Posts Tagged 'g.k. chesterton'

Dumb Yanks and witty Brits.

A while back I found myself getting nettled by a video posted to the comment section of Steve Sailer’s blog. Given the number of kooky conspiracy theories and racist rants to be found there, it might surprise you that the cause of my irritation was this clip of British TV personalities Jeremy Clarkson and Michael McIntyre joking about crosswalk signals.

I’d never heard of McIntyre, and Clarkson’s name I only vaguely knew – it seems he is the former host of a long-running TV show about automobiles. In view of the hundreds of cars of various makes and national origins which he must have driven, I suppose I must defer to Clarkson’s expertise when he asserts that,

American cars always have the words for what it is written on it, on the switches – it says “cigarette lighter”, “horn”, “lights” – whereas everywhere else in the world, where there are other languages, it’s symbols.

I’ve never noticed this, but I can’t say I’ve paid all that much attention to the labels on the dashboards of the various cars I’ve driven over the years – except when I’ve had to consult the owner’s manual for an explanation of a baffling warning light.

But what I found irritating was Clarkson’s crack that the use of written words instead of pictograms was an illustration of “how stupid [Americans] are”.

I know, I know. The two Brits were only indulging in a bit of mild national stereotyping: Germans are control freaks, Frenchmen are pretentious and chic, and Americans are dim-witted boobs. If it were the Americans who used pictograms, while the rest of the world used text, that too would be adduced as evidence of their dim-wittedness. “Americans – too simple to read four letter words,” Clarkson would declare, and the audience would cackle happily.

My fellow Canadians are equally happy to pass rude comments about our southern neighbours, and it annoys the hell out of me – especially since, unlike the Brits, proud possessors of a rich and largely self-sufficient national culture, we import most of our TV, movies, music, and literature from the States. That jackass you overheard at Second Cup sneering about Walmart-shopping, Big Mac-addicted American morons probably spent the weekend watching Better Call Saul, listening to Lana Del Rey, and reading Slate.

***

In a recent essay I discussed a very politically incorrect old story by G.K. Chesterton, featuring his amateur sleuth Father Brown.

The story, “The God of the Gongs”, concerns a Jamaican boxer who is secretly the chief priest of a voodoo murder cult. When we first encounter the boxer he’s done up in fancy attire and swanking out the door on his way to a big match. Chesterton comments,

And in the way he carried his cane in one hand and his cigar in the other there was a certain attitude – an attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices: something innocent and insolent – the cake walk.

This “attitude” is so provoking to Father Brown’s friend and sidekick Flambeau that he comments, “I’m not surprised that they lynch them.” (The priest gently rebukes him.) You see what I mean about the story being politically incorrect.

Anyway, in my earlier essay I glossed over the bit about the cake walk. Nowadays the expression is usually used as a synonym for “a piece of cake” – a task so unchallenging that you don’t even break a sweat.

But it originated as a dance performed by black slaves in the American south, supposedly in mocking imitation of the dances of white folks. These slave dances were organized into contests where the winner would receive a cake.

The dance survived at least into the 1920s – jazz fans may be familiar with the old Louis Armstrong number “Cake Walking Babies From Home”. How well-acquainted an English audience would have been with the cake walk, I’m not sure. I suspect Chesterton used the term to vaguely signify all kinds of energetic black dancing.

If I’m understanding him correctly, when Chesterton refers to the “attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices” he means that racial prejudices are rarely wholly false. In this case, the “innocent and insolent” attitude of the boxer is illustrative of some widely shared racial characteristic of black people, also exhibited in the cake walk.

Before you get too mad at Chesterton, I’d point out that back in his day, German and French were also considered “races”, and that he’d use a similar argument to defend the ethnic stereotyping in that BCC talk show clip.

I have no idea, by the way, whether Chesterton believed that racial characteristics were inborn or culturally transmitted. At that time, remember, it was progressives who were obsessed with harnessing the new science of heredity, while fusty old reactionaries like Chesterton (and, over in America, William Jennings Bryan) insisted that all men were equal in the eyes of God.

(But I’m sure whatever Chesterton’s opinion, it would have been expressed in terms that would outrage the same audience that found Michael McIntyre’s stereotyping of Germans and Frenchmen hilarious.)

Nowadays nearly everyone, besides a few dissidents like Steve Sailer, professes to believe that behaviour is determined solely by culture. I’m sure Jeremy Clarkson would be appalled if anyone interpreted his comments about the stupidity of Americans to mean that he thought Americans were hereditarily predisposed to have lower IQs.

No no no, he’d say, it’s their stupid culture that makes Americans stupid.

***

There’s a shortcut I sometimes take that passes by the side of the library. Often you’ll see groups of homeless guys hanging out on the benches there.

One day a few weeks back, the homeless guys were amusing themselves by heckling the passersby. “Hey, watch out,” one of them said as I approached. “This guy’s gonna beat us up. Are you gonna beat us up?”

“I’ll try and restrain myself,” I replied genially, walking past them.

Then one of them came up with a heckle that was surprisingly on-the-nose. “D’joo do the – the – the New York crossword puzzle?” he yelled after me.

I just kept walking. I was, in fact, on my way to the coffeeshop to read the paper and do the crossword.

Maybe the guy had noticed me before doing a crossword. I can often be spotted on coffeeshop patios around here doing just that.

But the fact that he specified the “New York crossword puzzle” – by which presumably he meant the New York Times crossword – made me wonder. In this guy’s mind, what did the New York Times crossword signify?

I have a friend who used to watch the filmed-in-Vancouver fantasy show Supernatural. As near as I can tell, it’s like Buffy the Vampire Slayer if you replaced all the cute girls with dreamy floppy-haired boys, then made the scripts about 50% dumber.

My friend told me about an episode where a character called Sam was working undercover as a bartender. A co-worker was intrigued when she noticed Sam doing a crossword puzzle – “the notoriously difficult New York Times Saturday crossword”, as Supernatural Wiki glossed the scene – from which she concluded that this mysterious stranger was “obviously highly educated”.

My friend scoffed because she knew that I did the Saturday puzzle all the time, and she also knew that – well, first off, that I’m far from highly educated; but more to the point, that I’m kind of a dummy.

I’m trying to be delicate about this because there are people out there who’ve never managed to finish the Saturday puzzle – I used to be one myself – and who will be annoyed if I disparage it as an unworthy intellectual challenge. They’ll assume that I’m snobbishly flaunting my high IQ.

So listen: I’ve never taken an IQ test. I assume that if I did I’d score around the middle of the pack.

I read a lot. I have a decent memory for certain kinds of trivia. But I struggle with tasks requiring the most elementary math, like doing my taxes, or figuring out which size of M&Ms package has the lowest per-M&M price.

I can’t tell a joke to save my life. I can’t give an intelligible account of the plot of a movie ten minutes after I’ve finished watching it. I’m hopeless at games of strategy like chess or Risk. Words and names I remember. It’s sequential thinking that trips me up.

Which is probably why so many of my blog posts – including this one – consist of a series of short, disconnected thoughts, thrown together with only the most half-hearted attempt at organization.

The point is that my extremely middling intelligence is sufficient for me to solve the “notoriously difficult” Saturday New York Times crossword, usually in about twenty minutes.

And if I’m feeling smug after this feat, all I have to do is flip over to the London Times cryptic to be reminded again how stupid I am.

saturday new york times crossword july 4 2020 sunday times cryptic crossword july 26 2020
Compare for yourself: the New York Times crossword and Sunday Times cryptic in the Vancouver Sun, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020.

***

I have a theory. If you don’t like it, don’t worry, there’s another one coming along in a few paragraphs.

My theory is that outsiders tend to think American culture is dumb because we’re subjected to so much of it. Hollywood so dominates the global entertainment racket that we can’t escape from its products – from middlebrow costume dramas to CGI superhero epics right down to the latest direct-to-Netflix masterpiece Adam Sandler farted out over the long weekend.

It’s not that American culture is dominated by dumb garbage. Every culture is dominated by dumb garbage. (Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crud.”) It’s just that no other culture has so much power to sluice its garbage directly into foreigners’ brains.

The British produce all sorts of garbage – tawdry reality shows, formulaic sitcoms, vapid pop music. On this side of the Atlantic, we see only a trickle of it. It’s crowded out by American garbage, which is no better or worse than the British variety, just easier for us to absorb, because it speaks to us in homey accents and familiar slang.

When we in North America think of British culture, we’re not thinking of the whole of British culture. We’re thinking only of the small selection of it that American media companies thought we’d be interested enough to pay to see. It’s not all great – a lot of it, like the Harry Potter books, is in fact pretty dopey. But most of the low-quality, instantly forgettable junk has been filtered out.

It’s like how when we think of movies from Hollywood’s golden age we tend to think of immortal classics like Casablanca or All About Eve, rather than the hundreds of movies Hollywood churned out every year that were forgotten before the stars’ names came down from the marquee. If we were to travel back to the 1940s and go to the pictures a couple times a week we’d quickly realize that, actually, most of those pictures were crap. But time has filtered the crap out.

There’s a similar filter hanging across the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Most of Britain’s crap gets caught in the filter. But America’s crap is projected with so much force that a fair bit of it squeezes through.

(I’d add that American cultural products that are projected less forcefully – by which I mean those that don’t have big money behind them – get caught in the same mid-Atlantic filter. Thus a lot of the more idiosyncratic stuff that might force snooty Brits to adjust their stereotypes about America, they never get a chance to see.)

Okay, that’s one theory. Here’s an alternative one: Brits think American culture is dumber because American culture is, in fact, dumber.

