"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The End Of Big Labor - A Return To Free Markets And Economic Enterprise

There were clear class distinctions in New Brighton, a small city in New England, undistinguished today but one well-known for its former industrial strength. First and foremost among the classes were the WASP captains of industry, the grandchildren of the great industrialists of the 19th century who made the city into The Manufacturing Capital of the World.

They were tended by the professional middle class, diverse in ethnic origin, and ambitious.  These doctors, dentists, and lawyers were in turn served by the painters, electricians, and plumbers who had few aspirations except solid American ones – Kinder, Küche, Kirche and a week at the shore.  Finally there were the factory workers who  turned out tools, ball bearings, and locks; and their wives who cleaned house for the West End.

The workers of New Brighton were Polish immigrants – nine-to-five, no benefits, galley slave working conditions, Saturday afternoon picnics in the park, and kielbasa and church on Sundays.  They were the shadowy forms seen in factory basements and quickly forgotten by the town's burghers. They were far from the Country Club, the Vineyard, Cape Cod, or Nantucket.

The history of New Brighton is a history of the Carpenters, Payntors, Streeters, and Franklins who brought flinty New England parsimony, enterprise, ambition, and practicality to the Connecticut River Valley and built the industries that provided the arms and materiel that ensured a Union victory in the Civil War.  Before that these visionary settlers forged flintlocks and bayonets to supply Washington’s Revolutionary armies.

For two hundred years these adventurers, entrepreneurs, and capitalists provided the intelligence, wealth, and enterprise to build New Brighton and the Union.  Like many better-known industrialists of their era, New Brighton's capitalists were philanthropic and generous with their money. The Frederick Law Olmsted park, a public space that was designed to preserve local flora, provide light and air for factory workers, and created a recreational space and a Walden-like oasis in the midst of a dynamic industrial city, exists thanks to their wealth and civic engagement. One of New England's best art museums was founded by a prominent local artist but funded by the town's industrial magnates.

The supply of laborers for the many factories of New Brighton far exceeded demand, and they were expendable. Warsaw, Lodz, and Gdansk heard of American corporate expansion and hiring almost before the workers on Arch Street. Managers at Ruff & Billings had to turn away applicants for the most menial work.  Hundreds if not thousands of Kowalskis, Mylnarksis, Granskis, and Pulaskis were lined up outside the doors of every factory in New Brighton.  Thanks to cheap labor, permissive labor laws, and hardworking, America-or-bust immigrants, the factories were always humming.

The town grew and prospered.  There were more and more shops along Broad Street in the Polish section of town. Immigrant spending kept Bobby's Smoke Shop, the New Brighton Diner, pharmacies, dry cleaners, barbers, and wedding shops alive and well.  The Polish immigrants were happy because they had escaped the hardships and penury of the old world.  The painters, electricians, and plumbers were happy because the local economy was growing; and the captains of industry were delighted to see their bank accounts swell, their children’s trust funds prosper, and a three-home retirement just over the horizon.

The enduring myth of labor in America is that of Walt Whitman.  “I hear America singing”, he wrote.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
As the industrial age faded and employment was transformed from the factory floor to the downtown office, the secretary was the most important employee of any office. Without her, work would stop. Interoffice memos would pile up. Communications with clients would amass into a giant backlog. Middle managers would never be able to find critical files. No matter how much creative vision, enterprise, jawboning, and negotiation on the part of senior management, the real work got done in the trenches.  Blue collars became white in a matter of a generation.  Unskilled labor done by non-English-speaking workers became a thing of the past.  By the end of the 20th century New Brighton was struggling to survive.  Without the industry on which it had depended for 200 years, the economic base collapsed. Poles no longer immigrated to New Brighton, and poor and often dysfunctional Puerto Rican, black, and Dominican families took over their former enclaves.

The Twenty-First Century will be the first without labor. Intelligent machines, robots, drones, and online commerce have already replaced the pipe-fitter; and steam pressers and lathe operator will soon be things of the past.  Most heavy industry, the locus of the American labor movement, has moved overseas, and the economy is quickly becoming a technology- and information-driven one.This transformation is a good thing, for it has raised the productivity bar. Those who work will eventually work at better-paying, more productive jobs more consistent with talent and education.

The break up of big labor has been instrumental in the growth of entrepreneurship, both in the high-tech industries of Silicon Valley but also in small business.  Although these small enterprises still labor under the yoke of government regulation, at least they have more control over their labor force.

Without a doubt workers are struggling to find their way in this new, mobile, increasingly free market economy. Older workers miss generous union benefits, fat contracts, and tenure; and new ones, often immigrants, have neither the skills, language, or cultural savvy to move efficiently between jobs. Yet there are many signs of progress.  First generation Salvadoran immigrants in the Washington, DC area are no longer blowing leaves but owning and operating landscaping companies.  Salvadoran women who were low-paid maids and nannies have formed small companies which rely on efficient management models - better work in half the time for only marginal increases in fees.

