Wednesday, September 9, 2015

In which I venture into murky waters

Explanatory note: Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but Harper Lee’s editor felt the stories of Scout’s childhood were the most engaging parts of the novel, and encouraged Lee to concentrate on those. Thus Go Set a Watchman eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird, and the original manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was put aside. Thus while Watchman predates Mockingbird it describes events set chronologically after Mockingbird. Got that? Good. 

Once upon a time, a lawyer named Atticus Finch represented a young black man named Tom Robinson, who had been accused of rape of a white woman. The interesting thing is this; in order for Lee’s narrative to be convincing in that time and place, it is necessary for the accused man to be almost utterly powerless – crippled both financially and physically. The dramatic tension of the novel depends on there being plausible doubt about the outcome of the case. And in Lee’s Maycomb it seems pretty clear to me that the word of a black man being believed over that of a white woman would have been such a challenge to the established order of things that it would never have been allowed to happen. It only even comes close to happening because Tom Robinson is such an entirely and visibly powerless person that – in the eyes of Maycomb’s white society – he doesn’t really matter.

Jump forward 20 years. The political climate has changed. Separate schools for black and white pupils have been declared unconstitutional. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has got a political voice. The black population is no longer so wholly without power. Maycomb is being forced to change, and doesn’t like it.

Now we have left To Kill a Mockingbird and entered the world of Go Set a Watchman. Scout – Jean Louise Finch – is an adult. She has been to college, and lived in New York for several years. And Atticus, although still a lawyer, is a crippled shadow of his former self. The balance of power in Maycomb is different now.

Is the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird the same Atticus Finch of Watchman? The principled lawyer in the first sits uneasily with the worried old man of the second, who fears that the rapid change of the society he lives in will lead to chaos, if not armed revolt, and who, by reading the racist literature of the anti-integration movement and going to their meetings – and apparently failing to speak out against what he hears – appears to collude with that movement. Scout’s idolization of her father is shattered.

Go Set a Watchman has not been well received by the critics – and there is some justification for that. Lee devotes over a hundred pages to a portrait of Maycomb before we come to any kind of plot, and that’s so antithetical to the structure of the contemporary novel it’s almost blasphemy. Scout’s Uncle’s description of what is going on in Maycomb by analogy with the lives of Victorian literary figures is bewilderingly obscure. To Kill a Mockingbird is what Watchman became after two years of re-writing and editing, and it shows.

Even so, I loved it. It was glorious to meet Scout again as an adult. I love Harper Lee’s writing enough that I could read her anecdotes about Maycomb all day and not care if there was plot development or not. And actually, while the novel may seem meandering, none of it is gratuitous. We need all those descriptions of Maycomb and of Scout’s alienation from it if we are to fully understand what is happening later on. The book may not be the literary masterpiece that is To Kill a Mockingbird, but it’s readable and subtle and meaningful and in no way does its publication represent an exploitation of Harper Lee in her old age. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to read it.

Which brings me back to Atticus, and the question of whether the Atticus of Mockingbird is the same man as the Atticus of Watchman; and I really don’t see why he shouldn’t be. If anything, if we allow the two Atticuses to be the same principled person, Watchman asks important questions: To oppose a movement, is it always necessary to protest against it from the outside? Or is it morally acceptable also to work from within, to attempt to quietly and patiently guide it along more ethical lines? Scout’s passionate response to the second question is “no!” and it is this disagreement with her father that allows her to finally cast off her hero worship and grow up. Nevertheless, she reconciles with Atticus in the end, recognizing that running back to New York to condemn Maycomb from afar is also a flawed response. However much of a misfit Scout may be, she is part of Maycomb society and perhaps has an obligation to engage with it to help it to change.

So I do not agree with those who condemn Watchman because Watchman gives us a different understanding of Atticus’s character. Do we so desperately need Atticus Finch to be the great white hero of the racial equality movement that we cannot stand to discover that he might have feet of clay?

