquiescent? How can she escape from life’s designs and demands? Where else is there to go? What else, who else, is there for her to become?[xvii]

One must consent to be environed. One must converge and make congress with that which is provided. What else can a woman be other than first a daughter, then a wife, then a mother?

As she concludes Pride and Prejudice, Austen consoles her heroine, her primary supporting players, her society, her readers, and herself. In her characteristically quiet manner, she reminds us that our civilization is omnipotent, and becoming congruent with it is not a preference but an imperative. Not a capitulation, but an ineludible inevitability.

Accepting socialization, yielding to the supreme might of acculturation, may seem individualistic and volitional. It is neither. The claims of community are so embedded in our lives, inlaid in our awareness, consociate with our sensibility and synapses, that consciousness, chance, and choice must always be profoundly compromised activities.

In her disquietingly pacific epilogue, Austen asserts we conduct our lives on fields at least somewhat prescribed. We think and feel at least in part as we are meant to think and feel. We perceive, judge, decide, and behave within dimensions of possibility that were partially ordained before we come into our lives, and that continue to evolve long after we depart.

In this context, Elizabeth always has had little choice but to wed. In due course, she does. She chooses to marry an almost unimaginably empowering mate; and with him she experiences love, finds contentment, possibly bliss, and achieves measures of grandness reserved by her society for only the most august few.

The epilogue represents Elizabeth’s happiness and resplendent social elevation as triumphs of the first magnitude: the final signifiers of her heroism. She literally makes the best of her confined opportunities. The best woman in the book woos and weds the best man, and together with their best friends they anchor the best community Austen can imagine.

This immense enlightenment and growth more than condone whatever diminishment Elizabeth may incur as a consequence. The novel’s concluding passages define her final embrace of her culture’s mandates and mores as a valorous decision. Her acceptance of some reduction in her adversary consciousness may be an accommodation of necessity. But it is also an act of wisdom and generosity. It is a deliberate, just, and beneficent compromise.

Caring and loving, courting and marrying, parenting, occupying homes, exchanging visits, building and preserving continuities and communities: these are behaviors Austen believes manifest infinite loveliness, despite the fact they impose a cost upon each individual’s autonomy, primacy, and liberty. Elizabeth, her peers, and her forebears all choose to serve an order that somewhat curtails their solipsistic possibilities. In return for acceding to this necessity, choosing it, embracing it, they birth immeasurable opportunities for expression, pleasure, decency, and dignity.

No one in literature creates more idiosyncratic and memorable individuals than Jane Austen. But she concludes her most robust and acclaimed novel by celebrating the mentality and activity of communal life. No matter how inhibiting or restrictive, quotidian civic experience seems to Austen to confer upon all who honor it an imperium. She feels certain that our willingness to repudiate ultimate personal independence generates wonderful possibilities for collective creation, growth, and fulfillment.

Austen imparts this heroism of freely chosen compromise to her most insipid as well as her most magisterial characters. She also makes place for the wicked. No matter how imperfectly they comprehend the obligations of community, Lydia and Wickham, Mrs. Bennet, Mr. and Mrs. Collins, even the preposterous Lady Catherine de Bourgh are considered by their author to commit themselves, all in their own way, to the psychology and circumstances of civil association. Each plays an indispensable role in the making of the social whole. Each, accordingly, receives a place in the whole’s elysian endowment.

Austen’s resolution of her novel’s seemingly unresolvable conflict between the commandments of civilization and the claims of the self is adroit, cunning, and luminous. She concedes that she and Elizabeth fail to reinvent the world. But she defines their defeat as a success. She describes Elizabeth’s acceptance of convention and conformity as an election: a heroine’s decision to join, lead, and unobtrusively amend the community whose worst excesses once outraged and grievously threatened her.

19.

Pride and Prejudice can conclude because Austen accomplishes a solution to the complicated issue that inspired her concern and creativity.

During the early stages of the novel, Elizabeth had feared her incorporation into the social order was inescapable and deadly. The epilogue reveals this was because in her youthful pride, her inexperienced prejudice, she had misunderstood the nature of the social order and the meaning of becoming included within it. By the end of the narrative, she fully comprehends, cherishes, and chooses the life of the common human routine. Like her author, she prefers and freely determines to conduct an obligatory life.

Her decision to accept the conditions of adultness occurs in a manner that takes full account of her initial reactions of dread, indignation, and resistance. Neither Elizabeth nor the artist who created her can find a way to satisfy their full imaginative potentiality. But neither any longer wants to. Elizabeth’s resolve to accept and grace the way of life she originally had challenged grants her distinction and pleasure, ensures the perpetuation and improvement of her community, and allows her novel to accomplish a feasible and fulfilling completeness.

The consolatory effect of Pride and Prejudice extends as much to its audience as to its heroine and author. We, too, feel understood and affirmed by the narrative’s resolution. We feel invited to conclude that our own commitment to our communal identity, like Elizabeth’s to hers, is necessary, virtuous, and salubrious.

In her tranquil placatory postlude, Austen authorizes us to believe we should end or at least reduce our own instincts of argument with and anxiety about our socialization. Yes, many of our identifications and allegiances may be culturally mandated rather than individually desired and personally created. Yes, our daily lives incompletely engage the supreme range of our intellect, and imperfectly discharge the ultimate ambits of our imagination. We often yield to invasive, sometimes degrading conceptions about ourselves, other people, and life itself. Nevertheless, Austen tells us, the experiment of civilization is on the whole noble, and we are noble for agreeing to participate in it.

Pride and Prejudice gives us support and peace. It hallows the common human routine. It praises us for tolerating and enjoying the sometimes debilitating, sometimes embittering parameters of bourgeois existence.

We cannot help but smile as we turn the final page and softly close the comforting covers. We cannot help but whisper our gratitude to this book and its maker. In this great and greatly beloved work, the unassuming daughter of a minor English country parson bluntly confronts and forever allays the most terrifying of many modern people’s moral and metaphysical concerns: the possibility that our devotion to social life and our acquiescence to the manifold compromises this choice imposes upon our individualism make for a thanatological betrayal: a discreditable retreat from our lives’ primal authenticity, inventiveness, and adventure.

Jane Austen quiets our debilitating fear. She honors us for surrendering our “wildness.” She sings encomium sweet and soothing to the quiet ways in which most of us need and want to exist. She assures us that, despite our flaws and faults, we are masterpieces.

No wonder Pride and Prejudice always has been so deeply admired and loved. No wonder so many readers have adored its author.[xviii] Never before has western civilization produced a more subtle and salvaging propagandist for civilization than Jane Austen.

NOTES


[i] The English language often subtly emphasizes the fact that in western civilization there exist multiple and complex associations between hunting and loving. For example, the word “venery” once meant the art or practice of hunting; beasts who are hunted; and the practice or pursuit of sexual pleasure, the indulgence of sexual desire. Similarly, “chase” can mean, among other acts, to follow persistently in order to catch or harm; to hunt game; and to court aggressively.

The word “husband” is itself of ambiguous meaning. Originally it defined a peasant who owned his own house and land. It came to refer thereafter to the master of a house; the male head of a household; and a man united to a woman in marriage. The term as well applied to a male animal kept for breeding; and to a male who tilled soil, or the act of tilling soil or cultivating mind. To “husband” also means to save, economize, or accumulate a supply or store. Pride and Prejudice repeatedly notes that a woman must acquire a husband in order to secure each of these provisions, qualities, and protections.

The word “wife” carries none of these various meanings and intricate associations. It defines only a woman who is joined to a man in marriage; or the mistress of a married couple’s household.

[ii] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (Boston, Riverside Editions, 1956), p. 15. All subsequent references to Pride and Prejudice will be to this edition, and will be provided parenthetically following the material cited.

[iii] Many critics have analyzed this much-loved sentence. For provoking discussions, see especially: Barbara Hardy, A Reading of Jane Austen  (London, 1979), p. 35f.; Douglas Bush, Jane Austen  (London, 1975), pp. 92f.; Dorothy Van Ghent, The English Novel: Form and Function  (New York, 1961), pp. 100f.; Karl Kroeber, “Pride and Prejudice: Fiction’s Lasting Novelty,” in John Halperin, ed., Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays  (Cambridge, 1975), pp.150-1.

 

[iv] The author of the novel is not more emancipated from this perversity than her heroine. Throughout Pride and Prejudice, Austen feels impelled to tell us almost to the farthing what each male in the tale is “worth.” See, for example, pp. 10; 12; 22; 56-7).

 

[v] Mr. Gardiner is not merely polished. He also is wealthy. His wealth qualifies him to develop and project his refinement; and his refinement reciprocally conveys his financial “competency.” Within the surround of money-based status, his actual personality can enact itself: his dignity, decency, and boundless generosity, his loyal and loving soul.

Mr. Gardiner’s importance, value, and merit in Pride and Prejudice are crucially conditioned. His stylistic, financial, and characterological “worth” are inseparably interrelated. It is not possible in this novel to separate his or any other character’s status from his substance: his positions in society from his true, inward, fundamental nature.

 

[vi] It is an important phenomenon that the novel’s most refined people often must rely upon the most vacuous and vulgar persons to provide them with vital information, and to provoke desired events. For example, Elizabeth could not have learned of Darcy’s heroic actions on her behalf, and thus discovered his continuing love for her, had not Lydia insensitively communicated the truth to her. In fact Lydia’s inveterate carnality and carelessness precipitate virtually all the events that lead to Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage, and to Bingley and Jane’s union.

Throughout Pride and Prejudice, coarse persons frequently perform the vulgar and dangerous indiscretions of being honest and overt. The deplorable failures of the society’s incompetent and incontinent characters are indispensable to the heroic characters’ ultimate successes and happiness.

The author finds herself in a similarly dependent position. The art of narration in Pride and Prejudice could not proceed without the subversive behaviors of those base, lax, and negligent characters who cannot comprehend or who willfully violate the ethos the narrative inculcates. The novelist frequently relies upon the novel’s weakest or actively wicked persons in order to tell her tale, and bring her heroes’ lives to their full consequence and fruition.

In this respect the world of the novel is authentically social. Across all seemingly nonmalleable boundaries of class, caste, consciousness, and character, people who live together in community often need and commonly do exert vital impacts upon one another.

[vii] In this context, we shall not mistake the significance of the fact that religion is almost not a subject in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Collins, the sole clergyman whom the narrative admits into its landscape, is a buffoon. He lacks any vestige of wisdom, compassion, tenderness, devoutness, or sanctity. The world of the novel is effectively godless. The narrative never makes reference to the idea of the divine in anything other than a ceremonial or formalistic way. The teleology of Pride and Prejudice is social and psychological. Austen does not experience a theonomous universe.

For a distinctly differing discussion of the phenomena I have been examining, see Mark Schorer, “Fiction and the ‘Analogical Matrix,’” Kenyon Review, 11 (1949), 539-60. See, too, D.W. Harding, “Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the World of Jane Austen,” Scrutiny, 8 (1940), 539-60.

[viii] Darcy shares both Elizabeth’s yearning for truthfulness and her frequent inability to be actually truthful. In a remarkable passage, he tells Elizabeth: “‘Disguise of every sort is my abhorrence’” (145). However, in a letter that he writes to her on the following day, he admits he has practiced a deceit that has egregiously and most painfully victimized her sister. All he can find it in himself to say in expiation of his behaviour is: “‘perhaps this concealment, this disguise, was beneath me’” (150). On at least two other occasions in the narrative, Darcy deliberately dissembles or “disguises” (see p.149 and p. 281).

In the crises of his emotional life, Darcy usually can communicate only indirectly: for example, by letter, as in Chapter XII; and by the loving actions that he surreptitiously undertakes on Elizabeth’s behalf after Lydia’s flight. Until the closing pages of the novel, Darcy cannot create a means by which to speak openly to his lover.

His inhibition and indirectness are culturally mandated, and for some time they gravely imperil his own happiness and his ability to confer happiness upon those whom he most loves. Were it not for a series of unpredictable fortuitous events – Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s parental irresponsibleness, Lydia’s amoral elopement, Lydia’s thoughtless indiscretion in revealing Darcy’s extraordinary interventions and financial generosity – it is likely that his civility might have prevented him from engaging Elizabeth in love and marriage, and fulfilling his highest nature.

[ix] Elizabeth’s creator in some measure shares these convictions. As we noted earlier, the only thoroughly candid people in Pride and Prejudice are also the most vulgar – the least civilized. Mrs. Bennet, Lydia, Collins, and Lady Catherine almost always are honest about and revelatory of their opinions and sensations. However, their outspokenness is as an element and an emblem of their barbarism.

This situation is most complex.  For as we also have noted, the novel’s most civilized characters often rely upon the most uncivil to provide them with essential information and catalysis.

[x] We must not underestimate the degree to which Elizabeth is threatened. The restraints and controls under which she is placed by her social situation are holistic; if necessary, they can be made absolute.

Let us consider one among many instances. When Elizabeth tries to refuse Mr. Collins’ impossibly offensive offer of marriage and retreat to the sanctuary of her room, Mrs. Bennet finds it possible to say to her daughter: “‘I desire you will stay where you are… Lizzy, I insist upon your staying and hearing Mr. Collins’” (78). Later Mrs. Bennet tells Mr. Collins: “‘[Elizabeth] is a very headstrong foolish girl, and does not know her own interest; but I will make her know it’” (83). Perhaps Mrs. Bennet does not have total power over her daughter. What is notable – what is appalling – is the fact that she believes she possesses this tyranny, and she conceives she is operating as the best possible regent for her family and her civilization in enforcing it.

