Frederick Douglass: “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself” (1845)

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revised within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afford by the triumph was the full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody army of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. (331)

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the great slave narrative of the antebellum period and it is certainly the most well-known, thanks to its clarity in exposing the myths of the Old South. It is often taught in high schools and undergraduate courses for this reason. Douglass’ main concern—besides telling some of his life story—was to show the hypocrisy of the slave-owning South. Using his own life and his experiences, he managed to dismantle pretty much every one of the major myths. We can sum this up as follows. While the defenders of slavery were saying slavery was good both masters, slaves, and Southern society, Douglass showed how it debased and made savage both slaves and masters, corrupted the legal institutions, and created irreconcilable divisions to society. The story also works as a coming of age story, beginning with Douglass’ birth in slavery, his self-education, and finally the climax consisting of his debasement in the face of Mr. Covery’s violent labor regimen, his resistance to that, and his eventual escape to freedom.

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The narrative is preceded by two introductions, the first by William Lloyd Garrison and the second by Wendell Phillips. Together they point to the historical significance of Douglass’ narrative within the growing body of anti-slavery literature. Narratives by former slaves were few at that point. They also stress that Douglass lived in a part of the country known for milder forms of slavery, so the situation described by Douglass can only be worse throughout the deep South. Finally, the suggest that his experiences are integral to the slave system. Take Phillips comments. “We know that the bitter drops, which even you have drained from the cup, are no incidental aggravations, no individual ills, but such as must mingle always and necessarily in the lot of every slave. They are essential ingredients, not occasional results, of the system.” (278)

In the opening chapter, Douglass has a fascinating look at something that may seem trivial but turned out to be central the experience of slaves: not knowing his birthday. As he shows, not knowing his birthday was merely a part of the veil of ignorance put over enslaved men and women. Much more crushing is the inability of Douglass to know his mother as mother, but this derived from the same logic that made his birthday insignificant to the working of the slave system. This chapter also looks at the phenomenon of white fathers of slaves (like Douglass’ own father) and the cruelty of overseers. He also includes the description of the torture of his Aunt Hester. Whites fathering slaves and the sadistic torture of Hester together expose one of the major myths of the old South, that it was a land of chivalrous sexual virtue.

The next few chapters follow Douglass’ childhood and the workings of farm life. He has comments on the power regiment, the use of songs by enslaved men and women to express their sorrow. Douglass points out the high turnover among overseers and even masters. Douglass himself was passed around a few times before he escaped slavery. Another myth of paternalism—that slavery exchanged loyalty for loyalty—shattered. In the first half we also learn how Douglass learned to read by interacting with local white kids, many of whom saw slavery as inevitable but learned to question it (a bit) by interacting with Douglass.

His first lessons were from a white woman, but this education was aborted.

His first lessons were from a white woman, but this education was aborted.

The climax of the story is Douglass encounter as a young man with Mr. Covey who hired the slave Douglass from his master. Covey was a poor white who managed to save enough to purchase one slave (for breeding). He lacked the intellectual training in the ideology of slaveholding, which however hypocritical at least forced some more conscientious masters to mitigate their brutality. All he had was the application of power, which he used excessively on Douglass. He used lies and force to sustain his authority. When Douglass finally defeats Covey in a brutal fight, he achieves some degree of independence and forces Covey to refrain from whipping Douglass. I like to point out this example to those enamored with non-violence. While violent resistance does not always work, it certainly has its moments and when power is so devastating to body and soul, violence is often the only way to achieve freedom.

The final chapter discusses a bit about how he got his freedom, but he does not share details to protect the people who helped him and to ensure that other slaves can use that method. He condemns the openness (the lack of a security culture) among some abolitionists who openly talk about the “underground railroad.”

In an appendix, Douglass attacks the application of Christianity in the South. He confesses some admiration for Christianity on principle (but it is spit out through a clenched jaw). Largely, his experience of religion is one of hypocrisy.