This scenario is no different from the mid-Twentieth Century.  The sons of Italian immigrants who broke rock and worked on road gangs now owned trucking, cement, gravel, and construction companies. It was not because of Big Labor and their government supporters that these entrepreneurs profited; it was despite it.

The labor movement is but a shadow of its muscular, intimidating self of the 1930s. Labor has lost out to capital, enterprise, free markets, and economic mobility and will never regain its place and position.

While working in Poland after the fall of the Soviet Union, foreign experts were surprised to hear of the summary dismissal of Lech Walesa, the Solidarity Gdansk shipyard worker hero.  In many ways he was the man who led the Communist bloc in their revolt against the Communists and who was responsible for coalescing thousands of workers in their revolt against Soviet totalitarianism.

Foreigners soon found out that although the aristocratic Poles poised to take over the reins of government respected Walesa for his courage and pluck, to them he was an ignorant peasant, a worker, a factory worker, and totally unacceptable to lead the country.  Poland like all European countries has a long and storied noble history.  Polish royalty intermarried throughout Europe and the aristocracy was among the continents most polished, sophisticated, and wealthy. To even consider a peasant like Walesa was anathema.

A similar scenario is being played out in Venezuela.  The current President is a former bus driver who, despite his working class, socialist credentials, came completely unprepared for the job. He neither has Chavez's brains, political ability, or popular charisma.  Chavez' misguided social populism was sure to end in ruin, but Maduro has accelerated the country's demise.

The point is that the answer to the chicken-egg puzzle, capitalists have always come first.  It is they whose brains, insight, canniness, and entrepreneurial drive have created the infrastructure within which labor works.  Bill Gates in a recent hour-long interview with the BBC told of how he not only understood the new language of computer software, but had the vision to see that information technology would be revolutionary. Gates and Steve Jobs are no different from John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie or any of the industrialists of the early 20th century.

America relies far more on the creative and entrepreneurial genius of people like Gates and Jobs than on the labor that feeds the furnace.  Of course one cannot do without the other; but entrepreneurs have always thought first and foremost about their new product and service and left labor to reconfigure accordingly.  If the days of Big Labor were back, Apple and Microsoft might never have happened.

The labor movement is dead.  Labor is dead; and the challenge facing American leaders is not how to revivify the Teamsters, or the American Federation of Teachers, but how resolve the fundamental economic issues which prevent social and income mobility.  In other words to begin with the problem and then work towards a solution; not to automatically apply an assumed principle - in this case the inherent value of labor.

An  Enterprise Day should replace Labor Day - a time to honor the most enterprising, creative, innovative, intelligent, and risk-taking among us;  a day to honor those schools which reward talent, initiative, and high performance; a day to acknowledge those students who have graduated because of their own abilities, ambitions, and high goals.

Responsibility–Marriage, Family And The Best And Worst Of Human Nature

Anna Karenina  is a novel about the conflict between responsibility and independence.  Anna is torn between her love for Vronsky and her fidelity to her husband, Karenin; and gets lost between the two.  A vital, beautiful, intelligent woman, her choices are slim.  She either follows the aristocratic, heroic Count, or remains faithful to her traditional and morally demanding and traditional husband.  Her passions overcome her probity, and she goes off with Vronsky to lead a rootless, itinerant life of decreasing happiness and increasing guilt.


Emma Bovary follows the same path as Anna, and like her commits suicide, less because of lost love than out of lamentation for the impossibility of the co-existence of love and life.

Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter loves neither her husband nor the father of her child, but for a lifetime is torn between protecting the reputation of the former and dismissing the claims of the latter.  She is a social and moral outcaste.  She refuses to acknowledge her marriage nor to claim the paternity of  Pearl’s father.  She is spared death at the hands of the Salem fathers, but must suffer the scorn and opprobrium of the town’s burgers, convicted and consigned to wear the Scarlet ‘A’.


Carol Milford in Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street marries a proper Midwestern physician and follows him to the Minnesota prairie.  She soon realizes that she has married a dullard, but because of a sense of propriety and probity diverts her frustrated attention to community activism.  Finally she leaves her husband, moves to the city, but soon realizes that she has been selfish and ignorant.  She has misjudged her husband, a good man, who has dedicated himself to medicine and treating the ill; and goes back to him.  She has deepened her understanding of human nature and honed her own sense of moral responsibility, but in the embracing of her husband and their small town life has negated her own individuality.

