Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ambivalent Legacy

Two recent news stories collided in my mind and I imagined that the late Ted Kennedy had once kidnapped an 11-year-old girl, kept her captive in his backyard for 15 years and fathered two children on her.  (Is that worse than leaving someone to die in a submerged car?  Answer to rhetorical question:  yes, I believe that prolonged abuse is worse than a "quick" death.  But anyway.)

On one of the blogs I visit, a discussion began on who was the "greatest American Senator" ever.  Someone suggested Henry Clay (about whom I know nothing) and someone else objected on the grounds that Clay owned slaves.  Then they headed into "you can't judge the past by the standards of the present" territory.  Personally I can't bring myself to agree with that.  It implies that nobody back then knew that slavery was wrong.  I am sure that the people who were living in slavery knew it was wrong. 

It's just that their opinions didn't count (because slaves are not human.)  And possibly there are people today who think that their opinions still don't count.  A thing does not become immoral until the ruling class decides that it's immoral. Isn't that right?

The Kennedys are just a big heap of moral ambiguity.  They did so many good things!  They did so many bad things!  Which one outweighs the other?  We all hope to be judged kindly.  But I . . . I don't think it's just a question of "I did ten good things and five bad things" or "I did three really good things and 15 things that were not really all that bad."  I think it's a question of power.

If someone uses their power for good, then that's good.  If they use their power for bad -- yeah, that's bad.  Abuses of power count for much more on the bad side than right uses of power count for the good.  And the reason is that people excuse abuses committed by the powerful.  They do this because they want to ally themselves with the powerful. There's no point in standing up for someone who has no power.  How can they benefit you?  You want to curry favor with someone who has favors to hand out.  You don't associate with losers.

I blogged recently about a conversation between a childhood friend of mine, and someone who bullied me in childhood.  I didn't mention that the bully also wrote "I admire you standing up for her."  Because it is so very unusual to take the side of someone who's demonstrated themselves to be a loser.  She didn't mean standing up for me at the time, either.  She's talking about their present conversation, years later.  Even now it is admirable, in the mind of a bully, to say just one little word.

Yes, a certain number of people are willing to side with the underdog, at least some of the time.  A large number of people are the underdog . . . sometimes they side with their oppressors and sometimes they don't.  I'm trying to say more than just "side with the underdog" . . . I'm trying to say, that powerful people are dangerous.  Because somehow, crimes against the powerless are always minimized.

I appreciate the ambiguity of someone who uses their powers both for good and for evil.  There's also a saying about "someone who has the power to do evil, but refrains . . . ."  But I just can't join in unmitigated, or even faintly mitigated, praise.  Because there are too many people, alive and dead, who never got a chance to speak for themselves.  That's why.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Shakespeare Confession

Okay, I admit it: my favorite Shakespeare play is Measure for Measure. Yes, I admire Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet (although I insist that what Lear needed was an appointment with the cluestick.) But Measure is just so weird, and dark, and twisted, and modern. Is it modern? Can I say that? It was written in 1604, after all.

It is officially a comedy, because it ends with a number of weddings, and nobody gets killed. But various people are threatened with death, and most of those weddings are coerced, which makes the classification as "comedy" a bit unsettling.

The action of the play is driven by the ruler of a city (the Duke), who decides to go away, leaving someone else (named Angelo) in charge, and then sneak back in disguise to see how things go.

Angelo is a cold-hearted bastard, who claims to believe, or honestly thinks he does believe, in Justice.  He decides to enforce certain laws against fornication, which have been on the books for some time but mostly ignored.  Claudio, who got his fiancee pregnant, is therefore condemned to death.  Claudio's sister, Isabella, goes to Angelo to plead for clemency.  Angelo gets the hots for her, and suddenly understands why fornication is to attractive.  He offers to pardon Claudio if Isabella will have sex with him.