This isn’t necessarily because Americans are dumber than Brits – though it should be mentioned that, both in comparisons of international test scores and in estimates of mean national IQ, the UK comes out a little ahead of America.

However, the same Brits who sneer at American stupidity are likely to be made extremely uneasy by the presence of a bunch of Third World countries at the bottom of the international test score rankings: that’s not the kind of stereotyping that gets big laffs from BBC talk show audiences.

So let’s throw out all that nasty psychometric data and concentrate on what’s really at issue here: creationist theme parks, non-socialized health care, the Second Amendment, and other such cultural manifestations which we shall prove scientifically to be, you know…dumb.

***

A few years back I embarked on what I thought was a straightforward project to determine whether, in the previous decade, there had been more movies made about World War II or the Global War on Terror.

I spent countless hours skimming the Wikipedia plot summaries of obscure films and recording my results in a tidy spreadsheet. Eventually I came to the conclusion that my question was meaningless. Depending on how I defined “movie”, how I defined “about”, and how I defined the conflicts in question, I could jigger my data to achieve whichever result I preferred.

If I wanted to tilt my results in favour of World War II, I could limit my database to the kind of big-budget productions that could afford period costumes and special effects. If I wanted to include more War on Terror movies, well, that conflict was usefully amorphous – any number of vaguely terrorist-themed shoot-’em-ups could be lassoed in.

I consider this abandoned project to have been an invaluable use of my time. It has taught me to be extremely skeptical of any study whose results might be used to prove a political point and whose data set the researchers have the leeway to define.

terrorism falling furniture graph slate star codex

Image source: “Terrorists Vs. Chairs: An Outlier Story”, Slate Star Codex, 2016.

Imagine that one were to attempt to prove the statement, “British culture is more sophisticated than American culture”. Every single term in that statement is open to interpretation – even, to get Clintonian about it, “the meaning of the word is”.

After all, a national culture doesn’t consist only of the literature, music, and art that a nation is producing at this very moment. It extends backwards into time. The modern Greeks, by virtue of having had Homer and Plato and the Parthenon passed down to them from their distant ancestors, enjoy a far more elevated culture than they would if they were forced to fill up their libraries and museums from scratch.

Likewise, modern Britain gets a good deal of elevation from having Shakespeare in its past, even if the average Brit can quote more lines of Love Actually than of Hamlet.

Since we tend, when we think of culture, to think first of symphonies, poems, and cathedrals, rather than advertising jingles, taqueria menus, and big box stores – although in fact culture comprises the chintzy and transient as much as it does the glorious and immortal – Britain’s culture appears richer than America’s simply because of its thousand-year head start.

Does the UK enjoy an unfair advantage from having all those monuments and leatherbound books lying around radiating classiness?

Or does all that mossy old junk actually disincentivize achievement, by making young people feel that everything’s been done already, so why bother trying?

***

Forget the past. Let’s stick to what’s being churned out right now. How might we go about comparing the sophistication level of modern-day British and American culture?

One approach might be to estimate the level of intelligence needed to comprehend cultural products that occupy a similar niche in each country. Is it true, as my own experiences would lead me to suspect, that you have to be substantially smarter to solve the Times cryptic crossword than you have to be to solve the Saturday New York Times crossword?

If so, does this prove that British crossword puzzlers are smarter than American ones – or merely that British puzzle page editors are more elitist than American ones?

Whichever it is, crossword fans and puzzle page editors are hardly a representative sample of the wider population. Let’s expand the scope beyond the puzzle page. Suppose you were to conduct a textual analysis of a year’s worth of stories from the ten highest-circulation newspapers in each country, comparing vocabulary, grammatical complexity, the frequency and type of literary allusions, and so forth. Would this analysis be more meaningful?

us versus uk newspapers by circulation

Top newspapers by paid circulation, USA and UK.

The Yanks might easily come out ahead in such a contest: many of the biggest papers in the UK are lowbrow tabloids, a market niche that is served in the States primarily by magazines.

However, a motivated researcher could easily widen or narrow the data set to give the British side a leg up. Maybe instead of circulation figures, you could look at the most influential newspapers – defining “influential” by incoming links, or Twitter mentions, or journalism prizes, or whatever.

And if that still doesn’t lead to the results you want, well, who pays any attention to newspapers these days? Maybe a side-by-side comparison of primetime TV lineups would be more pertinent…or the most popular podcasts…or the most-followed celebrities’ Twitter feeds…

***

Suppose an unimaginably powerful A.I. could somehow hoover up and analyze all the text, speeches, tweets, Instagram captions, comic books, signage, infographics, computer code, mathematics, movies, music – every product of human intelligence emitted by each country over a clearly defined period – average it all out, and assign a numerical grade. Would even this number be meaningful?

Consider music. Some of the most “sophisticated” stuff – at least measured by the apparent IQ level of the people who claim to enjoy it – is uncomplicated to the point of banality: droning classical of the Philip Glass and John Adams variety; purposely sloppy art-rock in the tradition of the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart; even the swaggering rap lyrics whose untutored exuberance our cultural betters swoon over.

I can’t understand their enthusiasms, but then, neither can I understand people who are into Wagner. My best guess is that some people regard music-listening much as I regard solving the crossword puzzle – it’s only rewarding if there’s some level of difficulty. Any bozo can hum along to a Beatles tune, but to enjoy Tristan und Isolde or Trout Mask Replica you must conquer your body’s natural resistance – boredom in the first case, annoyance in the second – in order to discover the patterns and variations that, in “easier” compositions by Bach or Duke Ellington, are apparent at first hearing.

Apply this logic to other cultural artifacts and it leads to hilarity. Sure, Boris Johnson can quote from memory, in the original Greek, sizeable chunks of The Iliad – but only a middlebrow would be impressed by such virtuosity. Any bozo can learn a few lines of verse in a foreign language – heck, I’ll trot over to the mall food court and round up a half-dozen Chinese immigrant kids who know all the words to “W.A.P.”

On the other hand, the genius of a Trump rally speech, assembled on the fly out of schoolyard taunts, self-promotion, and Seinfeldian observations about life’s minutiae – that’s visible only to the cognoscenti.

***

But I’m getting off track. After piling up a couple thousand words attempting to disprove the proposition that British culture is in any way more conducive to sophistication than American, I might as well admit that deep down I suspect that the proposition is actually true.

It’s not that Brits are smarter. It’s just that British culture seems to offer a bit more headroom in the upper range of the upper middlebrow – the area somewhat above my own browline, where you’ll find perfectly ordinary, unpretentious, bright folks like the ones who solve the Times cryptic crossword.

I can’t prove this proposition. It’s just a rough guess, based on intuition and anecdotal evidence – the kind of shaky conclusion you’d expect from a guy down here in mid-middlebrow territory, among the other New York Times crossword people.

M.

Speaking of pictograms as a marker of intelligence, a few weeks back I pondered the meaning of the elephant of Han Fei. In 2018 I considered the role of the thesaurus in helping authors create the illusion of effortless verbal fluency. And in 2015 I contrasted Bertrand Russell and G.K. Chesterton’s opinions on the “narrowness” of small-town life.

 

A tinge of regret.

Ron Charles, Washington Post book critic, in an article I quoted already a couple weeks ago:

As Confederate statues tumble across the United States, TV networks are marching through their catalogues and looking to take down racially offensive content. It turns out that little video monuments are lurking all across the TV canon – more shocking with each new announcement. Just in recent weeks, blackface scenes have been rediscovered and removed from The Office, Community, 30 Rock, Scrubs, and Saturday Night Live.

It would be interesting to time-travel back to the mid-2000s, when The Office, Community, 30 Rock, and Scrubs were still on the air, and inform their writers that in a decade or so their attempts at racial levity would be considered so “shocking” that they must be hidden away from sensitive viewers’ sight.

It would be more interesting still if we could summon a time traveller from ten years hence to tell us which of today’s critically-acclaimed, widely-beloved shows were destined for the scrapheap of “racially offensive” material. [1]

joey lawrence gimme a break

Joey Lawrence in Gimme A Break! Image source: Mediaite.

I recall as a child in the 1980s being confused by the episode of the sitcom Gimme A Break! where the teenage daughter, angry at her housekeeper and substitute mother-figure Nell Carter, took elaborate revenge by tricking her little brother into performing a blackface dance routine at Nell’s church. This led to Nell sitting the kids down for an earnest talk about racism.

I asked my babysitter to explain what the big deal was, but her answer wasn’t very coherent. I concluded that blackface was bad because it made nice black church ladies unhappy.

Nevertheless, it was routine in the 1980s, and for many years afterward, for white comedians to slap on brown makeup to impersonate Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder or Sammy Davis, just as they’d slap on sideburns and a fat suit for Elvis.

It didn’t occur to me – or, I’m pretty sure, the performers involved – that these impersonations would someday be damned as “blackface”. It’s only in the last decade or so that the new taboo against casting white people in non-white roles bumped up against the much older blackface taboo to retroactively toxify a whole swathe of previously innocent performances.

However, while the impersonators weren’t trying to be insulting, at least they weren’t specifically flaunting their racial enlightenment. The other category of “rediscovered” scenes newly targeted for removal we might call ironic blackface: scenes meant to illustrate the ignorance of white people who would participate in blackface, like the authoritarian weirdo Dwight Schrute in The Office, or the self-absorbed actress Jenna Maroney in 30 Rock, or the alcoholic dirtbags of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

(As a more recent example, there’s the Washington, D.C. woman who was publicly berated, and later lost her job, over a Halloween costume that mocked TV pundit Megyn Kelly for her comments about blackface.)

