The Hedgehog’s Array: October 2, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals,” Tim Flannery
“Most of us will never see a wild elephant, much less spend the time observing them that is required to understand them as individuals. But there are animals that share our lives, and whose societies, emotional depth, and intelligence are readily accessible.”

“Behind the Draped Mirror,” Colin Dickey
“The period of mourning is always delicate, temporally speaking. The procession from death to the afterlife is represented in many human cultures as a journey, sometimes including a psychopomp like Anubis or Charon, a ferryman to guide us on our way.”

“Unstable Atoms,” Kerry Clare
“Closer to home, the past itself functions as another kind of otherwhere. From Mary-Rose’s perspective, there seems to be an impassable gulf between then and now, even though the characters are the same people.”

“Thinking with Heidegger: On the Theological Implications of an ‘A-theistic’ Philosophy,” Christopher Barnett
“Thus Heidegger’s intellectual formation lies very much in the traditional Catholicism of his hometown. What, then, led him away from this heritage and toward the a-theological character of his later thinking?”

“From Silkworms to Songbirds: Why We No Longer Preach Like Jonathan Edwards,” Ted A. Smith
“Edwards saw these typological connections everywhere. He saw shadows of divine things in the way a snake caught its prey, what it is like to climb a hill, the waves of a stormy sea, flaxen clothing, cornmeal, the stench of a corpse, milk, and the habit of taking off one’s clothes before sleeping.”

“Has Child Protective Services Gone Too Far?,” Michelle Goldberg
“Advocates for families caught up in the child-welfare system hope that the national debate sparked by the free-range parenting movement will draw attention to the threats and intrusions that poor and minority parents endure all the time.”

Hedgehogs abroad:

“How to Tame an Internet Troll,” Frank Pasquale
“The fantasy of using words alone to right a perceived injustice—or trigger a meltdown—has renewed relevance today.”

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T. S. Eliot on Psychology and the Modern Novel

T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, June 1924. Via Wikimedia Commons.

T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, June 1924. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not one of T. S. Eliot’s major works of criticism, and though it appeared in a French publication in 1927, the English version of “The Contemporary Novel” that he promised to Edmund Wilson at the New Republic was apparently lost. Recovered among his mother’s papers and soon to be published in the third volume of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot, this seemingly slight essay on the novels of four contemporaries (D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, David Garnett, and Aldous Huxley) contains some strikingly canny observations about both modern fiction and certain tendencies in Western intellectual culture that persist to this day.

Eliot begins by quoting Henry James’s critical assessment of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories:

They are moral, and their interest is moral; they deal with something more than the mere accidents and conventionalities, the surface occurrences of life. The fine thing in Hawthorne is that he cared for the deeper psychology, and that, in his way, he tried to become familiar with it

Like James, Eliot appreciated Hawthorne for both his moral seriousness and his care for the “deeper psychology,” and he esteemed James for that very same conjunction of concerns. Indeed, Eliot suggests that what is most interesting about both writers is their shared assumption of a deep connection between psychological depth and moral seriousness, a connection that Eliot believed was becoming progressively de-linked in his own time, nowhere more obviously than in literary and intellectual understandings of psychology itself. Writes Eliot:

James’s book on Hawthorne was published in 1879. “Psychology” had not then reached the meaning of to-day, or if it had the meaning had not reached Henry James. One could not use the phrase now without surrounding it with a whole commentary of exposition and defence. But one feels that it is right; and that our contemporary novelists, under the influence of the shallower psychology by which we are all now affected, have missed that deeper psychology which was the subject of Henry James’s study.

To Eliot, the primary source of this new and shallower psychology was clear: the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud. “It would,” he wrote, “be a work for a more highly trained and specialized mind than my own, to trace the effect of psycho-analysis upon literature and upon life, within the last thirty years or so. This effect is probably both greater and more transient than we suppose.”

