Sunday, February 23, 2020

"Being born is craps. How we live is poker."

We used to live down the street from a tiny branch of the Chicago Public Library. And while it would be churlish to complain about having a library within staggering distance of home, the way I took to describing its offerings was that if you went in looking for something specific, you'd be disappointed, but that if you went in looking for something, you'd be fine.

About two years ago, I realized that Netflix had reached that point. There was plenty to watch, but . . . not that, and not that, and not anything from that era, and not that other thing. I was saved, however, by the discovery of the University of Chicago Library's DVD collection. That, and the acquisition of a Chromecast, which opened up a world of streaming and rental options, dropped me unexpectedly into a world where I could see, if still not quite everything, at least far, far more movies I actually wanted to see than I would likely watch in a lifetime.

So I've been watching a lot of westerns. Film critic David Bordwell wrote a post recently that, while also addressing many other issues, helps explain why: If you can watch anything, how do you choose? My solution was to spend 2019 watching only movies from the '70s. And, to leaven those—that much time with '70s interiors can't be good for you—westerns.

This year, I've let the '70s go for a bit. But the westerns have stayed. What's drawing me to them? Personal history, in part. I've enjoyed westerns since I was a boy. I grew up listening to old Lone Ranger radio programs and watching the Disney Davy Crockett TV series on VHS. It's more than that, though. It's the landscapes, which I didn't even notice when I was a kid. The horses, presented matter-of-factly as just another tool, yet regularly surprising you with their beauty and magnificence. The music, full of motifs that still stir the blood.

Then there are the themes. I'm far from a manly man. I have no interest in proving my toughness. Fights should probably be backed down from most of the time, to be honest; there are usually other ways to achieve your aim. I'm not restless, have no need to strike out into the unknown. I'm solitary but I don't need full solitude.

Honor, though? That works. The idea that you owe it to yourself and those around you to live truthfully and honor your commitments, that you should say what you mean and do what you say. That's at the core of most westerns, and it gives the best of them the same grounding that you find in the best of Joseph Conrad: a reason to tell this story, to care about these people.

As with Conrad, there's plenty of bad in westerns, too. Even if you try to stay away from movies that are explicitly about taking land from Native Americans, you still every once in a while come up against a scene where their lives are implicitly regarded as less valuable than those of others. And if we're being honest, we have to acknowledge that even movies that are about conflicts among white settlers are also about the displacement of native peoples. I'd understand if that put you off westerns entirely. For me, it's one more bit in the balance, another refraction of the story they're telling—and of the story America was telling about itself as the twentieth century wore on.

But this is a book blog, right? Here's where we get to that. A subset of the westerns I've been watching lately has been movies about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. An extremely brief shootout that occurred "around 3:00 PM" on October 26, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona, it has been the subject of untold works of fiction and nonfiction, books and films. Each one takes a slightly different angle on what is at base a story of the Earp brothers—capable, yet prone to failures and trouble, family men who again and again wound up in violence—and their friend Doc Holliday, who has come down to us as a gunman who dreamed of better things.

Some of the films, including My Darling Clementine (1946) and Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), present the gunfight as a dramatic triumph, the moment when heroes win and the West moves one step closer to being "civilized." Other films, including the two that were released almost simultaneously in the early 1990s, Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, treat it as at best a source of regret, the moment that the Earp's luck starts to run out. Those films aren't necessarily better—some days I'd take My Darling Clementine, with Victor Mature playing a truly menacing Doc Holliday, over them all—but they do feel more true to life.

The place I've seen the gunfight presented most clearly as tragedy, however, is in Mary Doria Russell's Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral (2015). It's a sequel of sorts to her 2011 novel Doc, which paints a powerfully sympathetic portrait of Doc Holliday. Here's the opening of that book:
He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.
That was enough to hook me. A century and a half after his death, Holliday is more myth than man, and Russell doesn't shy away from that. The book is as much a romance as anything else, with Doc the person we're falling in love with. (Russell herself noted on Twitter: "John Henry Holliday didn't have a mama to love him when he was grown so I have taken him for my own. Loved that boy.") At the same time, however, we buy him, this gunfighter who is quick to kill but also somehow conveys "a special sort of gentleness that you see sometimes in people who've been hurt bad but who don't want revenge." Living under a death sentence from young adulthood, raised and educated for a life wholly different from the one he found ("A youth in the South. An education in the North. Bred for life in the East. Trying not to die in the West."), Russell's Doc is compelling and charismatic, but also alcoholic and self-destructive. "In a stand-up contest," she writes, "remorse and self-loathing can battle whiskey to a draw."