I enjoy many of the shows above. Still, I chuckle when I think of their hip, well-educated white writers sneering at their characters’ Neanderthal attitudes – only to find themselves tumbled into the cave with their creations.

Now, I try not to get too worked up about taboos. Every society has them, they’re usually not that hard to follow, and even the illogical ones may serve some important solidarity-building function. Some of us oldsters are having a bit of trouble adjusting to the new taboos because we grew up during an era where the old ones – like those against blasphemy, gay intimacy, and interracial relationships – were crumbling, while the new ones were still being applied in a moderate way. Everyone in the 1980s understood that you shouldn’t use “the n-word” as a racial slur, but nobody held it against you when you quoted a third party using it.

The blackface taboo hasn’t yet gone as far as the “n-word” taboo: as far as I can tell, no-one has gotten in trouble for merely publishing a photo of a person in blackface to illustrate a news article or blog post.

And yet if the mere sight of “the n-word” is triggering to the Woke, wouldn’t the photographs adorning the Wikipedia entry on blackface be equally triggering? For that matter, is it possible that the mere description of blackface could at some point in the not-too-very-distant future be made taboo?

Whipple and the white man.

rex stout too many cooks

In Rex Stout’s novel Too Many Cooks, from 1938, the gourmand private detective Nero Wolfe abandons the comforts of his New York home to attend a gathering of the world’s greatest chefs at a luxury hotel in rural West Virginia. Predictably, one of the chefs ends up with a carving knife in his back.

An eyewitness reports that she glimpsed one of the hotel’s black waiters standing near the alcove where the body was found, raising his finger to his lips, as if to shush another black waiter who was peering in from the kitchen.

Unfortunately, the witness can’t identify either waiter, so Wolfe assembles the whole serving staff in his hotel room for questioning. They are respectful but nervously uncooperative. The detective believes they are shielding the murderer out of racial solidarity:

“You are rendering your race a serious disservice. You are helping to perpetuate and aggravate the very exclusions which you justly resent. The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded; anyone helping to preserve those distinctions is postponing that ideal; and you are certainly helping to preserve them. If in a question of murder you permit your action to be influenced by the complexion of the man who committed it, no matter whether you yourself are white or pink or black—”

“You’re wrong!”

The source of the interruption is a young waiter named Whipple, a college student who chafes at West Virginia’s racial etiquette; the headwaiter has already reprimanded him for not referring to Wolfe as “sir”.

Wolfe said, “I think I can justify my position, Mr. Whipple. If you’ll let me complete—”

“I don’t mean your position. You can have your logic. I mean your facts. One of them.”

Wolfe lifted his brows. “Which one?”

“The complexion of the murderer.” The college boy was looking him straight in the eye. “He wasn’t a black man. I saw him. He was a white man.”

…Or rather, at the time Whipple saw the man, he wasn’t precisely white:

“Do you think I can’t tell burnt cork from the real thing? I’m a black man myself. But that wasn’t all. As you said, he was holding his finger against his lips, and his hand was different. It wouldn’t have taken a black man to see that. He had on tight black gloves.”

Whipple explains to the skeptical Wolfe why he didn’t come clean earlier:

“Because I’ve learned not to mix up in the affairs of the superior race. If it had been a colored man I would have told. Colored men have got to stop disgracing their color and leave that to white men. You see how good your logic was.”

“But my dear sir. That doesn’t impugn my logic, it merely shows that you agree with me. We must discuss it some time. Then you withheld this fact because you considered it white men’s business and none of yours, and you knew if you divulged it you’d be making trouble for yourself.”

“Plenty of trouble. You’re a northerner—“

And indeed, Whipple’s reticence is justified by the local sheriff’s reaction – a string of racist insults and threats – when Wolfe brings him forward to share the story he’d previously concealed.

The ziggaboo jock.

It’s pretty clear that Nero Wolfe’s declaration that “The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded” reflected the views of his creator – civil libertarian, co-founder of the radical Vanguard Press, critic of the “myth of national sovereignty”, Rex Stout.

But Stout’s narrator, Wolfe’s regular-joe assistant Archie, is less ostentatiously enlightened: he sees no harm in jocularly referring to the hotel’s serving staff as “those blackbirds”. (His employer enquires whether “by blackbirds you mean men with dark skin”. Archie clarifies: “I mean Africans”.)

In the title story of Damon Runyon’s 1935 collection Money From Home, the unnamed narrator exercises a far more unrestrained vocabulary of racial slurs: “boogie”, “jig”, “smoke”, “smudge”, “dinge”, “coon”, and of course, “ziggaboo”. [2]

damon runyon omnibus

As the columnist Heywood Broun put it in the introduction to Runyon’s most famous book, Guys and Dolls:

He has caught with a high degree of insight the actual tone and phrase of the gangsters and racketeers of this town. Their talk is put down almost literally. Of course, like any artist, Damon Runyon has exercised the privilege of selectivity. But he has not heightened or burlesqued the speech of the people who come alive in his short stories.

Eddie Yokum, the hapless protagonist of “Money From Home”, by a series of unwise choices finds himself dressed in a stolen fox-hunting outfit, impersonating a visiting English aristocrat, and wanted by the law on a charge of dognapping.

Here he’s cowering in the furnace room of a snooty country club, wondering how to make his escape, when he remembers the time he knocked ’em dead in the Elks’ minstrel show with his imitations of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor:

The idea is to black up his face right there and walk out to safety, because Eddie figures that anybody who sees him is bound to take him as an employee of the furnace-room, so he peeks into the furnace, and finds a lot of soot, and he makes his face blacker than a yard up a chimney.

Moreover, Eddie gets another break when he finds a suit of blue overalls left by some guy who works in the furnace-room, and also an old cap, and when he sneaks out the door a little later, he is nothing but a boogie, as far as anybody can see, and not a very clean boogie, at that …

Unfortunately for Eddie, when he emerges from the furnace room he runs into the very Englishman he had been impersonating, who tipsily insists upon leading the black man onto the dance floor and “presenting him to the crowd as a bit of real Southern atmosphere”. So Eddie has no choice but to break out the minstrel act that brought him fame at the Elks’ Club.

Eventually Eddie bows his way offstage and makes his getaway. But his adventures aren’t over. Some days later, attending the big steeplechase at New York’s Belmont Park, with the hope of getting near the beautiful heiress whose charms got him into this whole mess in the first place, Eddie hears that his dream girl is in a pickle:

“There is a rumour that Miss Phyllis Richie’s nigger jockey, Roy Snakes, is off on a bender, or something to this effect. Anyway, they say he is missing, and if they cannot find him, or get another jig jock, they will have to scratch Follow You, because no white guy alive can ride Follow You in a race.”

It seems that Miss Richie’s enemies, knowing that her horse Follow You is a racist who will violently unseat any white rider who dares to mount him, have arranged for every black jockey in New York to be out of commission.

It occurs to Eddie that he can save the day, and win Miss Richie’s heart, with the help of some burnt cork :

Well, all the time Eddie Yokum is blacking up, he is saying every prayer he knows that Roy Snakes or one of the other dinge jockeys appears to ride Follow You, but no such thing happens, and by and by Eddie is out in the Richie colors, and is as black as anything, and maybe blacker, and while Follow You gives him quite a snuffing over when Eddie approaches him, the horse seems satisfied he is dealing with a smoke, and afterwards some people claim this is a knock to the way Eddie smells.

Having no experience as a rider, plus a severe fear of horses, Eddie falls off Follow You at every jump. But thanks to the treachery of their crooked jockeys, every other horse in the race is eventually disqualified, and despite Follow You’s growing exasperation at having to take every jump twice, the way is clear for him to win, if Eddie can just coax him over the finish line.

The trouble is that with all the sweat pouring down our hero’s brow, not to mention landing face-first in the water jump, he isn’t looking quite so black as when the race began, and the horse is starting to have his suspicions…

Blackface Bertie.

p.g. wodehouse thank you jeeves

When in P.G. Wodehouse’s 1933 novel Thank You, Jeeves Bertie Wooster finds it necessary to disguise himself as a black man, the urgency of the situation rules out the burning of cork. Luckily Bertie’s unflappable valet has had the foresight to bring along a tin of boot polish:

“The scheme carries your personal guarantee?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you say you have the stuff handy?”

“Yes, sir.”

I flung myself into a chair and turned the features ceilingwards.

“Then start smearing, Jeeves,” I said, “and continue to smear till your trained senses tell you that you have smeared enough.”

The chain of events leading up to this crisis begins with Bertie, ejected from his London flat over banjolele-related noise complaints, taking a cottage on the estate of his old school chum, the cash-poor Baron Chuffnell, AKA Chuffy. Part of the attraction of this locale is the presence of a troupe of coloured minstrels in the nearby village, who, Bertie hopes, might be induced to impart banjolele tips.

The local police sergeant takes a jaundiced view of these entertainers:

“Chuffnell Regis is going down. I would never have thought to have seen a troupe of minstrels singing comic songs within a stone’s-throw of my police station.”

“You view them with concern?”

“There’s been fowls missing,” said Sergeant Voules darkly. “Several fowls. And I have my suspicions.”

Meanwhile Chuffy is attempting to unload Chuffnell Hall on a rich American in order to acquire the funds to marry said American’s daughter, Pauline – who is, as it happens, Bertie’s ex-fiancée. Misunderstandings ensue, culminating in Bertie’s imprisonment on the rich American’s yacht, threatened with forced marriage to Pauline. Luckily the minstrels happen to be aboard the yacht to provide entertainment at a birthday party, and Jeeves devises his scheme to sneak Bertie ashore amid their number.