Transient, perhaps, but Eliot had no doubt about its decisive influence on the work of contemporary novelists, including the four that he addressed specifically in the essay:

All that I wish to affirm is that nearly every contemporary novel known to me is either directly affected by a study of psycho-analysis, or affected by the atmosphere created by psycho-analysis, or inspired by a desire to escape from psycho-analysis; and that, in each case, the result is a loss of seriousness and profundity, of that profundity which Henry James, if he did not always get it, was at least always after.

Was Eliot here revealing his own prudish fastidiousness? Was this the prim judgement of the Anglo-Catholic poet, horrified by Freud’s probing of the recessive, sexually driven workings of the human unconscious? It might seem so. But in words so elliptical as almost to obscure their intent, Eliot complicates his assessment of Freud (and our understanding of Eliot himself) by mentioning the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, implying that the Russian novelist’s understanding of human psychology was no less appreciative of the power of the unconscious than Freud’s, but still decisively different:

 It [the influence of psychoanalysis] would have to be distinguished from the influence of Dostoevski; or rather, one would have to reconstruct hypothetically what the influence of Dostoevski would or could have been had not one aspect of his work been tremendously reinforced by the coincidence of his vogue in western Europe with the rise of Freud.

The key phrase here is “one aspect.” More by implication than by explicit argument, Eliot credits Dostoevsky with peering into the abyss at least as intently as Freud and his acolytes did, but nevertheless coming away from the experience with a richer, fuller, and, yes, deeper understanding of human psychology. Dostoevsky did so precisely because he did not take such depths to be all-shaping or ultimately determinative. He did not reduce the complex dynamics of human motivation to one set of primal drives. He understood—and his greatest novels demonstrated—that human motivations were just as powerfully influenced and shaped by moral aspirations and spiritual longings. In short, in Eliot’s view, Dostoevsky resisted the seductions of reductivism that drew so many of the best modern minds toward a tragic misconstrual of the human person.

What Eliot was also getting at was a larger cultural-intellectual affliction: the seductions of ideas and ideologies. And it was precisely in his resistance to such seductions that Eliot saw James as such an exemplary artist and mind: of a kind that seemed, in Eliot’s view, to have largely disappeared after the death of James himself, in 1918. In that same year, Eliot wrote these words about James in The Little Review, words that merit reconsideration in light of the recently recovered essay:

James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it…. In England, ideas run wild and pasture on the emotions; instead of thinking with our feelings (a very different thing) we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the public, the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought…. James in his novels is like the best French critics in maintaining a point of view, a view-point untouched by the parasite idea. He is the most intelligent man of his generation.

Jay Tolson is editor of the Hedgehog Review.

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The Critical Fate of the Major Novel

9780374239213I read Jonathan Franzen’s Purity in one sitting: It came in the mail, I opened it up, and despite frequent breaks and every intention of doing something else with my time, I ended up finishing the novel before the next day broke.

This isn’t a ringing endorsement of Purity as a book. It is, I would say, an interesting mess. It has a huge plot in which everyone ends up connected to everyone else, but when the pieces come together, it’s not exciting—just over-determined. Franzen has continued his commitment to “transparent access” (i.e. uninteresting prose). The result is a certain predictability and a sentence-by-sentence flatness.

The Franzen news cycle has, by this point, come and gone, at least until Franzen himself gives another press interview and (inevitably) says something a little ill-considered (or at least easily misrepresented). But it reminded me of the cycle of coverage that surrounded another “big” novel this year—Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. There, too, the coverage ended up being linked to Ishiguro’s biography and to a remark he made in an interview about concerns that the book would be viewed as “fantasy.”

And, much like Purity, The Buried Giant was not a book that lent itself to an easy “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” It, too, was an interesting mess. It attempted a lot of things and failed at some of them. The best reviews were those that set aside the task of delivering some sort of definitive verdict to consider the novel as a complex whole. And this has been the case, too, with Purity. (For good reviews in the sense I mean, I would recommend Lydia Kiesling at the Millions and Elaine Blair at Harper’s, along with James Meek at the London Review of Books.)

