Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Monologue/The Woman Destroyed

These are the other two short stories by Simone de Beauvoir in the volume I'm reading. "The Monologue" is not to my taste, because it is written in the stream of consciousness style, which I generally don't like. It describes the point of view of a woman named Murielle, whose life hasn't been going well at all. Her daughter from her first marriage, Sylvie, apparently has died, and she is separated from her second husband, who has custody of their son, Francis. She is living alone in a noisy apartment and ruminating over her life and the people who have wronged her. I found it a little confusing to follow and couldn't see the point of the awkward presentation.

I suppose that this was an experimental attempt by de Beauvoir to emulate other writers, such as William Faulkner, whom I also dislike. For me, stream of consciousness was a literary fad that ran its course without adding much to literature as an art. The only writer whom I've found to have any real facility at it was Katherine Mansfield. It requires a psychological insight beyond the level that most writers possess and otherwise reads like a gimmick. I also oppose stream of consciousness on a philosophical basis, because what occurs in someone's head, mine at least, is mostly nonverbal and can't be simulated accurately with words, sentence fragments or sentences. For me, putting things into words is a process separate from the raw mental activities occurring in my conscious brain at any given moment, and I don't think that portraying those mental activities in a verbal format represents them accurately. Mansfield succeeded better than others only because she had an uncanny ability to divine the inner experiences of others.

Although I like certain aspects of de Beauvoir's writing, I don't think that she had the right attributes to be a great writer. While intellectually aware, she lacked the depth of George Eliot, whose knowledge had originated more organically over many decades through observation, thought and reading rather than through the more artificial protocols of universities and intellectuals. Furthermore, de Beauvoir's prose reads more like essays than creative writing. She had none of Kafka's creative imagination and did not produce sentences as elegant as those of Proust, though she probably surpassed both of them intellectually.

"The Woman Destroyed," the final story and the title of the collection, is a long series of diary entries by Monique, a fortyish upper-middle-class Parisian housewife with two grown daughters and a husband, Maurice, who is a medical researcher. Maurice has been seeing Noëllie, an ambitious young lawyer, and the entire story concerns the effect that this has on Monique. Maurice won't give up Noëllie and doesn't want to give up Monique either. Monique, for her part, wants Maurice to dump Noëllie, but she makes no progress, and by the end of the story he is getting a separate apartment for himself. Most of the discussion concerns what Monique did or didn't do right, speculation on Noëllie's character and support from friends, her children and a psychiatrist. By the end of the story, Monique has lost a lot of weight, is depressed and is heavily medicated.

The writing device of "The Woman Destroyed" is not as psychologically oppressive to me as that of "The Monologue," because it includes dialogue quoted from various people and therefore is not a completely closed monologue. However, Monique's obsessions don't interest me much, and no advice that I would consider practical emerges until the very end, when Monique visits her younger daughter, Lucienne, in New York City:

"You saw our life together," I said. "And indeed you were very critical as far as I was concerned. Don't be afraid of hurting me. Try to explain why your father has stopped loving me."

She smiled rather pityingly. "But, Mama, after fifteen years of marriage it is perfectly natural to stop loving one's wife. It's the other thing that would be astonishing!" 

"There are people who love each other all their lives." 

"They pretend to." 

In the end, Monique remains fixated on Maurice, with no hope on the horizon.

This story seemed realistic to me, because there are many women like Monique who encounter this situation. The only difference I see is that affairs are more likely to be taken in stride in France than in the U.S. In this instance, Maurice had already had several affairs unbeknownst to Monique, and Monique herself had had one affair. Unfortunately, neither Monique nor Maurice seemed interesting to me, and I had to wait for Lucienne to speak up to find a character who appealed to me.

Of the three stories, I would say that "The Woman Destroyed" is the best. Nevertheless, I even found that boring. The impression I have from this book and The Mandarins is that de Beauvoir liked to write about the travails that women face. She seems sympathetic, yet doesn't really offer solutions for aggrieved women. I don't currently plan to delve further into the biographies and autobiographies of de Beauvoir, but the sense I have is that she typically took a stoic position on the hurtful behavior of the men she knew. Here, in The Mandarins and in her memoirs, men behave badly and women get upset, but de Beauvoir is reluctant to criticize them, or, for that matter, provide any discernible lessons. She is good when it comes to accepting facts, but, as far as I can tell, she does nothing to prescribe responsible behavior. In "The Woman Destroyed," the question of whether Maurice's actions and his inability to justify them are acceptable remains open. The Monique-Maurice relationship resembles the Paula-Henri relationship in The Mandarins, and in both cases the men just do what they want to do while the women crack up. There may be no intended message, but de Beauvoir clearly sympathizes with the men. She seems to enjoy deconstructing the bourgeois follies of the women she knew.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Age of Discretion