Mockingbird presents us with the viewpoint of a child, and it is perhaps what makes the novel great that we are forced to see the ugliness of racism through the black-and-white filter of a child’s vision. Watchman is told from the point of view of an adult, and is correspondingly more complex and has many shades of gray. Even Scout herself does not wholly embrace our twenty-first century ideal of racial equality – for all her claims to be colorblind, she still feels uncomfortable with the idea of interracial marriage. Lee’s heroine is a person of her own time and place.

The Wikipedia article on Mockingbird notes that it tends to be more popular among white readers than among black readers. I can guess at why. The black characters tend to be powerless, stereotyped and marginalized – the only developed black character in Mockingbird is Calpurnia, and for all her strength and grace it’s been suggested that she’s merely the stereotype of the “contented slave.” At least in Watchman she is allowed to break out of that role and express somewhat the conflict of her position. Is it possible that part of the appeal of Mockingbird is that it – through our identification with Atticus and Scout – allows white, middle class liberals like me to feel good about themselves?

So the racial equality movement has lost a great white hero, and Watchman doesn’t let people like me feel as good about themselves as Mockingbird does. Tell me again why this makes it a bad novel?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Jeremy Clarkson's "Mistake"

So Jeremy Clarkson, apparently, made a “mistake.” I’m kind of interested in the use of the word; even articles and comments that think the BBC made the right decision are using it. And I can see the reasoning; he may have technically committed a crime but he’s not been charged with anything so that word doesn’t quite fit, “sin” just has too many religious overtones, and “misdeed” sounds archaic. 

But am I alone in feeling that “mistake,” just doesn’t quite do it? A “mistake” is an error, a lapse in judgement. Mr. Clarkson’s action was definitely that, but doesn’t verbally abusing and punching one of your co-workers in the face deserve a word that’s a little more, I don’t know, judgy?

Then there’s Monica Lewinski. Who also made a “mistake.” Now, please understand that I was very impressed by her TED talk, I do not think she deserved what happened to her in the least, there are a number of things I did at the age of around twenty-two that I am now ashamed of, and if we are going to apportion blame then frankly the power inequality demands that Clinton takes 99.9% of it. 

However, if we take the definition of a wrong action as being something that hurts someone, then her affair with Clinton probably qualifies. If I was married to someone who “did not have sexual relations” with another party in so spectacular a fashion I’d be extremely upset with them but I also think I'd feel I'd been wronged by the other party. So am I wrong in feeling that ”mistake” just isn’t quite the right word?

Now, I and my Facebook friends are hugely judgmental about a whole range of different kinds of people all the time, including, but not limited to, homophobes, Republicans, racists, and people with a shaky grasp of science. So clearly, in some circumstances, we feel that being judgmental – laying blame – is just fine. But in other circumstances we feel it isn’t. And while the position of the boundary between the two is a very personal thing, what seems to be intolerable is the possibility of a gray area.

I am anticipating that there might be people that take exception to my claim that Lewinski did something wrong. (There may also be people who take exception to my claim that Clarkson did something wrong, but I shan’t lose sleep over them.) It almost seems that what we have here is an idea that once someone has done something wrong, they’re irrevocably stained. It’s apparently ok to be judgmental about, say, racists because they are so close to irredeemable that there’s no real possibility of them being admitted back into the ranks of decent human beings; but it’s not ok to admit the possibility that someone might have once done something a bit wrong but that it merits understanding and forgiveness. So we use the word “mistake” instead of “wrong,” even about ourselves, because otherwise we are condemning the perpetrator (or ourselves) to something that begins to sound like eternal damnation.

Have we lost the idea of forgiveness? Not necessarily the explicitly Christian idea of repentance washing away sin, but the idea that the legal system allows a way of paying one’s debt to society, or that rehabilitation and restoration are possible, or the idea that some behaviors can be wrong but also understandable?