Peter Wescott in Walpole’s Fortitude, has been raised by an abusive father and weak mother; and like his fictional brother Pip of Dickens’ Great Expectations, goes to London to seek fame and fortune.  Both fortune and fame elude Peter who before the publication and acclaim of his first novel finds himself penniless, without prospects, and disillusioned.  He was wrong to abandon his home, however abusive, for an illusive dream.

Throughout Peter’s rise and fall, the can never forget or expunge the memories of Cornwall, his dying mother, and his tyrannical father; and after his own failure and rejection  by London literary society, he can only return to his home to confront this past – a past which has been the source of his creativity and his torment.

In the end he cannot forget, dismiss, or reject his father, his mother, and the penitential environment of home.  He returns to confront his father perhaps with the hope of some final reconciliation, but ends up more despairing and despondent than he ever was.

Literature is filled with the biographies of artists who have struggled against a middle-class, bourgeois upbringing. Tennessee Williams throughout his literary career tried to square his religious, middle class beginning with his anti-establishment passions.  Summer and Smoke, Glass Menagerie, and Suddenly Last Summer are all plays about social constriction, responsibility, familial allegiance, and the frustrated emancipation of the individual spirit.

Laura in The Glass Menagerie is reclusive, timid, sexually repressed, and dominated by her mother.  Yet she is courageous enough after years of hermetic guilt and insecurity to meet a Gentleman Caller.  Ingénue, innocent, and ignorant, she forces herself out of seclusion in one last attempt at normality.  She is rejected and, one has to assume, returns to an even more penitential, dark, and isolated life with her mother.


Clyde Griffiths in Dreiser’s American Tragedy is driven less by propriety than by ambition.  In his quest for the social status and acceptance that his itinerant preacher parents could never have had, he murders his pregnant lover in order to remain free to marry into the elite.  His ascendency into the world of the privileged and his rapid descent into duplicity and murder is an American tragedy because of the unreasonable and ultimately impossible dreams of social mobility and success.

Thomas Sutpen, the main character in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom is driven by middle class, bourgeois dreams of social status, acceptance, and preeminence.  It is not enough for Sutpen to have cleared, tilled, planted, and harvested and profited from ‘Sutpen’s Hundred’ – 100 square miles of rich Mississippi Delta bottom land.  He must marry well and produce offspring who will carry on his name and legacy.

Yet he has been deceived by The American Dream.  Bourgeois status, security, and longevity are as difficult to achieve as a thousand tons of cotton on Sutpen’s 100.  He, like Othello, is unable to translate or transfer his successes war and business to the emotional life of family.

What is the message, then? Is the bourgeois ideal of happy family, social status, prosperity, and respect only a chimera?  Are married couples doomed to lives of desperation and frustration, chattels to the notion of salvation through harmony? Are the outliers, the challengers, and the antisocial rebels  always doomed to exclusion?

Edward Albee hated families, but knew that marriage was the crucible of maturity. Only within the perimeter  of marriage and family can anyone evolve.  No social architecture can possible provide the equestrian hurdles necessary for jumping over childhood, adolescence, and youth.   Although husbands and wives might never emerge from marriage, they will have at least faced their demons.

So, what is to be made of modern, loosely-defined marriage, those concluded on practical grounds in which responsibility is measured by adherence  to prescribed rules, limitations, and regulations?  Why is it that so many people still value an institution which denies and deprives personal freedom and independence for few rewards?

Henry VIII beheaded many women for not producing a male heir.  Inheritance and the continuation of a storied history was, despite all the successful conflicts with the Pope, Spain, and France, after the consolidation of power and territory, and after the neutering of internal palace enemies, all that really mattered.

Both kings and commoners depended on productive marriages.  Kings for an assurance that their royal legacy would last for generations; and commoners for labor and some measure of social and economic worth.  A cuckold was not only a weak and ineffectual husband but a fool.  Why would any man die in his traces for a child of another man?

Marriage made sense in the time of kings; but has lost all relevance.  Children cost far more than they are worth.  No sons are required to light the funeral pyre, to provide in old age, or to give succor and comfort.  Children are a luxury, a commodity for the wealthy and a burden for the unlucky.  If anything, they provide a look at lost innocence, but this is hardly enough to sustain the institution.
Yet even gay men, the most sexually independent if not libertine subgroup of the population, are headed for the altar.  Civil unions and the right to favorable tax status are not enough.  Only sanctified marriage will do.

Although the formal marriage rate has dropped in the West – i.e. fewer official marriages occur today than ever before – men and women are still forming unofficial reproductive and sexual units.  The need for association is as strong as it ever was.  People are seemingly quite willing to give up a measure of personal freedom for the more stable and permanent institutions of matrimony and family.
At the same time, infidelity is as common as it ever was.  Despite the new social and moral conservatism, husbands and wives are looking outside marriage for sexual and emotional satisfaction
Why, then, is marriage so durable?