“We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church member’s. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . . Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time” (363, 364) Unlike the first three slave narratives in this collection, religion is not a part of the arc of the slave. It exists only as some of the links in the chain.

Douglass points out on almost every page the workings of power. Power transforms those in authority into monsters. Those under the whip are also turned into brutes. Part of the significance of the battle between Douglass and Covey is that Douglass was transformed into a monster before he could arise as a man. The reason terror was necessary was that the power regimen was actually quite weak, as we see in Covey’s faltering in the face of Douglass’ resistance. Power that is this weak and this unjustifiable can only survive by turning those involved into monsters. It simply cannot survive with self-conscious human beings.

Well that is Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography. He has two more, but I will reserve that for the volume of Douglass’ writings, somewhere else in the Library of America.

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Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The Image and Other Stories”, Part Two; Stories from “Gifts”

Creativity is for me a very encompassing idea. I would say that everything which gives a man pleasure is creative and what causes him pain is an inhibition in his creative desire. Like Spinoza, I am a hedonist. Like the Cabalists, I believe that the principle of male and female exists not only in the lower world but also in the higher ones. The universal novel of creation, like the novel of an earthly writer, is finally a love story. (562)

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In his introduction to the short story collection Gifts, Isaac Bashevis Singer discussed writing. Readers of his stories would not be surprised by any of the autobiographical bits he gives, but it does provide a useful summary to what he was trying to achieve in his life’s work. Two important points that emerge is that he felt—with good reasons—that he was in a world becoming more insane. The craziness that his characters faced was minor compared to the craziness in the world that created the world wars, Stalinism, and Hitler. “No. The world that was revealed to me was not rational. One could as easily question the validity of reason as the existence of God. In my own spirit, there was chaos.” (554) In the face of this, Singer chose to embrace writing as a creative act. He discusses at considerable length how he saw God as a writer and writers extending the creative work of God (complete with errors and destructive tendencies).  Of course you would need to be a theist to accept the second part of this argument which explains away Biblical nonsense with the trial and error of composition, the idea of witches and dybbuks existing is more rational than fascism and the gulag is worth considering.

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The second half of The Image and Other Stories carried on many of the same themes from the first half, including fate and show Singer’s revived interest in various aspects of life in pre-war Poland. But for today, I would like to take inspiration from Singer’s introduction to Gifts (also published in 1985) and consider briefly the question of liquidity. In hindsight, this is probably something I should have been saying more about because it so effectively summarizes Singer’s often complicated themes. One of their central struggles is holding onto family, community, tradition, and value in a rapidly changing world. Throughout his stories then we find characters who try desperately to cling to tradition and those who throw up their hands and openly reject those traditions, joining radical groups and embracing the philosophies of the Jewish Enlightenment. Zionists are a bit in the middle. Some seem to truly see Israel as a solution to the problem of liquidity but in a few examples, these characters are just as destructive to family life.

Let me give just a few examples:

“The Conference” puts us right into the heart of the radical community with a 1936 conference of Jewish radicals, communists, feminists, and Zionists. Of course, none of these people are able to get along and they constantly disagree and spend inordinate time revising proposals and minutes until some basic agreement could be made. Very little is accomplished. This is ominous since we know that the right is moving more much active at that time across the border in Germany. Of more interest to the delegates than creating a radical alternative to creeping fascism was a beautiful woman who attended the conference, one of only three women there. Competition for this one woman paralleled the increasingly vitriolic debates at the conference. Singer is clearly pointing out the inefficacy of the pre-war radicals in Poland.

“Strangers” is about an aging Zionist who divorces his wife of fifty years, taking what little property he needed to resettle in Palestine. Right away we notice that his effort to life out a traditional life required him to reject his family and his community. “I want to spend my last years with the Torah and prayer. If I move to the Land of Israel now, my bones won’t have to travel underground to get there when the Messiah comes. I want to breath holy air.” (497–498) After the divorce he moves to Palestine and soon marries a young woman citing the need for a son. Much like the leftists at the conference, this aging Jew turns his personal motivation into what appears to an outsider to be rather lurid. The narrator, observing this as an outsider, finds his own escape to a world going insane saying, “I would run away from home and become a cabalist and a recluse.” (503) Whether it is Israel or mysticism it seems there is a strong element of escapism either as a solution to liquidity or  way to flee from it.

