True Heroism

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I subscribe to The New Yorker, and its diverse and interesting pieces sustain me during my long and varied commutes across buses and trains in the Bronx each day.

A recent piece on explorer and all-around bad-ass Henry Worsley touched a nerve. This is by author David Grann, so it’s great writing, and he has clear admiration for Worsley. Do yourself a favor and read it.

Yet despite also admiring Worsley’s relentless drive and leadership, I ended the piece feeling upset, even angry.

He left behind a wife and two children who loved him fiercely. For what? To trudge across the vast, icy, crevassed expanse of the South Pole on his own in order to fulfil what seems to me a prurient fantasy. That speaks of either immense despair or delusion, not of heroism.

I think it is much more heroic to learn to bear inner demons quietly, while tending to the needs of your family and society.

The loss of a man as strong as Henry Worsley is all the more tragic in consideration of all the good he could still be enacting if he had decided to put his energies towards the ones around him, rather than towards a solo trek across the ice.

—The White Darkness, David Grann / The New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/12/the-white-darkness

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Was Charles Dickens a perv?

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Portrait of a Young Woman, Samuel Worcester Rowse (1822–1901), Courtesy of the MET

I’ve been a pretty voracious reader most of my life, but will admit I’ve never fully read a Dickens’ book before. I think I’ve tried a couple (Oliver Twist, Bleak House) but never made it all the way through. Though the Artful Dodger from the movie has somehow stuck in my psyche nonetheless, as of course Scrooge has.

In any case, I just finished reading A Christmas Carol, which I found enjoyable, but there were a couple of passages where Dickens describes a young woman that struck me as kind of pervy.

Here’s the first one:

Near to the winter fire sat a beautiful young girl, so like that last that Scrooge believed it was the same, until he saw her, now a comely matron, sitting opposite her daughter. The noise in this room was perfectly tumultuous, for there were more children there, than Scrooge in his agitated state of mind could count; and, unlike the celebrated herd in the poem, they were not forty children conducting themselves like one, but every child was conducting itself like forty. The consequences were uproarious beyond belief; but no one seemed to care; on the contrary, the mother and daughter laughed heartily, and enjoyed it very much; and the latter, soon beginning to mingle in the sports, got pillaged by the young brigands most ruthlessly. What would I not have given to be one of them! Though I never could have been so rude, no, no! I wouldn’t for the wealth of all the world have crushed that braided hair, and torn it down; and for the precious little shoe, I wouldn’t have plucked it off, God bless my soul! to save my life. As to measuring her waist in sport, as they did, bold young brood, I couldn’t have done it; I should have expected my arm to have grown round it for a punishment, and never come straight again. And yet I should have dearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes, and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, an inch of which would be a keepsake beyond price: in short, I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest licence of a child, and yet to have been man enough to know its value.

Later on, here’s his description of another young woman:

She was very pretty: exceedingly pretty. With a dimpled, surprised-looking, capital face; a ripe little mouth, that seemed made to be kissed—as no doubt it was; all kinds of good little dots about her chin, that melted into one another when she laughed; and the sunniest pair of eyes you ever saw in any little creature’s head. Altogether she was what you would have called provoking, you know; but satisfactory, too. Oh, perfectly satisfactory!

In both these descriptions, the narrator inserts these breathy ejaculations. Not only were they totally unnecessary to the story itself, but when you add in the voyeuristic nature of Scrooge and the reader peering into domestic scenes without the knowledge of those being observed, it becomes even more creepy. As if Dickens is indulging in a momentary bit of a masturbatory fantasy right alongside of the moral journey of his protagonist.

Is this just me? I know he’s writing in a very different era. But . . . well, pretty sure there were more than a large number of women back then who would have said #metoo.