Certainly the power Mrs. Bennet wields is formidable. Her daughter recognizes she has no choice but to capitulate to her mother’s command: “Elizabeth would not oppose such an injunction.” Because of her parent’s despotic intervention, Elizabeth must allow Mr. Collins further to address her in a manner that invades and injures her.

The capacity of her civilization to coerce obedience is very considerable. In this instance, her socialization forces Elizabeth to submit to a terrible violation. In order to be a correct daughter, she is required to offer herself for a species of rape.

[xi] Elizabeth frequently is described as being incompletely civilized (see pp. 16, 26, 31, 39, 125, 131, 200). The persons who describe her in these terms mean to render a pejorative judgment. Austen, however, clearly intends to suggest that much of Elizabeth’s narrative interest and moral authority inhere in her relative “wildness.” Elizabeth’s power to bewilder and offend more normalized characters’ pieties is represented throughout Pride and Prejudice as one of the essences and markers of her heroism.

Elizabeth’s wit is her principal instrument of assertion, and it closely is associated with her alleged “wildness.” Austen creates many evocative descriptions of Elizabeth’s wild and wildly funny humor: see pp. 8. 16, 42, 107, 115, 120.

The rhetorics of Elizabeth’s wit consistently express confident rejection of her culture’s values and mores. Actually, though, her humor is defensive. She satirizes the conventions of her civilization because she fears that her social order infringes upon and besieges her, and she dreads the incessancy and power of the assaults. Her mocking “easy playfulness” (16) is a concealment and a disguise. She pretends her society can be mastered by laughing at its in fact unmitigable absurdity and insuperable sovereignty. The affection that her civilization and her own relationship to it are risible permits Elizabeth to feel slightly less menaced. This is a stratagem she seems to have learned from her intriguing father.

[xii] Elizabeth’s mistrust and animus extend not merely to males. At one point in the novel, she asserts that no human being can be fully trusted or wholly loved: “‘The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence which can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense’” (203).

[xiii] Early in the novel, long before she becomes aware that she loves Darcy and he loves her in return, Elizabeth is far more belligerent about her need and her resolve to live autonomously. In a memorable scene, she tells Darcy: “‘You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy…. But I will not be alarmed….There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened by the will of others. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me’” (131). Darcy’s response is quick and lovable. However, his adroit reaction makes it clear he does not mean ever to yield to his future wife without a struggle. He replies: “‘I am not afraid of you’” (131).

Part of the imaginative appeal of the eventual union between Elizabeth and Darcy is that the principals – and their readers – recognize the enormity and intensity of the conflicts their marriage will have to incorporate and settle.

[xiv] As we noted earlier, Austen often describes Elizabeth as a “wild” being. This is the first time in the novel, however, in which Elizabeth thinks consciously and speaks explicitly about the overarching importance of money and rank in her civilization and community. Her resentment of her culture’s preoccupation with wealth always is sincerely felt and splendidly asserted. Here we can see that even she is capable of at least a subliminal compliance with the principles and mores she consciously loathes.

This is not the only occasion. This response also conditions her imagination when, late in the novel, she tells Lady Catherine: “The wife of Mr. Darcy much have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine” (265). Supraliminally she refers in this declaration to the loving fulfillment she experiences with her intended. Less consciously but powerfully, she adverts to her awareness that the woman who weds so wealthy and so socially enfranchised a man must possess and can exercise at will a supreme, immunizing consequence.

Elizabeth’s father has scare right to caution or criticize his daughter on the grounds of her possible susceptibility to materialism: no one could be more respectfully aware than he of Darcy’s wealth and social position. He is only partially jesting when he says to Elizabeth: “‘Let me congratulate you, on a most important conquest’” (270). He is not jesting at all when he declares: “‘I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to any one less worthy’” (282). Nor is he joking when he remarks: “‘He is the kind of man, indeed, to whom I should never dare refuse any thing, which he condescended to ask’” (281-2).

Elizabeth responds so strongly to Pemberley in part because she admires and loves the exceptional tastefulness with which the house has been appointed, decorated, and landscaped. She responds to Darcy and his forebears’ impeccable ability to appreciate and produce all that which is excellent and beautiful (see p.182). Her status awareness is principally excited by the stimulation that her exquisite refinement receives.

[xv] The vexatious nature of this issue intensifies when we take into account Austen’s attitude toward the other marriages in the novel. Pride and Prejudice is remarkable for the intensity of its hostility toward most of the matrimonial relationships it examines. With the single exception of the union created by Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, every marriage that is closely analyzed in the narrative is of ambiguous intimacy, trust, and fruition – if not overly dreadful. The exploitative and implicitly violent nature of the characters’ marital relations is exceeded only by the hypocrisy with which they address one another and front the world.

Austen directs us to believe that Elizabeth and Jane will make healthy marriages and ideal families. However, we must realize that, in the world the novel dramatizes, these deserving sisters and their admirable husbands face daunting odds. In this regard, it obviously is a significant circumstance that Jane Austen herself never married.

Whatever stresses and strains may devolve upon Elizabeth in her identity as Mrs. Darcy, at least she will escape from the excruciating humiliations that frequently shaped her experience in the radically dysfunctional Bennet household. On multiple occasions, we are told that Elizabeth feels acutely distressed by her environment at home, and that she conceives of her marriage as an opportunity to escape from the personalities and situations that dismay her in her birth family (see pp. 181, 279, 287).

[xvi] Lionel Trilling has suggested that as we read Emma we should “take into account the particular genre to which the novel in some degree belongs – the pastoral idyll” (Lionel Trilling, Beyond Culture [New York, 1965], p. 47). Trilling does not indicate here or elsewhere if he believes that Pride and Prejudice or any other of Austen’s novels also belong to this genre.

[xvii] In Emma, Austen permits her heroine consciously to articulate this question, and to make it the center of her consciousness. At one point in the narrative, Emma thinks: “Their being fixed, so absolutely fixed, in the same place, was bad for each, for all three. Not one of them had the power of removal, or of effecting any material change of society. They must encounter each other, and make the best of it” (Jane Austen, Emma [Boston, 1957], p. 110).

In many of her novels, Austen creates a highly sentient and initially rebellious heroine who gradually accedes to a social and psychological environment she concludes she is powerless either to alter or avoid. Emma is far more aware of this situational struggle than is Elizabeth. It may be principally for this reason that Mr. Knightley declares: “‘There is an anxiety, a curiosity in what one feels for Emma. I wonder what will become of her!’” (Austen, Emma, p.29).

[xviii] I should say that almost everyone who reads her novels admires and adores Jane Austen. Jane Carlyle, that tempestuous soul, speaks for the few who do not when she comments: “Miss Austin [sic] … [is] too washy; water-gruel for mind and body” [B.C. Southam, ed., Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage (London, 1968), p.24].

Critical reaction to Jane Austen almost always has been encomiastic. For important discussions of this phenomenon, see Lionel Trilling, “Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen,” Beyond Culture, pp. 31-55; and Marvin Mudrick, Jane Austen: Irony as Defence and Discovery (Berkeley, 1968).

Boys in Trouble: An American Epidemic

 

A Boy in Trouble in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows

Boys in Trouble

I WANT a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one.
                             – Lord Byron, “Don Juan”

For many years I have directed one-week immersion workshops in writing and presentation skills for children in the U.S., Canada, and China. We work primarily with girls and boys whose ages range from 8-15 years.

We utilize feature films as source texts for sophisticated assignments in critical thinking, expository and creative writing, and public speaking. During each day’s writing and editing sessions we provide our students with group teaching and individualized coaching tailored to each child’s personality, comfort level, and skill base.

Our courses’ content and criteria are demanding, our atmosphere collegiate. Many of our writers achieve significant progress in their work and in their attitudes toward intellectuality, inquiry, and oration.

 

An Unnamed Epidemic

During recent editions of our U.S. program, a perturbing problem has arisen.

Each evening as we debrief, my colleagues and I note with alarm that the girls who participate in our workshops outperform the boys by a conspicuous margin. Their superiority is global in terms of such signifiers as motivation, positivism, achievement, and conduct.

The girls who study with us almost always are cheerful, enthusiastic, assiduous, and prideful.

Many of the boys are indolent, ill-mannered, and belligerently apathetic. Devoid of affect, save for an overdetermined enthusiasm for our films’ occasional loud noises, harsh rhetoric, and situational violence.

A large number of our male students seem unwilling or unable to imagine, invent, and emote. We observe a holistic repudiation of personality and performance, a catholic embrace of torpor and incivility.

Many of our partners in education and counseling professions tell me they are witnessing a similar phenomenon in their programs and are feeling similarly worried.

My colleagues and I believe we are in the throes of an unnamed epidemic. A disturbing number of young men in America are in trouble.

 

Causes
We believe there are four primary causes for our lost boys’ condition.

Our students speak openly about them in their writings, when they write, and in their conversations, when they converse.

  1. Overindulgence

We believe the causal agent is overindulgence.

Financial prosperity built by parents and overabundantly lavished upon their sons seems to attenuate the self-regard, aspiration, and effort that are instrumental to the ways in which most males always before in our civilization have defined their character, projected their selfhood, accomplished successes, and achieved happiness.

Children for whom too much is provided and too much is done for them by others – parents, servants, nannies – often fail to form the sense of socialness and the ethos of responsibility most of us believe are essential in life.

This is no small matter. If you never are given a task, how can you measure yourself? How can you know the satisfaction of difficult endeavor? The elation of succeeding. The triumph of proving your determination, tenacity, and competence to your parents, your peers, yourself.

No wonder lost boys lack ambition and initiative. No one has taught them how to desire, develop, and delight in these crucial drives.

Nor have they been taught the invaluable lessons of failure.

Because they are given no tasks, they cannot be unsuccessful at executing them. Therefore, they do not gain experiential insight into their inadequacies. They do not learn the indispensable skills of confronting their unproficiencies and improving themselves on their own.

Fluently or inarticulately, our students tell us that too much opulence and too few personal care and family chore obligations debar them from constructing a natural and ingrained relationship with the true nature of true manhood.

  1. Absent Fathers

Many of our lost boys tell us they lack a father who meaningfully participates in parenting. Participates day in and day out, committedly, purposefully. For real. No pretense.

Some, too many, tell us their dad is literally gone. Divorce. Desertion.

The majority reside with partnered caregivers who include at least one male elder. Frequently, however, their father or father-figure is unduly busy. In reality absent, or in essence aloof. Unavailable. Inaccessible. Not there.

In our time many children are being raised by single mothers and extended-family matriarchal caregivers. Many of these unsung heroines valiantly attempt to teach their sons male virtues, and they try to model male behaviors. But they cannot accomplish these vital teachings effectually, because they are not males.

From where do I derive this seemingly exaggerated assessment?

The lost sons we teach tell us these painful truths in their dialogues with us and in their writings. Their hesitant, halting confessionals are heartrending.

  1. Materialism

Too many affluent parents try to compensate for their lack of time, presence, and loving parental guidance by showering their children with exorbitant presents. Too much cash. Too many sumptuous holidays. Way too many costly gifts of gear, gizmos, gadgets, and games.

Their children are not fooled by the substitution of largesse for love. They recognize their parents’ ploy as a perversity.

Initially they resent it. Gradually they become accustomed to it. By age six, eight, ten at the latest, they learn to expect as their birthright an infinite conferral of unearned money, material goods, outings, vacations. An inexhaustible cascade of undeserved and fundamentally unwanted emoluments and entertainments.

This is bad. Even worse is the privileging of lethargy. The entitling of sloth.

Day after day lost boys learn their parents will permit them to reject even the most rudimentary behavioral requirements. Getting out of bed in a timely manner. Taking care of their room. Preparing their school lunch. Doing their homework.

Conducting themselves respectfully. Comprehending social nuances, niceties and necessities.

Conceiving personal goals. Fulfilling them.

  1. Nihilism

I often ask the children who study with us, Who are your heroines? Who are your heroes?

Every time I do this, almost every girl lights up, sparkles, and speaks vivaciously about her hers. Almost every boy gapes, stares blankly, usually at his feet, and does not, will not, cannot, reply.

Many of the boys we teach do not know who their inspirers are because they do not have any. Many do not even know what I mean by the question.

How can they know?

Is it possible for our errant sons to venerate integrated circuits? Telephonic devices? Video games? Accidie? Rudeness?

Can unmerited torrents of their parents’ shekels and shillings teach their children to treasure wisdom? Courage? Community? Productivity?

Many modern boys lack heroes because they lack canons, creeds, and convictions. They have no idea what principles and prowesses they want a champion to exemplify. What visions and verities they want a saint to sanctify.

Children need heroes. You did. I did.

Children need to heroize and emulate real or mythological figures whom they idolize for their exemplary rectitude, grace, nobility, and deeds.

Every civilization other than our own has understood this percept and has hallowed it.

 

Drool Boy

Who is the worst specimen of the Lost Boy Syndrome our faculty and I have experienced? I will call him Drool Boy.

It is a quiet morning in the epicenter of the Silicon Valley.

One of our male students, baroquely recalcitrant, unfailingly uncivil, emotionally infantile, colossally selfish yet destitute of clarified personality, lolls in his seat as every one of our more engaged leaners, riveted, react ebulliently to a gripping scene in the enthralling film Apollo 13.

This epically lost child sprawls apart from his classmates, isolated by choice, alone, aggressively indifferent, idly drooling streams of saliva onto our classroom’s tiled floor.

He smiles, sleepily savoring the sensations of sourcing and spewing his sickening spittle. He sniggers as his viscous swill swells and spreads.

When ordered to cease, desist, and scrub his mess he looks bewildered. Baffled.

Why ought he be the one to clean it? Why should not his servant? The gentle beleaguered amah who every day delivers and retrieves this smirking lout.