“Miracles” is a fascinating story of how one man experienced a dramatically changing world as a series of miracles. His escape from Poland, his arrival in France, his survival of the Holocaust are all unlikely. He encounters someone who survived a concentration camp who rejected the role of miracles in life. The solution that is offered up over their conversation is that they are fated. “There are powers up above which play with us. Lately it occurred to me that this earth is ruled by a divine prodigy who toys with little soldiers and dolls. When he ties of them, he rips off their heads.” (480) Of course, an acceptance of fate is yet another response to liquidity and as the story shows it may not mean passivity or clinging to tradition.

However, I do not find a satisfying response to liquidity and the upsetting instability and insanity of the world in Singer’s fiction. Actually, it is quite rare to find a satisfying answer to this question and this is something that radicals should always keep on their mind or we will always be fighting the battles of the past.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Friend of Kafka” (1970) Part 2: “Something Is There”

One story from the second half of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collection of short stories, A Friend of Kafka seems to me to summarize the thematic running through all the stories: the feeling of paralysis most of us get from the banality of life, whether it comes from our relationships, our community, our job, or even our religions. The early  story of the book, “Dr. Beeber,” is about a hedonist and libertine who finds boredom first in his lifestyle and then later in his a marriage he uses to replace his vulgar pursuit of pleasure. In “Something Is There,” the final story of the collection, Rabbit Nechemia fights a war against God, emerging from his growing disgust with religion, largely due to the problem of evil. “Yes, you are great, eternal, all mighty, wise, even full of mercy. But with whom do you play hide-and-seek—with flies? What help is your greatness to the fly when it falls into the net of the spider that sucks out its life?” (240) He projected all of the evils of the world – evils that as the head of the local Jewish court he helped perpetuate – onto God, his laws, and capricious nature.  His final thoughts before turning away from God was “God, is this your world?” (247)

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His choice is to reject entirely his world, the village, and as much as he could, his religion, thinking that he can learn from the “heretics” in the city. He does this by moving to the city, where his brother resides. He finds it hard to escape the life of his village. He does not know how to order food to ensure it is kosher and he notices openly blasphemous books in the window of booksellers. He even toys with prostitution, but does not go through with it. He is completely out of his element. Despite his desire to leave the village he is unable to break free at the foundational level. His freedom is confined by all the experiences of his life. “Each time the rabbi asked how to reach Smotcha Street, where Simcho David [his younger brother] lived, he was advised to take a trolley car or a droshky, but the trolley seemed too formidable and a droshky was too expensive. Besides, the drive might be a Gentile. The rabbi spoke no Polish… He passed by stores that sold leather, hardware, dry-goods, and ready-made clothes. The salesman vied for customers, tore at their sleeves, winking and interspersing their Yiddish with Polish.” (249) Such disorientation shapes almost all experiences in the novel. The rabbi has detached himself from what he knew and whatever intellectual freedom he enjoyed is illusionary and burdened by the challenges of getting through life. Even his brother, he learns, is no longer familiar. He has become “a modern.” “What they worship is the ego,” he said pondering his brother’s change.

Things begin to change for Nechemia when he takes a closer look at a book on cosmology, How the Universe Came into Being. He discusses with the storekeeper about science. He warms him that the book is dated and that while the author can describe evolution, he cannot state how the universe began. He tells him to pick up the book in a few weeks and points out to him that urban life is beyond the dilemma of belief or unbelief. “In my time there were a few [unbelievers], but the old ones died and the new generation is practical. They want to improve the world but they don’t know to go about it.” (254)

In addition to learning a bit about modern science, the rabbit discovered much about the modern institutions, the prison, the hospital, and the police from a coal dealer. He mocks his stated desire to be a coal dealer, and like the book store owner suggested, had a practical understanding of God. He does not know if God exists, punishment comes in this world, not the next, and the way to make it in this world is to learn a trade, not teach ancient books. He is friendly, however, and allows the rabbi to stay with him, while he tries to teach him of the city (where to find healthy prostitutes, where he might get a job teaching if that is all he is good for).