The OG Manhattanites

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“General view, looking southwest to Manhattan from Manhattan Bridge, Manhattan” by Abbott, Berenice (1898-1991) is licensed under CC0 1.0

“As he stood on the waterfront on May 11, 1647, watching a skiff approach from four newly arrived ships at anchor the strain and darkness had to show in his eyes and face his breath must have fairly stunk with it. It was a cerulean spring day, and, like characters at the end of an act of a play, all the residents of the community were gathered alongside him, headliners and minor players alike: Joris Rapalje and Catalina Trico, along with their children and grandchildren: Anthony “The Turk” van Salee and his wife Griet Reyniers-both respectable now, but still cantankerous-and their four daughters: Anna van Angola, a widowed African woman who had just received a patent for a farm on Manhattan, as well as Antony Congo, Jan Negro, and other black residents, slaves and free assorted Danes, Bavarians, and Italians, and a handful of area Indians: Cornelis Swits, son of the murdered Claes Swits; the English refugee leaders Lady Deborah Moody and the Rev. Francis Doughty: Everardus Bogardus, the beer-swilling minister who had assisted the colonists’ effort against Kieft by excoriating him from the pulpit: the activists Kuyter and Melyn: the company henchman, Cornelis van Tienhoven, who had slaughtered and tortured Indians while in Kieft’s service and was hoping to be kept on in the new administration. And there, too, on the cobbled quayside stood Adriaen van der Donck and his English wife Mary-it is from Van der Donck that we have one of the extant descriptions of this scene. The mood was festive. Shouts went up: celebratory cannon blasts were fired. The day of deliverance had come.

Then, slowly, like gray rain, the silence fell upon them. From a distance they would have seen first the hardness and smallness of the eyes, like sharp pebbles set in the broad plate of the face. Then the flash of the sun on his breastplate must have caught their attention, and the sword at his waist: the efficient, meticulous, militaristic parcel of him. Finally they would have watched him unpacking himself from the boat, and noted at once, as people do such irregularities, that curious movement of his, an unnatural stiffness, and no accompanying grimace or flinch, as if in defiance of pain itself. And all eyes then naturally moving down, and seeing it, the leg that wasn’t there.”

Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World

Reading is Knowledge

When he was still in juvenile hall, a friend who was in prison elsewhere sent him the “Mexica Handbook”—a tiny book, the size of a cell phone, about the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and the colonial plantations that had conscripted and subdued the native populations. Murillo began to understand that his people had a history, and he read that the Mayans were not primitives: they had astrologers and architects and high priests. After he read the “Mexica Handbook,” he decided to read whatever he could get his hands on. At first, he read the kind of genre fiction that was available in the shu: Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Dan Brown. But one day when he was out in the yard—in solitary, the “yard” was a small concrete enclosure that had high walls but was open to the sky—a man on the other side of a wall told him that he should stop reading crap and get some good books from the prison library. After that, Murillo had many conversations with the man about books, although he never saw his face.

The man told him to start with Voltaire’s “Candide.” Murillo read it, and was amazed at how resonant it was—its depiction of the slave sounded very similar to what he’d heard about sweatshops. He came across a list of American novels with social-justice themes, and he read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” He read “Don Quixote” and “Les Misérables.” He read about the Zapatistas, and about how the Spanish had pillaged Latin America.

When he first got to Pelican Bay, he became enthralled by a book called “The 48 Laws of Power”: “I was thinking, Yo, I’m gonna be a fucking smart-ass criminal. When I go home, I’m gonna set up this drug empire and I’m gonna fucking make bank.” But, as he read more deeply in the book, he began to hate it. He still wanted power, but he no longer wanted to get it by stomping on another guy’s neck. He read about Zen Buddhism, and that made him feel that he didn’t need money anymore. And, as he started reading more about the history of Latin America, he stopped believing that his life was a random card dealt to him by fate: he started to think about politics, and about how the way his life had unfolded was partly the consequence of systematic inequality.

, “BUILDING A PRISON-TO-SCHOOL PIPELINE” in The New Yorker

Have we lost Madison’s vision of a representative democracy?

By Polar Cruises (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Polar Cruises (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
George Thomas has an insightful piece exploring the perils of populist democracy that is worth reviewing, especially in light of what happened last night.

Thomas critiques the movement on both left and the right during this election towards a simplistic, “folk theory” of democracy, in which political leaders are completely beholden to populist will. And what is lost, he argues, is the educative function of representative leadership.