For the longest while the lost boy stares at me. Not in insurrection. Not in impudence. Incomprehension. Sincere stupefaction.

At last he slithers his sleek Calvin Klein footwear backward and forward across his dribble, scrapes and scatters his preposterous puddle.

When told this will not do, instructed to repair himself at once to the men’s room, return with paper towels, water, soap, disinfectant, and properly wash his ludicrous slobber, he again appears befuddled. Confounded. At sea.

It is evident he never before at home or, evidently, in school has been commanded to behave himself.

I believe the phenomena to which this supremely lost lad gives such noxious incarnation are the shocking but predictable consequences of inordinate parental overindulgence. Inordinate parental and societal abstention.

 

This Is New

Many parents will tell you that girls mature more rapidly than boys. We reflexively characterize this imbalance as “normal.”

There is nothing normal about the behaviors we are examining. We are seeing something new. Many boys are in trouble in America. Trouble that is abnormal, dire, and deeply worrying.

In schools, for sure.

Today girls outpace boys in almost every measure of educational success. It is wonderful that young women are attaining superior status in many contemporary academic programs. It is alarming that many young men are floundering.

Medical trends are equally disquieting.

Everywhere in America we see correlations between modern boys’ habitual sedentariness and the widespread incidence of male ill-health. Such degenerative ailments as morbid obesity, early-onset diabetes, and chronic substance abuse are horrific problems in America for both genders. They are becoming irruptions for boys.

Statistics abound. But statistics are abstruse, they are abstract, and we do not need to peruse them.  Our daily encounters expose the extent of the emergency.

How often do you see lost American boys wallowing in tedium? Robotically plying smartphones and consoles. Insensately ignoring people and events, oblivious to every context and contour environing them, fixated on screens, ears plugged, eyes glazed, thumbs tapping, fingers rapping.

How often do you hear our stupefied sons rebuff all calls to energy, engagement, and endeavor? Declaim in tones of persecuted mewl: “That’s no fun.” Or bleat: “Aw, that’s boring.” If they reply at all.

This in a domestic and international socio-economic order in which competition is intense, unrelenting, and unavoidable.

 

Tragedy
There are ever so many responsible, determined, hard-working, noble boys in America and everywhere else in the world.

But we must acknowledge there are multitudes of boys who do not possess these qualities. They are in trouble. They know it. And they are manifestly unhappy about their dystopic state. Many seem clinically depressed.

Of course they are. It is demoralizing to live one’s youthful life as an anomic, malaised, unmannerly, overly entitled drone.

Our damaged sons are disaffected, maladroit, and gloomy. They also are afraid. They do not know how to get out of their self-destructive spiral, and they are frightened about their future. They regularly speak about their fear in their reluctant but revealing discourse and their terse, grieving writings.

They are right to worry. What can they expect of their adulthood?

Their hope, if they can locate a hope, is that their parents will bequeath them a munificent inheritance. They will need an inexhaustible one if they continue to underperform in their schoolwork, disclaim maturation, and rely on omnipresent nursemaid attendance or manservant care.

Even if their forebears deed them a plentiful patrimony, our lost boys understandably fear they may never become worthy of a position in society, friendships, unions, and, one day, someday, a loving, loyal family of their own.

They are frightened because their situation is not hypothetical. It is real, and it is really tragic.

 

Strategic Façades

Their situation is not hopeless, though. No situation is hopeless, if a person wants to generate change.

I never have met a child who wants to remain perpetually demoralized, isolated, stuck in monotonous nugatory alienage, lonely, cringing all his life in withered self-loathing.

Lost boys want to change. Deep down, they long to improve their arid lives.

They rarely make their longing apparent because they have invested the totality of their generative power in appearing to be lost. They will surrender their prophylactic masquerade only if they become convinced they can replace it with a more empowering alternative.

Lost boys fabricate the awful behaviors we are discussing as deliberate responses to their beliefs about themselves. Their behaviors are intentional, ingeniously orchestrated expressions of their incorrect belief that they are unloved, unimportant, inept, and irrecoverable.

Our sons’ estrangement, lethargy, and crudeness are not inborn preferences. They are strategic façades. Carefully crafted anodynes of defiant, protective anomie.

Can’t you see what I am doing? Don’t you understand why I’m doing it?

When I refuse to feel, care, adjust, fit in, strive, I am seizing sovereignty over my otherwise impotent existence.

You think I am a powerless failure.

I am not. I have formidable power, and I am exercising it. I am choosing my isolation. Feigning my inertia. Pretending my apatheia. Playacting my rotten manners.

Never mind. It doesn’t matter what I do, or why I do it. My parents will always take care of me.

The behaviors we are describing are not these agonized children’s innate and immutable instinctions of identity. They are symptoms of a disease. The disease of parental inattention and schoolroom under-stimulation metastasized into a systemic malady of inaccurate storytelling and self-punishing histrionics.

 

Do You Hear What We Hear?

In our lost sons’ tormented cognitions do you hear what my faculty and I hear? We hear the imperial human will to power. The indefatigable compulsion to survive.

We hear it in its latency. We hear it in confusion. We hear it in anguish. But we hear it. We hear that our seemingly lost boys want to exert power over their sad sack lives, and they have begun to learn how.

Their perceptions are erroneous. Their methods are misguided. Their stratagems are counterproductive.  Yet the will to change is there.

It is alive. It is audacious. It should be acknowledged, praised, and supported.

 

Part II

Children always teach the adults in their lives at least as much as we teach them.

The children my colleagues and I teach have taught us that every child is born with a fierce urge to seek, find, and jubilantly proclaim autonomy, authority, dignity, and direction.

Even lost boys.

We have learned there are no incurably lost boys. Only scared, underappreciated, temporarily mixed-up kids.

We no longer feel surprised when our lost boys try to achieve metamorphosis. We program for it.

 

Teaching Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis can be taught. Particularly if a child can be led into enjoying the experience of learning.

Teachers know any number of ways to excite children’s imagination. Here is what succeeds in our practice.

 

Attention

We give an enormous amount of individual attention to each of our pupils. We talk with them extensively. We listen carefully. We read their writings closely. The children give us considerable access into their thoughts, emotions, difficulties, fulfillments, doubts, certitudes, hopes, and dreams.

Most of our students feel amazed and overjoyed when adults whom they respect take cogent and sustained interest in their character and consciousness.

Many children in the modern world feel parched. They are thirsting for their elders to see them, understand them, regard them seriously, and help them pursue their full potential.

How do we know this? They tell us.

 

Affection

I think it is inevitable that as we study our students, as we come to know them more and more thoroughly, we think well of them. We care about them. We like them. We want them to be happy. We want them to love their lives.

There is magic in affection. And there is might. When children feel known and cared about for who they actually are, they almost always will open their heart and strive to expand their confidence, ambition, talent, and knowledge.

Even lost boys.

At first they doubt. They resist. But after a day or two, they thaw.

Bit by bit, they learn to trust their mentors’ solicitude. They relish the esteem it connotes. In time, they instinctively transfer their teachers’ external support into an internal fundament of ever more assured self-respect and asserted self-rule.

 

Expectation

We attach our affection for our students to our high, unwavering standard for their sincerity and effort. We insist our learners envision and require of themselves nothing less than their Personal Best.

We repeatedly explain that we make this demand because we care about their self-image, their contentment, and the course of their lives.

This is our bedrock. We establish the concept of each child’s Personal Best as our classroom’s criterion and our learning community’s culture. We ask our students to join with us in building a sacred space. A shared society of earnest endeavor for excellence.

In support of this demand we invoke the model of athletics – a mode of endeavor most children comprehend and admire.

We ask our students if they could possibly look up to athlete who would choose to do less than her best? If they believe a sportsperson’s acceptance of mediocrity ever could be commended by her coach. Accepted by his teammates. Cheered by adults. Lionized by tykes.

They grin. They giggle. But they get it.

Even our lost boys. They grumble and grouse. They chafe at how much we ask of them. They appear to ignore us. But they listen. They hear us. And they appreciate our motives.

Like all other children, they realize our advocacy for their excellence constitute a form of love. They understand we champion them because we care about them.

Hour by hour, day by day, they become aware that it feels good to be treated as champions. At their own pace they decide to champion themselves. Quite quickly, sweet lagniappe, they also decide to champion one another.

 

Excitement

Children expect to be standardized in their schools. Homogenized, patronized, above all, deathly bored.

No one enjoys being bored.

We try our Personal Best to make thinking, imagining, interchange, and virtuosity feel exciting rather than laborious. Fascinating. Fun. Relevant. Revelatory.

 

Enlightenment

One of our most effective techniques is to substitute motion pictures for written textbooks. We capitalize on children’s enchantment with cinema to catalyze ideas our learners need to discover and ideals they need to develop.

We particularly value Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.

We begin each of our teaching periods by screening several segments of this brilliant film. Our text’s first “chapters.” In teacher parlance, our first unit.

We pause the DVD player and facilitate group discussion. What do the chapters we have watched together teach us about Gandhi-ji’s life, work, and ministry?

After ten minutes or so we conclude our colloquy, distribute an assignment sheet, and ask the children to write briefly about their responses to our college-level prompts.

Time’s up. We ask volunteers to read their essay aloud – however much of it they have been able to complete – or permit our faculty to read it on their behalf, anonymity assured. We applaud the writers, applaud the readers, and move on to our next unit.

Why does this film work so well? Because Mahatma Gandhi captivates every child we ever have taught.

The Mahatma’s sublimity is impossible for most mortals to attain. But when exposed to the marvel of the Gandhi-ji’s career, his breathtaking genius, the majesty of his comportment, the power of his love, its ethereal actuality, no child, even the most abandoned boy, can fail to feel thrilled. Inspired.

And summoned. Aroused to empathy for others. Called to greatness. Called to her own maximal capability. His utmost potentiality.

We invoke the beatitude of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to elevate our children’s intellects and excite their souls. We urge our learners to emulate his example. To identify and embrace their own genius, and dedicate their lives to decency, ardor, valor, eternal learning, and honorable pursuit.

We work with many other films that alluringly portray heroism. Heroisms of many sorts.  The 400 Blows. The Black Stallion. E.T. Fiddler on the Roof. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Temple Grandin. October Sky. The Secret Garden. Anne of Green Gables. The Adventures of the Wilderness Family. Akeelah and the Bee. Hidden Figures.

Invariably we learn that when children feel inspired by a hero they revere, they internalize their hero’s story and determine to make it their own. They resolve they will attempt to pattern their lives upon their exemplar’s epitome of goodness and grace, valor and resilience, leadership and achievement. As did you and as did I, when we were younger than we are today.

No movie can spawn instantaneous, enduring transfiguration. Least of all for lost boys.

Our lost boys continue to struggle. I believe they hear our films’ Call to Action, though. And I believe the films’ Call becomes their own: a clarion sonorous, lucid, prized, yearned for, and worked toward.

This sense of summons may be merely subliminal. But it will become a sentient lifetime quest if the child’s family and school will notice and nurture their seemingly lost son’s nascent desire for growth. His embryonic commitment to his Personal Best.

 

Encouragement

Everywhere in the world the most common pedagogic methodology is to educate by fear. Induce anxiety in pupils so they will drill like crazy to avoid blame and shame in school, and punishment at home.

Trepidation works. Most of us learn to memorize what we are mandated to memorize.

At great cost, alas, because we also learn to apprehend school and to feel lifelong suspicion toward a society that conceives of children as conformable automatons, and education as rote work rooted in dread.

My colleagues and I believe in teaching by encouragement.

We try to identify each child’s qualities and skills. We speak privately with each girl and each boy about the endowments we see. The specific gifts we know are there, flourishing or inchoate, embraced or not yet noticed.

From this basis, the lodestone of each child’s present prowess and as yet unreached potential, we coach our learners. We try to help them see why they should become comfortable with their competence. Confident, ambitious, adventuresome. Proud. Glad. Enthusiastic. Happy.

We try to help them see how they can strengthen their strengths. How they can discover for themselves the incomparable and sacral enjoyment of desiring, working toward, and achieving mastery.

 

Performance

Our most productive coaching tool is a format we call Authors Hour. Our workshops’ capstone event: an end-of-day public performance.

In midafternoon our students select one essay, story, or poem they have authored during the day that they most want to share. They retreat for thirty minutes to edit their draft, revise it, improve it. At 4PM they stand at a podium and read their work aloud to an audience of their classmates, family members, and family friends.

The children’s writings often are superb. Their recitations always are soulful, ardent, and acutely moving.

Communal oration has proven to be a compelling lure. In short order even our seemingly lost boys want to stand proud in front of their peers and parents and perform to full extent of their ability.

How can it be that such a difficult, exposing, riskful exercise entices even the most refractory students to share their intimate thoughts and vulnerable emotions?

Our lost boys explain why. They tell us they cannot help but see that the dynamics of performance are exciting. Deliciously kinetic. Dignifying, daring, and fun. Gratifying for their classmates, elating for the audience.

They get hooked. They desire to participate. They choose to.

Is this not every human being’s most primal motivation and most durable fulfillment?

To aspire because we want to. To try because we prefer pride, presence, performance, and prospering to solitary, dissociative, paralyzing, ultimately silly apathy.

 

Part III

They Want To Change

I know, and you know that many modern boys are in trouble. Terrible trouble. The good news is, they do not want to be.

Their cramped, imploring body language, the haunted, harrowed look in their eyes, the openhearted literature they write for us, the ravaged talk they sometimes share with us declare unequivocally that they feel demoralized by their ostensibly voluntary postures of ennui, enervation, and insolence.

Our workshops demonstrate that lost boys want to change their lives, and antidotes abound. This is not because our programs are uniquely enabling. It is because every child’s nature is optimistic. Avid. Exploratory. Hungering for experience.