I hope not. As I say, there’s a few things I did at around the age of twenty-two, not to mention other ages, that I’d prefer to think merit forgiveness.

Friday, March 13, 2015

So why do I do this writing stuff anyway?

Let me give you some context. For the last four years I’ve been writing dramatic sketches for the annual All Saints Church parish camp. It’s a regular gig for which I get to write stuff, see it performed by a bunch of bloody brilliant professional/semi-professional actors, and show it off to a small but appreciative audience. From the British perspective Americans are very good at overblown compliments, and actors who are also Americans are even better at them, and I drink it all down like champagne. Actually that’s not a good simile because I don’t actually like champagne. So I drink it all down like, I don’t know, craft IPA. I love actors. They get it.

Now, I grant you, what I write for this event is not always super original. It’s usually pastiche (aka fanfic) of some kind of another: we’ve done Pirates of the Caribbean, Dr. Seuss, Where the Wild Things Are, and Dr. Who. But it’s my annual five minutes of fame. I get applause.

I’ve been writing in one way or another for most of my adult life and there doesn’t seem to be much chance of me stopping any time soon. I’ve sent many manuscripts to many agents and publishers and, apart from a handful of published articles and short stories, all I’ve gotten back is no-thank-yous—if I get anything back at all; and yet I keep writing. My point is, it doesn’t seem to be just the desire for recognition and an audience that prompts me to keep writing; if it was I’d have given up a long time ago. I just write. My writing may not be outstandingly good or original but it sure ain’t going away.

But that annual five minutes of parish camp fame is incredibly important to me. From the initial planning stages to the event itself I’m in a state of suppressed anticipation. The weekend itself is spent in a haze of nervous energy which I have to work to hide from my fellow campers. And then the comedown is kind of brutal. I struggle to settle back to everyday life. I trawl social media for photos. I act like a junkie needing a fix. OK, so my coping mechanisms don’t actually involve hitting the bottle or scoring crack or picking up strangers in bars, but it is definitely a bit rough.

So there is something addictive, and not especially mentally healthy, about getting recognition for something creative I’ve done. I wonder if it’s really a good idea to subject my not-always-super-robust sense of self-worth to this miniature roller-coaster, year after year.

Is that going to stop me? Um, no.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

50 Shades of Concern

(Disclaimer – I’ve never watched or read it. I may be talking out of my backside. Also this piece may contain triggers about things like rape.)

Let’s lump 50 Shades of Gray and the Twilight Saga together as part of the same phenomenon on the basis that both portray emotionally controlling relationships in which women are systematically abused. What’s that all about? Why do people want to read or watch this? Who wants to be demeaned and abused? It’s a profound mystery up there with the fact that rape fantasy is a thing that exists.

I think that this is part of a wider phenomenon that is not just something that is about women. Of course, if a man wants to get his kicks by being chained up by a dominatrix in black leather and stiletto heels our emotional responses to that might span a range of feelings, but fear for the man’s self-esteem is not usually one of them. The difference between this and the response we might have to a woman who plays a submissive role in a relationship – whether in a sexual sense or not – is about ongoing power imbalances in society. We fear more for a woman who is submissive because there is perceived to be a higher risk of the role becoming habitual or even permanent, or lasting trauma or damage to her self-worth.

If I understand it correctly (a pretty big assumption, I admit), much of the appeal of things like ritual humiliation, rape fantasy, or BDSM is about handing over control. A person who, during most of their daily life, is expected to wield large amounts of responsibility might experience an immense release in temporarily giving up their autonomy to someone with a whip and a red leather thong. Perhaps it’s not surprising, with the growth of feminism and women being generally more self-determining and holding positions of greater responsibility, that fiction aimed at women that flirts with these kinds of ideas should become more popular. Hence Christian Gray and Edward Cullen, I guess.