There has been almost no progress in the rabbi. He is as mixed up as ever about life in Warsaw. He has managed to create a routine that gives his life some semblance of normalcy, but in truth he is still fully in the world of the village. This is most evidenced by this ongoing conflict with God, while surrounded people who have moved beyond such fears and concerns.  But all of that changes when the rabbi reads the cosmology book at the library. For the first time he learns of the scientific perspective. “Man descended from an ape—but where did the ape come from? And since the auuthor wasn’t present when all this happened, how could be be so sure? Their science explained everything away in distance of time and space. The first cell appeared hundreds of millions of years ago, in the slime at the edge of the ocean. The sun will be extinguished billions of years hence. Millions of stars, planets, comets, move in a space with no beginning and no end, without a plan or purpose. In the future all people will be alike, there will be a Kingdom of Freedom without competition, crises, wars, jealousy, or hatred… All books had one thing in common: they avoided the essential, spoke vaguely, and gave different names to the same object. They knew neither how the grass grew nor what light was.” (262) Bold certainty, optimism and confidence intersected with ambiguity and doubt.

At this point the story ends and the rabbi returns to the village, his spiritual conflict ended. He concludes that the entire world “worships idols” or “invented gods,” but that there are no heretics Heresy, it would seem, requires a certain engagement with religion that is lost on the urbanites.

The rabbi resolves his spiritual conflict by returning home but accepting some of the randomness, possibility, and diversity of human potential. He did not find freedom in the physical vagabondage that he pursued when he left the village, but rather in the intellectual uncertainty which is home to curiosity and wonder.

Ambrose Bierce, “The Devil’s Dictionary” (1881-1906): Cynicism Amok

I am sure that The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce is much better in its original form of 25 years of humorist and pithy definitions of words published in weekly newspapers.  As a dictionary, read in a handful of sittings, it quickly becomes tedious.  In the form of The Devil’s Dictionary, the collection of all of these sardonic defintions is an extended lexicon, covering many historical, philosophical, legal, and political issues.  You would not likely find the word you searched for.  I looked up all the dirty words without luck.  I suppose it is meant to be skimmed through for a laugh.  In this sense, it might make good toilet reading, or would function as a daily calendar of sardonic wit.

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From reading The Devil’s Dictionary, I realize that while I can be cynical myself, meeting someone endlessly cynically would be quickly boring.  Such people are best taken in small doses.  Nevertheless, it is significant that the cynic, by opposing existing reality as much as possible veers close to an anarchist perspective.  Bierce’s criticisms of capitalism, religion, governments of all types, classical traditions, intellectuals, and marriage are all spot on.  Unfortunately, as a cynic, he is unable to offer up any alternative.  Cynics are clever, but profoundly uncreative.  To be truly creative, one needs to set aside the pessimism and the clever observations long enough to dream.  For Lenin, the Russian Revolution was an opportunity to remake the world, and he did exactly that.  How does Bierce define “opportunity”?  “A favorable occasion for grasping a disappointment.” (571) For Bierce war is simply a “by-product of the arts of peace” (642) so why strive for peace?  Resistance to authority if meaningless because “disobedience” is “the silver lining to the cloud of servitude.” (474)  Cynicism may lead on toward a form of anarchism, but that form of anarchism is simply useless for any envisioning of alternatives.  I often imagined Bierce as an Internet troll.    That said, The Devil’s Dictionary is humorous and useful to consider in small bits.  Bierce’s wit and cleverness is impressive.

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I jotted down five themes that were heavily represented in The Devil’s Dictionary.  This is not complete, of course.  There does not seem to be any overarching target for the text, but we can group the majority of the defined terms into these seven categories.  I will give you a brief taste of each, which as I suggested is the best way to read him.