The plan goes off without a hitch, as Jeeves’ plans generally do, and Bertie flits to pack for the next train to London, leaving his man behind to cover the traces of his escape. Alas, before he can acquire the necessary butter to remove the boot polish from his face, Bertie is chased from his own cottage by a drunken servant who mistakes the black-faced intruder for the devil. Later, at the service entrance to Chuffnell Hall, a scullery maid falls into a fit upon seeing him, believing him to be a spirit that she has summoned with her Ouija board.

Hunted and friendless, wondering where he can scrounge a supply of butter, Bertie skulks among the bushes, reflecting that,

I had never realized before what an important part one’s complexion plays in life.

As Martin Amis once wrote of the comic gauntlet of “bust-ups, alarms, duplicities and misapprehensions” with which Wodehouse’s upper class twits must contend:

The fact that these pitfalls, when translated to the burly contingencies of real life, can cause genuine hurts and fears merely strengthens the glow of innocuousness. Wodehouse loved to play on the genial insensitivity to suffering that centuries of thoughtless privilege produce. [3]

Innocent and insolent.

Martin Amis’ father Kingsley once anointed G.K. Chesterton’s amiable amateur sleuth Father Brown as one of the “three great successors of Sherlock Holmes”. (Nero Wolfe was another.) [4]

If the Father Brown stories had a weakness, Amis went on, it was not, as some critics had complained, that they were “Roman Catholic propaganda”:

It would be truer to say that what propaganda there is gets directed against atheism, complacent rationalism, occultism and superstition, all those shabby growths which the decline of Christian belief has fostered … My only real complaint is that this bias sometimes reveals the villain too early. We know at once that the prophet of a new sun cult is up to no good, and are not surprised that it is he who allows a blind girl to step to her death in an empty lift shaft. [5]

Atheists and non-Christians of various stripes might legitimately complain that Chesterton has treated them unfairly. But only one of the Father Brown stories strikes me as genuinely offensive (and we’ve established by now that I’m not all that easy to offend).

g.k. chesterton the wisdom of father brown

“The God of the Gongs”, from the 1914 collection The Wisdom of Father Brown, begins with the little priest and his brawny friend Flambeau strolling on a bleak winter day along the abandoned strand of an English seaside town. In apparent idleness Father Brown hops onto the stage of a wooden bandstand, and promptly falls through a rotten spot in the floor. Exploring the dark spaces beneath, he stumbles on something disturbing – a corpse, we deduce, though he is characteristically vague in explaining his discovery to Flambeau.

Next he steers his friend to a nearby inn, where the proprietor is curiously inhospitable to his guests, and even more curiously deferential to his bellowing black cook. Flambeau takes an instant dislike to this cook, who is also the famed prizefighter “Nigger Ned”, on his way to a bout:

He was buttoned and buckled up to his bursting eyeballs in the most brilliant fashion. A tall black hat was tilted on his broad black head … The red flower stood up in his buttonhole aggressively, as if it had suddenly grown there. And in the way he carried his cane in one hand and his cigar in the other there was a certain attitude—an attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices: something innocent and insolent—the cake walk.

“Sometimes,” said Flambeau, looking after him, “I’m not surprised that they lynch them.”

“I am never surprised,” said Father Brown, “at any work of hell.”

In another Chesterton story, when a hot-tempered Arab is accused of killing an Englishman who had insulted him, the clear-sighted Father Brown recognizes that it is another Englishman who has opportunistically pinned the crime on the foreigner. [6] Encountering the foppish prizefighter for the first time, we assume that he is likewise going to be a red herring; especially when the hotel proprietor whips out a dagger and attempts to murder Father Brown.

But no: like the suspicious sun-cultist mentioned by Amis, the insolent black man is in fact up to no good. Escaping the homicidal innkeeper, Father Brown and Flambeau make their way to the site of the prizefight, where the priest approaches the promoter and explains (with reference to a “book of old travels” which he happens to have in his pocket, describing certain obscure Jamaican folkways) that his star attraction is the chief priest of a secret society of voodoo assassins, and the boxing match the diversion during which one of their ritual killings will occur.

With his secret society exposed, “Nigger Ned” vanishes, leading to a countrywide manhunt that makes no concessions to our notions of civil liberties:

[F]or a month or two the main purpose of the British Empire was to prevent the buck nigger (who was so in both senses) escaping by any English port. Persons of a figure remotely reconcilable with his were subjected to quite extraordinary inquisitions, made to scrub their faces before going on board ship, as if each white complexion were made up like a mask of greasepaint. Every negro in England was put under special regulations and made to report himself; the outgoing ships would no more have taken a nigger than a basilisk.

(No doubt many reader will be puzzled, as I was, by Chesterton’s reference to “both senses” of the phrase “buck nigger”. My Webster’s informs me that in addition to meaning a “bold, lively, vigorous” young man – “sometimes a contemptuous or patronizing term as applied to a young black or Indian male” – “buck” has an archaic second meaning of “fop or dandy”.)

Modern opinion would find the many instances of “the n-word” the most alarming aspect of this story, but my impression is that in Britain the word was accepted in polite society for some years after it had become taboo in the United States: Chesterton uses it more or less as an informal synonym for “negro”, much as he might use “Yankee” for “American”.

What troubles me is that Chesterton seems not to balk at the racist methods he ascribes to the police in hunting up the escaped cult leader. Ordinarily we can rely on Father Brown to pass some acerbic little remark when the people around him are behaving irrationally, but for once, he lets the hysteria pass uncommented on.

In the final lines of the tale, Father Brown and Flambeau are once again dallying near the beach, wondering that the fugitive cult leader hasn’t yet turned up.

“He must be still in England,” observed Flambeau, “and horridly well hidden, too. They must have found him at the ports if he had only whitened his face.”

“You see, he is really a clever man,” said Father Brown apologetically. “And I’m sure he wouldn’t whiten his face.”

“Well, but what would he do?”

“I think,” said Father Brown, “he would blacken his face.”

And he gestures meaningfully in the direction of “the soot-masked niggers singing on the sands”.

The blackface Diggers.

joan didion slouching towards bethlehem

In Joan Didion’s 1967 account of life among the San Francisco hippies, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, we make the acquaintance of the Diggers, a loose alliance of radical organizations that includes the San Francisco Mime Troupe. [7]

The Digger crowd are standoffish to Didion, on assignment for the Saturday Evening Post, because they see mainstream journalists as their enemies. One of their leaders asks her, “How much you get paid for doing this kind of media poisoning?” Another interviewee, Mime Troupe writer and director Peter Berg, blames her “for the way Life captioned Henri Cartier-Bresson’s pictures out of Cuba”.

Didion describes a bunch of Diggers and Mime Troupers showing up at a San Francisco park one afternoon where Janis Joplin is giving a free concert. They’re there to freak out the mellow hippies:

I mention to Max and Sharon that some members of the Mime Troupe seem to be in blackface.

“It’s street theater,” Sharon assures me. “It’s supposed to be really groovy.”

The Mime Troupers get a little closer, and there are some other peculiar things about them. For one thing they are tapping people on the head with dime-store plastic nightsticks, and for another they are wearing signs on their backs. “HOW MANY TIMES YOU BEEN RAPED, YOU LOVE FREAKS?” and “WHO STOLE CHUCK BERRY’S MUSIC?”, things like that. […]

I walk over to where the Mime Troupers have formed a circle around a Negro. Peter Berg is saying if anybody asks that this is street theater, and I figure the curtain is up because what they are doing right now is jabbing the Negro with the nightsticks. They jab, and they bare their teeth, and they rock on the balls of their feet and they wait.

“I’m beginning to get annoyed here,” the Negro says. “I’m gonna get mad.”

By now there are several Negroes around, reading the signs and watching.

“Just beginning to get annoyed, are you?” one of the Mime Troupers says. “Don’t you think it’s about time?”

“Nobody stole Chuck Berry’s music, man,” says another Negro who has been studying the signs. “Chuck Berry’s music belongs to everybody.”

“Yeh?” a girl in blackface says. “Everybody who?”

“Why,” he says, confused. “Everybody. In America.”

“In America,” the blackface girl shrieks. “Listen to him talk about America.”

“Listen,” he says. “Listen here.”

“What’d America ever do for you?” the girl in blackface jeers. “White kids here, they can sit in the Park all summer long, listening to the music they stole, because their bigshot parents keep sending them money. Who ever sends you money?”

“Listen,” the Negro says helplessly. “You’re gonna start something here, this isn’t right—”

“You tell us what’s right, black boy,” the girl says.

The youngest member of the blackface group, an earnest tall kid about nineteen, twenty, is hanging back at the edge of the scene. I offer him an apple and ask what is going on. “Well,” he says, “I’m new at this, I’m just beginning to study it, but you see the capitalists are taking over the District, and that’s what Peter—well, ask Peter.”

Maybe the Diggers were right to accuse Didion of “media poisoning”. She paints the Mime Troupers as slightly sinister idiots, ruining the afternoon’s good vibes in the name of some half-baked idea of social action they can’t even articulate.

Was this fair? The 1968 documentary Have You Heard of the San Francisco Mime Troupe? (viewable, for now at least, on YouTube and at The Digger Archives) provides a pretty thorough immersion in the Digger milieu – almost an hour of interviews, rehearsal footage, and dimestore political theorizing. To me they seem no more crazily ideological than your typical 2020 arts crowd, although of course that’s largely a product of the Diggers’ crazy ideology having gone thoroughly mainstream in the intervening half-century.