Edward Albee famously noted that marriage is the crucible of maturity.  Only when the shutters have been closed and couples are able confront the consequences of their desires, their frustrations, their failings, and their ambitions can they evolve.  Not children, not family legacy, not labor, not innocence - nothing is so important about marriage than its role in emotional maturity.

Responsibility is the product of ore refined within Albee's crucible. Although children are brought up to respect honesty, civility, decency, and compassion, these principles are academic until they have been tested in marriage.  As natural and common as serial sexual relationships may be, and as much as they represent an ideal masculinity to most men, they test their moral foundations.  It may be easy to get away with a cinq-a-sept, but is it right?  Is infidelity only a normal and expected safety valve without which marriages would explode?  Or is it a breach of a legal, social, and moral contract?

Although the character of marriage is rapidly changing - gay marriage and asexual reproduction are only the beginning – it remains sought after, prized, and highly valued.  We cannot seem to live alone.

Ivan Ilyich, the main character of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich  realizes too late that “We all die alone”.  No matter how perfectly constructed one’s social and family life may be, we must all face the end absolutely and ineluctably alone.   Is that what is behind marriage?

Responsibility and maturity are by-products of marriage; but given the fragility of the institution and the few practical benefits it accords, they are essential.  Without marriage, none of us would be tested, and few would have to show their moral credentials.  While ethics and moral behavior are acknowledged if not always valued in the marketplace and within social networks, there is nothing to temper these values – to alloy and anneal them – like marriage.  No one gets married because they want to strengthen their moral resolve, but it is the one common outcome to all unions.

On the other hand, as Nietzsche remarked the only validation of humanity in a meaningless world is the expression of individual will.  Although few of us are Supermen, able to ride above the herd in an amoral universe ‘beyond good and evil’ and confident enough to act on personal self-interest and ambition, the sentiment is within all of us.  Most men’s fantasy is not coming home from a responsible job to wife and children; but harems, brothels, trysts, and sexual adventures.  Men don’t want or value responsibility.  It has been demanded of them by women, by society, and by culture.


Responsibility is one of these values that we admire, vote for, and demand in our leaders; but bridle against ourselves.  We stomp and snort in our stalls, try to spit out the bit, toss our riders, and run free across the prairie, but we cannot.  The traces that bind are too tight.

Without responsibility curated and nurtured in marriage we would be lost – a wandering, wild herd at first feeling the sharp air of freedom but soon inevitably corralled.  We need the corral, the reins, the traces, and the stable.

Yet without our own  personal stampede life would be worth little.  Life may not be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ as Hobbes saw it; nor a meaningless traipse through a few decades of insight, creativity, and energy as Tolstoy did; nor as desolate and cold as Nietzsche observed it; but no one lives without personal ambition and a need for validation of worth which is independent from interaction with others.

We may want to break the bonds of marriage, but we cannot do without it.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Trump And Sanders–Emotional, Visceral Politics At Its Very Best

The Establishment hates Donald Trump.  The National Review, the standard-bearer for American conservatism, has begun an all-out, no-holds-barred campaign against The Donald.  This is a first for the magazine which has always been in lockstep with Republicans.  Although the editors may have had their issues with some candidates and preferred others, they have felt that a Republican victory at the polls would always be preferable to a Democratic one. 


That has all changed, and the journal’s true colors – conservative, traditional conservatism – are showing.  The National Review, no more than liberal Democrats, knows what to do with Donald Trump; and their editorial board and publisher – not to say traditional Republicans everywhere - are very worried about their fifty-year protected empire.

In most campaign years the conservative Establishment could count on big money for support.  Candidates all hewed to the same low-tax, reduced spending, big military, private sector platforms so valued by business.  Whether they were evangelicals, economic hardliners, or social disciplinarians, they could be counted on to promote a conservative economic agenda.

Trump on the other hand wants to deport all illegal immigrants, the labor that business depends on for low prices and high profits.  Even the harshest critics of open borders understand that food prices would soar, lawns would never get mown, houses would crack and peel, restaurants would close, and women would have to leave work for childcare.  Draconian anti-immigration policies are anti-business, and since we all like cheap lettuce, anti-American.

Secondly, Donald Trump is an embarrassment to the conservative establishment.  The likes of old William Buckley, Ronald Reagan, William Kristol, and George Will bridle at Trump’s circus antics.  He is a clown, a vaudevillian, a huckster, and an evangelical preacher (sans God) all rolled into one.  He is a dervish, a comedian, and a  rambunctious hell-raiser.  He is a son of Hollywood and Las Vegas not Wall Street and K Street.  These Old Guard Republicans are flummoxed.


