Monthly Archives: July 2013

In Defense of Old Books

Thomas Hardy

Photo Credit: guardian.co.uk

I have often wondered whether my opinion of the superiority of 19th century literature—and of significantly older literature in general—is in any way objectively justified, rather than simply finding its support in subjective notions of preference or bias. From the moment I began to regard the English language with an interest greater than that required by utility, I wondered at the great metamorphosis that has occurred in what is seemingly such a short period of time. (Being in no way a philologist, I do not know whether the evolution of English conforms to historical patterns and is therefore actually “short.”) Despite the acknowledgment that languages, being arbitrary conventions, must inevitably alter over time, I have still found it difficult to regard the differences between literary epochs as being merely that, and not evidence of some almost moral shift in the quality of what is considered good writing. Once having formed (and retained) a decided affinity for older works, I have since wondered self-critically whether this inclination is due to romantic notions of “the good ol’ days,” or whether it is actually possible for the general quality of literature to now be worse.

In being daily reminded of the chaotic state of the world, our tendency to subconsciously attribute real historical credence to fictitious renderings of past decades is, perhaps, a pardonable delusion; and where our perceptions of the past are accurate, we insist on downplaying the unique problems that afflicted older generations. In reading the works of the Brontë family, say, one might possibly be tempted to regard Victorian England in any number of charming lights, forgetting that all except the father died of illnesses before the age of 39—hardly a romantic state of affairs. Or, to take a more recent, personally incriminating, example: a soldier standing tediously in a Middle Eastern desert might naïvely claim to prefer to have been holed up in a nondescript cottage with the Greatest Generation in German-occupied France; this on account of having seen too many films and having thought only shallowly about what such an experience might have really been like. It is rarely true that the grass actually is greener on the inaccessible plot.

Yet whereas bygone times can be idealized by either the select apprehension or ignorance of certain facts, works of literature may be evaluated solely on their internal merits. Though it would clearly be remiss to think all 19th century works artistic masterpieces, or even good—the “penny dreadfuls” were the 19th century equivalent of popular contemporary literary abominations, such as 50 Shades of Grey—it would seem fair to compare the most (or least) esteemed works of the period to those of our own.

But in order to have any sort of objective degeneration, there must be some fixed standard or criteria against which to uniformly criticize various works. This standard, whatever its properties, is at bottom called the English Language; though when it comes to art, this standard is clearly more complex than the sum of its lingual parts. The difficulty in attempting to conduct such a thing as literary criticism, as with art criticism, is not only that English speakers have very different ideas about what constitutes good or acceptable English (these discrepancies occur even in the highest echelons of the discipline), but that the language itself is malleable and sometimes vague, with a wide margin for style. The English language as it now exists is stylistically unrecognizable from that of the Elizabethans, for example, even less so than Old English, but it is English nonetheless. The contemporary authorities on the subject would be at odds with their long-dead counterparts.

The slightly philosophical question that here presents itself is whether it is objectively possible to compare the linguistics and style of two works from two significantly different literary periods with regard to hierarchical value. This would seem to involve the question of discerning at what point a difference in style becomes evidence of either a greater or lesser ability to communicate. Authors have multifarious intentions, of course, but the question is at what point one author can be said to be definitively better or worse or more artful than another in communicating his intended message.

We might take an example: Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. I do not intend to conduct a thorough analysis and comparison (even if I could) either of this or any other work, but a cursory glance will suffice:

“The night had a sinister aspect. A heated breeze from the south slowly fanned the summits of lofty objects, and in the sky dashes of buoyant cloud were sailing in a course at right angles to that of another stratum, neither of them in the direction of the breeze below. The moon, as seen through these films, had a lurid metallic look. The fields were sallow with the impure light, and all were tinged in monochrome, as if beheld through stained glass. The same evening the sheep had trailed homeward head to tail, the behaviour of the rooks had been confused, and the horses had moved with timidity and caution.” (Thomas Hardy, Far From the Madding Crowd, Wordsworth Editions: Ware, Hertfordshire, 1993, p. 189)

Compare with Earnest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea:

“They walked up the road together to the old man’s shack and went in through its open door. The old man leaned the mast with its wrapped sail against the wall and the boy put the box and the other gear beside it. The mast was nearly as long as the one room of the shack. The shack was made of the tough budshields of the royal palm which are called guano and in it there was a bed, a table, one chair, and a place on the dirt floor to cook with charcoal. On the brown walls of the flattened, overlapping leaves of the sturdy fibered guano there was a picture in color of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and another of the Virgin of Cobre. These were relics of his wife. Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him too lonely to see it and it was on the shelf in the corner under his clean shirt.” (The Old Man and the Sea, p. 4)

I admit to the selection of these passages as being arbitrary, but they are nevertheless characteristic of each respective author and therefore sufficient to make my point. In reading these two passages, it seems to me quite nearly an objective fact that Hardy’s descriptions possess an artfulness lacking in those of Hemmingway, which by comparison appear bland and staccato, devoid of an alluring prosaic rhythm. Whatever Hemmingway’s merits, they do not in my mind compete for dominance in the category of eloquence.