I've just read this short story by Simone de Beauvoir. It features a sixtyish couple, André and his wife, their son, Phillipe, Phillipe's wife, Iréne, and André's mother, Manette. The story is a narration by André's wife concerning events at the time of Phillipe's announcement that he has decided to change careers. André is a scientist, still conducting research, and the narrator is a writer. Phillipe suddenly shocks his parents when he informs them that he is not going to pursue an academic career and instead has accepted a high-paying job at the Ministry of Culture, which he obtained with help from Iréne's father.

The narrator goes off the deep end and has unpleasant spats with Phillipe in which she says that she never wants to see him again. She also becomes alienated from André when his reaction isn't as forceful as hers, and she ruminates over what is left for her in life. Initially she seems depressed and sees nothing more than an unsatisfactory relationship with André, old age and death. Her reaction to Phillipe's decision seems extreme to André, and also to me. In her mind, an intellectual career is unquestionably superior to an ordinary well-paid job. André recognizes that Phillipe may not have been cut out for an academic career, whereas his mother sees Phillipe's choice as a moral flaw.

After André leaves for a few days to visit his mother in the country, and the narrator later joins him, they manage to reconcile, and the narrator agrees that she should take a more conciliatory approach with Phillipe. Much of the discussion concerns the differences between youth and old age. André thinks that most scientists are finished by his age, but that his ongoing research is useful nevertheless. The narrator has just published a new book that is receiving a tepid reception, and she worries about her own decline.

At first glance, the narrator's high-mindedness seems puzzling, especially if you're used to living among philistine Americans. Besides that, she is more controlling than most of the mothers I've known. In fact, she exhibits a rather extreme insensitivity regarding which outcome would best suit her son. I can make a little sense of all this by looking at the ways in which French upper-middle-class culture differs from American upper-middle-class culture. The rules are somewhat different for educated French people, who are more likely to be sensitive to social issues than educated Americans, on average. There is also the element in which de Beauvoir may be imposing her idea of existentialism on the narrative. That implies some vague moral imperative that she derived from the writings of Sartre, which, unfortunately, I interpret as nonsense. 

This reminds me very much of The Mandarins, in which de Beauvoir invented Nadine as the imagined daughter she never had. In that context, Anne and Robert were much younger, but Nadine, their daughter, also seemed like an artifice placed there for some specific conceptual message. Because this is only a short story, Phillipe really doesn't get the chance to develop as a credible character, yet I can still see de Beauvoir's mind at work attempting to demonstrate some theory that suits her preferences. In the end, I am left with the idea that I had previously: de Beauvoir is a good thinker and writer, but she was not able to break out from her conceptual history in the cause of creating a truly transformative kind of art. In literature, creative artists have an advantage over intellectuals in the sense that the feelings that one gets from good literature are more durable than ideas, which tend to have more wooden characteristics and eventually rot, as I think existentialism did. In my opinion, the general criticism that ideology diminishes the value of art is valid, because ideology works better in essays, where the intent of the author takes precedence over aesthetic factors. I must also note that de Beauvoir's presumption that the intellectual life is always better than others seems to have blinded her to the shortcomings evident in her milieu. In reading The Mandarins, I got the sense that she thought that their lives were self-evidently superior, and, based on my research, I would beg to differ. Even so, I believe that some aspects of value are to be found in this story. It presents serious elements that are of interest to thoughtful people as they age. In my case, I don't find de Beauvoir particularly enlightening, yet one does not often come across a writer with a brain in these matters. De Beauvoir remains a kind of salve for me, because there are few options available in a country that in so many ways is intellectually dead.

This book has two other stories, and, after I've read them, I'll decide whether or not to comment on them.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Diary

I'm having a disorienting spring and hope to settle into something that resembles a familiar routine soon. First, I became a chauffeur, making five round trips to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in connection with an elective surgery; the hospital is seventy miles each way and requires crossing the mountains. There was still snow on the ground on the first trip, and later one of the roads was washed out by rain. Then the cold weather prevented me from planting my tomatoes, and I've just planted them – a week late. At the moment it's quite green outside and is starting to look like summer. The lilacs are in bloom, and I'm enjoying the fragrance of the pink ones next to the rear deck.