The vitriolic reaction against Trump by The National Review is very telling, because it reveals both the increasingly shaky foundations of traditional conservatism and angry populist sentiments never before expressed so enthusiastically.

What Trump understands and conservative commentators do not is that today’s voters do not care about issues (if they ever did), but about sentiment, emotion, passion, and conviction.  In a recent article on the election in Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson said, “If Trump does have to speak about the issues, he makes himself sound foolish, because he doesn’t know very much.”  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Trump is no dummy, and he and his advisors could easily write a series of white papers on everything from Syria to tax reform.  He stays with bombast, theatricality, outrage, and personal attacks because that is exactly what the electorate wants. 

Trump speaks in a language of icon and image.  Of course no one takes him seriously when he says that he will round up all illegal immigrants and deport them; or when he says that he will build an impenetrable wall across our southern border, or that he will deny visas to all Muslims.   The message is clear – A Trump presidency will be tough on illegal immigration.

When he throws political correctness to the wind, no one believes that he is racist or sexist; but the message is clear.  The liberal gulag will be dismantled.  All lives matter. Free speech back.  Individualism – free speech, free enterprise, freedom of religion, and the enshrined American right to say anything at anytime – is back.

The traditional Left is equally threatened by Bernie Sanders who is very much like Trump in his unalloyed progressive neo-socialism.  His supporters do not care about how he will manage such radical transfers of wealth, Wall Street’s reaction to punitive taxes and legislation, or the depletion of already meager government treasuries.  They only care about his calls for justice, equality, compassion, communalism, and a new respect for the real people of America, not the fat cat capitalist, one percenters who gouge, exploit, and humiliate the poor.


Hillary Clinton and her advisors are particularly troubled, for she – opaque, with a history of questionable ethics, chameleon positions, sense of entitlement, and an obvious and exploitive ‘electoral feminism’ – is the anti-Bernie.  For all his impractical, out-of-date, and impossible policies, he is at least honest.  He has held his socialist principles for decades, put his voting record on the line, and has rarely deviated from his positions for expediency or political convenience.

Of course he cannot transform the profoundly and resistently capitalist system of America.  The powers that be are no different today than they were in the Reconstruction South.  There was no way that wealthy plantation owners would ever buckle under to Radical Republicanism; and in a few short decades, the plantation system was almost as productive, functional and intact as it was before the war.  None but the most idealistic and dreamy of Bernie’s supporters believe that anything he does can possibly neuter entrenched, historical centers of power.   Most will vote for him because of his ideals, his vision and his honest sense of purpose.


Trump is an outsized star, full of ego, style, image, and theatrics.  He is untamed, uncowed, aggressive, and combative.  He has made billions and flaunts it, dated bimbos, spent lavishly and without taste.  He loves money, power, acclaim, attention, and beautiful women.  Who says that he does not represent America?

Sanders believes profoundly in human progress.  If only we try harder, he says, show more compassion and understanding, and fight against injustice and  corrupt concentrations of power and authority, America and the human race will be better off.   Government is the solution to the country’s problem because despite its shortcomings, it represents the people and is the sworn caretaker of their interests.   Democracy is enshrined in collective enterprise, not individualism, and together we can make a better world.   Who said that his socialist spirit of commonality, shared interests, compassion, and social harmony is not American?

No wonder Hillary is bamboozled.  “I am doing everything right”, she says while Sanders increases in popularity. She cannot believe that a former First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State, and a woman could possible fade in popularity and lose traction against an old socialist. 

We have read her position papers and carefully-crafted pronouncements on women’s rights, gay marriage, income inequality, social justice, and all the rest; but we see no blood spilled, no tears shed, no passion, emotion, or anything even resembling principle.   The American voter wants passion and principle, not position papers.

If we are lucky, the presidential election will be between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, for it will mean an end to the stale, predictable, money-ruled, insider trading politics of the past.  The curtain will finally be pulled back on the corruption of the American political system.  Most importantly, the election will allow us for once to revel in what we are good at – image, stardom, and unbounded idealism.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

‘Delta Wedding’–What Did Eudora Welty Intend In Her Novel Without Plot Or Drama?

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty is a story about a multi-generational patrician Southern family and takes place in 1923 a few days before the wedding of one of the many children of Ellen and Battle Fairchild, the owners of the plantation.

There are no tales to tell, no family secrets, no plots, deceits, or jealousy.  The aunts, uncles,and cousins have no issues.  The wedding is not an event where old scores are settled, nor are there any reconciliations, angry fights over long-hidden resentments, flirtations, or shows of temper.  In fact nothing at all happens.