That many people deliberately prefer books that adopt a style akin to Hemmingway’s, perhaps finding them less tiresome to read than the elaborate verbiage characteristic of many 19th century works, say, is a fact reaffirmed by the kinds of literature given the highest praise in contemporary literary circles. At the risk of sounding snobbish, I have routinely found it difficult to read the works contained in certain literary periodicals (Ploughshares, Writer’s Digest, The Sun), as well as some contemporary novels, without undergoing a slight cringe. Nevermind the fact that a popular theme in many of these works is either gratuitous sexuality in one form or another, or some form of implicit nihilism, it is the way in which the content is generally either dully presented or, in attempting to be artful, creates instead the impression of one over-acting a scene. Take a highly typical excerpt from a work of fiction in the July 2013 issue of The Sun magazine:

It was my junior year of high school, and I was living in a Victorian on Beach Avenue with my sister, Alex, who is my twin but always somehow prettier and skinnier than me, and our grandmother, Zilpha. The house was old and handsome, like our grandmother, and it sat surrounded by perennial gardens on a grassy hill above the south shore of Lake Ontario in Rochester, New York.

My parents had been killed in a car accident when I was in seventh grade. They were driving home from a wine tasting in Buffalo and got caught in a sudden snowstorm that swept off Lake Erie, and their car skidded off the road and hit a tree. My boyfriend Rick’s father had died of cancer of the throat, and I think one reason Rick loved me was because my parents were dead. He and his mother lived on my grandmother’s street, which is how we met. As residents we had access to a private beach, where Alex and I liked to swim and sunbathe in the summer, and where Rick and I liked to screw around late at night when the moon was out and the water smelled sweet and clean and the Big Dipper hung low above the lake, way out over Canada.” (Christian Zwahlen, “It Must Have Been Beautiful, But Now It’s Gone,” The Sun, issue 451, July 2013, http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/451/it_must_have_been_beautiful_but_now_its_gone)

Even without a drawing a comparison to another work, the above excerpt is at best only grammatically correct, having the sort of matter-of-fact descriptions one would expect of someone filing a police report. Curiously—but not to my mind surprisingly—the preceding excerpt is not altogether beneath the previous excerpt of Hemmingway. This is the lamentable reality: with regard to prosaic style (not content), there is often only a subtly discernible gap in quality (if at all) between lay writers and those highly esteemed. This exemplifies the vast difference in current literary trends and in what is now considered writing worthy of publication. I grant that it is rather unfair to compare a famous work of old to an unknown piece by a contemporary author, so let us approach the issue from a fairer angle—by looking at a passage from George R. R. Martin’s famous series, A Song of Ice and Fire (1):

“The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded, twenty in all, and Bran rode among them, nervous with excitement. This was the first time he had been deemed old enough to go with his lord father and his brothers to see the king’s justice done. It was the ninth year of summer, and the seventh of Bran’s life.

The man had been taken outside a small holdfast in the hills. Robb thought he was a wildling, his sword sworn to Mance Rayder, the King beyond-the-Wall. It made Bran’s skin prickle to think of it. He remembered the hearth tales Old Nan told them. The wildlings were cruel men, she said, slavers and slayers and thieves. They consorted with giants and ghouls, stole girl children in the dead of night, and drank blood from polished horns. And their women lay with the Others in the Long Night to sire terrible half-human children.

But the man they found bound hand and foot to the holdfast wall awaiting the king’s justice was old and scrawny, not much taller than Robb. He had lost both ears and a finger to frostbite, and he dressed all in black, the same as a brother of the Night’s Watch, except that his furs were ragged and greasy.” (George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire: A Game of Thrones, p. 11)

This passage, while certainly not poorly written, and much better than Mr. Zwahlen’s, is rather uninteresting in its depictions. The story is fascinating, highly complex, and full of an engrossing intensity, but there is something un-compelling in the way in which Martin sets his scenes and develops his characters. I have begun reading this book on three separate occasions, making it several hundred pages deep, and each time finding the prose too uninspiring to be worth my time; though I may eventually return to it on account of the story. If only Thomas Hardy had contrived to write the story of the Starks and Lannisters…

Now take this excerpt from one of my favorite novels, Jane Eyre:

“From my discourse with Mr. Lloyd, and from the above reported conference between Bessie and Abbot, I gathered enough of hope to suffice as a motive for wishing to get well: a change seemed near,—I desired and waited it in silence. It tarried, however: days and weeks passed: I had regained my normal state of health but no new allusion was made to the subject over which I brooded. Mrs. Reed surveyed me at times with a severe eye, but seldom addressed me: since my illness, she had drawn a more marked line of separation than ever between me and her own children; appointing me a small closet to sleep in by myself, condemning me to take my meals alone, and pass all my time in the nursery, while my cousins were constantly in the drawing-room. Not a hint, however, did she drop about sending me to school: still I felt an instinctive certainty that she would not long endure me under the same roof with her; for her glance, now more than ever, when turned on me, expressed an insuperable and rooted aversion.” (Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, Chapter IV, p. 41.)