1. Marriage.  I wish I knew more about Bierce’s marriage.  The same year he separated from his wife over suspicious of an extramarital affair, his son shot his finance and her lover, before killing himself.  The funeral would be the last time Bierce would see his wife.  I cannot believe that these events did not shape his broader view on marriage.  His inability to trust women, believe in the survival of real relationships, or a happy marriage run throughout all of his work.  “Marriage” is “the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.” (557)  There are real reasons to critique marriage.  Its roots are the real enslavement of women.  Monogamy seems to be unnatural.  It does seem to intrude on human freedom.  Yet, Bierce is an enemy of all relationships.  He is also misogynist defining “woman” as “an animal usually living in the vicinity of Man, and having a rudimentary susceptibility to domestication.” (646)

2. The Modern State.  Many definitions attack historical and existing forms of government, bureaucracies, and all types of government functionaries.  A “Commonwealth” is “an administrative entity operated by an incalculable multitude of political parasites, logically active but fortuitously efficient.” (462)

3. Intellectuals.  Bierce has little patience for the intellectual and the pedant.  “Connoisseur” is “a specialist who knows everything about something and nothing about anything else.”  This sums up his attitude toward the entire class of scholars, theologians, and the like.  In one of the most clever definitions he tackles “foreordination” as follows: “This looks like an easy word to define, but when I consider that pious and learned theologians have spent long lives in explaining it, and written libraries to explain their explanations; when I remember that nations have been divided and bloody battles caused by the difference between foreordination and predestination, and that millions of treasure have been expended in the effort to prove and disprove its compatibility with freedom of the will and the efficacy of prayer, praise, and a religious life, — recalling these awful facts in the history of the word, I stand appalled before the mighty problem of its signification, abase my spiritual eyes, fearing to contemplate its portentous magnitude, reverently uncover and humbly refer it to His Eminence Cardinal Gibbons and His Grace Bishop Potter.” (493-494) So much for the utility of the intellectual.

4. Capital.  I am not sure what meaning being anti-capitalist has for a cynic, who is opposed to everything, but Bierce has no shortage of anti-capitalist definitions to arm the anarchist at cocktail parties.  For example, the “corporation” is “an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” (465) “Labor” is “one of the processes by which A acquires property for B.” (539)

5. Religion.  Bierce was an agnostic at best.  Religion is for him simply a mess of hierarchical structures and delusional beliefs.  His focus is on the conflicts spurred by religion.  The “Unitarian” is “one who denies the divinity of a Trinitarian.” (640)  If we were to group all of his terms on religion we would find that he largely sees religion as irrational, arbitrary, and the cause of too many rifts.

There are other issues Bierce tackles, of course, including our undeserving respect for the classical tradition and the silliness of American obsession over status.

So, The Devil’s Dictionary is fun enough in small doses and one should feel free to paraphrase his insights to impress dates or make sardonic comments to your boss.  Perhaps that is the purpose of such a lexicon.  What it does not do is encourage us to transform existing reality.

Can I now say that I have read the dictionary?

James Blish, “A Case of Conscience” 1958

James Blish’s A Case of Conscience is an interesting exploration of the question religion in the context of interplanetary relations.  From a monotheistic perspective, in particular, the existence of aliens provides a wonderful intellectual exercise.  If aliens are part of God’s creation, what is their status within creation?  Do they have souls?  For Christians, the question of their salvation would be need to be resolved.  (Especially if churches want to invest resources in missionary activity on other planets.)  A Case of Conscience takes the question in an unexpected way by asking the question: What if a society without a belief in a Christian God achieves Christian outcomes?  For a non-believer it is simple.  Of course, atheists are capable of a good life (even a life approved of by Christians) without knowledge of the Bible.  For a Christian, however, it poses a troubling dilemma.  Where did these values come from, if not from God?

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Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, S.J. is part of an expedition to the planet Lithia.  The dominant species on Lithia are reptilian.  Their technology if different than Earthling technology due to the absence of many metals.  The lack of iron, for instance, makes electricity almost impossible due to the inability to innovate electromagnetism.   Most technology is made of wood on Lithia.  Most members of the expedition are interested in the utility of planet for earth.  Ramon’s curiosity on their society, values, religious beliefs, and conception of death makes him unique in the expedition.  Ramon’s main informant is a Lithian named Chtexa.  He learns of their mature and accepting view of morality, the reproduction methods (done without marriage).  He also learns about their harmonious society.  “Their social system works like the most perfect of our physical mechanisms, and it does so without any apparent repression of the individual.  It’s a thoroughly liberal society in terms of guarantees, yet all the same it never even begins to tip over toward the side of total disorganization, toward the kind of Gandhiism that keeps a people tied to the momma-and-popps farm and the roving-brigand distribution system.  It’s in balance, and not in precarious balance either–it’s in perfect chemical equilibrium.” (435)  This horrifies Ramon, and he believes this culture to be the creation of Satan.  Lithia provides a model that suggests perfection in a world without God.  “But now we have, on Lithia, a new demonstration, both the subtlest and at the same time the crudest of all.  It will sway many people who could have been swayed in no other way, and who lack the intelligence or the background to understand that it is a rigged demonstration.  It seems to show us evolution in action on an inarguable scale.  It is supposed to settle the question once and for all, to rule God out of the picture, to snap the chains that have held Peter’s rock together all these many centuries.  Henceforth these is to be no more question; henceforth there is to be no more God, but only phenomenology.” (448)

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After a lengthy debate, they could not decide as an expedition whether to open up connections between Earth and Lithia.  They return to Earth and bring with them an egg, which is raised to become an Earth citizen.  Ramon was discipline by the church for the heresy of Manicheanism, because of the suggestion that Satan could have created a world.  Satan could infect a planet (requiring an exorcism) or create a deception but he could not create.  Ramon returns to Lithia and indeed performs an exorcism on the entire planet, which follows with its explosion.  This may, however, have been caused by experiments in fissile material.  While Ramon fears the ramifications Lithia, Clever, another member of the expedition, wanted to use them to make nuclear weapons, even if it meant the destruction of Lithia and its people.

A subplot covers the influence of Egtverchi, Chtexa’s offspring raised on Earth, on the planet’s people.  Egtverchi is a bit like Foyle (or jaunting technology) in The Stars My Destination as the force that broke a people out of a static situation.  The riot that Egtverchi inspires suggests, to some degree, the danger that the Lithia indeed pose.  It seems to me that we would likely find both intense xenophobia and uncritical acceptance of alien beliefs if we ever encounter extraterrestrials.

The main anarchist themes in this work seem to revolve around the potential for a working anarchist utopia.  Lithia lacks governments and moral codes.  They even sustain a scientific and technological society without the rise of a technocracy.  Ramon lists the “Premises” of Lithia:

1. “Reason is always a sufficient guide.”
2. “The self-evident is always the real.”
3. “Good works are an end in themselves.”
4. “Faith is irrelevant to right action.”
5. “Right action can exist without love.”
6. “Peace needs not pass understanding.”
7. “Ethics can exist without evil alternatives.”
8. “Morals can exist without conscience.”
9. “Goodness can exist with God.”

Stated this clearly, we can see how much of our social order (religious or not) rests of faith, fear, guilt, conscience.  Goodness must have a purpose (salvation for Christians, social stability for monogamists and Puritans, industrial progress for Stalinists, efficiency for capitalists and urban designers).  To do good without a greater purpose is truly revolutionary since it attacks these assumptions.  Ramon, as a religious conservative, had rights to fear the Lithia, but so did every capitalist, technocrat, bureaucrat or anyone else who wants to use fear to sustain the system of exploitation that sustains them.

In any case, do not worry.  The Catholic Church has plans if we do find aliens.  And it does not seem exorcisms are in the works yet.

