Saturday, December 29, 2018

[Daily] Four Essays: Orwell, Auden, Bettelheim, MLK

It's on the second reading I get the most out of a piece of writing, be it a book, an essay or article. Lately I've been finding it's also what else I'm reading that matters, the sequence and timing.

This morning I began The Eloquent Essay: An Anthology of Classic & Creative Nonfiction, edited by John Loughery. (I picked it up yesterday from the library, after going in intending to only return books.) Although the essays are ordered by publication date, I suspect a deeper method to Loughery's selection, for the first few essays cumulatively make an impression that a single one doesn't. The first two make you appreciate life by investigating death; two others ignite a sense of agency over, and urgency to act upon your life.

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The first essay is George Orwell's "A Hanging" (1931), which is quite well known. This was probably the third time I've read it, but enough time has passed that the narrative arc was familiar but details felt fresh. This essay is unusual in that, though told as a story, it clearly states its message less than halfway through and allows the rest of the tale to magnify that point. This poignant moment occurs as the prisoner walks to the gallows:
I watched the bare back of the prisoner marching in front of me. [...] At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. [...] His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the gray walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned—reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world [...].
After Orwell, we come to "The Guilty Vicarage" (1948) by W. H. Auden, which is the only essay here new to me. It's ostensibly about Auden's self-professed addiction to detective stories. Not any detective stories—ones that "conform to certain formulas." He's so addicted, he's compelled to pick apart the essential attributes of these stories, first defining what does and does not constitute a detective story (Sherlock Holmes, yes; Crime & Punishment, no, Kafka's The Trial, no—they are art). He asserts the tale must be about a murder, because murder is special:
There are three classes of crime: (A) offenses against God and one's neighbor or neighbors; (B) offenses against God and society; (C) offenses against God. (All crimes, of course, are offenses against oneself.)
Murder is a member and the only member of Class B. The character common to all crimes in Class A is that it is possible, at least theoretically, either that restitution can be made to the injured party (e.g., stolen goods can be returned), or that the injured party can forgive the criminal (e.g., in the case of rape). Consequently, society as a whole is only indirectly involved; its representatives (the police, etc.) act in the interests of the injured party.
Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand restitution or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest.
Stories deliberately toy with the differing demands of each class of crime:
Many detective stories begin with a death that appears to be suicide and is later discovered to have been murder. Suicide is a crime belonging to Class C in which neither the criminal's neighbors nor society has any interest, direct or indirect. As long as a death is believed to be suicide, even private curiosity is improper; as soon as it is proved to be murder, public inquiry becomes a duty.
Auden then dives into the five elements of these stories in similar detail as above, and speculates on the goals of the reader, which includes his self-diagnosis. The part that builds on Orwell's attitudes is the classification of murder, though. It builds on this question of: why is killing a human such a singular act? It's hard to ponder this question without thinking, then, that each human life is precious.

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After a brief interlude about "Writing and Analyzing a Story" (Eudora Welty), we return to two more well-known essays: first, Bruno Bettelheim's "The Ignored Lesson of Anne Frank" (1960), followed by Martin Luther King, Jr's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963). These two essays further develop the sentiment established in the earlier part of the book, and tell you: life is worth preserving, and you're in charge.

Bettelheim's piece on Anne Frank is a bit long-winded—he repeats himself a number of times, which has the effect of showing just how exasperated he is. He's exasperated about Anne's story being the celebrated story of the Holocaust, when he sees her family's choices as passive, unrigorous, and unrealistic. They chose to go into hiding as a family, which is much harder and riskier than as individuals in separate households, and made no plans for what to do in case of discovery—either by arming themselves to at least go down fighting, or by creating a secondary escape route (there was one entrance to their hiding spot).

To Bettelheim, the Franks failed to take their lives into their own hands, and they were not alone. He describes similar phenomenon amongst some of his relatives, whom, as Nazi regulations on Jews got worse, "clung more determinedly to their old living arrangements and to each other, became less able to consider giving up the possessions they had accumulated through hard work over a lifetime" instead of fleeing. He diagnoses the cause:
I believe the reason for such refusal has to be found in their inability to take action. If we are certain that we are helpless to protect ourselves against the danger of destruction, we cannot contemplate it. We can consider the danger only as long as we believe there are ways to protect ourselves, to fight back, to escape. If we are convinced none of this is possible for us, then there is no point in thinking about the danger; on the contrary, it is best to refuse to do so.
It's worse than self-destruction. People who have given up will drag others with them. He recounts a story from Olga Lengyel, a survivor of Auschwitz.
When Mrs. Lengyel's fellow prisoners were selected to be sent to the gas chambers, they did not try to break away from the group, as she successfully did. Worse, the first time she tried to escape the gas chambers, some of the other selected prisoners told the supervisors that she was trying to get away. [...] She [observed that] they resented anyone who tried to save himself from the common fate, because they lacked enough courage to risk action themselves.
Bettelheim ends his essay with a connection to contemporary events: "If today, Negroes in Africa march against the guns of a police that defends apartheid—even if hundreds of dissenters are shot down and tens of thousands rounded up in camps—their fight will sooner or later assure them a chance for liberty and equality." This leads us right into MLK's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." It's hard to imagine this was not a deliberate transition engineered by our editor, Loughery.