The subjects of these respective passages are irrelevant; the latter is superior to the preceding two in its command of the English language and the artistry with which it communicates information about the characters to the reader. Even if one detests the subject of the story, or wishes, as one friend recently said to me of Charlotte Brontë’s characters, to “throw them all into a pit of snakes,” a person with any regard for good diction cannot but appreciate it. One may enjoy a work of literature, but fail to appreciate it. Likewise, one may thoroughly appreciate a work, hating its subject or philosophy or author all the while.

In what I regard to be tantamount to literary blasphemy, Kurt Vonnegut famously espoused a sentiment that many other existing authors have either consciously or unconsciously put into practice: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college” (A Man Without a Country). I wish Mr. Vonnegut had ended more appropriately with what would have then been a prophetic addition, “…or that one is capable of thoughts exceeding 140 characters.” Dispense with the semicolon and one gets Twitter; or, rather, one gets short stories and novels written as if Twitter’s 140-character limit were the primary constraint upon their composition.

It is, of course, perfectly acceptable for a person to prefer literature that is not of the highest literary quality; just as it is perfectly acceptable for a person to occasionally indulge in foods that are unhealthy. I only mean to suggest that the recent works most highly regarded are inferior to even those works considered only modestly successful a hundred years ago. But the moment one begins to praise Rothko at Caravaggio’s expense, I feel I must lift a finger in protest. It is not that modern or contemporary works are entirely devoid of merit––far from it—but something has largely been lost and not merely changed. There is a point at which it is no longer a question of apples and oranges but of fruit-specific integrity. Modern apples, however, unlike modern fiction, have to the present, at least, retained their sweetness.

Notes:

1.) In citing this as an example of unimpressive writing, I realize I will now proceed to make enemies.

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Racist Anti-Racism

Photo Credit: CNN.com

In our day, it is not only people that are categorized according to race, but ideas. If recent history is any indication, even my attempt to broach the subject of the double-standards common in discussions on racism will be met with (at least) skepticism by some who consider my pigmentation inherently disqualifying. After all, how might a white man understand the plight of blacks (1) who feel ostracized on account of their race? The answer is simple: racism is an ideology, which means it cannot be the prerogative of any particular race, and therefore does not operate in only one direction .

That the U.S. has been guilty of pervasive official discrimination against blacks in the past is an incontrovertible fact, and it is praiseworthy that those unjust legal biases have rightly been eradicated. However, though there still exist fringe groups that openly profess racial prejudice (e.g., the Klu Klux Klan), the kind and scope of persecution alleged to occur against the black community today is, I aver, not of the KKK brand. (Nobody attributes any credence to anything issuing forth from the obtuse mouths of the Klan members, anyway.) I submit that it is not the prevalence of melanin in a person’s skin alone that fosters a tendency to form possibly unjust preconceptions, but that in conjunction with the perpetuation of what is called the “black community” or “black culture” (2). Discrimination against blacks, when is does actually occur, is rarely an aversion to the color of their skin, but often the result of a distaste for the substance of what is understood to be the associated subculture. This is not really racism, but a sort of anti-culturalism. Just what constitutes “black culture,” I do not presume to know; I know only that it is the subject of volumes of literature and consistent media attention, and that if the term were meaningless, it could hardly receive the press it now enjoys.

Even granting that there does exist such a thing as black culture, it is, of course, not technically correct or appropriate for the average person (3) to presuppose of any other with very dark skin their membership within that culture. This is true of any kind of stereotype one might be inclined to attribute to some race. However, recognition of the fact that black culture is the recipient of much positive advertising in the media—particularly from prominent rap and hip hop artists and television (e.g., BET)—ought to diminish the swiftness with which blacks fire allegations of discrimination. Were I to don a tee-shirt emblazoned with only the word “Cornell,” a person might be forgiven for falsely assuming that I actually attended there.

Examples of the deliberate effort to cultivate this cultural distinction are numerous. There are nationally recognized organizations that specifically promote a kind of racial distinction: Miss Black USA, Ebony Magazine, Black Enterprise, and the—dare I say infamous—National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Likewise, at my own undergraduate alma mater, there were at least two black interest groups: the Society of Black Engineers and The Society of Distinguished Black Women. That such groups exist simultaneously with loud efforts to end discrimination makes it difficult to avoid the sense that there is a glaring double-standard. I can vividly imagine the kind of vitriol I would inevitably receive, the innumerable accusations of hatred and prejudice, had I tried to start a parallel group in which I only exchanged the word “black” for “white.”