These instincts are elemental in all of us.

We crave mastery. We are built for it. Questing for it is every person’s journey, job, and joy.

 

They Want Their Homes

It is lovely that lost boys can wake themselves up and begin to evolve in schools.

Far more consequential transformations can be achieved at home, because for every child who ever has lived, no other stimulant is so powerful as familial love. No other ideas, ideals, and moral codes are as authoritative and convincing as the faiths, beliefs, and values we learn from our caregivers.

Nor is any other reward so puissant as delighting our parents and our kin by becoming more fully formed in our character. Giving the most influential persons in our lives the gift of seeing us convert our youthful mishmash of equivocal impulses and ephemeral energies into our deliberate, defined, and definitive identity.

Our identity.

Not a jejune, tender, star-struck emulation of our heroes’ glorious distinctions but our own personhood become independent, self-reliant, and determinative, built at home, carried assuredly into society, spiritedly enacted in the abundant, welcoming universe.

 

They Want The Real World

Our workshops do help lost boys accomplish striking gains. No doubt many other pedagogic designs succeed as well as or better than ours.

Classroom learning is important. Classrooms are contrivances, though. Courses are constructs. Like all children lost boys need to aspire, act, enjoy, and triumph not in schoolhouses, study groups, or other mythic domains but in the actual unmediated world.

They know this. They may be lost, but they are neither naïve nor stupid.

 

They Want Their Real Heroes

This is equally true of our programs’ cinematic heroes.

Movie heroes can be magnificent inspirers, but they are merely symbols imprinted on celluloid or, increasingly, digitized in coding. Uplifting artifices. Ennobling emblems.

The children we serve want their parents to be their paragons. They want their home life to be their epic frontier. They want their caregivers to be their inspirers.

 

They Want A Real Cure

My career as a teacher has taught me that lost boys’ tragic alienation from themselves is a soluble problem.

Every day I teach, I hear lost boys pleading for help. Desperate for cure. In their awkward, often off-putting way begging for loving concern, intercession, and tutelage.

They ask this of all their teachers. But we are just surrogates.

They do not want us. They want their family.

They do not want films, videogames, electronic sops, hillocks of cash. They want life, not life’s diversions, distractions, and denials.

They want individualness, passion, vocation, mission.

Above all else, they want their family. They want the leaders of their family to become their heroes. And they want to learn from they who brought them into life how to become their own hero.

 

Alarum

This essay does not propose itself as a solution for lost boys’ struggles. It is, rather, an alarum on their behalf.

On their behalf it makes an entreaty to their caregivers, an appeal to their educators, a beseechment to their society.

Please see your lost sons.

Please save them.

Karl Rove: The Paradigm of Struggle

Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight
By Karl Rove
Threshold Editions (March, 2010)

The Paradigm of Struggle

“I have become an adjective.”

Karl Rove is a tactician deservedly acclaimed. As an electoral strategist, campaign manager, and presidential counselor he possesses stunning talents, consummate knowledge, astonishing energy, and a record of exceptional success. He is also a transformer. With President Bush and a small circle of Republican thinkers and field operatives, he co-created a spectrum of politics that became of great importance in the United States, and that has generated momentous changes throughout much of the world.

Rove’s spectrum, as his book’s startling title trumpets, conceives and markets itself as a “fight.” The paradigm of struggle pervades his thought, as it did the philosophies and policies of the presidency he did so much to envision, achieve, and administer.

Karl Rove, President Bush, and the party they jointly led regarded their paradigm as political. Certainly the principal electoral and domestic policy advisor to a two-term president, on the second occasion decisively elected, on the first overcoming highly unfavorable odds to forge a near tie, can lay claim to political brilliance.

I’m not sure, though, that the allure of Bush-Rove politics was primarily political. I think it was predominantly spiritual, even religious.

I say this because Rove and his most significant client framed the world broadly and the American nation specifically as arenas for contest between goodness and evil. The forces of good they characterized as their own concepts of conservatism: stern, strong, sophisticated, sensible, serious – sacral. They defined the forces of evil abroad as opposition to the benign will and manifest destiny of the United States. They framed the forces of evil at home as beliefs and behaviors oppositional to themselves and their factions of the Republican Party: attitudes and actions naïve, infantile, emotional, solipsistic, silly, yet dangerous and much in need of adult management.

Their extremism was polarizing in the extreme. For their adherents and advocates, this extremism was electrifying, enlightening, and validating. President Bush and Karl Rove often succeeded in making their devotees believe that the art and science of winning, holding control over, and exercising government were of utmost “consequence.” For their followers, they made political discourse seem consecrated and consecrating: a combat with the mephitic, rather than a well-funded jousting and jostling among various mundane interest groups. Their ideas, elocutions and symbologies were not temporal but mythical and theological.

__________

Karl Rove is not a conscious mythologizer or theologian. He is, though, a person of remarkable acumen, talent, drive, learning, and effectiveness, and his book is far more interesting than his many admirers and legions of disparagers might have imagined.

Most works of memoir, especially volumes of political memoir, have the purposes of manufacturing a legacy, positioning future hires, and alchemizing gifts of advocates’ money into cornucopia of enriching advances. Rove needs none of these unseemly dividends. He is an eminence in his profession, and he long ago achieved thoroughly lawful and justifiable wealth.

So, what is this memoir about? Why was it written?

In his prefatory remarks, Rove declares:

I worked fifteen steps from the Oval Office. From that vantage point, this book will set the record straight. It will pull back the curtain on my journey to the White House and my years there. I will acknowledge mistakes. And I will make the case – defiantly and unapologetically – for the many controversial decisions.

It becomes clear from the moment we enter this long and copiously detailed book that Rove wants to do more than simply “set the record straight.” His animating impulse, genuine and generous, is to defend the rectitude and achievement of his most important client, President George W. Bush: to explain and extol the ideals, qualities, and accomplishments of his presidency, and insist that future historians who study our era’s sweeping geopolitical, economic, and cultural changes will eventually regard his eight-year leadership of our nation as essential, inspired, and salvific.

Rove also undertakes to describe himself. He seeks to define his internal as well as his biographical history – especially the intense pleasures that effort, enterprise, and, in time, paramount power conferred upon a man whom a life filled with family adversity did not treat kindly during his childhood.

Courage and Consequence largely fulfills these objectives. Partisans who have not previously shared Republican visions and views, antagonists who venomously disagree with and despise President Bush, cannot be persuaded by any work of writing to reconsider their opinions. However, readers of fair mind and unbiased intention probably will regard Rove’s book as a heartfelt statement, and possibly will conclude that Rove and President Bush are sincere and ardent persons – passionately patriotic, fervent about their faiths, extraordinarily hard-working, and infinitely earnest in their endeavors. Likable, too.

What we cannot learn from this book is what it felt like during his years of ascendant power to inhabit Karl Rove’s mind and soul. He speaks exhaustively about resume, stratagems, actions, the historical record, the epidermal satieties of success, and the chagrins of miscalculation and blunder. He teaches us a great deal about how modern national campaigns are conducted, how President Bush and his colleagues believed they were managing their solemn responsibilities, and the heroism this bedrock conservative believes inheres in contentious conservatism. And most uncommonly among prominent memoirists, he does acknowledge, with candor and high character, errors small and mistakes mighty.

We learn little about the man’s internal experience while he worked “fifteen steps from the Oval Office.” In one of his chapter titles, Rove alludes coyly to the celebrated television program, The West Wing. Would that his co-author or ghostwriter could have been Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin invented Josh Lyman and brilliantly limned that whole wondrous West Wing cohort. But of course Sorkin knew nothing about the actuality of campaign, governance, or power. He could not know at first hand the exhilaration of Rove’s improbable ascent to epic influence from a youth and adolescence of family disorder, filial sorrow, and social inconsequence. He could not know what it is like to elevate as Rove elevated, to soar aloft real starships, directly affect real social events, mount determinative responses to factual national situations and awful world emergencies.

Karl Rove has lived a rare and crucial life. He has such a story to share. It would have been both lovely and important to have had a great playwright unite with him to tell this fabulous tale, and impart to us the potent impact of its protagonist’s marvelous history on his supernally gifted but inherently unpoetic consciousness.

__________

Many historians have suggested that history is the story of unintended consequences. Intended or not, one of the consequences of Courage and Consequence is that most readers will leave the book admiring and liking Karl Rove and George W. Bush. Many will conclude from reading this unusual book that, at the least, our former president, his indispensable counselor, and the large majority of their colleagues were persons of integrity, faith, and fervor, who became called upon during their tenure in leadership to manage excruciatingly difficult circumstances and conditions.

I leave the book with this judgment, and considerably moved by it. I also leave it wondering about a most complicated question Rove sometimes deliberately, sometimes unwittingly raises.

Is the paradigm of “fight” a valid and worthy metaphor for ourselves and our times? Are we genuinely locked in internecine conflict with a host of adversaries? If so, is it the wisest manner of responding to conflict to embrace it? Expand it? Exult it as an ethos?

To be sure, there are many persons in our shared world who abominate (or who think they abominate) the United States, the western culture, and the modernist age. Even if they commit atrocities, are such persons necessarily apostate? Demonic? Nuts? Do we progress as a people, a nation, and a civilization if we invariably reply to anger and violence by delivering against these energies correlative fury and force?

When in history has that approach worked? When has it wrought lasting cooperation, healing, harmony, and growth? When has the paradigm of struggle ever yielded to and evolved from additional struggle?

The creed of privileged strife, what Rove calls “the fight,” seems to me outmoded, exhausted, and sad. I believe its adherents are without ultimate courage and ultimately meaningful consequence.

George W. Bush and Karl Rove brought to their era vast talent of persuasion, and utterly exceptional ability to navigate through system and process into empowerment. If only they had deployed these birthrights to enact a new paradigm: a paradigm of greater empathy, engagement, bridging, cohering. Our time has called for courage, all right. The courage to reject desiccated doctrines of unvarying bellicosity. The courage to body forth new doctrines of tolerance, fusing, uniting. The courage to continue the only genuinely consequential political journey, the journey pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi and his most prominent disciples, Nelson Mandela and Rev. Martin Luther King. The journey of the most authentic “compassionate conservatism,” the journey of absolute faith.

This is the philosophy and politics much of the world proclaims we most want and need. A lessening of inane, incoherent, inconclusive, endlessly destructive struggle. An invocation of common ground, connection, and community – love, as proclaimed and preached by every faith tradition’s prophets and most influential proselytizers.

There can be no doubt the American body politic desired that its government’s response to the atrocity of 9/11 be virtuously and virulently vengeful. However, history teaches us this instinctive reaction impulse is as counterproductive as it is common.

What might the present now be and the future have become if the nation Rove calls “the greatest governing experiment in human history” had chosen in September, 2001 and thereafter to respond differently to attack from the predictable manner in which it did? With, if necessary, targeted retribution against individuals and discrete homicidal groups; but principally with hugely expanded outreach, profound and persisting calls to healing, a thorough release of the humane conscience and compassion that throughout history has been tragically constrained and deserves to become our species’ governing experience?

Courage and Consequence is filled with prodigious intelligence, informed information, and challenging argumentation. There’s a void at its core, though. The void is a startling absence of communion with humanity friendly and hostile, a banishing of sufficiently deep emotional and spiritual association with humankind’s sufferings, aspirations, and inherent commonalty.

Karl Rove is a skillful political philosopher and a magnificent tactician, yearning inchoately but clearly for a holistically ennobling spiritual identity and cause. He’s accurate, not vaunting, when he states: “I have become an adjective.” Unite this political genius and greatly decent man’s manifold powers with the paradigm most needed in our time, and world-historical change could be achieved. For the Rovian has infinite potential to advance goodness and mercy rather than mere ferocity and more division.

It’s not too late. Mr. Rove is a relatively young man, and he’s constantly growing. His true calling and most valuable work may yet lie before him.

Poor Poor Pitiful BP

Poor Poor Pitiful BP
-with apologies to Warren Zevon

Well, we blew open the bottom of the seas
Plowing her depths for our ill-gotten grease
Now our caps won’t work and because of that wretched AC
Everyone on earth can witness our catastrophe

Poor poor pitiful BP
Poor poor pitiful BP
Oh, Anderson Cooper won’t let us be
Lord have mercy on BP
Woe woe is BP

Exploded our rig, eleven men perished
That wretched Anderson Cooper
Won’t let go of our blooper
Keeps showing the world the families they cherished

Poor poor pitiful BP
Poor poor pitiful BP
Oh, Anderson Cooper won’t let us be
Lord have mercy on BP
Woe woe is BP

Well, we got summoned to the Head of State in Washington
Told us plain what needed to be done
Well, he really worked us over good
Just like he said he would

Thought we’d bought all them politicians
Turned them into grateful patricians
President turned out to be unbought
Made us and our pet Texan Republican absolutely distraught

Poor poor pitiful BP
Poor poor pitiful BP
Oh, Barack Obama, have mercy on BP
After all we share an initial B

Well, we’ve slaughtered all the beings in the sea
Befouled their sands, ruined their feed
We’ve shattered the lives of all the families who fish
Maybe they can learn to bake knish
We’ve crippled their legacy, devastated it all
What the hell
Those Gulf people are just, you know, small

Poor poor pitiful BP
Poor poor pitiful BP
Oh, Anderson Cooper won’t let us be
Woe woe is BP

Barack Obama took away all our dividends
Said we have to make actual amends
Pilloried our Chairman, scourged him hard
Hoisted our Lord Tony on his petard

Poor poor poor BP
Poor poor pitiful BP

Barack Obama slandered us as our sacral industry’s villain
Suspended all our peers’ offshore drilling
Anderson Cooper won’t let us lie, steal, and cheat
Televises those small Gulf people, lets them bleat

Poor poor poor BP
Oh, Barack Obama won’t have mercy on BP
Poor poor pitiful BP
Oh, Anderson Cooper won’t let us be

What’s wrong with those small folk in Alabama?
What’s the problem with those small folk in Louisiana?
Why can’t our Chairman Tony sail his yacht in his Isle of Wight regatta?