The documentary includes long excerpts from the Mime Troupe’s touring blackface production A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel – “an outspoken comment on the black man’s condition in America”, per the narrator. (These excerpts begin around 24:40 and continue at intervals until the end of the doc.) We see the minstrels jokily interacting with audience members – white and black – in ways consistent with what Didion describes. Everyone seems pretty chill about it.

san francisco mime troupe minstrel show

Minstrel and audience members in A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel. Source: The Digger Archives.

Putting aside the blackface, the play is extremely relevant to contemporary progressive obsessions: it culminates in the killing of a “black” man by a “white” cop (both portrayed by actors in blackface). Modern anti-racists might find it instructive to see how their grandparents’ generation dealt with the theme – if they could make it through the video without falling to pieces at the sight of six actors (some white, some black) clowning in blackface. They might find themselves agreeing with the reactionary squares whom Peter Berg, in a 1966 letter to Educational Theatre News, blasted for censoring his show:

A Minstrel Show was blacked-out in mid-performance by officials of Olympia College in Washington because of “unsuitability” of its material. The student body audience was loudly divided about the administration’s heavy-handed censorship, and the Minstrel cast called from the stage for a vote. Officials refused, then compounded their Dark Ages policy by clearing the theatre of students and performers.

One of the stars of A Minstrel Show, Peter Cohon, went on to fame as the Hollywood actor Peter Coyote, best known for E.T. You can hear him in the documentary trying to explain what the Mime Troupe had in mind:

When I started in the show, it was like embarrassing, wow. It’s hard to put blackface on your face and be there with three white cats and three black cats in the cast, and you’re making fun of each other, and you gotta be pretty sure where you stand. And you can’t just give lip service to it. Um, before you can swing behind it, you really gotta work some stuff out.

Coyote’s black co-star Jason Marc Alexander, his face half obscured by black greasepaint, adds in a backstage interview:

The way I figure it is, there’s really no-one else saying what we’re saying in the way we’re saying it. We still are dealing with a very old, ugly problem. … And I dunno, I just get the feeling like, uh, this country has done so much running away from itself that it’s going to wind up just going into a circle, just a circle of madness, until it finally, just, flip totally out. Cause there’s so many things we’re trying to pretend aren’t there. And we all know they are.

Which reminds me a bit of something Father Brown says in another Chesterton story:

“And I say to you, wherever you find men ruled merely by mystery, it is the mystery of iniquity. If the devil tells you something is too fearful to look at, look at it. If he says something is too terrible to hear, hear it. If you think some truth unbearable, bear it.” [8]

M.

1. I put in my customary couple hours of half-assed research preparing to write this essay. The two books I skimmed, W.T. Lhamon’s Raising Cain: Blackface Performance From Jim Crow to Hip Hop, from 1998, and John Strausbaugh’s Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture, from 2006, probably couldn’t be published today: not only because both authors are white, but because they offer a more nuanced, even sympathetic, analysis of blackface than is currently acceptable.

2. While Rex Stout’s political commitments were openly worn, I’m less sure about Damon Runyon’s. If I’ve correctly decoded the heavy irony in this 1946 installment of his weekly newspaper column – which takes the form of a scathing review of one of his own books – he was a conventional FDR-era liberal, which would of course make him a Nazi deserving of punching, by 2020 standards.

3. From a 1978 review of Wodehouse’s unfinished final novel, Sunset at Blandings, in Martin Amis’ collection The War Against Cliché.

4. The third great successor of Sherlock Holmes, per Kingsley Amis, was John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell, with whose adventures I am unacquainted. Amis praises Carr for carrying on in Chesterton’s romantic tradition, but with “the wilder flights of fancy brought under control, the holes in the plot conscientiously plastered over and made good.”

5. This essay, “Unreal Policeman”, is in Amis’ 1970 collection What Became of Jane Austen? The story with the sun cult is “The Eye of Apollo”, from The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911.

6. The hot-tempered Arab is in “The Quick One”, from The Scandal of Father Brown, 1935.

7. The text of Didion’s article that appears at the Saturday Evening Post website is slightly different than the version that appears in my copy of her 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

8. The final Chesterton quote is from “The Purple Wig” in The Wisdom of Father Brown.

I’ve left out of this catalogue of 20th century blackface literature John Howard Griffin’s classic book of undercover investigative reporting, Black Like Me, which I discussed in 2010. Also that year I quoted Joan Didion in a review of Jonathan Lethem’s Girl In Landscape. I referred to a different Nero Wolfe story in my 2017 musings on coarse-grained versus fine-grained fiction.

Brung up to it: 19th, 20th, and 21st-century morality.

In H.G. Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes, written in 1898 (revised in 1910), a man named Graham, an ordinary middle-class schmoe from the late Victorian age, falls into an unexplained trance and wakes up naked in a display case 200 years in the future.

It turns out that during his long sleep his assets were placed in trust, the trust acquired other assets, grew to a monopoly, supplanted the obsolete nation-states – and in short, Graham has become de jure owner of the world.

The council that has been ruling in his name isn’t too happy to have him awake and possibly meddling with their arrangements – particularly since a legend has grown up among the oppressed labouring masses that “the Sleeper”, like King Arthur or Frederick Barbarossa, will someday awake and right the world’s injustices.

While the council debates how to dispose of him, they lock him away in a well-appointed private apartment. Killing time, he fiddles with a curious apparatus in the corner and, on stepping back, realizes that its forward surface is a screen upon which miniaturized dramatic plays appear:

It was exactly like reality viewed through an inverted opera glass and heard through a long tube.

He deduces that the curious little cylinders shelved along the wall represent different dramas that can be played on the machine. Swapping in a cylinder at random, he is treated to an adaptation of the opera Tannhäuser, its opening act set in something called a Pleasure City.

wagner tannhauser venusberg royal opera 2010

The Venusberg scene in Tannhäuser, Act I, The Royal Opera, 2010.
Photo by Clive Barda, The Guardian.

At first Graham enjoys the opera, but its frank eroticism soon offends his old-fashioned sensibilities:

He rose, angry and half ashamed at himself for witnessing this thing even in solitude. He pulled forward the apparatus, and with some violence sought for a means of stopping its action. Something snapped. A violet spark stung and convulsed his arm and the thing was still. When he attempted next day to replace these Tannhauser cylinders by another pair, he found the apparatus broken . . . .

He struck out a path oblique to the room and paced to and fro, struggling with intolerable vast impressions. The things he had derived from the cylinders and the things he had seen, conflicted, confused him. It seemed to him the most amazing thing of all that in his thirty years of life he had never tried to shape a picture of these coming times. “We were making the future,” he said, “and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making. And here it is!”

No doubt an Englishman of the 19th century, reawakened in the 21st, would be awed by our technological accomplishments, which are far more marvellous than even H.G. Wells foresaw. But many of the social changes that we accept with a shrug, if we don’t outright applaud their implementation, the 19th-century man would regard as horrific regressions to savagery.

I picture the 19th-century man seated beside me on the patio of the coffeeshop I frequent here in suburban Vancouver. He watches the parade of pedestrians, cheaply and garishly clothed, their tattoo-covered limbs exposed, rings in their noses and lips, men and women alike shouting obscenities into their handheld magic mirrors. More foul language floats from the open windows of passing cars, accompanied by music of staggering loudness and primitivity.

A vagrant clatters by with a shopping cart, reeking and muttering to himself. I mention to my companion that my city is considered a model of prosperity and good government, and that its gravest problem is that it’s so attractive to outsiders that its residents are unable to afford the soaring rents.

But my Victorian friend isn’t shocked by the sight of vagrants, merely mildly troubled that an additional century of social reform seems not to have improved the lot of the poorest of the poor. What shocks him is the girls in yoga pants and low-cut t-shirts, the crudity of manners among citizens that I’ve assured him are of the middle or upper-middle classes, the universal vileness of speech. I explain patiently that we have our own speech taboos, just as strictly enforced, they’re merely different from the ones of his era – and while we’re on the topic, would he please refrain from commenting on the number of Chinamen. He laughs, uncomprehending.

At some point, I know, the 19th-century man is going to get hold of a newspaper, and learn of the mobs tearing down the statues of his contemporaries, and of men asserting their right to declare themselves women, and of gay marriage, and abortion on demand, and “medical assistance in dying”, and a hundred other developments which I can predict will outrage him. But what worries me is all the things that will outrage him that I can’t predict, because they’re invisible to me.

In The Sleeper Awakes, the two developments that most offend Graham are the decline of motherhood – babies are now tended by robots in vast antiseptic crèches, freeing their mothers to pursue their careers and pleasures – and the fact that the restless white masses of Europe are kept in line by black riot police from Africa. It is the imminent arrival of a squad of African police in London that triggers the final battle of the novel, in which the Sleeper, heretofore a fairly feckless protagonist, finally steps into the heroic role that legend has assigned to him.

No doubt the casual intermingling of the races is one of the things that would unnerve my visitor from the Victorian age. The dissolution of sex roles is another: the notion that it is a “liberation” for mothers to trundle their infants off to daycare, and to share with their men the duty of bread-winning, he would find highly questionable. But I suspect that just as it was that sexed-up Tannhäuser that first aroused Graham’s sense of “archaic indignation”, it is modern pornography that would strike the man of the 19th century as the most obvious sign of our descent into barbarism. “Look, look what your ‘liberated’ mothers and daughters have been reduced to!” he’d exclaim, and I’d mumble and blush and change the subject.