The book is full of memorable lines like that:
He meant no harm, of course. Helpful people never do.

What could Penelope offer Odysseus but illness and death if he returned to Ithaca?

A conviction of his own disgrace had taken hold of him. He had begun to live down to his opinion of himself.

Hope—cruelest of the evils that escaped Pandora's box.

Everything but sloth, he realized. Dodge City was diligent in sin.

Bein' born is craps. How we live is poker.
Epitaph greatly expands the story, bringing each of the Earps—brothers and spouses both—to life, but that portrait of Holliday that we carry from the earlier book is just as important to its power. We watch the Earps and Holliday trying and failing to make stable lives, often undermining their own efforts. In Tombstone we see them come closer than ever before to making it work. And then we reach this line, which, after all the foregoing, reads like the fates taking a tragic hand:
There are five armed men in the O.K. Corral.
When I read Epitaph, I literally put the book down at that point and took a walk. I needed more time before letting this happen to these people I'd grown to care about.
The gunfight itself takes up only a few pages, as you can see in this photo. 

But from it will spin out death and despair, the end of their brief spell of peace and happiness in Tombstone.

I wrote above that the core of what draws me to westerns is how they handle honor. The O.K. Corral story isn't really about honor so much as it's about mistakes and human failings. The Earps could have walked away from that fight, Holliday even more so. The honor here comes instead in the telling, in taking these people and lives from our past seriously and helping us understand, if not exactly how it happened, then at least how it might have happened, and why we should still care.


Sunday, February 16, 2020

A post that is not quite a post

When I restarted this blog three weeks ago, I said that I would try to post most weeks, usually on Sunday mornings. That is still my plan, and there will definitely be weeks when I’m wholly absent. This weekend—which I’m spending away from home with friends I’m rural seclusion with books and bourbon and a fireplace—is the Platonic form of the weekend when I won’t post: the blog, reconstituted, is meant to be an outlet and engagement rather than an obligation.

But. This is the third damn week. I shouldn’t be AWOL so soon. Therefore, a compromise: I’ll link to an essay I wrote for Lapham’s Quarterly in the years the blog was dormant, on a subject I’ve blogged about many times: Samuel Johnson. Specifically, on a dream about his brother that Johnson mentions in his diary, a line that I spent ten years thinking over before, with the help of an excellent editor at Lapham’s, Sarah Fan, figuring out what I wanted to say about it.

I’m proud of this essay. I hope you enjoy it, and I’ll plan to see you in this space again next week.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Woolf and Lamb, their time and ours, the artist and the art

In the early days of January, I set aside a few books to be regular companions through the year: a volume each of Virginia Woolf's diaries, essays, and letters, and The Charles Lamb Day Book, a quote-a-day volume drawn from the full range of Charles Lamb's work.

One day recently, reading both of those companion authors, I was brought up short—and not in a good way. I'm going to quote both below, in service of thinking about them, so if you'd rather the pleasantness of your Sunday morning not be broken, I'd suggest passing over this post.

In the Lamb entry for January 24, taken from a letter to Edward Moxom, appears the line,
I maintain it, the eighth commandment hath a secret special reservation by which the reptile is exempt from any protection from it; as a dog, or a n------, he is not a holder of property.
Neither Lamb nor Methuen, the publisher of this 1925 volume, elided the slur as I have done.

Then, in Woolf's diary entry for January 9, 1915, when she was almost thirty-three, I came across the following:
On the towpath we met & had to pass a long line of imbeciles. The first was a very tall young man, just queer enough to look twice at, but no more; the second shuffled, & looked aside; & then one realised that every one in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead, or no chin, & an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.
The whole of this passage is disturbing and disheartening, but that last line is flat-out shocking. "Certainly," she writes. "Certainly."