What on earth is the matter?
Why won’t Barack Obama quit his impolitic chatter?
Why can’t we stop Anderson Cooper’s indecorous blather?

What is all this American hysteria?
We’ve been doing it for decades to Nigeria

Poor poor poor BP
Poor poor pitiful BP
Verily, are we not the lords of the sea?

Why, oh why won’t they trust us to correct this inconvenience?
We’ll burn the surface fuels, and below we’ll discharge untested chemical dispersants
Why, oh why won’t they trust us?
We solemnly pledge we won’t harm even one wee wittle walrus

Poor poor pitiful BP
Poor poor pitiful BP
Oh, Barack Obama and Anderson Cooper won’t let us be
Lord have mercy on BP
Woe woe is BP

_________________________________________________________

It feels righteous and fulfilling to calumniate one multinational company and its bungling leaders for the disaster that has been visited on the Gulf of Mexico. The truth is, though, we all committed this catastrophe. We wanted oil, we wanted it cheap, we didn’t care who produced and supplied it, we wanted the jobs its collection, manufacture, and distribution seem to produce, and we waste more of it by far than any concept of necessity can suggest we actually need.

We all did this. We did it individually, we did it together, and we did it knowingly. We conceived this cataclysm, we spawned it, and we’ve learned nothing from it. We’ve changed not one aspect of our attitudes nor one facet of our behaviors, and it’s unlikely we ever shall.

We want cheap oil. We don’t care, not truly, what this or any other of our unnecessary wants are doing to the only Earth, to all the other life forms with whom we share our bountiful world, or to The Divine who blesses, gifts, and repeatedly forgives us despite our terrible flaws, faults, and failures.

We can lampoon BP but it’s we who forged this devastation; and the reckoning upon ourselves, all other living beings, the sea beds, estuaries, marshlands, deep ocean, livelihoods fair and foul, and the only known habitable planet will be beyond measure.

In time, Earth will cleanse the calamity we’ve wrought. She’ll do this in her own course of order, in her own scheme of time. Eons.

She won’t dump into her seas industrial dispersants that someone thinks might be, could be, should be functional. No, if we force her to, and we are forcing her to, she surely will do what she’s done with numberless other unadaptable species left behind. She’ll take wing, make us sting, discontinue our kind.

___________________________________________________

What the hell. Let’s fuel up. Rev them engines. Fuel, baby, fuel.

John Sandford’s 20th Prey Novel

 

It sometimes seemed to him that there was an invisible hand behind it all, and it wasn’t a beneficent hand. Evil in the world.

 

John Sandford’s twentieth novel in the wonderful chronicles of Lucas Davenport is called Storm Prey. In a multitude of ways, it’s an extraordinary extension of this superb series.

The novel opens with a vicious robbery. A gang of inept virulent thieves are incited and aided by a cocaine-addicted psychopathic doctor to steal a major Minneapolis hospital’s entire supply of powerful narcotics and other readily saleable pharmaceuticals. Another of Sandford’s ingenious plotting constructs.

In the course of the robbery, one of the addled thieves kicks the pharmacy’s elderly attendant in his kidneys, stomps him savagely over and over again. He does this because – even though he’s a sociopath, he needs to formulate a reason for his intentions – the victim tried covertly to dial 911 on his mobile phone. The petty thief’s brutal battery of the brave old man produces mortal injuries, and transforms an ugly larceny into murder.

There ensues a complication that warrants and triggers the narrative. During their getaway from their otherwise perfect crime, one of the gang’s leaders is observed as he careens their van out of the hospital’s parking garage. Their inadvertent, initially unaware eyewitness is Dr. Weather Karkinnen, an eminent surgeon who’s married to Lucas Davenport, the Prey series’ principal figure, an epically intelligent, skillful, and ferocious investigator for the State of Minnesota. The crooks decide they need to kill Weather so she can’t expose and testify against them.

Big mistake. No one should mess with Weather. For sure no one should mess with Lucas and his devotedly loyal, practiced, proficient, cheerfully rough friendship circle of fellow cops. Especially when Weather is fighting with all her dazzling gifts of skill and spirit to save the lives of two tiny babies joined helplessly at the head.

The criminals’ hunt for Weather and Lucas’s reciprocal hunt for them makes a Grand Guignol of glorious plot, wacky personalities, and astringent atmospherics. Fabulous tours de force of writing, too. Hilarious street riffs. Haunting evocations of psychotics’ thought, cops’ cogitation, surgeons’ craft and mentation. This work of authoring is complex, knowledgeable, fluent, yet seemingly intuitive and effortless. Not a trope nor a formula, but an ascendant artist’s expert instinction.

John Sandford is a master, and he knows it. His only peer, albeit in a different medium, is Kobe Bryant. Probably they’re not aware of one another. But across their dissimilar fields they share an absoluteness of gift and grace, consummate prowess with a predefined though not confining game, and the uncommon discipline of willing themselves continuously to challenge and grow their extraordinary powers.

We expect inspired storytelling and virtuoso writing from Sandford. His ability time after time to fulfill our expectations no longer surprises, but it’s always elating to journey with him on his madcap voyages. This time he far surpasses what we’ve learned to expect, and moves his distinguished series into a new realm of sophistication and inquiry.

Storm Prey is a great read. It’s also a launch. Sandford moves us away from the turbulent thrills of crime, detection, pursuit, and capture. The novel primarily roots itself in quietly profound explorations of the cognitions and consciousness of characters. Characters disturbed and healthy, barbaric and heroic, destructive and generative, vile and noble, moronic and august – all manner of persons. The book delicately but deeply explores the methods and courses of identity, the motives and modalities of behavior, and most importantly, the extreme and extremely dangerous gulf in our society between relative goodness and absolute evil.

In its twentieth iteration, Sandford has created an entirely new and exceptionally interesting kind of Prey novel.

 

__________

 

Sandford always has been intrigued by the nature, origins, and meanings of wickedness. In this superlative work, he investigates three seemingly discrete but decisively interrelated energies: evil, vacancy, and randomness.

In her historic work on Nazism, Hannah Arendt famously characterized evil as a banality. Storm Prey develops many villains. All are creatures of bathos: utterly empty of coherent affect, reason, and objective. Animate voids. Yet from their broad and general vacuity emanates ghastly violence, appalling cruelty, immense destructive power. Absurd but mighty antimatter energy.

Vacancy can generate energy, but it has no ethos. The criminals in this book have no distinguishing sentiment other than anger, no goals or aims, no moral temperament, no explicit beliefs. Their void causes them to crave, sporadically. They want, from time to time, appetitive relief. Drugs, food, sex, firearms, vehicles. When they want, they take. Their motives are nonspecific, their actions cavalier. They’re passionless and, essentially, purposeless persons. They’re incarnations of emptiness. Manifestations of nothingness, and creators of it. They exploit and empty what better women and men build.

Most of these nasty felons are stupid. Their stupidity breeds chaos and spawns suffering, because they lack the sheer commonsense to regulate and restrain their aimless impulses. They just lash out, seize what they sort of want, injure or kill wantonly, cause enormous harm, engender widespread suffering.

Consider Mikey, the robber who improvisationally murders the harmless elderly man at the hospital:

“You think Mikey meant to kill that man?” Honey Bee asked.

“No way,” Joe Mack said. “He’s just … dumb.”

Honey Bee nodded. Mikey was dumb. And violent. Unlike Joe Mack, who was just dumb. Mikey might not have meant to kill the old man, but he probably enjoyed it. Give him a month or two, he’d be bragging it around.

 

 Much later, Joe tells Lucas:

“The whole problem was, we’re stupid people. That’s what caused all this trouble… Mikey kickin’ that guy? Just stupid… I only ran away from you guys because I’m stupid. I know that. Everybody knows that.”

 

Other of the book’s felons, though, are decidedly intelligent. Their impact accordingly is far worse. Their psyches and purposes may be pathological. However, they have the mental power to preserve themselves by being deliberative, shrewd, cunning. They take pleasure from the misery they produce, and they deploy their considerable intellect to repeat and expand their diseased gratifications.

Two of the malefactors, Dr. Alain Barakat and Mr. Caprice Marlon Garner [“Cappy” – he’s named after a mundane model of a Chevrolet automobile] are conspicuously intelligent. They’re also insane. Crazy with horrid aberrant emptiness:

Barakat’s attention had turned toward Cappy. “You as dumb as the Macks?”

“Hope not,” Cappy said. His voice was mild, and he smiled, the corners of his mouth turning up. His eyes were dead as planks.

 

“How’d you do that? Get him to talk?”

Barakat spread his hands. “I’m a doctor. I have scalpels.”

 

“A thrill here. He’d done that. He’d caused this chaos.”

 

The intelligent monsters may be smarter than the dumb editions. But their reasoning is demented; a function of, if anything rational, colossal self-entitlement. For example:

  • Cappy becomes incensed with Weather because she has the effrontery to fight back against his initial attempt at her murder. He feels ravaged with indignation over “the lack of respect” she’s displayed toward him by not passively accepting the assassination for which he contracted. “What kind of bitch is that … I ought to kill the bitch for free, after that.”

 

  • Barakat frames his copious and awful villainies as a righteous remedy for his father’s refusal to enrich him sufficiently.

 

  • Cappy and Barakat develop a species of mutual admiration, even a vestige of friendship. But what they recognize and esteem in one another are certain shared aspects of insanity and nihilism: absolute coldness, chronic drug dependency, evolving necrophilia, thoroughly evolved sadism. This is what they term smartness and strength.

 

  • After a singularly savage murder, Barakat’s sole response reaction, cocaine induced, is: “I would like a doughnut.”

 

Why does Sandford write about such demons? Why does an author of such abundant gifts devote them to so unworthy a galaxy of protagonists?

I think there are two reasons.  It’s important to acknowledge and analyze evil of this sort, because it’s authentic, altogether too prevalent, and horrifically active in our nation and throughout the world. It’s also important to reject, as Sandford unequivocally and powerfully does, the naïve and jejune claims in our culture that such persons warrant understanding, sympathy, and gently corrective treatment. Ought sensible societies empathize with and strive to protect the rights of fiends who wreak untold suffering and enjoy it?

I’ll tell you what. That wasn’t done by a nice guy. He looked right into her eyes and choked the life out of her.

 

“Were her eyes open?”

“Oh, yeah, right until she died,” Cappy said. “They were, like, huge. Like bubbles.”

Barakat cleared his throat and then said, “Makes me hard.”

“Yeah, me too, sometimes,” Cappy said.

 

In Storm Prey as in life, a small number of villainous beings create widespread hazard, tragedy, and anguish, and they derive lunatic satisfaction from doing so. This is what they want and like. Sandford persuasively insists such persons deserve not our empathy, but detection and capture by resourceful and intrepid police officers, secure and permanent confinement, and, if necessary, execution by means legal or not.

__________

 

Sandford is particularly affected by the imperiling chaos of coincidence, circumstance, arbitrariness, unpredictability, what Lucas calls “pure chance.”

The contingencies of randomness are as terrifying in the novel as evil itself. “Pure chance” can affect anyone at any time, the good and the wicked alike. It can’t be predicted, predicated, planned for, prevented, protected against, or policed. Its effects can be horrendous: physical maiming, psychological impairment, death. It can leave in its wake swirling circles and centrifugal cycles of victimization: grieving spouses, children, parents, friends; vitiated institutions and functions; intimations of foulness and violation that defy our most cherished paradigms of commonalty, connection, and community.

Often “pure chance” links itself directly with evil. When wicked persons enact their inane but dreadful vacuous malice, innocent people who happen to be in the line of fire lose not just their possessions but frequently their wellbeing and sometimes their lives. Rounds of misery ensue. Loved ones mourn forever. Children are orphaned. Valuable organizations are weakened. Powers that work for the good are irrevocably lost: surgeon’s skills; detectives insight and courage; charities’ altruism, kindness, and munificence. All for the sake of a few drifting villains’ scabrous impetuosity and insatiable malignant hunger.

This is a central theme of Storm Prey, and it infuriates Sandford and his hero. Here is Lucas thinking about the murder of a woman who happens to cross paths with Joe Mack at a wrong moment:

The anger hit him again. Not necessary: a woman dead because of nothing.

 

Later:

Janis [Joplin’s song, “Me and Bobby McGee”] echoed in his head as he climbed into his car, and he thought: No. Not right. Dead is just another word for nothing left to lose.

 

And:

It sometimes seemed to him that there was an invisible hand behind it all, and it wasn’t a beneficent hand. Evil in the world…”

 

Lucas’ anger intensifies throughout the novel. Its source is local and specific. He feels infuriated by a single mother’s gratuitous death at an early age, and by the lifelong agony her murder will cause her two young daughters. But his anger also is metaphysical. This extremely tough man feels angry in a teleological regard.

Raised a Catholic, become an agnostic, Lucas demands in his unvoiced but immensely thoughtful and characteristically caring constitution to understand what manner of God could permit the advent and activity of crazies, the torture and perishing of the abjectly innocent, the desolation of the innocents’ loved ones, friends, and colleagues. The wasting of civilization.

The consistency and growing intensity with which Sandford’s hero addresses this theological subject suggests that it will become an ever more significant theme in the series’ future entries.