***

In the Washington Post a few weeks back, book critic Ron Charles celebrated the purging of “racially offensive content” from old and not-so-old movies and TV shows, while expressing some ambivalence about extending the purge into his own area of specialization:

Just a few weeks after it was published in 1885, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was banned by the Concord Public Library, which condemned Twain’s novel as “absolutely immoral.” Complaints came from white readers alarmed by the book’s coarse language; the Brooklyn Public Library was shocked that Huck said “sweat” instead of “perspiration.” Heaven forfend! But in the 20th century, that silliness gave way to thoughtful considerations of the novel’s treatment of racism and racist slurs.

We may snigger at the palpitations of those 19th-century schoolmarms who thought that children would be harmed by frank reference to bodily functions: mere “silliness”, per Ron Charles. But those 21st-century pedagogues who think children will be harmed by “the n-word”, well, their “critical arguments have been illuminating”.

But is it possible that the harms of exposure to taboo language were exactly as dire for the children of the 19th century as for those of the 21st? If you’re brought up to believe that certain words are dangerous, then hearing those words can induce stress, fear, a lingering state of nervous agitation. Certain groups – in olden times women and children, nowadays “people of colour” among others – are thought to be especially susceptible to such extreme emotional responses, so that knowingly exposing them to these dangerous words amounts to an attack on their composure – an act of violence.

From a Halifax music festival’s public apology for permitting a white presenter to speak aloud the titles of some works by the black composer Julius Eastman:

This event caused direct harm to those involved, those in attendance and to the broader communities surrounding our organization, particularly QTBIPOC folks. [1] We recognize and name this as an instance of anti-black racism. … This resulted in surprise, shock, violence, discomfort, harm and a number of associated experiences for the presenters and those in attendance.

I’d intended to balance the above apology with the complaint of the Brooklyn librarian who in 1905 was “shocked” by Mark Twain’s earthy language. But it turns out that the librarian’s crusade to protect the community was, by 21st-century standards, pretty half-hearted: declaring that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were inappropriate for children, she simply kicked them upstairs to the adults’ department.

On hearing of this, Twain drily observed that,

I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave.

I suspect that many 21st-century progressives would assent unironically to the proposal that the Bible, to say nothing of Huckleberry Finn, is too problematic to be read by children unsupervised.

***

In 1950, just shy of the chronological midpoint between the publication of Huckleberry Finn and today, Lionel Trilling observed that:

Huckleberry Finn was once barred from certain libraries and schools for its alleged subversion of morality. The authorities had in mind the book’s endemic lying, the petty thefts, the denigration of respectability and religion, the bad language, and the bad grammar. We smiled at that excessive care, yet in point of fact Huckleberry Finn is indeed a subversive book–no-one who reads thoughtfully the dialectic of Huck’s great moral crisis will ever again be wholly able to accept without some question and some irony the assumptions of the respectable morality by which he lives, nor will ever again be certain that what he considers the clear dictates of moral reason are not merely the customary beliefs of his time and place. [2]

That “great moral crisis” to which Trilling refers is Huck’s mounting sense of guilt over having abetted the escape of Miss Watson’s slave:

I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, because I didn’t run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn’t no use, conscience up and says, every time, “But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody.” That was so–I couldn’t get around that, no way. That was where it pinched. Conscience says to me, “What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you, that you could treat her so mean?”

huckleberry finn dan pearce illustration octopus books 1978

Huck and Jim, by Dan Pearce, ©1978 Octopus Books.

The “right” thing to do, Huck’s conscience tells him, is to come clean, write Miss Watson with the whereabouts of her runaway slave, and slouch home to Missouri to live down the shameful reputation he’s earned. Huck goes so far as to write the letter, and immediately feels better – “all washed clean of sin” – but his complacency is disturbed by memories of Jim’s kindness and friendship. He plucks up the letter – his salvation:

I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, for ever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” – and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. [3]

***

Having grown up in the 1970s and ’80s, when free speech assumptions were ascendant, and having consequently had my mind soiled in youth by exposure to subversive works by Heinlein, Vonnegut, Kesey, Burroughs, and yes, Mark Twain, I can’t help rolling my eyes at the efforts of censors of all political stripes to safeguard children – and increasingly, college-age adults – against upsetting words and ideas.

But in fairness to the scruples of the 21st and 19th centuries, I should acknowledge that perhaps my desensitization is nothing to boast about. As H.G. Wells’ friend and sparring partner G.K. Chesterton once put it:

Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. There are two meanings of the word “nervous,” and it is not even a physical superiority to be actually without nerves. It may mean that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal, and that you are a paralytic. [4]

Contra Chesterton, at present it’s the grandparents who are the paralytics, while their grandkids hone their nerve endings to ever finer degrees of receptivity. But never mind, old-timers: your grandkids will someday be despised by their grandkids as coarse-skinned barbarians; while long-vanquished barbarisms will re-establish themselves unopposed, in new guises flattering to those who profit from them.

M.

1. QTBIPOC: “Queer / Trans / 2-spirit / Black / Indigenous / People of Colour.”

2. Trilling’s essay “Huckleberry Finn” appears in his book The Liberal Imagination, from 1950.

3. Though Huck has resigned himself to being a sinner for Jim’s sake, this doesn’t mean he judges other people’s sins less strictly. When Tom Sawyer unexpectedly turns up, Huck is appalled at how eagerly his old friend agrees to assist in Jim’s liberation:

I’m bound to say Tom Sawyer fell, considerable, in my estimation. Only I couldn’t believe it. Tom Sawyer a nigger stealer!

4. That Chesterton quote is from an essay called “About Shamelessness”. It’s included in his 1936 collection As I Was Saying and in his 1949 Selected Essays.

Swap in Brave New World for The Sleeper Awakes and I wrote this very same essay four years ago. Come to think of it, the old one is tighter and better. Read that instead. At other times I have considered works by Wells’ frenemies Bertrand Russell and G.B. Shaw.

Equality and homogeneity.

I picked up a used copy of G.K. Chesterton’s 1906 biography-cum-critical-appreciation Charles Dickens on a visit to the UK five years ago, but to avoid spoilers I held off tackling it until I’d read all of Dickens’s novels at least once. I finally polished off The Mystery of Edwin Drood last month, freeing me to read the Chesterton book.

One of its major themes is Dickens’s egalitarianism, his “democratic optimism”:

We shall consider Dickens in many other capacities, but let us put this one first. He was the voice in England of this humane intoxication and expansion, this encouraging of anybody to be anything.

Which strikes very comfortingly on the modern ear – but it quickly becomes apparent that Chesterton’s notion of equality is very different from the version now championed. At one point he offers this telling digression:

In one sense things can only be equal if they are entirely different. Thus, for instance, people talk with a quite astonishing gravity about the inequality or equality of the sexes; as if there could possibly be any inequality between a lock and a key. Wherever there is no element of variety, wherever all the items literally have an identical aim, there is at once and of necessity inequality. A woman is only inferior to man in the matter of being not so manly; she is inferior in nothing else. Man is inferior to woman in so far as he is not a woman; there is no other reason. … If everything is trying to be green, some things will be greener than others; but there is an immortal and indestructible equality between green and red.

That is to say, when everyone’s worth is measured by a single criterion – by IQ, by wealth, by physical strength – then equality is an impossible goal. It’s only when people are liberated to pursue their manifold, unpredictable, and often hilarious excellences that true equality – the equality of the human spirit – becomes visible.

***

In 2013 my father died. As his only child and heir I received a sizeable life insurance payout, the sum of various small amounts scattered among his various bank accounts, and a modest monthly pension which will carry on through 2020. This hardly added up to what a middle-class Canadian would describe as a fortune, but it was sufficient to free me, a single person with inexpensive tastes, from the necessity of paid employment for a while.

I used my freedom to write a novel.

…Or that’s the self-glamorizing way to put it. It would be as accurate to say I pissed away my dad’s life savings for three years, during which time I incidentally happened to produce a novel – which, even if I somehow get it published, is highly unlikely to earn back even a tiny fraction of what I pissed away, let alone the money I failed to earn by not working.

I didn’t get here through stupidity. I knew full well that a multi-year gap in the middle of my prime wage-earning years would blow my chances of ever owning a home, or raising a family, or being treated by anyone as a person of importance. It’s not that I don’t value any of those things, but you can see by my choices that I don’t value them that highly.

Meanwhile, given my level of laziness, I knew I was unlikely ever to write a novel while simultaneously working a full-time job. And writing this novel was important to me.

So I’m okay with my decision – for now. Check back with me when I’m a pensionless sixty-five year old starving in a ditch.

***

Assuming I’ve correctly estimated my expenditures, it appears that last year I scraped by at roughly the Low-Income Cut-Off, or LICO – the closest thing Canada has to an “official” poverty line – for a single person.

I don’t think of myself as living in near-poverty. My apartment is mostly bug-free. My budget allows me two bottles of liquor a month, sufficient for my current level of incipient alcoholism. A couple times a year I fly out to see relatives in Toronto, where I make a show of spending liberally so they don’t worry about me.

Of course it would be a very different thing if I’d been grinding out forty hours a week at Tim Hortons to bring home an equivalent income. A LICO-level standard of living is quite comfortable when combined with the freedom to sleep in as late as you like.

Comfortable for me, I mean. Your results may vary.