There are only a few measures of doubt in the family.  The Fairchild daughter about to be married has chosen the overseer of the plantation for a husband, a man without pedigree and breeding; and the wife of one of the uncles runs away from home a few days before the wedding.  Yet the overseer is a good man, unintimidated by but respectful of the Fairchilds; and the uncle’s wife never really ran away, never ran far, and always intended to return to her husband.

Laura, a cousin whose mother has just died is not consumed by grief or remorse.  Ellen Fairchild has eight children and is pregnant with the ninth, but she is neither frustrated nor resentful.  There is no bitterness in the old maid aunts, no insurrection among the Negro servants.   There are no family disputes about property or inheritance.  The land is rich and productive, the plantation is no different than it was before the War.  With only a few exceptions the entire family has stayed in the Delta.

In O’Neill’s  Mourning Becomes Electra  Christine  is in love with Adam, who is actually the illegitimate son of her husband’s uncle, long exiled but reappearing in his romantic pursuit of her daughter, Lavinia – an incestuous pursuit because Adam and Lavinia are first cousins.  Christine has incestuous longings for her son, Orin, psychologically damaged in the Civil War, and long under her influence. 


Lavinia has similarly incestuous longings for her brother, Orin, and she, too has dominated him since they were children. Lavinia’s feelings for her father, the family patriarch are even stronger and more incestuous.  He has been the buffer against what Lavinia sees is the evil predations and ambitions of her mother.

Christine hates her older husband to whom she has been married for many years, and decides with her lover, Adam, to kill him. Lavinia catches the mother in the act with the poison pills, and decides that she must kill her and her lover, Adam.  She enlists her easily manipulated brother, Orin.
Orin and Lavinia set a trap for Adam and murder him; but they don’t have to because she kills herself out of despair.  Orin, feeling so crazed with guilt kills himself.

The Tyrones in Long Day’s Journey into Night  are suspicious, depressive, and wounded.  The men are drunkards and the drug-addicted mother is manipulative, controlling, and selfish.  


Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Streetcar, Summer and Smoke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly Last Summer are all about sons, daughters, wives, and husbands who are trapped, impotent, frustrated, ignorant, or mad.

Albee’s theater is all about the desperation of living within a bourgeois marriage.  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a story of a savage couple out, in seems, to destroy each other and everyone else.  Their lives have been disappointments.  Martha’s venomous hatred and rage and George’s sarcastic, wounding insults and brutal games are expression of years of mutual resentment and jealousies.

Arthur Miller, perhaps America’s most moral playwright, less interested in human dynamics per se but in the immorality innate in human nature.  He explores themes of deceit, weakness, moral cowardice, and the corruption nature of ambition in All My Sons and Death of a Salesman.


Lillian Hellman in Little Foxes writes about greed, venality, ambition, and emotional violence. 
In Welty’s Delta Wedding there is none of this.  Although there are some strains within the Fairchild family – the marriage of outsiders Troy and Robbie are potential disruptions to the perfectly-ordered running of the plantation – none of them ever amount to anything.  The folds of the family are too welcoming and absorptive.  It is too big, too old, to established in its traditional ways, propriety, good taste, and humanity not to tame the most rebellious. 

What was it then about Eudora Welty who saw family so differently from Williams and O’Neill?
Delta Wedding not only is the story of a multi-generational, closely-knit family but its simplicity extends beyond the plantation.  Welty chooses not to write about the Civil War or Reconstruction, both of which were only decades before her story of the wedding.  The plantation is a physical and historical enclave.  The only past that has any importance for the Fairchilds is the one of their ancestors.

Welty makes occasional but only incidental references to the Civil War, who went off to it and who came back.  There is nothing about the War itself, the battles that were fought in the Delta, Radical Reconstruction, refugees, the dislocation of the planter class, the difficult restructuring of the slave economy, or the political and social upheavals that resulted.

Welty, then, by writing about a family isolated from the devastation of the War and its consequences and leading an idyllic and romantic existence, had another agenda.  But what?

Was she an apologist for the Old South?  There could be no better defense of antebellum ways than Delta Wedding where old, patrician, Cavalier traditions are kept alive, Negro servants are loving and loved members of the family, no character speaks spitefully or with any suspicion or hatred of blacks. 

Was she only an apologist for family and saw in the Fairchilds the antithesis of any of Faulkner or Williams?  More specifically did she feel that there was something unique and essential about an uninterrupted family history, a primitive nativism but with a much more positive take than the dark vision of Hawthorne (The House of the Seven Gables)?


None of the Fairchilds are intellectuals or even concerned with intellectual things.  The talk is all about family, relationships, and the preparations for the wedding.  Delta Wedding is not without some reflection and awareness of a wider philosophical world, but it is only incidentally and sporadically so. The world of ideas is far from the Fairchilds.