Let us hope so. This fine writer, his fascinating hero, his compelling universe of characters, situations, and stories, will make a unique and potent framework for exploring the bewildering, insoluble, painful mystery of human dichotomy and its relation, if any, to the godhead.

__________

 

Villainy and violence. The hazards of chance. The baffling will or deliberate absence of God, if there be a God. Storm Prey doesn’t sound like fun.

It is, though. It’s such good fun to read, because the book’s essence is love, deep love, for life and living. For people and their foibles. For knowledge and knowing. For doctors as much as detectives, and for doctoring as much as detecting. For marriages, making families, holding them together, building houses, fixing them, keeping hospitals intact, healing, saving.

Storm Prey radiates with love of life. Sandford’s writing flowers repeatedly with beautiful descriptions of meteorology and landscapes, uproarious dialogues, eruptions of ebullient humor, sweet hymns to Minnesota and Minnesotans, lovely effusions of moment and mood, touching ruminations about our species’ traits, dignities, desires, and pleasures. Mesmerizing reflections about our experience and consciousness, our triumphs and tribulations.

Often his life-affirming moods and darksome subject matters conjoin, and he crafts gorgeous sentences that strikingly encompass his full range of wisdom and expertise. As when Lucas tells Weather to concentrate on saving the babies whom “pure chance” has placed in her care: “You do the surgery, we’ll do the bodyguarding.” And, later, Weather thinks of the several dedicated police officers who watch over her: “Guys with guns, taking care of [me].”

Many creatures in this book are iniquitous, and they commit terrible deeds for no good reason. But most of the book’s characters are endearing and enduring women and men who take care of one another, and who cherish and preserve the delicate experiment of human society. From one point of view, Storm Prey’s story, as a detective comments, is “pretty awful.” From another – the author’s – it’s positive and optimistic. Certainly this is what the story’s heroine concludes: “‘As for me, I’m going to get pregnant again,’ Weather said.”

Storm Prey is a feat of authorship. It’s also a feat of confidence and courage. It requires rare certitude and daring to radically expand a proven bestselling recipe and tamper with the very essence of a lucrative franchise.

John Sandford always has possessed formidable gifts of mind and art. He’s freed magic here. Serious, deep, puissant magic.

20 brilliant Lucas Davenport novels. I can’t wait for the next one.

Masterpiece: The Literature of John Sandford

Wicked Prey
by John Sandford
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (May, 2009)

The Literature of John Sandford

The essential American soul is hard, stoic, isolate, and a killer.
– D.H. Lawrence

Western civilizations distinguish rigorously between what we usually term serious or high art, such as literary novels, poetry, and drama, classical painting and sculpture, classical music, etc., and low entertainment: populist arts such as films, television programs, musicals, commercial songs, and best-selling novels.

This distinction probably always has existed. It makes a sort of sense, for undoubtedly there are irreconcilable conflicts between the cognitions, conventions, and craft of serious artistic expression and the requirements of mass commerce. As Charlton Heston once said: “The trouble with movies as a business is that it’s an art, and the trouble with movies as art is that it’s a business.”

This tension notwithstanding, it surely is the case in all societies that artists who attract pervasive attention and persisting affection must exhibit qualities of awareness and expression that are substantive, important, and defining. There can be no doubt, for example, that Elvis Presley, at least three of the Beatles, and Bob Dylan are artists of genius. Their lives and work will matter to students of history for many generations, perhaps centuries. The biographies and creation of such high artists as Philip Glass or Harold Pinter or Susan Sontag probably will not.

In many modern western nations, especially the United States and England, there has evolved a venerable tradition in populist commercial culture of vastly successful yet profoundly thoughtful, skillful, and pleasurable detective fiction crafted as a sequence, framed by a central master police officer, and supported by a company of recurring characters who operate in the stories as friends and coadjutors, engaged in pursuit of a sinister population of repugnant but intriguing villains.

Works of this kind focus putatively on solving and punishing complex, often awful crimes. Their appeal, however, inheres primarily in the manner in which the stories define and develop their heroic detective; and the delicate but intensely felt and artfully advanced analyses of our country, our culture, and our consciousness.

In the United States several major authors have worked in this genre. Paramount among them, in my opinion, are Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, John D. Macdonald, Elmore Leonard, and, most recently, John Sandford.

* * *

John Sandford is a nom de plume chosen by John Roswell Camp. The name derives from that of his maternal grandmother, and presumably pays homage to her memory. Sandford began his career as a journalist in Minnesota. He achieved eminence in the profession, often draws upon it in his fiction for context and contour, and on occasion still practices it.

Sandford has created several impressive series. His most successful and significant novels chronicle the work and ever more complicated and fulfilled life of a brilliant, fierce, and multifaceted detective called Lucas Davenport. Wicked Prey is the nineteenth volume in the series. [The twentieth, Storm Prey, will be published in May, 2010.]

In Wicked Prey, Lucas operates in his recently elevated capacity as a special investigator for Minnesota, reporting to the state’s principal police official, its governor, and the governor’s primary political counselor. The counselor assigns him to investigate as tactfully as possible a string of ingeniously conceived, inordinately feral robberies. A small gang of accomplished, shrewd, prudent, surpassingly prepared thieves is stealing very large sums of cash from political operatives who have come to Minneapolis to deliver illicit payoffs for the Republican Party at its 2008 Presidential Convention. The gang assaults and murders civilians both by policy and gratuitously; and they frequently kill cops. Lucas simultaneously must investigate for the Secret Service the possibility that a dimwitted rightwing redneck may be planning to assassinate John McCain or Sarah Palin. And, as the narrative develops, he learns that he must protect his fourteen-year-old ward, soon to become his adopted daughter, from the vengeful predation of a heinous but hilarious psychotic lifelong criminal whom in a previous volume he has policed and appropriately brutalized.

Sandford’s fiction always is driven by stories and characters. His stories are Gordian, captivating, and, despite his remarkable prolificacy, never formulaic or repetitive. His characters are singular, diverse, enthralling, and epically contemporary.

Wicked Prey is elaborately plotted. The story is fascinating. Its multiple strands are discrete and distinctive, yet they interconnect with one another in increasingly daedal and mutually vitalizing ways.

The plot is marvelously populated. The characters, some heroic, some mundane, some villainous, are unique, ebulliently alive, propelled by self-awareness and self-interest but intricately interrelated and cross-pollinating. Individually and together, they inadvertently illuminate the nature of our nation and social order at this most perplexing, dissociative, impassioned time.

The thought processes, energies, and skills with which Lucas and his colleagues discover, track, and ultimately dispatch the criminals are exceptionally competent and interesting. So are the criminals’. The novel’s wicked persons, female and male, are professionally accomplished, unreservedly committed, thoroughly guileful, deeply evil, and devoid, like all of Sandford’s sinners, of fear, hesitation, or remorse.

The criminals’ motivations are never rarefied, empathized with, ratified, or forgiven. We hear nothing in Wicked Prey about corrosive childhoods, imperfect parenting, or social injustices. The bad persons in this book are purely, volitionally, and exuberantly bad. Some want money, and perhaps versions of ontological power or liberty. Some want drugs and, in one instance, reprisal.

What they want and why they want it barely matter. These malefactors are professionals. Their consciousness and conduct are those of career. Some but not all are adept at what they do. They will keep right on doing it, and will impose correlative mayhem and suffering upon civilization and the civilian population of Minnesota until Lucas, his colleagues, or other forces of normative society make them stop it – either by incarcerating them or killing them.

This is a constant in Sandford’s fiction. Criminals in his novels rarely compel authorial sympathy, and they almost never convert to more conventional and correct ways of being. They are elements of existence that need to be discerned, detected, and defeated.

The intelligence and depth with which Sandford delineates and studies his villains shows us how multiple, dangerous, and probably irreconcilable are the gulfs between varieties of human experience. It is common in populist fictions to associate divergent populations, their awareness, and their activities with differing economic statuses and their attendant identity structures. Sandford refuses assent to this formula. He is far more drawn to the belief that all of us choose our mentality or perhaps autonomically receive it at birth, and live as we do because it pleasures us. Some people wish to construct lives of constructive normalcy: existences of structure, fealty, salubrious instinction. Others want to be wanton, wild – wicked. This is their fulfillment, and it comprises their meaning.

Unfortunately, the wicked ones in Wicked Prey prefer to exist by preying upon those who are more conventionally established and empowered. They live by seizing more decent people’s goods and violating their comforts, their dignity, and, often, their safety. The wicked ones do not seek to be understood or compassionated. Nor do they want to be cured. They are terrible, and they like being terrible. They need to be captured or killed by one who comprehends them, loathes them, and is superior to them in cunning, strength, and purity.

Lucas Davenport is just the man for the job. He’s a magnificent protector: supremely intelligent, an avid hunter, a proficient hand-to-hand fighter, a dead shot, and, to boot, a fine fellow. He’s tall, strong, handsome. An accomplished athlete. A wildly successful technology entrepreneur, independently wealthy. Without pretension, he’s a book collector and a clotheshorse. He owns a Porsche, drives it much too fast, and plunks a police light on its roof when he needs to move dangerously fast. He quietly loves poetry and fishing, and more loudly is an aficionado of rock music. He’s broadly capable. He designs houses, repairs machines, is good with tools, handles equipment, is expert with guns and ordnance. He has an easy male confidence that comes from knowing that he can do most things well, and from realizing without arrogance that almost all women and most men like him a lot.

They should like him. Lucas is true, he’s trustworthy, and volume by volume he’s developing into an ever more compelling person. After a multitude of romances, he’s created enduring love with his wife, a surgeon his equal or superior in prowess and complexity. He’s found love with their child, and with his daughter from an earlier relationship, and with his roguish ward, whom he and his wife legally adopt in Wicked Prey. He’s achieved fulfillment with both his casual friends and a repertory company of peers in the police world with whom he’s bonded. He’s building purpose and peace in his work, and seems to be finally conquering his long struggle with clinical depression. He’s quick-witted, immensely talented, and content with life in ways that are cogent and contagious. 

He’s a masterpiece: the most interesting and likable fictional American detective since Travis McGee. He contradicts D.H. Lawrence’s celebrated assertion that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.” Lucas stands beyond this archetype and paradigm. He’s emotional, social, evolutional, astute, and very humorous.

As is John Sandford’s wonderful writing. Sandford has created easy fluent mastery, and he’s growing it by leaps and bounds with every book he publishes:

Lucas Davenport rolled in his Porsche through the August countryside, green and tan, corn and beans, the blue oats falling in front of the John Deeres, weeping willows hanging over the banks of black-water ponds, yellow cornflowers climbing on the sides of the road-cuts, Wisconsin farms with U-Pick signs hung out on the driveways, Dutch Belted cows and golden horses and red barns, Lucas’ arms prickling from sunburn … One of the finest summers of his life. 

Two clerks were working the counter: a straw-headed kid, pale and thin, with Grand Theft Auto eyes; and a soft round Indian woman with a dot on her forehead.

[Brutus Cohn] liked it all: money, women, gambling, cocaine and reefer and Saturday night fights in the gravel parking lots outside country roadhouses, with frogs croaking from the roadside ditches and the fireflies blinking out over the farm fields.

“What are you going to do?” Del asked. “First thing, right at the crack of dawn tomorrow, soon as the TV people wakeup, I’m gonna have a big-mother press conference,” Lucas said. “I’m gonna paper the country with pictures of Cohn and this chick. Then, we’re gonna find them and kill them.” “Sounds like a plan,” Del said.

 They all sat for a minute, then Jenkins said: “What do you think we ought to get for Del’s kid? It’s gonna be a boy, right? Something blue?” “It’s Del’s kid; you gonna get him a blue gun?” Shrake asked.

Ranch woke in the beanbag chair. He was used to the disappearance of large parts of his life. Sometimes, he passed out at ten o’clock in the morning, and when he woke up, it was nine o’clock in the morning – some other morning. At first, the time changes were disorienting, but over the course of a couple of years, he got used to it. He simply gave up on time – now life was daytime and nighttime, strung along like beads on a string, and the minute, hour, and date were irrelevant.

“… I don’t think cops should kill people. I mean, murder people. People get trials, they get lawyers.” Letty [Lucas’s ward] sighed. “Let me think about it for a couple days. I’m so confused.” A little song and dance, she was thinking as she spoke: a little song and dance because Jennifer Carey was no longer to be trusted. I don’t think cops should kill people. Bullshit, Letty thought.

Wicked Prey is a great book by a great writer. I can’t explain why Sandford receives so little critical acclaim. I think it may be because he’s utterly disinterested in the designs, affectations, and self-promotion of high art.

For many years, Clint Eastwood was similarly neglected. Sanford reminds me strongly of Eastwood. Like Eastwood, he possesses quiet calm constant expertise. Stunning but subtle aptitude. Extraordinary sociability and decency – leavened comfortably, somehow, with equally extraordinary capacities for violence, self-reliance, and aloneness.

Despite his long history of popular success, the world has not yet found John Sandford. His time, like Clint Eastwood’s, will come. His gifts, subjects, concerns, and tireless body of work mandate and make inevitable the broad and general fondness and esteem he long ago should have attained.

Mad As Hell

 

 Kathy I’m lost I said though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all gone to look for America
                        –Paul Simon, “America

 

Americans have become so angry. Television pundits tee off at one another, the moderator, and the audience. Editorialists and commentators grow every day more bellicose. Friendships fissure over politics. Election campaigns embrace and embody JFK’s brilliant, funny, but sad refrain: “the pleasure of having an opinion without the trouble of thought.”