***

I have this thought experiment that strikes me as so obvious it’s probably not even worth writing down. And yet I haven’t seen it expressed this way anywhere, so maybe it’s not that obvious, who knows.

Suppose all the wealth in a country is redistributed equally among all its citizens. All debts are cancelled, all money and goods are apportioned equally, all the land is divided in such a way that everyone’s share is equally productive.

It’s a wealthy country. There’s more than enough for everyone to live comfortably. No-one has to work at Tim Hortons any more – though they’re welcome to, if they like.

If you leave this egalitarian paradise alone for a while, then check in at the end of, say, ten years to see how things are progressing, will everyone still be equally wealthy?

Perhaps you’ll find that a few wily and unscrupulous operators have fleeced their more trusting fellow citizens of all or most of their wealth. But that wasn’t really a fair test. Those who had been well-educated, well-connected, and well-off prior to the redistribution had an advantage over the previously disadvantaged and downtrodden.

So let’s run the experiment again, only this time we’ll kidnap the young children of our failed socialist state and resettle them in a brand new, unspoiled country, where they’ll all be dressed identically, housed identically, fed identically, and educated to a common standard. When the kids reach eighteen the wealth of their new land will be shared out again, and this time, none of them will have any advantage over the others. Surely when we check back in at the end of ten years…

Huh, there’s still widespread inequality. It turns out the kids have different tastes, different interests. Some enjoy the simple life while others like to decorate their homes with fancy and expensive things. Some are content to hew wood and draw water while others prefer to sleep in late and write unsellable novels. Others enjoy manufacturing things that are useful and necessary, which they can exchange with their neighbours for a small share of their neighbours’ wealth. Still others have discovered that having extra wealth is in itself rather enjoyable, and they’re okay with spending their spare time doing not-very-enjoyable things – even working at Tim Hortons – for the chance of making a little more.

What can you do? Kidnap another generation of imperfectly equal babies, I guess. You’ll just have to brainwash the little suckers.

***

One of the implications of my thought experiment is that the more identical the citizens are in their tastes, interests, and priorities, the more enduring the equal distribution of wealth is likely to be. Which raises the question – did those countries that are celebrated for their egalitarianism get that way because they pursued egalitarian policies? Or are they naturally egalitarian because their citizens exhibit a high degree of homogeneity?

And what happens when homogeneous cultures attempt to assimilate large minorities with very different sets of tastes, interests, and priorities?

…But now we’re getting into the touchy subject of group differences, where you can easily get yourself blacklisted for saying the wrong thing. Better to stay away from specifics.

I’ll only suggest – delicately and humbly – that if you and I can have different preferences about how to spend our time and money, leading to differences in life outcomes, isn’t it probable that different groups, with different histories, different backgrounds, will tend to have different preferences that lead to different outcomes?

The modern version of egalitarianism proclaims that women and men, gays and straights, Jews and gentiles, all must be distributed in every profession, in every sphere of activity, at every level of prosperity, in proportion to their overall numbers. Only then will we all be equal.

But the price of that equality may be that women and men, gays and straights, Jews and gentiles – you and I – lose our distinctive identities.

My own old-fashioned view is that we’re equal already, in the Chestertonian sense – “the immortal and indestructible equality between green and red”. But to the modern progressive mind, that sounds like complacency. Greenness may be just one of many possible yardsticks for comparing people and groups, but it’s the one the modern world is built around. To tell the ungreen to be satisfied in their redness, or yellowness, or blueness, while we continue to adulate green above all, is bound to lead to resentment.

I’m not sure there’s a solution to this problem, or anyway one that doesn’t involve illiberal attempts to re-engineer human nature – precisely what I’m opposed to. So long as people have the freedom to pursue different paths we’ll tend to group ourselves around common values and interests. And so long as different groups exist, jealousy, suspicion, and hostility will arise between them. The best we can do is try and keep these feelings from breaking out into violence and persecution.

In any case, my complacent prediction is that human variety, and human conflict, will outlive all the clumsy attempts by the modern egalitarians to stamp them out.

M.

Bertrand Russell and the conquest of narrowness.

I’ve been reading Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness, which discusses eight common causes of unhappiness and why we so often succumb to them, and six sources of happiness and how we can attain them. As a person prone to most of the types of unhappiness he explores, I’m finding it a useful and thought-provoking little book.

It was written in 1930, and is therefore a bit dated in its examination of the outward or socially-imposed causes of unhappiness. For instance, I doubt too many men or women nowadays are afflicted with the particular sexual hang-ups Russell identifies as major sources of human misery; we’ve evolved a brand-new set of sexual dysfunctions to be immiserated by. Another cause of unhappiness that has changed somewhat since Russell’s day is what he calls fear of public opinion. Essentially, and commonsensically, he argues that the cure for this fear is to seek out a social milieu where you feel comfortable expressing yourself freely, and in your dealings with hostile outsiders to cultivate a cheerful indifference to their opprobrium. He explains how moderate non-conformity with society’s expectations can improve our collective happiness:

[A] society composed of men and women who do not bow too much to the conventions is a far more interesting society than one in which all behave alike. Where each person’s character is developed individually, differences of type are preserved, and it is worth while to meet new people, because they are not mere replicas of those whom one has met already.

As Russell describes it, the most common threat to individuality comes from small-town prudes and ignoramuses enforcing their prejudices on the young:

A person born, let us say, in some small country town finds himself from early youth surrounded by hostility to everything that is necessary for mental excellence.

Fortunately, he says, big cities provide concentrations of enlightened folk among whom oppressed country youngsters can feel at home, while even in more rural areas, swift modern transportation allows them to range further in their search for sympathetic souls:

The idea that one should know one’s immediate neighbors has died out in large centers of population, but still lingers in small towns and in the country. It has become a foolish idea, since there is no need to be dependent upon immediate neighbors for society. More and more it becomes possible to choose our companions on account of congeniality rather than on account of mere propinquity. Happiness is promoted by associations of persons with similar tastes and similar opinions. Social intercourse may be expected to develop more and more along these lines, and it may be hoped that by these means the loneliness that now afflicts so many unconventional people will be gradually diminished almost to vanishing point. This will undoubtedly increase their happiness … for it is essential to happiness that our way of living should spring from our own deep impulses and not from the accidental tastes and desires of those who happen to be our neighbors, or even our relations.

Prophetically, he concedes that escaping their narrow-minded neighbours won’t always protect freethinkers from the scorn of the majority:

[T]here is a new kind of fear, namely, the fear of what newspapers may say. This is quite as terrifying as anything connected with medieval witch hunts. When the newspaper chooses to make a scapegoat of some perhaps quite harmless person, the results may be very terrible. Fortunately, as yet this is a fate which most people escape through their obscurity; but as publicity gets more and more perfect in its methods, there will be an increasing danger in this novel form of social persecution.

What Russell would have made of social media, one can only guess. He predicts vaguely that libel laws may someday have to be extended to forbid any commentary “that makes life intolerable for innocent individuals”, though he is happy to leave it to the jurists of the future to define what is intolerable and who is innocent. He concludes:

The only ultimate cure for this evil is, however, an increase of toleration on the part of the public. The best way to increase toleration is to multiply the number of individuals who enjoy real happiness and do not therefore find their chief pleasure in the infliction of pain upon their fellow men.

My sense is that while the modern ease of forming “associations of persons with similar tastes and similar opinions” may have increased happiness by allowing isolated people to escape their loneliness, it has done very little to increase toleration. In fact, while we’re undoubtedly more “tolerant” in the modern sense – tolerant of ethnic minorities and sexual experimenters of various types – we’re as likely as ever to anathematize and despise those whose opinions are slightly different from ours. Why make uneasy friendships with our neighbours when we can make easy friendships with people whose beliefs we already know we share? – and if there’s any doubt, we can check their Twitter feed to confirm their beliefs as the correct ones. The modern tendency is to segregate ourselves into ever more exclusive castes based on education and political alignment, so there’s little risk of being forced into an awkward conversation with someone whose ideas might make us uncomfortable. I believe this point has been discussed at book length already by Bill Bishop and Charles Murray, so I won’t belabor it here.

Russell’s comments about the supposed narrowness of small-town life reminded me of a 1905 essay by G.K. Chesterton (reprinted in the 1958 Penguin collection of his Essays and Poems) called “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family”:

It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the willfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.

Unlike Chesterton, Bertrand Russell can only imagine the compromises of right-thinkers oppressed by wrong-thinkers: the young person whose parents “believe the doctrine of evolution to be wicked”, for example, or the aspiring actor stifled by the convention that a career on the stage is “socially inferior”. If Chesterton’s “solitary and sensitive individual” has to flee to the big city to escape the influence of clods like these, what’s the downside? Russell doesn’t consider the possibility that the young person might leave behind his narrow provincial background only to take up with a new, even narrower pack of clods.

M.

The Red and the Black: Julien’s game.

What two things do Nancy Mitford’s 1960 parlour comedy Don’t Tell Alfred and the 1959 Gary Cooper maritime adventure flick The Wreck of the Mary Deare have in common?

  1. They have at the centre of their plots an obscure chain of unpopulated islets in the English Channel, the Minquiers (or “Minkies”, as Gary Cooper calls them).
  2. By happenstance I found myself reading one and watching the other on the same evening in 2008.

A meaningless coincidence, but because of it Mitford, Cooper, and the Minkies will forever be linked in my imagination.*

stendhal the red and the black

Here’s another coincidence. Much of the action in the middle section of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black occurs in the French provincial capital of Besançon, a town that to my recollection I’d never heard of before. (A forgivable lapse of memory: I learn via Wikipedia that Besançon makes an appearance, disguised under the Latinized name “Vesontio”, in Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul.)