Henry Adams, “Esther: A Novel”

Esther is Adams’ second and final novel.  The plot concerns a freethinking young woman’s encounter, through artistic pursuits, with a church, an experienced artist, and a orphan woman from the West.  As Esther incorporates herself into this world, she agrees to marry the preacher, Mr. Hazard.  She is all but an atheist.  Her close friend, George, is a paleontologist and agnostic.  Her father uses religion only for its moral influence on society, not out of any true believe.  Esther is never quite able to resolve her conflict between her love for Mr. Hazard (admitted in the final line of the novel) and her disgust with her finance’s beliefs and practices.  The idea of being a church wife, attending services and putting on the face of a devoted believer disgusts her.

Henry Adams

The world of Esther is a world in change.  We can foreshadow the “dynamo and the Virgin” in Esther.  The rise of the new woman, professional, educated, assertive, and in the public, runs in conflict with expectations about the role of women.  Listen to Hazard’s expectations of the woman he eventually courts.  “The next morning he looked about the church and was disappointed at not seeing her there.  This young man was used to flattery; he had been sickened with it, especially by the women of his congregation; he thought there was nothing of this nature against which he was not proof; yet he resented Esther Dudley’s neglect to flatter him by coming to his sermon.” And later on that same page, this is contrasted with his opinion of Catherine Brooke.  “Her innocent eagerness to submit was charming, and the tyrants gloated over the fresh and radiant victim who was eager to be their slave.  They lured her on, by assumed gentleness, in the path of bric-a-brac and sermons.” (214)  The transition to new ideas is clearly represented in the characters of Hazard and George Strong, the scientist.  The artist, Wharton, and his failed marriage also suggest the coming of a new era where traditional arrangements break down.  That these modern figures (Esther and Wharton) are hired to paint portraits for the church provides yet another dichotomy between tradition and modernity.   Catherine Brooke as an orphan from the West brought to New York City, suggests the conquest of the frontier and the end of that epoch of American history.

An atheist reader (like me) will be tempted to cheer on Esther as she allows her modern mind to prevent what could only be a disastrous marriage.  We are not entirely sure until the very end what Esther sees in Hazard.  He struck me as too authoritarian, too traditional, and too patriarchal for a women like Esther.  Yet the final confession, that she loved Hazard, reminds us of the danger of allowing the mind to overcome the heart.  Indeed, the conflict between faith and science, between tradition and modernity is not more of a problem than many other things that divide couples (monogamy/non-monogamy, politics, cultural differences).  To assume that faith is the irreconcilable barrier is rather irrational and peculate and boring.  This realization does not make one like Hazard any more, but it makes one dislike Esther a bit.  Without idealizing the concept of “romantic love” (full of capitalist logic, which I can have the chance to discuss in a later post), we can appreciate that Esther threw away an opportunity for happiness, friendship, and community through Hazard.  She simultaneously throws away the advances of George who loved Esther from the beginning of the novel.  (This time the problem is not intellectual, but a lack of feeling.)    These are the mistakes of youth and in my experience common enough.

William James, “The Will to Believe”

The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy was a collection of James’ lectures on religion and some other issues on philosophy in the later 1890s.  All of these essays have interesting items to teach us and I will first summarize some of his theses as best as I can in a few sentences each before commenting on what I think they can teach us when taken as a ten-course meal.  See my other posts on James in the archives on January 14 and January 15.

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“The Will to Believe” (1896): The argument of this essay is that it would be irrational to reject religious beliefs (and for James, experiences) since the validity of these claims and experiences cannot be denied or defended with scientific certainty.  “We have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will.”  (477)  Now for many, this or that religious belief will be dead and useless.  But when believes can be real, and reinforced with experiences, they should be embraced.  This clearly does not apply to only religious claims.  Indeed, most religious claims are dead for most of us.  For me, it is the goodness of humanity and our potential for solidarity that holds the most power – is the most live – now.  This is a powerful argument and should not be used to justify the indoctrination of “dead” beliefs, but rather a celebration of experiences, ideas, and beliefs, which may in the end be impossible to support with scientific certainty.  But love, friendship, and joy all exist in that realm.