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When re-reading MLK's "Letter," the most poignant impression I had was: this is a man who'd be almost 90 years old today, communicating forcefully, vitally across time. It reminded me of something my friend Kevin told me on a recent visit to the Legion of Honor museum that changed my point of view. I'd always been underwhelmed by relics of old civilizations, like pottery and jewelry, and wondered what people got out of looking at them. But Kevin said, "well, it's like reading the Iliad and realizing that people thousands of years ago were like you and me—they described each other, their emotions, and their surroundings—flowers, bees—the same way we do now." Their pottery and jewelry is like pottery and jewelry we'd use today. That's the sort of feeling I had reading King, that this person seems as relevant and alive to me today as he did fifty years ago when he wrote this.

King, when presented after Bettelheim, is the quintessential opposite of the Franks, especially in his sense of urgency. He answers very thoroughly, "why?" but also "why now?"
For years now I have heard the word "wait." It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never." It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration.
He rebukes "the myth of time"—the idea that time itself leads to positive change.
I had also hoped that the white moderates would reject the myth of time. I received a letter this morning from a white brother in Texas which said, "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but is it possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry? It has taken Christianity almost 2000 years to accomplish what it has. [...]" All that is said here grows out of a tragic misconception of time. It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.
King is not an exact follower of Bettelheim, though. Whereas Bettelheim's point of view would seem to urge violent resistance in King's situation (degrading treatment and systemic threats on your life), King urges breaking unjust laws, e.g. laws of segregation, while keeping to the just laws, which, though not explicitly stated by King, would include violence based on his description. In taking the high road, King describes how he must straddle the "two opposing forces in the Negro community."
One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of "somebodyness" that they have adjusted to segregation, and, on the other hand, of a few Negroes in the middle class who [have sometimes benefited from segregation and thus] unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred and comes perilously close to advocating violence. [...] I have tried to stand between these two forces [...] If this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood.
King's situation is not quite as extreme as the Holocaust, where large-scale, organized extermination of a class of people was taking place. King knew he could be killed, but it would not be due to formal orders from the government. What he describes above as the two opposing forces are the two forces that Bettelheim identifies—passive, learned indifference versus violent resistance. In contrast, King finds a third path that is possible in his slightly lower-stakes situation, if only they can act and bring about change in time. Time is of essence, for "[t]here comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over."

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I didn't expect going into this book of essays to be inspired to write what's become an essay itself. That's the magic of the selection and sequencing by Loughery. Connections compound.

The conflicts discussed in the four essays focus on man-versus-man. If someone were to add a fifth essay to this sequence, it would be interesting to tackle man-versus-nature, building on the survivalism theme and on King's sense of urgency.

The survivalism expressed by Bettelheim makes me think twice about some things that initially sounded crazy to me, such as the armageddon bunkers in New Zealand that were universally panned in the media. They're seen as selfish, but they're also something none of us would turn down if the need and opportunity to use one arose. If nuclear war or another form of environmental catastrophe does happen, not all of us will survive. Is it not better that some of us can prepare for it and carry on the species, even if it's not you and I? Most of us have to admit we do not feel equipped to fend for ourselves in case of armageddon, and part of us resents that others have the means and have acted. (Some of the criticism is also due to fears about the downstream effects of having such a fallback plan—that a powerful person might care less about preventing world-scale problems if they have a fallback. The fact that no one has moved to their bunker suggests the world outside is still much preferable, though.) King would likely remark that this is the wrong fight—to find a way to work productively toward a solution before a time of crisis does arrive.

The most lasting image from this sequence for me remains the one from Orwell, of man, aware, sidestepping a puddle. What Orwell and the authors here bemoan is man robbing man, of life or freedom. [0]


[0] Thoughts that don't fit in this post neatly, to ponder another time: Nature ultimately takes away from man the same things, just later.
I've heard that every time we lose a person, we lose a book. I think we lose at least a few essays for sure. What would it be like if everyone wrote them instead?

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