Besançon is the first stop on Julien Sorel’s journey from small-town obscurity to the heights of French society. He spends some unhappy months as a student in a seminary there, befriending the rector, who will eventually help him get appointed as secretary to a rich nobleman in Paris. By the end of the novel Julien finds himself back in Besançon – in prison.

Putting aside Stendhal, I opened up a collection of essays by G.K. Chesterton, and came across this:

For some time I had been wandering in quiet streets in the curious town of Besançon, which stands like a sort of peninsula in a horseshoe of river. You may learn from the guide-books that it was the birthplace of Victor Hugo, and that it is a military station with many forts, near to the French frontier. But you will not learn from guide-books that the very tiles on the roofs seem to be of some quainter and more delicate colour than the tiles of all the other towns of the world; that the tiles look like the little clouds of some strange sunset, or like the lustrous scales of some strange fish. They will not tell you that in this town the eye cannot rest on anything without finding it in some way attractive and even elvish, a carved face at a street corner, a gleam of green fields through a stunted arch, or some unexpected colour for the enamel of a spire or dome.

This helpfully augments Stendhal’s meagre description of Besançon as “one of the most beautiful cities in France”. Never having previously heard of the place, now I’d like to go there.

But the essay that appears just before the one quoted above is as eerily relevant to the reader of The Red and the Black. It’s called The Contented Man:

True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it. It is arduous and it is rare. The absence of this digestive talent is what makes so cold and incredible the tales of so many people who say they have been “through” things; when it is evident that they have come out on the other side quite unchanged…

[W]e may ask of those who profess to have passed through trivial or tragic experiences whether they have absorbed the content of them; whether they licked up such living water as there was. It is a pertinent question in connection with many modern problems.

Thus the young genius says, “I have lived in my dreary and squalid village before I found success in Paris or Vienna.” The sound philosopher will answer, “You have never lived in your village, or you would not call it dreary and squalid.”

Julien Sorel, with his self-destructive pride and ambition, is the epitome of the small-town Uncontented Man, so much so that I’m tempted to theorize that Chesterton marked his visit to Besançon by reading The Red and the Black and writing these two essays back-to-back – except that they originally appeared in collections published three years apart.

Just a coincidence.

***

Working as a secretary in the house of the Marquis de La Mole, Julien is introduced to the Marquis’ daughter Mathilde. Beautiful, haughty, and too intelligent to take seriously the elegant fatuities of the young men of her social circle, Mathilde is attracted to her father’s clever new secretary, though he’s an uncultured hick from the provinces, far beneath her station.

Julien in his pride interprets Mathilde’s interest as mere condescension, and responds coldly; this only intrigues her further. Eventually, after many mutual misunderstandings, Julien realizes that he has accidentally captured the heart of the most eligible girl in Paris, and he determines to seduce her.

Unfortunately, after the successful seduction, he discovers that he’s in love with her – and worse for him, she discovers it too. As his sangfroid melts into gooey fondness, her admiration turns to contempt. She rebukes herself for ever having cared for him. He can only mope about, casting sad-eyed glances her way, while she ignores him to gossip with her society friends.

Before long, Julien runs into a frivolous Russian playboy, Prince Korasov, who diagnoses the situation:

“[She] is profoundly self-centered, like all women to whom heaven has given either too high a rank or too much money. She looks at herself instead of looking at you, so she doesn’t know you. During the two or three outbursts of passion for you that she’s allowed herself to indulge in, with great efforts of imagination, she saw in you the hero of her dreams, not what you actually are.”

Korasov outlines a scheme by which Julien can manipulate Mathilde’s jealousy to win her back. And this is where The Red and the Black begins to uncannily resemble a handbook of “game”, that semi-competitive sport wherein aspiring male “players” use principles divined from evolutionary psychology to imitate the “alpha” behaviours of our primate forebears and render themselves irresistable to women.

“Game” as propounded by its most eloquent evangelist, the blogger known as Roissy, is about 50/50 misogynistic bullshit and disturbingly spot-on social analysis. I refer you to Roissy’s Sixteen Commandments Of Poon. (Gird yourself, good liberals.)

Sixteen Commandments Of Poon The Red and the Black

Women want to feel like they have to overcome obstacles to win a man’s heart… The man who gives his emotional world away too easily robs women of the satisfaction of earning his love. Though you may be in love with her, don’t say it before she has said it.

He was astonished by the sorrow in her eyes; it was so intense that he scarcely recognized them. He felt his strength abandoning him, so mortally painful was the act of courage he was imposing on himself. “Those eyes will soon express nothing but cold disdain,” he thought, “if I give into the joy of loving her.”

Make her jealous. Flirt with other women in front of her. Do not dissuade other women from flirting with you. Women will never admit this but jealousy excites them. The thought of you turning on another woman will arouse her sexually. No girl wants a man that no other woman wants.

“Answer me at least,” she said at length in a supplicating tone of voice, but without daring to look at him. …”So Madame de Fervaques has stolen your heart from me…Has she made for you all the sacrifices to which my fatal love led me?”

A gloomy silence was Julien’s only answer.

Give your woman 2/3 of everything she gives you… Give her two displays of affection and stop until she has answered with three more. When she speaks, you reply with fewer words. When she emotes, you emote less… Refraining from reciprocating everything she does for you in equal measure instills in her the proper attitude of belief in your higher status. In her deepest loins it is what she truly wants.

Julien abandoned himself to his great happiness only at times when Mathilde could not read it in his eyes. He scrupulously performed the duty of addressing a few harsh words to her from time to time. Whenever her sweetness, which he observed with astonishment, and her unquestioning devotion to him were about to rob him of all his self-control, he had the courage to leave her abruptly.

Keep her guessing. True to their inscrutable natures, women ask questions they don’t really want direct answers to. Woe be the man who plays it straight – his fate is the suffering of the beta. Evade, tease, obfuscate. She thrives when she has to imagine what you’re thinking about her, and withers when she knows exactly how you feel.

He knew very well that the next morning, by eight o’clock, Mathilde would be in the library; he did not go there until nine o’clock, burning with love, but with his head dominating his heart. Not one minute went by, perhaps, without his repeating to himself, “I must keep her constantly occupied with this great doubt: ‘Does he love me?’ Her brilliant position, and the flattery of everyone who speaks to her, make her a little too sure of herself.”

You shall make your mission, not your woman, your priority… Despite whatever protestations to the contrary, women do not want to be “The One” or the center of a man’s existence. They in fact want to subordinate themselves to a worthy man’s life purpose, to help him achieve that purpose with their feminine support, and to follow the path he lays out.

His mind was preoccupied; he responded only halfheartedly to her expressions of ardent tenderness. He remained taciturn and somber. Never before had he appeared so great, so adorable to her…

[W]hat explanation could there be for Julien’s air of severity? She did not dare to question him.

She did not dare! She, Mathilde! From then on, there was something vague, mysterious, almost terrifying in her feeling for Julien.

Terrifying indeed. My biggest objection to “game” is that I fear it might be true. Are we really just prisoners of our genes, fated to fulfil the gender roles of our chest-thumping ancestors? Are women really happier when they “subordinate themselves to a worthy man’s life purpose”?

And what about men? The problem with game is that it’s misnamed. Game is no fun. Bending a woman to your will is a hell of a lot of work, and if you want the woman to stick around, the work never ends. Like Julien, you have to disguise your feelings, keep your mistress guessing, “scrupulously [perform] the duty of addressing a few harsh words to her from time to time”. Julien himself, once he’s completed his conquest, is miserable about it. His heart truly belongs to his earlier lover, the guileless Madame de Rênal.

Roissy, in his bleaker disquisitions on the cruelty of the modern sexual marketplace, communicates despair over the gamesmanship to which men are forced. He blames it all on feminism:

[I]n a mating landscape where women work and earn almost as much as men and, consequently, have devalued the traditional currency of barter in the mating market and shrunk their dating pool, men are responding to this disincentive to bust their balls for diminished sexual reward by dropping out (omegas), doping out (video gaming and porn consuming betas), and cadding about (alphas and practitioners of game).

There’s something to that – something, but not everything. To say “This is how we’re hardwired; accept it” ignores the paradoxical essence of human nature: It’s our nature to struggle to transcend our nature.

Personally, I’d rather we keep on trying to escape the backward pull of our primate progenitors. But in order to pacify our inner chimps, we first need to understand their desires. To that end I’m grateful for Roissy and Stendhal, in somewhat different measures, for documenting the darker manifestations of the human sex drive.

M.

* A while back I described another such coincidence involving Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and an obscure London hotel destroyed in the Blitz.

Update, July 27, 2020: For the second time it was necessary to go in and redirect dead links to Roissy’s blog, which was shut down by WordPress for violating its terms of service. Roissy goes by the pseudonym Heartiste now. While making those edits I added a cover pic of The Red and the Black and linked it to my Bibliography page.

Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene in the Archive.

This is a landing page for archived posts about:

Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene

“Arbuckle Avenue” concerns a row of seedy hotels that used to stand across from London’s Paddington Station, mentioned in Waugh’s When the Going Was Good and Greene’s The End of the Affair. A commenter helps explain the origin of the name.

Charkes Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, and Evelyn Waugh

“Dickens – Chesterton – Waugh” discusses a passage in Brideshead Revisited that seems to have been inspired by / lifted from the Chesterton essay “Simmons and the Social Tie”. Chesterton’s critique of David Copperfield is also mentioned.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker