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

Friday, July 31, 2015

A Babe In The Woods–The Innocence Of Childhood

Nancy Bell pulled her dress up over her head and stood naked as the water droplets from the ferns dripped onto her face and arms.  “They are my jewels”, she said to Henry Halter, “and one day you can buy me real ones.”


It was cool and dark in the woods behind his house.  Henry’s father had said that he would cull the deep grove before it got too overgrown but he never got around to it, so the ferns had grown taller than him, and only rabbits could find their way through the bramble bushes. Once when he was little he got lost in the woods and thought he would never find his way out. There were bears and wolves in the woods, and he might wander for days without finding his way home.  For years he never set foot in the woods until Nancy Bell had asked him.  He knew that the wild animals were not real, but he still hesitated at the mountain laurel bushes at the back of their yard, and never took the narrow path into the woods. That was how childhood worked, he later thought, full of crazy imaginary things that scared you, and one day you woke up and they weren’t there any more, and the woods was just a dark, wet place where you would prefer not to go.

Mountain laurel

Nancy Bell sat next to him in school the next day, so close together in the auditorium that their legs touched.  She smelled fresh and clean, like talcum powder and lilac soap, and she was wearing the same dress that she had worn in the woods.  He noticed a bit of dried oak leaf on her dress that she had not seen and remembered how she had put her clothes neatly in a pile on a mossy patch under his father’s favorite tree.

Henry’s mother never let him out of the house unless he had a complete change of clothes. “What will the neighbors think?”, she said, afraid that they would piece together the bits of hard times that make up poverty; but the Bells had money, and although they could have bought Nancy a hundred dresses, they showed their snobbery by sending her out looking like a pauper. “We don’t have to prove anything to anybody”, Henry’s mother said, imitating the horny wheeze of Mrs. Bell, an old crone who had tea and crumpets for her circle of friends every Friday afternoon.  She watched the big Packards and Buicks drive up to the Bell’s house and park under the elms.  Hoity-toity Mrs. Blanchard always dressed to the nines even though it was only for tea in New Brighton, a town that nobody thought twice about any more, but she made out to be the best thing next to Boston or New York.

Image result for image drawings early 50s buick roadmaster

Henry didn’t care about Mrs. Bell or their house or Mrs. Blanchard’s Buick. He could only think of Nancy Bell standing naked in front of him wet with droplets of rain from the ferns which were now three feet high and still growing.  “It’s the rain”, said his father, annoyed at the mildew on the verandah chairs, the smell of rotting leaves in the window wells and the musty air in the basement. “It better stop soon or we’ll all rot before our time.”

Nancy with a necklace of rain jewels.  Nancy standing naked in front of him standing as tall as she did at the Pledge of Allegiance.  She always recited the Pledge louder than any of the other children, and the could hear her voice above all others when the class sang America the Beautiful.

Image result for image children reciting pledge of allegiance 50s

In June before the mosquitoes started biting, they sat naked in the woods and told stories to each other.  Nancy made up the rules and said that no story could be about their parents or brothers and sisters. “Make them up”, she said. “Make everything up”, and so each afternoon before the mosquitoes hatched from the wet oak leaves and puddles where the rain sluiced down the tallest trees and collected beneath them, they invented places where there were no people but people-animals “Your house has disappeared”, Nancy said, “and so has mine. All we can see is the trees and the squirrels. I have made everything outside the woods disappear.”

Henry compared every woman he met with Nancy Bell; and they never measured up.  They were either too matter-of-fact or too determined; too focused or too deliberate and precise.  None had Nancy’s ability to change things to suit her or to make things go away. Henry was never fully aware that she was doing this to him, making his choices for him; and when he once considered it, he laughed. They were only children, after all, and one summer with Nancy Bell was nothing. So what was it, then?

Years ago people had children because of social and economic reasons. Henry VIII was so desperate for a son to continue the royal line that he married eight times, was indifferent to his wives and daughters, and chopped off the heads of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. Peasants cared little for hereditary title, but relied on the labor of sons and daughters to survive.

Image result for images henry viii

Today it costs far more to raise and educate a child than the child returns either in economic benefit or social status.  Yet couples still have them. The human race would do quite well without so many new members, so evolutionary determinism cannot be at work.  Women are supposed to follow a biological imperative which they cannot ignore, but this comes and goes every month, reaches a point of crisis, and then diminishes and dies out.  Men’s biological urges guarantee only tomcatting, and most men run the other way when pregnancy is mentioned.  There is no real reason, then, for men and women to procreate.

“Innocence”, said Henry. “That can be the only reason”; and from that moment on he understood why Nancy Bell had meant so much to him.  He had known and understood innocence when he was a child.

The writer Paul Theroux once wrote that when he was a young man living in West Africa, he knew that he would remember it as the best time of his life.  Most people simply live and reflect later on the many experiences of their lives and select those that have been the most memorable. Their understanding of value comes only ex post facto.  Theroux on the other hand had a special insight into himself, the particular and unique configuration of life around him, and an appreciation of the deep psychological resonance of the union of the two.

Image result for images paul theroux

Henry had the same experience in the woods with Nancy Bell.  Instinctively he knew then that his childhood friendship with her was special, irreplaceable, and unforgettable.  How could he not then compare her with every other woman he met? He had known Nancy in an impossibly unique time and place.

The tragedy of Henry Halter was that because of Nancy Bell he never married and never had children. She was too much too bear, and he could never rid himself of her. In other words he could never compromise innocence, even though he might experience it again with children of his own.

Who can say, however, that Henry’s story was in fact a tragedy?

A priest suggested to me that Henry had seen the face of God.  A psychiatrist said that he had suffered from arrested development. A child psychologist explained the events of Henry’s childhood in terms of Maslow and Piaget and predictable phases of personality development.

Image result for images jean piaget

I bought none of it.  Henry was simply more attuned to himself and to the nature of being, than anyone I had ever met.  Tolstoy spent agonizing decades searching for meaning in what he saw as a meaningless life.  Tired, worn out, and dispirited by his inability to reason the answer, he backed into faith. Born-again Christians report spiritual epiphanies where they have indeed been welcomed by Jesus Christ.  Henry Halter was spared all that painful exegesis, struggle, and religious fol-de-rol.  He was a lucky man. He found innocence as an innocent child.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Fall Of The American Empire–Lessons From Ancient Rome And Dostoevsky

There are many reasons why the Roman Empire declined and fell – conflicts between the Senate and the Emperor, political corruption, overly ambitious expansion of Roman territory, the increased ability of barbarian tribes to counter Roman military strategy, the restive slave population (Spartacus) and increasing unemployment among others. 

One of the most often cited reasons is perhaps the hardest to quantify – a decline in morality. Yet there can be no question that Rome’s transition from a society with a strict code of moral discipline, rectitude, and ethical leadership to one of dissolution, excess, and sybaritic pleasure had to play a part. Sir John Bagot Glubb (Glubb Pasha), British general and historian wrote about this decline (The Fate of Empires and the Search for Survival):

For example, in the early Roman Republic, students received a basic education that stressed character development and virtue. But in the later Roman Empire, teachers taught rhetoric (the art of speaking) when emotionally persuading assemblies was no longer of political or practical value. Finally the corrosive effects of material success encouraged the upper class and the common people both to discard the self-confident, self-disciplined values that helped to create the empire. Then the empire eventually collapses

Over the last years of the Roman Empire, the lack of this classic moral discipline was particularly evident in the ruling classes. 

Emperors such as Tiberius kept groups of young boys for his pleasure, incest by Nero who also had a male slave castrated so he could take him as his wife, Elagabalus who forces a Vestal Virgin into marriage, Commodus with his harems of concubines who enraged Romans by sitting in the theatre dressed in a woman's garments.

The decline in morals also affected the lower classes and slaves. Religious festivals such as Saturnalia and Bacchanalia where sacrifices, lewd acts and sexual promiscuity were practiced. Bestiality and other sexually explicit acts were exhibited in the Coliseum arena to amuse the mob. Brothels and forced prostitution flourished. Widespread gambling on the chariot races and gladiatorial combats. Massive consumption of alcohol. The sadistic cruelty towards both man and beasts in the arena (www.tribunesandtriumphs.org).


    Nero, www.en.wikipedia.org

The advent of Christianity hastened the decline of the Roman empire, for it challenged both its secular excesses and materialism, but also the very principles of polytheism and faith-based monotheism.  The reign of Constantine was important because he understood that Christianity linked with Roman administration and military rule could be an unbeatable combination.  Christian spiritual rule would assure a civility governed by religious principles, aspirations, and guilt; while Roman rule, without internal disorder, could strengthen and expand its empire.

Image result for images constantine roman emperor


As historian Will Durant pointed out, “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.” Durant showed that when a society becomes morally corrupt, civility is destroyed, the society becomes unstable, and inevitably the nation slides towards collapse. 

Expanding on this principle Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov (The Brothers Karamazov) argued strongly for the merger of Church and State:

If everything became the Church, the Church would exclude all the criminal and disobedient, and would not cut off their heads,” Ivan went on. “I ask you, what would become of the excluded? He would be cut off then not only from men, as now, but from Christ. By his crime he would have transgressed not only against men but against the Church of Christ.