What to do with this? I love Lamb and Woolf, as writers and, in many ways, as people. Like Henry James, they are writers whose work I have trouble separating from my knowledge of and interest in their lives. Their published works nestle in my mind alongside their letters, notebooks, diaries; biographies inflect, and, largely, increase my appreciation of their creations. I admire Woolf and Lamb, both for the work they created and for the way they played the hands life dealt them: Woolf's valiant struggle against mental breakdown; Lamb's abiding care for his mentally ill sister ("When she is not violent, her rambling chat is better to me than the sense and sanity of this world."), even after she murdered their parents. I would find it hard to know as much as we now do about these two, to have read as extensively in their work as I have, and not admire them. I could no more read their work now as something separate from their lives and characters than I could a letter from one of my siblings.

Which is not to say that I've ever been under the illusion that either is perfect. Woolf could be tone-deaf and ignorant to the point of cruelty on issues of class, and, despite her marriage to a Jew, made antisemitic comments in her writings. Lamb, meanwhile, laid bare his prejudices against a number of groups that differed from him—blacks, Jews, Quakers, Scots—in his essay "Imperfect Sympathies." Of Jews, he writes,
I should prefer not to be in habits of familiar intercourse with any of that nation. . . . Old prejudices cling about me.

Some people would credit Lamb for being frank about these views, but like many people today who pride themselves on "just asking the question" about supposedly taboo subjects, he shows an interest only in acknowledging those views, not in understanding their roots, questioning their validity, or moving beyond them.

That image of the contemporary "question raiser" is perhaps a good path to the question of why, if I already knew that Woolf and Lamb were flawed, these passages stopped me in my tracks. It's at least in part because of the way that #MeToo and other developments have brought the question of how we deal with art by bad people to the fore. And unlike so many ginned-up controversies, this one is both real and legitimately complicated. There are plenty of people who are interested in using the question solely as a straw man in service of dismissing the larger project of widening the circle of inclusion in society, but there are also plenty of people legitimately trying to answer the question. It's possible to conceive of a  wide range of answers that are valid, with the test of that validity ultimately being up to each person as they address each work of art. (For a really good discussion of this subject, I recommend the "What to Do with What's in the Box" episode of the Relentless Picnic podcast.)

Is it unfair to judge people like Woolf and Lamb by the standards of our era rather than theirs? Certainly. The past was terrible. I've never forgotten the opening lines of Simon Dickie's 2011 book Cruelty and Laughter:
Eighteenth-century Britons—or a high proportion of them—openly delighted in the miseries of others. Women as well as men laughed at cripples and hunchbacks. They tormented lunatics and led blind men into walls. Wife beating was a routine way of maintaining order within marriage—"an honest Englishman hates his wife" went the catchphrase. Types of violence that would now count as rape were almost mainstream sexual behaviors. Social hierarchies were part of God's plan, and those less favored were habitual figures of fun. Gentlement beat their servants and scoffed at the hungry peasants who crouched along the road outside very major town.  Yet social equals were no more likely to sympathize. Useless old women, village idiots, starving paupers, bastard bearers from the next parish—none of them attracted much sympathy from their own kind. Ridiculing and inflicting pain were everyday amusements, and powerful forces were defending them. Violence, intolerance, and schadenfreude were all tolerated as unavoidable side effects of British liberty, if not its very foundation.
Our own time features plenty of cruelty. Dickie, however, makes a strong case that on this measurement, at least, we've made some progress. (Similarly, I was shocked reading a scene in Little Dorrit last month in which Gowan, not a good man but far from a villain, reprimands his dog with. a blow to the head, then by striking him "severely with the heel of his boot, so that his mouth was presently bloody.")

By those standards, the casual racism I encountered in Charles Lamb's Day Book is nothing but a phrase—tossed off in a letter, barely the product of thought, far more an indication of the waters in which he swam than a personal deficiency. And even the staggering cruelty of Woolf's certainty in her diary is of its era—perhaps more bluntly expressed, but in keeping with a time when eugenics was on the march. Would we want to be judged in the future by the ways in which we reflect our own flawed society? Would we wish posterity to extend to us the forbearance of temporal understanding? We are inextricably of our time, even if we should, and, one hopes, do, try like hell to rise above it. (D. J. Enright: "It is not so much that one is out of sympathy with the age, it's the only age one has, as that the age is out of sympathy with itself. But then, the age is out of sympathy with itself.")