Tea Party diatribes, CPAC harangues, Liberal tirades, red states, blue states, Democrats, Republicans, Independents. Gun control advocates, weaponry foes, pro-life partisans, pro-choice partisans. High school students, college students, dropouts, the elderly, the middle-aged, the young, the rich, the poor, the middleclass, this ethnic group, that ethnic group. Everywhere we look, vast numbers of Americans overtly or obliquely shriek like the players in that fine zany film “Network”: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Our anger has assumed the form of entrenched, obstinate, belligerent intolerance. We blindly manifest the fanaticism and much of the violence we decry in our country’s putative enemies. Few of us converse rationally with anyone who does not already unreservedly agree with our visions and views. Few of us listen, cherish reason, find middle ground, compromise, cohere. We prefer confrontation. We celebrate militancy. We’re becoming a nation of absolutist ideologues.

We’re discarding the capacity to respect, appreciate, and like anyone with whom we do not concur. More and more, we define those with whom we disagree as antagonists devoid of humanity common with our own. We regard every fellow citizen who does not adhere to our opinions as a creature beyond our pale, barbarian and despicable.

We seem to find an ecstasy in anger and its excesses. Raging, isolating, and hating somehow justify our rage, make it appear as though it has meanings and worth. Our anger and its radicalism operate as a kind of moral and political qualification. I must be a worthy man, an enlightened woman, because I pathologically hate every person who does not holistically share my thought and its source fury. Everyone who takes up a side other than mine must be a lout or a demon. People on the Left are scabrous. People on the Right are scrofulous. People in the middle are the worst of all. Sanctity lies here: exclusively and utterly in the angry, shrill me.

This syndrome is not new. In 1964, I heard Senator Barry Goldwater accept his party’s nomination for the presidency with a stentorian rant: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” His delegates responded rhapsodically to his coded but clear declamation. I was only 19 years old at the time, naïve beyond description. Yet even I knew enough to say to my Dad: “Uh oh.”

Nearly 50 years later, our nation is close to forfeiting the ability to function democratically. As we divide into ever more extreme, autocratic, and irreconcilable camps, we increasingly regard it as a virtue to refuse dialogue. The minority imposes upon our political and governmental activity nothing more than obstinate obstacle; the majority, nothing more than obdurate insistence. Plurality has become nominal. One party establishes a small momentary margin of legislative or executive power, cannot govern, cedes its powers, and is replaced with its mirror opposite that generates an essentially identical fate.

We are constructing an age of absolutist anger. It is cankering individual and social consciousness, and it is crippling our country.

2. Our Anger

What are we angry about?

Most Americans believe they know. We’re angry about politics, we’re angry about other people’s behaviors, and we’re angry about money.

Some are furious about the government’s intrusions upon their freedom. Some are incensed by the government’s failure to provide sufficient support.

Some scream the national debt is too high, make it shrink, but don’t raise taxes. Others scream the national debt doesn’t matter, give me more, take it from someone else who has more than I. Everybody hates taxes and fees. Income tax, property tax, sales tax, death tax, capital gains tax, tariffs, bank fees, credit card fees, airline fees, state park use fees.

Prices are too high, and it’s somebody else’s fault that they are. Everyone blames insurance companies and one or the other national political party for our spiraling healthcare costs, and the terrifying lack of coverage so many of our fellow citizens confront. Many blame the Arab peoples and behemoth corporations for the high price of our fuels. We’re getting ready to blame China for the disintegration of our economy and currency that we ourselves merrily created. Many blame bankers and the Federal Reserve for the collapse in housing and equity values that we all helped parent. Almost everyone abominates the taxpayer bailouts of the finance system we all need, and we all helped corrupt.

Speaking of corruption. Some socioeconomic classes vilify the rich and powerful for colluding with one another, blockading access to achievement, influence, and wealth, and monstrously abusing their already excessive privilege and authority. The rich and powerful vilify the impoverished for being unmotivated, indolent, often immoral, and always seeking handouts; and the middle classes for spending beyond their means, whimpering and wailing, puling, getting politicians to pander to them, and constantly seeking unearned transfers of wealth.

We’re also angry about individuals’ attitudes and actions, even though no one can agree anymore about what constitutes our sanctified norm. Notions once consecrated and unexamined about gender identity, human unions, family architecture are splitting asunder. So, too, are notions that once prevailed about racial, ethnic, gender, and generational identity.

Probably these notions never worked in reality. However, it angers us that so many notions are loosening boundaries, severing our previous persuasions and codes. Well, this makes some people mad. It makes others glad. But the glad ones are mad at the angry ones, and the angry ones are mad at the glad ones. We don’t converse about this unnecessarily fissuring problem. We just shriek at one another, demonize, and despise.

We’re angry about immigration, too. Some maintain with utmost truculence that we ought to expel at once, instantly, every single undocumented immigrant residing in our nation and somehow slam shut our borders firmly and forever. This is called patriotic. Others pillory those who hold these beliefs, and demand the United States of America somehow renew and expand our proud (if maybe mythical) heritage of indiscriminate welcome to all who would migrate to our shores. This, too, is called patriotic.

These are our minor leagues. We’re working up our major league brouhaha about abortion. Responsible polling repeatedly concludes our nation is divided approximately evenly, and with approximately equal anguish on both sides, about whether our government should allow or forbid abortion, and under what circumstances. As if our government should or can control human behaviors. In a more sane surround, this agonized impasse would seem to cry out for a middle way.

Across the loud spectrums of our infuriated opinion, we Americans believe we know what we’re mad about. We’re mad about this, we’re mad about that, very mad, righteously mad, irreversibly mad.

3. Our Wounds

In truth, though, the reason we feel so angry has little to do with politics and its poetics, wealth and its distribution, or other people’s outlooks and actions. I believe we feel so irate and frightened because:

  • Our ideals are vanishing. We no longer possess our previously unifying faith systems and standards of excellence. In their place, we have summoned consumerism and opportunism. Many among us have almost abandoned spiritual ways of knowing and living. Certainly our popular culture and media have deserted the belief in and forsaken the criteria of the transcendent. We traffic excessively with the mechanical and the temporal.

 

  • Our communities are vanishing. We reside with one another in adjacency, but rarely in connection. We less and less regard ourselves as a communal body of interacting individuals with a common history and deeply shared social, economic, and political interests. We are becoming merely contiguous with one another. We occasionally recognize and assist each other. Normally we ignore one another. Or, worse, we exploit one another.

 

  • Our concords with nature are vanishing. We mine, fence, and pave the land. We soil the waters. We injure the air. Most of us scarcely experience the outdoors. We have barely any consciousness of the sea, the sky, the mountains, the forests, the rocks, the rills, the plains, or the multitude of miraculous life forms who flourish among us. We have little sustained, morally coherent association with nature’s processes, gifts, teachings, or sheer majesty and beauty. We are growing progressively more artificial, uninfluenced by our minds and emotions, horribly isolated from the true roots and most profound contexts of our existence.

 

Human beings need uniting ideals, heartfelt congruence with one another, and passionate, persisting placement in the natural world. More and more in America, we lack these primal fundaments of identity, meaning, and fulfillment. So, like the character in Paul Simon’s luminous song, “America,” we feel empty and aching and we don’t know why.

We’ve attempted anthropomorphizing the universe, worshipping greed, and indulging consumption. For decades we’ve tried. But our capitalism, our commodities, and our voracious, orgiastic squandering never fulfill our spiritual needs. We manufacture products and consume them like crazy, but we cannot sate the hungers in our mind, our spirit, and our soul. We construct cities, suburbs, malls, and emporia of entertainment, but we grow ever more homeless, alien, alone, and afraid.

Let us look more closely at what we are losing, and why our losses wound us.

Ideals

Americans once did share and exalt several canonical beliefs that functioned for us as a defining creed. We knew, or at least we thought we knew:

  • Life has been willed and ordained by a Creator, and consequently is purposive and principled.

 

  • We do not need to name the Creator overmuch. We do not need to proclaim anything overmuch, for we dislike displays and prefer not to impose individual beliefs, judgments, or dictates on anyone else.

 

  • Each of us ought to be good, truthful, ethical; honest, forthright, just; open, responsible, and kind.

 

  • We should be fair with one another.

 

  • Because there is evil, there should be justice, clear in its requirements and content, swiftly delivered.

 

  • Each of us must work hard.

 

  • Each of us must be self-reliant.

 

  • Yet, we should share a sense of citizenry. We should feel in unspoken interrelation with our neighbors. Without explanation or fuss, we quietly should help one another raise our barns, harvest our crops, lead our children, manage our emergencies, and protect our communities.

 

  • There ought to be heroes who accomplish fine deeds, proffer excellent example, and impart leadership.

 

  • We should live in close harmonious relationship with nature, and venerate her.

 

These convictions find their classic and most continuous expression in our mythos of the Old West. One of our most important indigenous art forms, the western, tells always the socializing saga of our once unifying set of values. The enduring appeal of this narrative – “Avatar” is but the most recent statement of our defining chronicle – demonstrates how endemic and vital the design has been for our coherence and comfort as a collective and as individuals. [In fact, the allure of the classic American mythos is global. “Avatar,” after all, is commanding by far the largest and most universal audience any cinematic story ever has been able to attract.]

The needs the tacit American belief system recognized, shaped, and satisfied have not disappeared. Only the beliefs themselves are disappearing. And with them, inevitably, are eroding also the responsibility structures and social cohesion they mandated and made meaningful.

Communities

It ought to have been harder in America’s earlier eras to form, preserve, and cherish communities. Our cities were forever recreating themselves as waves of new peoples entered, emigrated from foreign environs, propelled by persecutions, animated by surges of hope, energy, and ingenuity. Our cities perpetually reformulated themselves without plan, without governmental concords, managed only by raw human yearnings and anarchic actions. Our plains, shaped tragically by genocide, were vast. Folk lived in remote homesteads, mammoth ranches, tiny, fragile, barely functional towns. Order did not precede and regulate habitation. It followed.

All the more reason why the American consciousness of community through common ideals flourished, conferred safety, aided survival, and in time achieved sanctity. Our consciousness evolved as our nation did. By experiment. By the gradual evolution of actual human needs.

Now the communities our forebears worked so hard to found and preserve are dissolving into mere nexuses.

Our cities are miracles of intricacy, but now they function primarily as aggregations of assembly. People live alongside or atop one another, chockablock yet anonymous, unknown to one another, utterly disunited focal points for commerce primarily, rarely for intimacy.

Our suburbs operate principally to house during nights and weekends workers who labor in cities throughout each weekday; and to permit escapist families to live as refugees from the modern urban experience.

We preserve ever fewer villages and towns of human scale. We reside in complex, costly urban or suburban artifices that inadvertently disconnect us from our kin, our neighbors, and ourselves.

Like our ideals, our communities are collapsing. Our homesteads are becoming almost entirely happenstance.

Nature

Our reworking of the world not only is isolating us from one another. We also are growing ever more isolated from the creative energies and controlling forces in the universe.

The vast majority of Americans now gain their living by means that have nothing to do with anything organic, animate, integral, or whole. In the procedures of our labors, few of us interact powerfully with any of the phenomena, processes, and cycles of the natural world. This is equally the case with many of our recreations, which increasing are vicarious, electronic, or in other respects synthetic.

Some families still own and operate farms, or fish. For the most part, though, we conduct agriculture, husbandry, and all other of our elemental interactivities with nature through large shareholder corporations or industrial combines.

Many of us do not associate with nature at all. We work in factories, offices, or cubicles. Many of us soullessly perform activities and transact tasks menial or mental that we cannot feel to be in any respect related to natural life or in any regard essential to its rhythms and manifest sanctity.

For most of us, the sole nexus of our pursuit is cash transaction. We are paid money for what we do. We pay money for what we desire and obtain. We purchase, and we are purchased. We less and less frequently act in associative harmony with our instincts, or in gratuitous generosity. We have become absolute, accomplished capitalists.

Our humanity remains, however. Our emotional and social imperatives endure. These constructs are mighty and magnificent. But we increasingly fail to recognize them, and everyday they grow more unfulfilled. We feel ever more empty and aching, and we don’t know why.

4. Our Recourse

So what do we do?

We do what human beings invariably do when we feel baffled and hurt.

Confusion and suffering make us angry. Anger needs targets. We’re not willing to blame ourselves. We don’t want to fault our own flaws. We refuse to recognize and censure our own unwise choices. So we blame others. Like heat-seeking missiles we define external targets, program them as villains, light them up with invective, and explode our rage upon them.

We can’t blame the communists anymore. We did that for decades, and now most of them are gone. It’s hard to get worked up about the North Koreans. We can’t loathe Fidel Castro any longer.

What if we turn against ourselves?

Ah, we can find plenty of butts within our own polity. We can discover a countless number of large or small – usually we select small – differences to decry in one another: our faith traditions, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, economic circumstances. Easiest of all, we can denounce minute differences in each other’s politics.

This is the recourse we have chosen. We pillory the distinctions that exist among us, rather than honor them as fascinating aspects of our shared humanity. We impugn our diversities, rather than love them as elements for wonder, admiration, and joy. We convert our perplexity and fright about all we have lost into righteous rage, and we divert it onto other persons’ differences of opinion, style, and behavior.

This diversion is ingenious, and it functions. It does not succeed, though. It relieves none of our emptiness, alleviates none of our aching, and leads us nowhere near the comprehension of pain and relief from fear we so desperately want. We have wandered far from the territory we need and unconsciously crave.

Unfortunately, we are growing day more extreme in this error and its execution. Our politics are becoming daily more fractious, our nation more polarized, our economy more paralyzed, and our governing system more dysfunctional and impaired.

Our situation would be comic, were it not wreaking such havoc and generating so tragic and potentially unmendable an increase in our suffering.