I've also been doing more genealogical research, with bits of information arriving in spurts. The online databases keep growing, and every once in a while something new and interesting surfaces. I have long been intrigued by the history of craziness in my ex-wife's family. On her father's side, they were sturdy pioneers who settled in Indiana before it became a state. The first family member in Indiana had grown up in Pennsylvania and had been indentured, because his parents couldn't afford to raise him; when he came of age he was given a horse per the agreement and headed west. After living in Kentucky and Ohio, he bought land in what is now Randolph County, Indiana. On her mother's side, there was a dark, hidden mystery that was kept secret, and I finally found out what it was. I learned last year that her great-great-grandfather, Jacob Kelley, a civil war veteran, had committed suicide. Her great-grandmother, Jacob's daughter, Mary Gertrude Kelley, was married and living with her husband and children in Jacob's house a few years earlier. The problem seems to have been Mary and her husband, Fred Ellis. Mary had become pregnant before she was married, and she married Fred prior to giving birth. The first child was Blossom Ellis, my ex-wife's grandmother, whom I met in 1973; she died in 1974. Fred and Mary went on to have three more children. The family secret is that Fred was a criminal, and a stupid one at that. He was a burglar and highway robber who robbed a relative who recognized him. Fred became a notorious criminal who appeared regularly in the Palladium-Item, the local newspaper. He provided fodder for the paper with a failed jail escape. He ended up dying in prison in Ohio at the age of forty-five. The climax with Mary occurred earlier, when Fred got out of jail from one of his prison stints. When he arrived home, Mary herself was in jail for adultery. She had been living with Neal Temple and had been neglecting her children. A newspaper article describes how the police crept into their house at 1:00 AM and caught them. Mary was released after agreeing to change her sinful ways, but shortly thereafter Neal accosted Fred on the street and slashed him with a knife, and Neal soon disappeared with Mary. At that time, Blossom Ellis was living with an aunt. She subsequently had a normal upbringing, went to nursing school and married a farmer. However, Blossom's younger sister, Lulu, was put up for adoption and two younger brothers were sent to an orphanage. Mary was never heard from again, as far as I know, and in later years Blossom told her children that Fred's mother, Lydia, who visited occasionally, was her mother and their grandmother. I think the mental illness comes either from Mary or Fred, or both.

I also recently got some Armenian genealogical news that finally allowed me to accurately identify everyone in the group photo taken in Athens in 1930. I contacted a distant relative who lives in Brookshire, Texas and found out that a person whom I had thought was one of my great-grandfathers was actually Dr. Paul Donigan, who lived in Brookshire and had married my great-grandfather's sister, Rebecca. My great-grandparents later traveled from Greece to Texas in 1920 to attend a wedding. At that time there was an Armenian community in Waller County, Texas, west of Houston, and Paul Donigan, whose original name was Donigian, had moved there after he finished medical school. I have no blood relatives in Waller County, since Paul Donigan and Rebecca had no children, but my uncle moved to Texas after World War II, and I have two cousins living in the state now. Paul Donigan's wife, Rebecca, sponsored my uncle when he came to the U.S. She was his great-aunt. Since 1900, my Armenian relatives have lived in Turkey, France, Greece, South Africa, the U.K. and the U.S. They are much harder to track than my other relatives due to the lack of documents.

I have a couple of books lined up to read and am even going to try some fiction again. I am making an exception for Simone de Beauvoir, who has flaws as a writer which I am willing to overlook because she retains for me the aura of an imaginary friend.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis IV

The chapter on America evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. and the challenges it faces. While presenting a perspective that is primarily historical, unlike most commentators, Diamond frequently writes from the point of view of a geographer. The U.S., he says, became a major power in the world primarily because of its geographic characteristics. It has the largest land area in the world with good agricultural soil. This is the result of glaciation over the last hundred thousand years that has enriched more soil here than it has in China, Russia, Europe or Canada. Furthermore, North America is physically protected by oceans on the east and west, a sparsely inhabited region to the north, and a narrowing of the continent to the south. From an economic standpoint, it has better natural ports on both coasts than those in most countries, and the river network is also more suitable for navigation than those on other continents. The political system has offered some advantages, partly because each state serves as a laboratory in which various laws can be tested and later copied at the national level. A continuous inflow of financially ambitious immigrants has also helped bring prosperity to the country. On the negative side, he argues that political polarization and a decline in compromise are the principal problems facing the country, though competition from China also poses a threat. There is a separate chapter discussing other internal problems associated with flaws in the voting system, inequality and insufficient investment in the future.