An “interesting mess”–type book is a challenge for a reviewer because, as a category, it resists the somewhat more headline-friendly declaration that the novel is the “best yet,” the “worst yet,“ the “most challenging yet,” or the “most disappointing yet.”  Or you can sidestep this kind of difficulty in order to talk about the author. Or you can simply make your declaration anyway. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: September 25, 2015

hedgehog array logo_FLAT_72dpi[3]Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“Down the Rabbit Hole,” Evan Kindley
“What makes a good annotator? It’s some combination, apparently, of excess and restraint: an instinct for when to tell us more than we need to know (or more than we knew there was to know) balanced with a refusal to bore us.”

“This Free Online Encyclopedia Has Achieved What Wikipedia Can Only Dream Of,” Nikhil Sonnad
“The [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] is a highly rare case of knowledge being separated from the trash heap. The question is, can we make more of the internet like this?”

“The Magic of Untidiness,” Laurel Berger
“Renewal is what we do each time we revisit a book. It’s not only the text that holds meaning, but the thing itself and the imprint that time and lived experience have left on it.”

“How Naked People Took Over Reality Television,” James Parker
“The discourse of true love, of finding the right person, etc., winds bizarrely and distractingly through Dating Naked, past the yoga boners and the lewd poolside fondlings.”

“The Pamphleteers,” Scott Porch and Gordon Wood
“The pamphlets are hard to read. There are too many citations to Cicero and Tacitus, and there’s a very limited audience for that. To some extent, that’s true today. People who read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and Atlantic Monthly are the same people.”

“Broken Links,” Alana Massey
“I asked Michael L Nelson, a computer scientist at Old Dominion University in Virginia, how likely it is that someone, or something, could follow my trail back to find the comments and profiles I’d flung across the internet in the 1990s and early 2000s.”

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Nature Writing Gets Personal

H is for HawkWe know a lot about Henry David Thoreau, and we should. He went to Harvard, worked in his father’s pencil factory, set up a school with his brother John, did odd jobs for Ralph Waldo Emerson, fought for John Brown, became a transcendentalist, battled tuberculosis and, most memorably, built a cabin and had deep thoughts on Walden Pond. These and other biographical details can be found and confirmed on Google. Go nuts.

But what we don’t know about Thoreau is how he actually felt about any of it. Thoreau’s writings, Walden in particular, offer the most compelling philosophical and naturalistic observations in the American canon, but the messier ingredients of inner life—suffering, exaltation, insecurity, angst, and the rest—barely register. This is not a criticism; after all, Thoreau’s private emotional existence may have been uninteresting (or even unavailable) to him. Even so, it’s worth noting that the father of American nature writing established a precedent of temperamental reserve that survived the confessional flood of the Victorian era, continued into the twentieth century, and, to a large extent, remains the norm today.

It seems safe to suggest that, throughout the history of American nature writing, lugging one’s emotional baggage into the natural world has been considered, if not bad form, inconsistent with the genre’s larger mission: to subsume “man” in the ineffable awesomeness of “nature.” “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature,” Thoreau advised in Walden. It was in nature, after all, that the emotional angst of daily life was softened by the imperative of “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.” It was in nature that the elemental purity of “eternity” rendered irrelevant the tangibly “thin current” of petty human preoccupation, a current too often infected with what Thoreau dismissed as the flotsam of modernity. Continue reading

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Can Evangelicals Agree With Bernie Sanders?

Bernie Sanders speaking at Liberty University. (Screencap from C-SPAN recording.)

Bernie Sanders speaking at Liberty University. Image from C-SPAN recording.

What should we expect from white evangelicals?* It’s a complicated question with a lot of answers, but among those answers is probably not “a lefty socialist irreligious Jew speaking at one of their flagship universities.” Yet there was Bernie Sanders last week, speaking at Liberty University, making the case that inequality and dire poverty are moral issues that speak to Christians’ core concerns. By all accounts, Sanders was met with applause, with students and onlookers telling reporters they appreciated the reminders to remember the poor.