5. Mad As Hell

Anger of this nature and magnitude is madness, and it is a hell. It is what the Greeks called chthonic.

The anger that has been afflicting America is madness and a hell because it has neither genuine objects nor an exit. It is merely corrosive. In time it will destroy all it targets, and it will annihilate all who empower and convey it.

Or maybe not. Not necessarily. We can learn. We can grow.

A wise adage from Alcoholics Anonymous states that people always will remain the same until the pain of remaining the same becomes greater than the fear of changing. Although unaware of its true sources, Americans are in great pain. Perhaps our pain is good. Perhaps it can become a force purgative and purifying. Perhaps we will let it teach us why our way of life has been hurting us, and why we need to create changes.

6. The Changes We Need

We know what we need to change. All of us know this very well.

We need to depend on ourselves once again, not the government. We need to get back to work. We need to dream, dare, drive – not bleat, whine, and collect entitlements no one can pay for.

We need to cease this ruinous distancing of ourselves from nature, and our wanton desecration of her planet.

We need to stop our terrible quantifying of other people, our dumb, hurtful rejecting of other persons’ preferences and personalities. We need to stop shouting at one another. We need to quit tormenting and savaging one another. Quit it cold turkey.

We must transform our corporations, and reconstruct our government. We must make the entities and institutions we support conduct themselves more responsibly, with a modicum of humility and love. Or else we should shut them down, and do without them.

We should recover what we have forgotten from our frontier heritage. We should rely on our own selves, take proper care of each other, and give respectful, grateful reverence to our mother nature.

We can begin with our own selves. We can renounce consuming more than we need, buying what we don’t want, grasping after more possession than makes sense, craving powers and grandeurs we neither want nor can use.

We should give this all up, simplify our existence, root our lives in what truly matters and confers authentic, abiding joys. We should tear down the mess we’ve built and naturalize ourselves again, as we more nearly did during our pioneer eras.

7. Our Power

At one or another level of awareness, all of us realize what we must do. We must lay down our anger, put aside our madness, end this awful distraction of our best selves. If we will but behave ourselves, the universe freely will provide us with everything we legitimately desire.

It took us more than 200 years to choose and construct the discontented culture we inhabit now. It may take us 200 more to comprehend that it does not work, renounce its errors, deconstruct its excesses, and build a new order more natural and fulfilling.

It is the fullest measure of our freedom that we can make this choice, and that we possess this immense power. We can free our power anytime we want to.

This is our power, America. We can exercise our freedom, and make the exhilarating choice gradually to create a civilization more wise, natural, and nurturing. Or, like the confounded character in Paul Simon’s stunning poem, we can continue to ride our present bumpy bus, crying to souls whom we know to be fast asleep that we feel empty and aching and we don’t know why, counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike as they hurtle endlessly and aimlessly by.

Calamity and Comedy

-People are crazy and times are strange. [Bob Dylan] 

On January 13, 2010 the nation of Haiti was visited with calamity.  In response to this epic and awful emergency, the conscience of humankind has been moved to extraordinary sympathy, sorrow, and action.  Countless individuals and numerous nations have replied to the disaster with heartfelt grief and empathy, and with donation of money, goods, and services. 

Certain journalists, particularly some television journalists, scarcely could conceal their sense of program and personal marketing opportunity. A desolation so colossal, so photogenic, could not fail to generate during this period of protracted economic crisis an occasion for demonstration, ratings, and advertising. Networks dispatched celebrity correspondents and their support systems. Promotional apparatuses subtly trumpeted the event and its coverage as a validation of television journalism as an apparatus: a social necessity, a system by which humanity can make witness to history in process. Implicitly, however, these relentless television network self-promotions also entail and mean that making witness to mayhem and misery is a species, furtive but not faint, of entertainment. 

[I want to make specific exception to this generalization for Mr. Anderson Cooper and his remarkable CNN team.  In their response to this as to so many other contemporary tragedies, Mr. Cooper and his colleagues have provided exemplary reportage, consummate commitment, and striking compassion.  As well as longevity.  Mr. Cooper, his colleagues, and his network have devoted enormous investments of time and funding to bring the story of the calamity to the world;  and the story of the world’s reaction to the calamity.  I believe Mr. Cooper should be nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.]  

This journalistic consciousness of suffering as entertainment, a consciousness subliminal rather than overt, has been horridly confirmed by the American media’s daily sequence of story-making.  For the other great journalistic subject of this week in the United States, across all media platforms, has been the comedy programs of Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, the travails of their network and its affiliates, and the fairness or injustice with which their corporate employer has treated these obscenely privileged and not particularly talented entertainers.  Urgent attention in the United States can be compelled almost equally by catastrophe and comedians, for both operate upon the modern American consciousness as elements of entertainment. 

Even The New York Times has succumbed to and fueled this disorder in meaning and priority.  In its January 14, 2010 edition, a senior reporter included in his article about the comedians’ dispute with the National Broadcasting System several absurdly sonorous comments from industry analysts.  One example:  “People have rallied around Mr. O’Brien not because they adore his ‘Tonight Show’ but ‘because he’s suddenly become an unlikely (Harvard-educated, multimillionaire) Everyman: the freckled face of American job insecurity, a well-meaning hard worker who’s spent years paying his dues but has now been declared redundant by the halfwit overlords driving his company into the ground.’” 

The article later reports that The Consumerist, a commercial blog published in association with Consumer Reports, made public “e-mail addresses for NBC executives and proposed an ‘executive e-mail carpet bomb.  Get them to pull the dagger out of Conan’s back before it’s too late for all of us,’ the blog wrote.” 

These overreactions are silly.  But they also are signifiers.  They suggest how confused many modern persons are about what is significant and what is not, and what is tragic and what is not.  This is not a question about orders of magnitude.  A calamity that wreaks death on many tens of thousands of human beings and carnage upon a nation is significant and tragic, and requires profound and sustained response.  The realignment of an unsuccessful television schedule is not even noteworthy.  The cathartic posturing of two comedians should not attract extensive feature coverage by the American media, nor an outpouring of abreaction and personal identification by, apparently, millions of American citizens. 

What does this ludic lack of relation with proper proportion mean?  From what does it derive?  What does it portend for the American society, and for the many international civilization and communities the American culture influences?  

We see here one of the many illustrative instances in American life of the invidious impact of opulence.  Emptiness and boredom are hallmarks of our polity.  We have been given so much, but many among us feel balked, frustrated, foiled.  We feel empty.  We earn, spend, acquire, use, explore, exploit, yet we feel ever more undefined, unfulfilled, barren.  We mask our hunger for identity and meaning by seeking entertainment, which we mistake for actual experience and authentic personation.  A disastrous event in Haiti and lasting distress for an immensely suffering people can seem to the badly bored citizens of western empire merely a story, replete with stock images and sound bites, to accompany a breakfast as a read or an evening as a broadcast.  The contrivances of comedians, their rise, their fall, their entitlements, their gibes, seem to us another saga, food or fodder to fall into but not fill the maw of our unconscious randomness, chaos, and degradation.       

This is a condition not merely American, and not modernist alone.  In the literature of every society in every era, we read that one of the universal attributes of affluence is anomie.  Entropy attaches itself to entitlement.  A weary emptiness often surrounds and circumstances wealth.  Many persons who are vastly privileged frequently feel undernourished; and many who are desperately impoverished commonly create multiple pathways for fulfillment, love of living, and seemingly inexplicable gratitude. 

Abundance seems often to generate a deep sense of vacancy or void.  Those who possess a disproportionate share of their community’s resources and goods seem to have a tapeworm embedded in their psyche and spirit.  Hunger for more gnaws at their soul.  No matter how much sanction and status they accrue, they ache to be yet further elevated in social consequence, to amass additional power, to be additionally known, felt, acknowledged, and, above all else, engaged, aroused, amused, entertained.  We do now read of such circumstances among the radically disestablished.  Just as we do not hear of many eating disorders among the people of Bangladesh or Darfur. 

This may be a kind of insanity: the inanity of affluence, the ennui of entitlement.  It does not belong to the United States solely.  It is to be found everywhere that large and unjust divisions develop among human beings and across human societies. 

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We will further explore these complex and disturbing issues in subsequent posts.  

The Audacity To Win

Book Review

The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory
by David Plouffe; published by Viking Books (November, 2009)

For two years, Mom, Dad, and millions like them loved their country enough to change it.

Many analysts agree that President Obama conducted a primary and general election campaign without precedent in skill and effectiveness. The exercise was managed by David Plouffe, an exceptionally astute, inventive, and disciplined professional operative. Mr. Plouffe has written an extensive debrief on the campaign’s goals, tactics, and personnel, and a thoughtful review of the teaching the experience provides for the subculture of election specialists and, more broadly, for our nation.

The Audacity to Win makes it clear that the hallmarks of the campaign were established almost in their entirety from the outset. It was shaped by its leaders’ thorough understanding of the electorate’s yearning for change: change not simply in an administration and its policies, but in all persons’ attitudes, actions, and standards of conduct and the entire manner in which power is organized in the United States.

Barack Obama articulated transcendently well this yearning for transformation. He also embodied it. The campaign recognized this conjunction of a social phenomenon with its leading personality, and built all its strategies around it.

Chief among these were the decisions to create and sustain a series of interrelated change drivers:

  • Inspire grassroots volunteerism on a scale never before seen in presidential politics
  • Achieve new voter registration and voter turnout on a scale never before accomplished
  • Utilize new technologies, especially the Internet, to communicate directly with the electorate, attract donations, and trigger volunteerism
  • Campaign aggressively for every attainable delegate vote and, later, each achievable electoral college vote
  • Instill selflessness, unity, discipline, and civility throughout the staff at all levels
  • Interact primarily and directly with the electorate, rather than political professionals and media pundits
  • Cultivate and adhere to the candidate’s and the campaign’s highest, most pure instincts rather than temporal expediency

Each of these commitments fertilized all the others. The campaign grew into a domestic and international populist movement beyond anyone’s expectations. It led eventually, of course, to Mr. Obama’s historic election.

Many memoirs function as an encomium to self. The events under review could not have transpired, the memoirist usually proclaims, were it not for me. Many memoirs’ barely concealed purpose is to position the author to be hired repeatedly to reprise the triumph.

Plouffe has no apparent ulterior motive. He is intrigued and moved by the events he helped lead. He celebrates every principal protagonist other than himself. In particular, he crafts sincere paeans to the numberless individuals who comprised the campaign’s passionate, inexhaustible, and immensely effective corps of volunteers. And he mounts a sustained effort to help us understand precisely how and specifically why the campaign’s ideals, strategies, and methods worked so well. He also analyzes with merciless candor his own mistakes, his colleagues’ errors, and Mr. Obama’s rare gaffes.

Plouffe emerges as a sophisticated and shrewd scholar of electoral politics in America, an eminently skillful manager of people and campaign process, a combative field commander, and an exceptionally centered, unassuming, decent, and trustworthy man. He is especially cogent about the cost modern American campaigning exacts on participants’ lives, and touching in honoring the unsung heroism of spouses and children.

He is also cogent about the prodigious financial cost of American electoral politics. The Audacity to Win shows us in detail the amount of money that is needed to conduct a credible contemporary presidential campaign. The sum is astonishing. The Obama campaign’s ability to excite an unparalleled number of donors to gift an unparalleled quantity of cash to this initially quixotic undertaking is a marker of the candidate’s unique impact upon our nation’s body politic.

This is also, though, a marker cautionary in the extreme. An electoral system that requires its prospective leaders to garner contributions on so massive a degree mandates a constancy of supplication, perpetuity of beseeching, and near certainty of moral indebtedness or forced obligation. Few persons, maybe none, can seek and obtain funding of this magnitude without becoming hostage to the interests and will of its donors. Plouffe is importantly successful in revealing how our election process and its behemoth price tag virtually invite corruption from all but the most conscientious and most independently empowered leaders. The American people countenance this unconscionable situation at our peril.

Plouffe is much less successful in revealing the content of his own and other leaders’ mind and spirit. We learn almost nothing complex or nuanced about what it feels like to engage an insurgent political campaign of this magnitude; what it feels like to help form and then ride an epical cultural and social occurrence; what it feels like to envision, tap, and then manage multiple generations’ primal needs and emotions; what it feels like crucially to aid and ultimately help raise to power an authentic genius.

David Plouffe is a singularly distinguished political sociologist and campaign director. But he is not by endowment or training an author. The Audacity to Win surfaces a potentially major subject for another writer’s more profoundly insightful and interpretive authorship.

We will read this book perhaps primarily to gain insight into the character and consciousness of Barack Obama. The work does not often place President Obama on center stage. It is interested in campaign much more than in character, in process much more than personality. However, on each occasion that he does enter the pages our president appears to be a strikingly intelligent, reasonable, honest, calm, and unpretentious person.

Plouffe gives especially revealing attention to President Obama’s masterful speech on race relations in response to the several contretemps surrounding Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sermons; the integrity and grace with which he manages his ascent into fame; the readiness with which he assumes fault and deflects blame away from others; and the wisdom and confidence with which he handles his swift transition from improbable candidate to frontrunner to president-elect to commander-in-chief. These portraits, like Plouffe’s portrait of himself, are frustratingly exterior in their vantage point and content. Yet they suggest that individual around whom this campaign was organized is entirely worthy of the hopes he has initiated and energized.

The Audacity to Win is devoid of suspense, for we know the narrative’s outcome in advance. Yet it is a gripping book, insightful, far-ranging, provocative, and fun. Readers who enjoyed the grandly fictive qualities of The West Wing will find this work almost equally addictive for its address of the actual.

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This review initially appeared in the New York Journal of Book Reviews, a new online literary review.

Please see:   www.nyjournalofbooks.com