Isabella is about to become a nun, which is to say, she places a very high value on chastity.  She says "No!" and rushes off to tell Claudio what happened.  At first Claudio agrees that it would be wrong.  One of the most chilling moments in the play is when he gradually breaks down and ends up begging Isabella to sacrifice her virginity for his life.
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,
to lie in cold obstruction and to rot,
. . . 'tis too horrible.
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
that age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
can lay on nature is a paradise
to what we fear of death.
Now the Duke, disguised as a friar, steps in. But he is a very manipulative guy.  Although he has a plan to  save Claudio's life, he tells him "It's hopeless.  Give up.  You're just going to die."  Apparently this is for the good of his soul.  The Duke also tells Isabella, later, that their plan failed and her brother is dead.  He lets her go on believing this for quite some time.

The Duke's actions bring about justice, but he seems to believe that justice cannot be done without tremendous amounts of deception.  That's just weird.  In short, there are no heroes in the play -- that's what makes it seem modern.

Although this particular play is very obscure, like all Shakespeare's work it generated several quotes which have passed into common discourse (depending, of course, on where you get your discourse from.)  "Be absolute for death," "They say best men are molded out of faults,"  "And the poor beetle, that we tread upon, In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great As when a giant dies" are all from Measure for Measure.

Good stuff.

Out of the Past

Thanks to the magic of Facebook, I discovered that two of my friends from elementary school were "friends" with someone who constantly teased me. I told them about it. One of them wrote to her "you were one of the kids that tortured her in school, so not cool."

This person's response:
Nope, you are right about it not being so cool. It taught many of us a good lesson to stop bullying. . . . She was always way brighter than most of us and did her own thing. Doing your own thing was something that took many of us years later to realize that it was okay.
On the one hand, I wonder exactly when "we" learned this lesson, because they certainly didn't stop teasing me the whole time I went to school there.

On the other hand, who taught these kids that "doing your own thing" was not okay?  They did all of us a disservice.  I'm angry about that.

Friday, August 14, 2009

How to Cast Off

Okay, I can figure out how to cast on, and I remember knitting and purling, but casting off doesn't stick in my mind after a year or so has gone by. So here is a helpful link:

It has several varieties of casting off, some of which look very useful even though I will never actually use them.

The basic technique: "Slip or knit the first stitch. *Knit the next stitch. Pass the first stitch over the second. Repeat from *. "


Sunday, August 09, 2009

Washington Irving

A friend recently loaned me Washington Irving's Sketch Book. She thought I would like it and she was right. I liked it so much that I headed over to Wikipedia to see what the dish on Irving is. Some of this info comes from there.

Washington Irving (1783-1859) is said to be one of the first Americans to make a living as a writer. He created the following items:
  • "Gotham" as a nickname for New York City.
  • the myth that in 1492, Columbus and his compatriots believed the Earth was flat. Yes, apparently it's a myth.
  • the tale of Rip van Winkle, which retained its popularity for a long time.
  • the tale of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow, which also retained its popularity for a long time, and was even made into a Walt Disney cartoon in 1958.
He did not invent the two stories listed above; his original contribution was an American setting and, I suppose, his writing style.

He lived in England for many years. As a Jane Austen fan, I have to remark that they briefly overlapped, chronologically as well as geographically. He first moved to England in 1815; Austen died two years later. It seems unlikely that they ever met, but they both worked with the same publisher (John Murray) and it is tempting to think that they had mutual acquaintances (I do not know if a publisher counts as an acquaintance.)

Sir Walter Scott was an admirer of both writers - Austen and Irving - but a personal friend and benefactor to Irving alone. In his preface to the Sketch Book, Irving tells the story of how Scott offered him the position of editor of a magazine. Perhaps because he had tried this before, Irving had to refuse. He quotes from his letter to Scott:
"My whole course of life has been desultory, and I am unfitted for any periodically recurring task, or any stipulated labor of body or mind."
I find it rather amusing that, after having declared himself completely incapable of doing any actual work, he ended up going into the diplomatic service.