Should we be surprised? While I’m not an evangelical myself, my first (forthcoming) book is about my fieldwork in two evangelical high schools, and at one of the schools, many students and teachers went to Liberty for undergrad. So I’m not at all surprised that Sanders received a warm welcome: There’s a cultural expectation of kindness and welcoming in these communities. One of the most vicious stereotypes about evangelicals is that they’re personally unkind. Sometimes their politics makes their relationships to outsiders complicated: It’s hard not take “hate the sin, love the sinner” as anything but patronizing, but the intention is nearly always one of kindness.

Yet Bernie at Liberty raises a question that liberal Christians and frustrated outsiders have been asking since the Reagan Revolution. If their founder insisted the last shall be first, wandering with nowhere to lay his head, commanding his followers to do likewise (don’t even bring an extra shirt!), why do evangelicals need any reminder at all that poverty is an important issue?

There’s a lot of good work on this question right now, and much of it hinges upon a crucial insight: Evangelicals aren’t nearly as coherent a group as you might think. Many are creationists, but many are not, or they’re creationist with caveats. Many oppose abortion, but not all, and not all in the ways you would expect. Homosexuality is even more complicated. And so, of course, is poverty. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: September 18, 2015

hedgehog array logo_FLAT_72dpi[3]Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“Finding Your Way Home,” Peter Godfrey-Smith
“Dreyfus and Taylor think that philosophy constantly invents new ways to falsely intellectualize our relationship to things that we do. Philosophy itself does not subside once we see these issues clearly; philosophy has tasks beyond merely diagnosing errors.”

“The Accidental Diorama of a Novelist’s Life,” Mary Duffy
“In the face of this older, employed, nearly-tenured professional person who would probably write real things, publishable things in this chair, I suddenly worried that I would have to relinquish it, that I had done something rude.”

“What Is the Point of College?,” Kwame Anthony Appiah
“As higher education expands its reach, it’s increasingly hard to say what college is like and what college is for.”

“Speaking in Science,” Christine Mitchell
“Scientific Babel, it might be said, now confronts us on seemingly different fronts—the human and the machinic.”

“Inside The Mermaid Economy,” Elizabeth Segran
“As someone who has tracked mermaid culture for about a decade, Wolbert says that fascination with mermaids has always been there under the surface.”

“Cattle Calls,” Ted Conover
“The heartland has been emptying of large-animal vets for at least two decades, as agribusiness changed the employment picture and people left the region. Many vets simply close shop when they retire; private practice is too hard a way to make a living. Meanwhile, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has become the nation’s largest single employer of vets, most of whom work in meat and poultry plants, where they oversee not animal husbandry but slaughter.”

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College Degrees or College Education?

A college diploma. Our Lady of Disgrace via flickr.

A college diploma. Our Lady of Disgrace via flickr.

The much-awaited, much-debated Obama College Scorecard has just been released. Some reports have described it as a retreat by the administration, with President Obama caving to pressure from a chorus of college and university leaders. But if the failure to include a numerical ranking of the evaluated schools is a compromise, it is an insignificant one. Close examination shows that the Scorecard effectively supports the administration’s broader effort to redefine the purpose of higher education as the preparation of young Americans for high-paying jobs. The real question, of course, is whether we should be happy about this administration victory.

To be sure, the Scorecard provides Americans with some useful information on schools’ average annual costs, graduation rates, and graduates’ incomes. For example, despite posted tuitions, many private universities and colleges offer significant discounts and financial aid, making them much more affordable than their sticker price would suggest. Revealing this fact may inspire more applicants to consider schools that they thought were out of reach. It may even inspire more schools to devote resources to financial aid.

Still, the clear implication here is that the point of a college degree is to get in and out as cheaply and quickly as possible in order to secure a job with a big salary. And let us not pretend that colleges won’t respond to these incentives.

The Obama administration, for its part, knows the power of this kind of nudge. They want parents and potential students to be make choices based on those bottom-line criteria. Given how colleges and universities responded to US News and World Report’s highly influential rankings, the risk that colleges will begin to change themselves is real. If this means emphasizing accounting over literature, so be it. Continue reading

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