The family, then, is without intellectual anchor, without engagement in society or country, and free from any of the social or emotional disfigurations that are part and parcel of any social group.  Who are they?

The only character in the novel with any distinction is Uncle George. Although Battle is the head of the family, his brother George is the emotional center.  He is the best of the family, the aunts all say.  Strong, selfless, generous, and fiercely protective of the family.  Everyone retells the story of how he risked his life to free one of his nieces from a railroad tie before an oncoming train, and this one incident – one of the few discrete, memorable actions of the novel – is emblematic of the Fairchilds.

The writer most akin to Welty is Faulkner.  Both wrote about Southern, Mississippi families; yet Absalom, Absalom is a complex story in which character, personality, history, culture, and society are interwoven.  Thomas Sutpen comes out of the Virginia hills to build Sutpen’s 100 – one hundred square miles of Delta cotton plantation.  It is a story of personal will and ambition, a story of American enterprise and desire for wealth and status, a drama of race, sexual demand, and a tale of a man who was brilliant in business and management but ignorant of women, sons, and family.  The Sutpen family comes apart just as tragically as O’Neill’s Mannons but without the melodrama.


The Sound and the Fury is also about a Southern family – the Compsons, but his  Benjy, Jason, Quentin, and Caddy are far different from Battle, George, Ellen, and the aunts of Delta Wedding.  The story is dark, powerful, driven by the boy’s incestuous desire for their sister, the overpowering responsibility of family legacy, and the influences of Southern history.

Welty had no interest in creating a family like the Compsons or the Sutpens.  Many critics have concluded that she is a minor writer, far from the artistic genius of either Faulkner, Williams, or O’Neill, and this benign tale of the Fairchilds is all she could muster.

While few critics would put Welty in the same category as Williams or Faulkner, none dismiss her entirely.  She is so elusive, however, and the structure of her novel so indeterminate, that it is difficult to decipher. 

Some observers have noted Welty’s competition with Faulkner, and perhaps as a way of distinguishing herself from him, moved away from the psychologically-oriented short stories of her earlier years to a simpler vision:
Welty's debut novel, The Robber Bridegroom (1942), deviated from her previous psychologically-inclined works, presenting static, fairy-tale characters. Some critics suggest that she worried about "encroaching on the turf of the male literary giant to the north of her in Oxford, Mississippi-William Faulkner", and therefore wrote in a fairy-tale style instead of a historical one. Most critics and readers saw it as a modern Southern fairy-tale and noted that it employs themes and characters reminiscent of the Grimm Brothers’ works (Wikipedia).
More generous critics have suggested that the sense of place was really what gave her later works distinction; and that novels like Delta Wedding were examples of how the ‘place’ of the Delta and the Fairchild plantation was a metaphor for place and family:
Place is vitally important to Welty. She believed that place is what makes fiction seem real, because with place come customs, feelings, and associations. Place answers the questions, "What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?" Place is a prompt to memory; thus the human mind is what makes place significant. This is the job of the storyteller. “A Worn Path” is one short story that proves how place shapes how a story is perceived.
Within the tale, the main character, Phoenix, must fight to overcome the barriers within the vividly described Southern landscape as she makes her trek to the nearest town. "The Wide Net" is another of Welty’s short stories that uses place to define mood and plot. The river in the story is viewed differently by each character. Some see it as a food source, others see it as deadly, and some see it as a sign that "the outside world is full of endurance" (Wikipedia)

Delta Wedding is not a great novel, but a good one.  It is less interesting per se than for a new context within which to consider family and place, one very different from either Faulkner, Albee, O’Neill, or Williams.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Randomness, Chance, And Genes–Who Said There Is Any Such Thing As Purpose?

In the opening lines of Woody Allen’s Match Point, the narrator and main character of the film says:
The man who said "I'd rather be lucky than good" saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It's scary to think so much is out of one's control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn't, and you lose.


Chris Wilton murders his lover and her landlady, and later tosses the old woman's stolen jewels into the Thames.  All but her wedding ring make it over the railing.  It is found by the police in the pocket of a dead drug derelict, conclusive evidence that he not Wilton was the murderer.

At first the police suspect Wilton whom they assume killed his lover and murdered the landlady to suggest robbery. Yet because the wedding ring was found on the addict, they close the case against Wilton.  He, by sheer luck, has avoided capture, conviction, and prison.

Most of us believe in purpose.  The myth of free will, propagated by Christianity, is very hard to ignore; and although Christ intended it to be the faculty by which we would choose between right and wrong and be credentialed through correct choice for admittance into the kingdom of heaven, we have inflated its value.  Nietzsche said it best when he averred that the expression of will is the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world.  Most of us , however, are neither Nietzschean Supermen nor men and women of absolute faith; and have simply and facilely assumed that individual choice is unique, specially valued, and insuperable.