Does this make the kind of fiction that is epitomized by Twilight and 50 Shades benign? Should we perhaps even celebrate it, as marker of the success of feminism? The jury’s still out. I’m not yet convinced that male and female roles have equalized sufficiently to make indulging in these fantasies risk free. Moreover, the kind of man who will take the existence of submission or rape fantasies to justify harassment or actual rape (“all women want it really”) still exists and still preys on vulnerable women. These fantasies can be dangerous. I don’t argue that we should suppress them entirely, but if we’re going to indulge in them we need to pay attention to context.

I guess what I’m really saying is: don’t forget the safe word, guys.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Boldly Go

I think I became aware of the death of Leonard Nimoy thirteen minutes after the news was released. Admittedly, that was partly due to the fact that I happened to be online and browsing social media at the time (no great coincidence), but it’s also a measure of just how fast the news propagated. The passing of Mr. Nimoy struck a chord. The deaths of well-loved celebrities do this, of course, but it seemed to me that this one evoked more grief than most. The whole Internet was suddenly united in sadness over the loss of an actor who played a fictional pointy-eared alien.

Partly, of course, that’s a nostalgia thing. The past is gone and cannot be reclaimed, and we mourn for that. Even as we live and enjoy our lives we grieve for lost youth and opportunities that have passed, and that’s right and healthy. The passing beyond reach of every icon of our youths and childhoods is going to evoke something of that response.

It seems to me, though, that there’s more going on here. The grief – or my grief, anyway – seemed disproportionately large.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that the grief is not for Leonard Nimoy, but more for Mr. Spock. Mr. Nimoy brought him to life, and no doubt imbued the character with something of himself, but what we’re really crying for is the elf-eared chap with the silly haircut. Why?

Mr. Spock represents something we aspire to. That unfaltering rationality and uncompromising morality is twinned – brilliantly – with a great and deep humanity. Something in us responds to that combination, the paradox of logic with love, dispassion with compassion, morals with mercy, born of the vulcan father and human mother (or was it the other way around? Damned if I’m going to look it up). It’s all there in the name: Vulcan, the God of fire and volcanoes, associated with anger, used to describe a race famed for their cold detachment.

For a while I’ve been wrestling with the fact that even though my religious faith slipped quietly away some years ago, I still find the idea of the incarnation hugely evocative. The idea of an unknowable, omnipotent God becoming a vulnerable human that shares human suffering still seems tremendously powerful to me, even though I no longer actually believe a word of it. Mostly when something like that happens it makes some kind of sense to me – I recognize that something might have metaphorical truth even if the truth isn’t literal – but this one just didn’t.

But maybe now I’m starting to get it (no, you’re not imagining it. I really am extrapolating theology from a character from Star Trek. Deal with it). We really do aspire to ideals – logic, rationalism, ethics, and justice: things that we cannot grasp or truly know, things that can exist only as concepts, things that are, literally, a bit alien to us. But justice untempered by mercy is a cold, hard thing that I want no part of, and however clear a logical argument might be it will frequently cede to the demands of our emotions.

So is this the secret of the enduring power of Christianity: not that it actually solves the paradox of wanting justice and mercy to co-exist, but that it at least provides a framework in which we can think about them in the same sentence? The unknowable God becomes something that is fully human: through the intercession of that human the demands of strict justice are tempered by an all-encompassing compassion and forgiveness. The theology of the incarnation – and the infuriating behavior of Mr. Spock – allow us to imagine a place where those things can coexist, a framework that helps us reconcile our ideals with our failures.

And we do need them to co-exist. Look at the issues we deal with. Abortion: the demands of justice tell us that even the potential for life should be given the opportunity to fulfil itself, but that has to be balanced with a compassion that recognizes the enormous tragedy that is an unwanted life. Inoculation: logic tells us that exposure to a tiny risk for the greater good of society and the self is a reasonable thing, but the emotional barrier to exposing our children to even the slightest possibility of harm is very strong indeed.

We need help to navigate through these minefields – perhaps, in a small way, Mr. Nimoy gave us some. RIP