Though making racial distinctions is not necessarily wrong—after all, there are niche groups for almost everything—it is at least exceedingly counterproductive to the stated aims of such groups as the NAACP. If the ultimate goal is really a pervasive social “color blindness,” it is difficult to see how having a sort of “black pride” is in any way helpful. Such a sentiment is understandable in the context of the 1970s, when America was still plagued by the lingering prevalence of an anti-black milieu, but the circumstances now hardly resemble that unfortunate state of affairs. Having a black president was at that time unfeasible; now, the first black president is well into his second term. Whatever its current manifestations, racism against blacks is hardly what it once was.

The kind of rhetoric bandied about by the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of this country would seem to lead one to the opposite conclusion: that racism in America is still as prevalent as ever. Given the great improvements in the understanding of equality that have been made in the public consciousness, one tires of the impassioned speeches that predictably attempt to channel the moral indignation of the honorable Martin Luther King, Jr. The compelling desire to be needed, to spearhead a fight against an injustice which on a grand scale no longer exists, has the unfortunate effect of creating the very problem that needs solving—the purveyance of racism, albeit in the opposite direction. This achieves in effect a sort of counter-racism. Some blacks have even gone so far as to suggest that it is impossible for them to be racist. This is quite simply because racism is in their minds a one-sided endeavor in which they are the sole victims.

The most prominent example of this divisiveness is witnessed in the circumstances surrounding the ongoing trial of George Zimmerman regarding the shooting of Trayvon Martin. In large part, many people (blacks in particular) instantly accused George Zimmerman of having committed a racially motivated crime, well before the full facts of the case had been made public, and have since artificially manufactured the case as a civil rights issue. For many blacks (though certainly not all), Zimmerman is guilty and will remain so in their eyes even if he is acquitted. In a continual barrage of callow extortion taking place in the sophisticated realm of Twitter, Mr. Zimmerman has received numerous open death threats from some blacks claiming to be willing to take justice into their own hands—hardly an effective way to win acceptance in the public eye. If respect and acceptance is truly the goal of the black community, the volatile outrage that Trayvon Martin’s death ignited therein is achieving exactly the opposite effect, and it must therefore be condemned.

Further evidence that the purveyors of black culture are ideologically entrenched can be found in the strained—and, frankly, outrageous—lengths to which some writers have gone to defend Rachel Jeantel’s abysmal testimony in Mr. Zimmerman’s trial. Not only was Ms. Jeantel found to have lied on several occasions (at least once while under oath), her openly disrespectful attitude is hardly becoming. Her genuine ignorance and incivility can certainly be forgiven, but they cannot be respected. In an article titled, “Why Black People Understand Rachel Jeantel,” author Christina Coleman begins, “If ever I thought myself objective and unbiased, the George Zimmerman trial is definitely not that moment.” (I suppose we must thank Ms. Coleman for saving us the trouble of detecting her bias by having to read the entire article.) She goes on:

“But maybe the reason white people don’t understand Rachel Jeantel has something more to do with white privilege then [sic], what they would call, Rachel’s capricious nature. / Let’s for one second try to understand why Rachel is “angry” (read emotional), “hood” (read blunt), and “unintelligent” (read multilingual).”

That Ms. Coleman categorically attributes Ms. Jeantel’s faults to “white privilege” and understands the word “unintelligent” to be synonymous with “multilingual” is, I think, telling. The straw-grasping in an attempt to defend any member of the black community, no matter the apparent transgression, is precisely the best way to undermine any sympathies people may feel towards blacks. If I may be so bold, engaging in constructive criticism or condemnation when it is warranted would perhaps constitute a more effective PR campaign than hurried attempts to wave away any and every apparent vice.

Racism, if it is to go the way of smallpox and Dodos, must be attacked wherever it is manifested. There is no one who may by virtue of their race consider themselves immune to even subtle prejudice or, worse, justified in engaging in open racial hostility. If America is to enjoy the richness that may be had as a result of being a true melting pot, no subculture may consider itself above pointed self-criticism; for by fancying himself invulnerable a man chinks his own armor.

 Notes: 

(1) I use the term “black” in distinction to African American, since it is possible to be an American with very dark skin and yet not necessarily be of African decent, as is the case with Belizeans.

(2) It must be noted that, wherever they find their origin, these terms have been adopted and perpetuated proudly by certain demographics within the black community.

(3) A case for racial profiling for purposes of security, as in an airport, can in my opinion be made on the grounds of valid statistics. The success of Israeli security, for example, is in no small part due to the fact that they unapologetically employ profiling techniques.

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