Obscured by the turn to populist democracy is any sense that representatives and political parties play an important role in educating and shaping the public mind, or that democracy depends on political leadership to refine, channel, and elevate popular wants. This is curious because it is so at odds with the understanding of liberal democracy that underlies our Constitution, an understanding that is increasingly under pressure. It is particularly curious that Republicans, who not only purport to revere America’s Constitution but have made a habit of insisting that it is being undermined, have embraced a populist view of democracy.

As a recourse, Thomas turns to Madison’s vision of a representative democracy. We’ve reviewed Federalist #10 before, examining the distinction that Madison makes between a direct democracy and a representative democracy (in fact, it’s one of the more popular posts on this blog).

Our political institutions were crafted to be responsive to the people over time, but also to put space between the people and their representatives. Self-government also required self-restraint. This would allow the often inchoate and disparate views of the public to be formed by way of the political process.

. . . Republican and democratic government were both forms of popular government rooted in the authority of the people, but Madison favored a republic to “pure” democracy precisely because of its educative and enlightening ambitions.

A populist democracy requires a populace deeply knowledgeable about policy and politics. This is not a realistic expectation to hold about the general populace.

Ordinary citizens are busy with private life and obligations closer to home. Self-government requires them to be generally informed and able to make judgments about their representatives, but we cannot expect them to be experts on the range of issues they are now asked to speak to during elections.

Yet increasingly, voters are asked, such as on ballot propositions in California, to make complex policy decisions. And politicians, on the other hand, increasingly bow to the “will” of a populace calling for untenable extremes. As Thomas states, “[Politics] requires compromise.”

But what happens when political leaders and the parties themselves seem to be composed of the “less inquiring”? What happens when our leadership class abdicates the educative role that Madison envisioned?

What happens is what we’ve seen from the Republican party all throughout Obama’s presidency: a complete unwillingness to compromise in order to govern more effectively. Which resulted in the “abuse” of executive power that conservatives so loathed the Obama administration for.

Insistence on political principle is an important feature of democratic politics, but it must be coupled with a recognition that persuading others and building coalitions is a crucial part of politics and essential to the creation of viable public policy.

. . . Achieving numerous ends requires a recognition that the difficult business of politics is often about finding the right balance between competing goals, given limited resources.

Thomas concludes his essay by stating, “Educating the public mind, and preparing it for democratic self-government, is more important than ever.” I’m afraid that Trump’s presidency will be guidance precisely on how NOT to govern. The extreme contrast to Obama’s measured, dignified, and intelligent administration will be illustrative indeed.

The Lesser Bohemians: A Steamy, Intense Read

The Lesser BohemiansThe Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Combine A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Trainspotting, and The Clan of the Cave Bear, and you have The Lesser Bohemians. The sex is so steamy I felt totally weird reading it on the bus. The narrator’s voice and mind is transcribed in a lyrically compelling stream-of-consciousness. This is like a teenage girl’s gothic wet dream, written for intelligent adults. There’s intensity and brilliance here, though at times all the hot and heavy got a bit much for this staid reader. Regardless, McBride’s sentences are refreshing to read in their innovative and passionate broguish breathiness, surprisingly fluid, and a welcome respite from formulaic trends.

View all my reviews

The Homeostasis of a Porter

Porter

A number of years ago, I hiked the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu. I thought I was pretty cool because I hiked the whole thing in my sandals and moved along at a good clip in comparison to other gringos.

But I was rarely quicker than the porters who carried pounds of equipment and food on their backs, all wearing sandals far less technologically crafted than mine. Their sandals are made from discarded tire treads.

The porters not only lug around everyone else’s stuff, but they then set up the camp and cook the food. And sleep all together on the ground in the main tent.

Their calves are like steel, and their mere presence neatly undercuts any fleeting grandiousness a gringo may feel for trudging up a mountainous pass. Porters literally run up and down tiny, steep ancient stairs carved into rock, as you can see in the photo above.

Why do I bring this up?

Because I recently read a book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, and the following passage made me harken back to those porters:

“The reason most people don’t possess … extraordinary physical abilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of ‘good enough.”

For a porter, homeostasis is constant physical activity that is extreme for most people.

What is your homoeostasis? And in what way is it either softening or steeling you for infinity?