This is so even now, of course, strictly speaking, but it is not clearly enunciated, and very, very often the criminal of to-day compromises with his conscience: ‘I steal,’ he says, ‘but I don't go against the Church. I'm not an enemy of Christ.’ That's what the criminal of to-day is continually saying to himself, but when the Church takes the place of the State it will be difficult for him, in opposition to the Church all over the world, to say: ‘All men are mistaken, all in error, all mankind are the false Church. I, a thief and murderer, am the only true Christian Church’ (Book II, Chapter 5)


Ivan did not argue that the Church should be subsumed within the State, but the other way around.  The Church should be the principal institution of rule, and the State only responsible for governance.

This of course goes contrary to the jealously held American notion of the separation of Church and State.  Any thought of an established religion forming part of government is anathema.  Yet the Founding Fathers never intended for religion to disappear from civic life.  On the contrary, the first words of the Declaration of Independence state unequivocally that the rights of Man are conferred on him by his Creator; and it is the job of the State only to protect and guarantee these rights.  The new settlers in America, whether Puritans or Cavaliers never doubted that any new independent republic would have a religious foundation.  They insisted that there be no one established religion which would impose its will on others; but religion itself was the sine qua non of a civil society.

Image result for images thomas jefferson

Over the centuries, the reasoning behind the Founding Fathers insistence on the separation of Church and State – to avoid any religious, publically-sanctioned monopoly – has gotten lost.  All religious expression must be kept out of government, schools, and civic life. In a profoundly religious nation this, of course, is impossible; and the rise of the political influence of religious fundamentalism is only to be expected.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said it best in his dissent on Obergefell:

Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.

Moreover most Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe that morality as well as dignity has existed since the Law of Moses, the teachings of Christ, and the lessons of the Prophet Mohammed. The first chapter of the Gospel of John explicates the concept of logos – an eternal, universal Word that has existed even before God the Creator.  The Word is light, reason, and in moral terms, truth.

St. John

In other words morality – the precepts enunciated in the Torah, the New Testament, and the Koran – are universal, permanent, and unchanging.  Governments, as Jefferson said, are there only to facilitate the creation and protection of moral society which follows these religious principles.

There are two Americas – a profoundly spiritual one which continues to believe in the religious foundations of the nation and the permanence of Judeo-Christian-Muslim values; and an aggressive secular one which contends that a uniform, universal morality does not exist; that all moral judgments are relative; and that the words Scripture (Torah, the New Testament, and the Koran) are meant as metaphorical examples of righteous behavior not absolutes. Within such a secular, relativist context, the role of government is not to protect and preserve a moral community, but to engineer a more perfect society according to secular principles.

For religious conservatives it is hard not to look at the final days of Rome when society had come loose from its moral moorings.  The principles of Cato the Elder taught to aristocratic future leaders of Rome – honor, discipline, honesty, courage, and compassion – were things of the past. Moral rectitude which was derived from a sincere worship of the gods, had dissipated into pagan idolatry.

Image result for images cato the elder


Christ’s incessant and unremitting criticism of the Jews was not because he rejected The Law, but that the Pharisees had forgotten the essential principles of Moses and Jewish society had become one of ritual, cant, and observance without respect and belief.

Even those Christians whose interpretation of the Bible is not absolute and literal cannot ignore Christ’s repeated references to Adam and Eve, the sexual union of man and woman, the nature of fatherhood and the foundational nature of the procreative family.  They might dismiss the many Biblical injunctions against homosexuality because the real ‘abomination’ was a rejection of the human family which replicated the divine one, not a curse in and of itself; but the overall message of the centrality of the procreative family is never lost. 

Image result for images st paul


The current parsing of gender and sexuality, dividing sexual distinctions into smaller and smaller categories, is particularly troublesome.  Few sincere Christians deny the existence of aberrant (from the norm) sexual patterns and choose to condemn those who follow them; but they object to the normalization of these new paradigms. The centrality if not sanctity of the traditional male-female family has, in their opinion, has been ignored in favor of outliers.

Civilizations at their height have all followed the same rules, have adhered to the same moral and ethical principles enunciated by Cato the Elder, the Gospels, and the Koran. Even a cursory look at history shows that there are indeed universal moral principles.  Even those who do not believe in the Holy Spirit or logos still accept them as permanent secular features of society.  No civilization has survived without them.

So at times America does feel like the last days of Imperial Rome.  Anything goes. ‘'’The business of America is business’, said Engine Charlie Wilson of General Motors; and capitalism passes for a cultural center in the United States; but the moral center is not so clearly identified. Doomsday-sayers note image, PR, public apologies, undisciplined individualism, materialism, and amoral relativism as Signs of the Coming Apocalypse; but there are many more.

Image result for images engine charlie wilson


America may only look Baroque or decadent Roman to some; while to others there should be no discounting our entrepreneurial spirit, energy, positivism, and ambition.  These can only be possible in a diverse, non-committal, and non-prescriptive society.

Yet, if history is any indicator, the American moral ship needs righting.