Throughout the Sketch Book he portrays himself as a dilettante, a rootless, homeless wanderer and essentially lazy person. This must have been somewhat of an exaggeration. The fact is that he did a lot of writing, which is hard work (especially if he was able to make it seem effortless), and a lot of traveling, which always requires exertion. It seems to have been part of his technique for charming people, to insist that he was not to be taken seriously.

The person who wrote the afterword to this edition of the Sketch Book claims, among other things, that underneath his light-hearted facade Irving was melancholy and obsessed with death. "Underneath" is not quite accurate. The Sketch Book contains many stories about tragic deaths, funerals, and so on, along with such lines as "[I was] indulging in that kind of melancholy fancying which has in it something sweeter even than pleasure." Apparently some later editions of the book removed all the depressing chapters - but that's not Irving's fault, now is it?

As for being obsessed with death: it may seem that way to a modern reader. But people paid much more attention to death in earlier times. It was present for them in a way that it's not for us. When Irving asks, "who is so fortunate as never to have followed someone he has loved to the tomb?" he's referring to ordinary reality. He himself was one of eleven children, of whom three died in infancy. His fiancee died at the age of nineteen (in fact, he never married.) I don't think he would have written so much about death and funeral customs if he didn't think his audience would be interested.

In some ways, he was a very conventional person. Many of the stories in the Sketch Book praise old customs and old writers, lament their passing, and criticize novelty. But he did allow himself a few rebellions. His sympathy for Native Americans was apparently very unusual for his time. He retells from a "volume of early colonial history" an incident in which a group of Europeans surround an Indian village, set fire to it and kill all the inhabitants (mostly women and children, as the warriors had been defeated in a previous battle.) He quotes:
"they were in much doubt then, and afterwards seriously enquired whether burning their enemies alive could be consistent with humanity, and the benevolent principles of the Gospel."
And yet you will note that they didn't discover their doubts until afterward.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Rainbow Fields

When I was a college freshman, I spent a semester in therapy. For the first session, the counselor handed me a pad of paper and some crayons. "Draw a picture of your childhood," she said.

That was easy. Without hesitation, I drew a large circle, for the horizon. I drew a line intersecting the southern edge of the circle - that was the road. Most of the circle I colored green, pink and blue. The fields were green - they were never actually pink and blue, but that's the way I remember them: magical colors. In the summer they turned orange and yellow (for real!) with Indian paintbrush flowers. I should have drawn the woods too but I can't remember if I did.

I put a dot out in the field to represent myself. Where our house was I put a large black dot. It was concentrated: thick, black, ugly. I put four dots next to it to represent my family. I put one more dot outside of the circle to represent my father. Then I was done.

The counselor and I looked at the picture. "What do you see?" she asked. I started to explain it to her and then I stopped.

"That's strange," I said. "I didn't intend to do that."

"What?" she asked (no doubt with a certain professional satisfaction.)

"That dot out in the field is me," I said. "That's where I was happy. I put four dots to represent my family . . . my mother, my two brothers . . . and me, again. I didn't realize I was putting myself twice."

"There are two of you," she said.

"Yeah. There are two of me."

I don't recall that we talked about that very much. I needed time to assimilate this new idea, and there were more specific things that I wanted to talk about. But it's certainly true that I spent a lot of time - then, and right up to now - trying to find my real self. Not the self that everybody else saw, or failed to see.

It's certainly true that the lessons I learned in the rainbow fields are what have kept me alive. To summarize: the human world is not the only world, thank goodness. Human beings (including myself) are selfish, narrow-minded, and scared.

There's a whole universe out there, much bigger than humanity. It provides beauty, nourishment, and a certain amount of danger, too. It is constantly changing. Constantly alive. Humans build their little structures and push their little buttons. Many of them don't seem to realize that the universe is alive. Life goes on without them. I was stifling inside that little box. I had to get out.

Sometimes I still forget those lessons. But I have to remember, because I can't survive without them. (And even though I live in the city now, I worry about people who have never known any other environment. That can't be good.)

The universe still surprises me.

Note: I posted a slightly different version of this on my other blog.