“Is Life Worth Living” (1895): This argument is a corollary to “The Will to Believe” as well as a pragmatic argument against suicide.  Life’s purpose is one of those beliefs that cannot be scientifically justified.  Again, this could be a defense of theistic claims, but I do not see James’ limiting life’s meaning to God’s purpose.  “If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is not better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will.  But it feels like a real fight – as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulness, are needed to redeem.” (502)

“The Sentiment of Rationality” (1880): Although presented long before “The Will to Believe” it is rightfully placed near it in this volume.  There is a poverty to strict rationality.  It of course discounts subjective experiences, such as those of the “more mystical minds.”  Moral questions are clouded by strict rationality or evolutionary logic.  Morality is experienced subjectively and on some level escapes rational consideration.  Furthermore, rationality will never be agreed to by all.  Even two “rational” thinkers will disagree.  Given these facts, forgoing certainty seems a normal part of life and should be accepted as part of our considerations of truth.

“Reflex Action and Theism” (1881): Here, the position James makes is that all philosophical inquiry and our entire psychological mentality are bound by experience.  “Philosophies, whether expressed in sonnets or systems, all must wear this form.  The thinker starts from some experience of the practical world, and asks its meaning.”  He contrasts philosophy with a voyage.  Theism exists in some of these states of consciousnesses, produced most strongly in mystical experiences.

“The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (1891) Moral systems cannot be worked out in advance, James suggests.  Instead they are lived and contingent.  (Part of this contingency is the waiting we need to endure until the religious questions are understood.  Until, for instance, we know there is or is not an afterlife, or know that the Ten Commandments are or are not God’s will, we cannot really have a clear answer to all moral questions.)  Given this, particularly the impossibility of perfect clarity on ethical questions he states: “It is not in heaven, neither is it beyond the sea; but the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.” (617)

“Great Men and Their Environment” (1880): This essay attempts to find some common ground between evolutionary environmentalism (slow change) and the rather rapid historical change we experience.  As I understand it, James is positing a evolutionary theory of greatness in respect to historical times.  Some mentalities, ideas, and geniuses are adapted to certain times producing greatness.  “The mutations of societies, them, from generations to generation, are in the main due directly or indirectly to the acts or the examples of individuals whose genius was so adapted to the receptivities of the moment, or whose accidental position of authority was so critical that they became ferments, initiators of movement, setters of precedent or fashion, cenetres of corruption, or destroyers of other persons, whose grist, had they had a free play, would have led society in another direction.” (626)

These are the essays that I find most apt for our purposes.  Without exception these essays promote an active engagement with the world as individuals, as moral agents, and as believers.  At criticism is the strict intellectualism.  In this sentiment I find much common ground with James.  For your use, here is Wolfi Landstreicher (Against the Logic of Submission) on that same question.

I think it would be limiting to look at James’ The Will to Believe purely through the lens of religious dogmas.  James often identifies other attitudes (pessimism, optimism, morality) as fundamentally religious because they cannot be scientifically determined.  While I would not use that phrase because of my personal relationship with religions and its evolution over the years, I find it often necessary to take a “Leap of Faith” in many of parts of life.  Revolutionaries need no small amount of faith in order to act.  And action itself, reinforces our belief in the visions we make real.
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The remainder of this volume of James’ earlier writings includes his “Talks to Teachers on Psychology and the Students on Some of Life’s Ideals” and some essays. The lectures to teachers have some interesting comments on teaching in what we would now call a “child-centered” way, by understanding how children learn. Ultimately, he is still part of the effort to dispense learning most effectively to children, rather than encourage children to teach themselves and facilitate autonomous learning (what we might now call “unschooling.”) His lectures to “students” (really college students) covered his views on the meaning of life, the poverty of intellectual absolutism, the need for diversity of perspectives in ideas, and the necessity of the relaxation of the tensions of modern American society (he points out the problem of moral anxiety as particularly acute).

With this, I will move on from William James, with the promise to explore his later writings later in this blog.