Where on earth did this notion come from?

Tolstoy put The Great Man Theory of history to rest in his Epilogue to War and Peace.  Napoleon’s defeat at Borodino was indeed due to the cold that he caught because of wet, cold feet which resulted because of the forgetfulness of his valet who had been distracted by his wayward wife and neglected to put out the Emperor’s gum boots.   Individual actions count for nothing as such.  Resulting from millions of random antecedent actions, who can reasonably say that any one act has a unique value let alone a distinct purpose?


Many world leaders who find themselves atop great empires, do not believe they are there accidentally. During the era of The Divine Right of Kings, European monarchs never challenged their divine anointment, and inferred that every action they took would be sanctioned by the God that placed them on the throne. The Catholic Church believes that the Holy Ghost has a hand in the election of the Pope; and although the College of Cardinals may vote for a successor, only God has the final choice. 

George W. Bush at the time of the Iraq crisis, confirmed his belief in divine intervention:
Nabil Shaath, who was Palestinian foreign minister at the time, said: "President Bush said to all of us: 'I am driven with a mission from God'. God would tell me, 'George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan'. And I did. And then God would tell me 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq'. And I did."
Mr Bush went on: "And now, again, I feel God's words coming to me, 'Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East'. And, by God, I'm gonna do it." (The Guardian 10.05)

Deranged serial killers like The Son of Sam claim purpose:
I am deeply hurt by your calling me a wemon hater. I am not. But I am a monster. I am the "Son of Sam." I am a little "brat". When father Sam gets drunk he gets mean. He beats his family. Sometimes he ties me up to the back of the house. Other times he locks me in the garage. Sam loves to drink blood. "Go out and kill" commands father Sam. Behind our house some rest. Mostly young — raped and slaughtered — their blood drained — just bones now. Papa Sam keeps me locked in the attic, too. I can't get out but I look out the attic window and watch the world go by. I feel like an outsider. I am on a different wave length then everybody else — programmed too kill.

Purpose and conditioning are muddled in today’s response to crime, violence, and anti-social behavior. Progressives claim that the disaffected black youth in Anacostia had no say in the matter when he robbed, raped, and murdered.  Persistent racism, the lingering effects of slavery, and the consequential dismissal of the black experience by white America are the reasons why they commit crimes.  They use Tolstoy’s deterministic argument to avoid assessing responsibility.  There is no such thing as crime, they say; only reaction to past conditioning.

Conservatives harken back to Jesus Christ, the Temptation in the Desert, and the cardinal principle of free will.  These youths, although influenced by their environment and susceptible to the influences  of the past, are  still human beings with a God-given sense of right and wrong and a divine injunction to act righteously.  Nothing can excuse murder.


For most of us the issues of free will, conditioning, and purpose have little salience. Métro, boulot, dodo – the oppressively routine existence of life- is far  kinder than Hobbes’s description of human existence as  “"solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".   All of us muddle through, unconcerned about or unaware of these existential thoughts.  If we ever wonder why we are here or where we are going, such thoughts are quickly dismissed by the priorities of the assembly line, marriage, and family.

All these weighty philosophical considerations mean little, says Woody Allen.  A lot of brainpower wasted in the face of obvious purposelessness.  The ball either goes over the net or it doesn’t.
De Maupassant is a master of coincidence, luck, the unexpected, and the distortion of purpose.  The Necklace and other stories tell of couples who intend one thing which results in another – tales of good intentions gone wrong because of chance, circumstance, and unfortunate fate.

The stories are entertainments, much like many of those of Somerset Maugham.  Red, like the tales of Maupassant, is a story of luck, timing, circumstance, and serendipity – a love story gone right for some, badly for others.  A romantic episode like all others conditioned by happenstance.


Either the ball goes over the net on one side or the other – all a matter of inertia, trajectory, parabolas, and pure chance.  We may be purposeful and deliberate, but no matter what actions we take; no matter which roads we choose, our ends and destinations are a matter of both chance and history.  We may arrive at Frost’s fork in the road, but it would be foolish to assume that we have any say in the choice; and even if we did, there would be no assurance of the outcome we hoped for.

What does this all mean? Should we all become nihilists, unconcerned about whether to take this road or that; or to fret about the consequences of our actions? Nothing of the sort. Life in the random lane is the most satisfactory, for it is the path of least resistance.  We needn’t worry about right and wrong, intended or unintended consequences, possible or probable outcomes.  Chance has a way of discombobulating the best laid plans; so it is better to choose arbitrarily, i.e. in self-interest, than to worry about collateral influences.  Morality, after all, is relative; so decisions have no intrinsic value per se.

What? Me Worry?