The last chapter before the epilogue discusses global problems such as nuclear weaponry, climate change and inequality. There are several scenarios in which the deployment of nuclear weapons could intentionally or unintentionally wreak havoc. Climate change is causing a reduction in biodiversity and is starting to disrupt food supplies, in addition to raising ocean levels enough to flood heavily-populated coastal regions. Inequality in conjunction with population growth and a decline in natural resources is making the situation even more dangerous: the planet would be unable to sustain the current world population at the standard of living in developed countries.

The epilogue reviews the 12 crisis factors brought up at the beginning of the book in the context of the examples discussed in later chapters and answers a couple of separate questions that people have asked him. At the very end, he sums up the reasons he had for writing the book and preemptively rebuts critics:

Pessimists may respond to these suggestions by protesting: "How absurdly obvious! We don't need Jared Diamond's book to tell us to practice honest self-appraisal, to look to other countries for models, to avoid retreating into victimhood, and so on!"  No, we do need a book, because it's undeniable that those "obvious" requirements have so often been ignored, and are still so often ignored today.... People whose ignoring of "obvious" requirements threatens their well-being today include my fellow several hundred million Americans.

While as an individual reader I found the book a little tedious and overly cautious at times, it is obvious to me that this kind of book is necessary and beneficial. If the issues brought up by Diamond were widely discussed by the politicians in Washington, D.C., the national dialogue would be shockingly different from what we have now. I can only hope that some of the new Democratic candidates for the presidency read it. I have few substantive criticisms. I liked the fact that Diamond rebuked many of the wasteful, self-indulgent habits of Americans, such as driving SUVs that get poor gas mileage. He specifically debunked the myth of American exceptionalism, which is currently accepted as gospel by both political parties. However, in one instance, Diamond included widely-circulated information that seems dubious to me:

...pet cats that are allowed to wander in and out of their owners' houses have been measured to kill an average of more than 300 birds per year per cat....If the U.S. population of outdoor cats is estimated to be about 100 million, then cats can be calculated to kill at least 30 billion birds per year in the U.S....

As a long-time cat owner, I can tell you that pet cats that are let out do not on average kill 300 birds per year. I would estimate something closer to 10. William occasionally catches a bird, and I have noticed no reduction in the number of goldfinches that come to our feeder year-round. He usually catches juncos, which feed on the ground, and I haven't noticed a reduction in those either.

The main criticism I have of Diamond, which I alluded to earlier, is his assumption that humans are rational agents who are undoubtedly capable of collectively solving the crises that he discusses in the book by using tried-and-true democratic methods. That is certainly possible, and, in order to do so, books like this are necessary. In my view, as I've written in earlier posts, more radical approaches assuming intractable  human limitations are probably going to be necessary. Diamond correctly notes that China has an advantage over the U.S. with respect to its ability to make rapid decisions and implement them quickly. The Chinese have their share of problems, but they don't dawdle politically the way Americans do. The U.S., for example, is taking decades to deal with infrastructure repair, gun control and health care, and, under the Trump administration, the addressing of climate change has been put on hold. Many of the legislative delays in the U.S. are the result of intentional corporate obstruction. Gun laws haven't changed much because the N.R.A., a lobbying group for gun manufacturers, funds the campaigns of many politicians. Lobbyists for various industries have ample funds available to influence election results. There is probably no equivalent in China, and, even with a significant amount of corruption, China may be capable of operating a more efficient and effective government under an authoritarian regime. A point that I've made previously is that, in the long run, people are likely to prefer a functional authoritarian regime to a dysfunctional democratic regime like the one we have now in the U.S.

Looking to the future, I see a surviving model closer to the one currently in place in China than to the one mythologized in the U.S. As I've said, capitalism tends to subvert the best interests of the majority over time, in our case by undermining the democratic processes that Diamond seems to take for granted. As an old-fashioned academic, Diamond doesn't fully examine the corrosive effects of capitalism and seems to assume that mistakes can always be corrected within the capitalist framework with which he is familiar. One area of concern that goes unmentioned in this book is the long-term economic effect of automation. What's going to happen if there aren't any jobs and corporations control the government? At that point I don't think that Diamond's examples and recommendations are going to be particularly relevant.