Yet the very reason we turn to artists in life is that we expect more. Not more in an explicitly moral sense, but more in the sense of seeing clearly—but the two are inextricable. As Iris Murdoch continually reminds us, seeing clearly is at the core of both morality and art. Is it strange that Woolf, wrapped up in the thinking of her time—and herself such a creature of the mind that she would struggle to conceive living with it damaged in a way that possibly limited thought—should fail to see the essential humanity of intellectally disabled people? No, not at all. But some people in her own time did. And we have come to expect more from her. She showed us, again and again, a mind of penetrating insight into human life and thought and being; she put that on the page like few others, in ways that remain thrilling a century later. Even her casual writing flashes with insight—the reason I was reading her journals in the first place was because they are full of memorable thoughts. So when she falls, it hurts.

What do we do with this kind of knowledge about artists? I don't have a prescription; this work of judgment is I believe fundamentally individual. When it comes to someone like Bill Cosby or Louis C.K., or in a different way Woody Allen, the answer is easy: I'm done. To enjoy their work required accepting a certain presentation of themselves and their worldview that was predicated on agreement that they were, while flawed, fundamentally good people. If they turn out to be, to varying degrees, monsters, that collapses completely.

Woolf and Lamb, on the other hand? It's more complicated. I'm not going to stop reading them, and I doubt I'll even stop admiring them, at least to a degree. There remains much to admire. And their work will, I am sure, continue to matter. But I will approach it with more skepticism. I'll question it more thoroughly. And, saddest of all, I'll wonder what might have been, had they been able to question themselves and their thinking more thoroughly. Art made by good people can be bad; art made by bad people can be good. But bad morality is usually rooted in a failure of understanding, and no art is ever the better for that.

Monday, February 03, 2020

The return of the sun . . . and this blog?

{Lake Michigan photo by rocketlass.}

While I am on the one hand very much a creature of moderation—regular schedule, regular life—at the same time, I am not someone who does things by half measures. I commit to the things I choose as undertakings. It's no accident that I've been working at the same place for nearly twenty-one years now, lived in Chicago longer than that, been married nearly that long.

Which is why I want to say up front: I may be back. I gave up blogging a few years ago around the same time the bulk of the Internet's attention turned away from it to the faster-paced, more ephemeral arms of social media. My reasons were more prosaic: I had taken up the piano in moderate seriousness, and that, combined with the time needed for a new dog and a slightly longer commute to a then-new home, ate up the time I had previously devoted to blogging. For a good long while, I didn't really miss it. I had the interactions with other book people that I wanted via Twitter. I got more diligent about landing writing assignments for other venues. Lately, however, I find myself missing it. The voice is different from other writing. The way of approaching and thinking about the books I read is different. The interaction with other readers is different.

So here I am. My aim, for now, is to post most weeks, most often (taking a page from Phil Christman's newsletter) on Sunday mornings. But it's possible that I will find myself failing to make the time even for that. It's possible I won't find the voice again. I'll assess around the end of the year. For now, however, I'm going to try.

I'll start modestly. Yesterday was essentially the first truly sunny day in Chicago this year, and, oh, did we feel it. It made the month-opening entry for February in The Daily Henry James, from The Princess Casamassima, seem well timed:
The winter was not over, but the spring had begun, and the smoky London air allowed the baffled citizens, by way of a change, to see through it. The town could refresh its recollections of the sky, and the sky could ascertain the geographical position of the town. The essential dimness of the low perspectives had by no means disappeared, but it had loosened its folds; it lingered as a blur of mist, interwoven with pretty suntints and faint transparencies. There was warmth an there was light, and a view of the shutters of shops, and the church bells were ringing.
Here in Chicago, the winter is much farther from over than it is for a Londoner. But yesterday felt like the first real step towards its banishment.

Thanks for reading. See y'all around these parts for a while, let's hope.