Monthly Archives: September 2010

Vietnam Redux

Posted by Mike

So what have we learned from our devastating forays in Iraq and Afghanistan?

1. We’re not very good at learning from history!

2. When we get involved in a foreign war (they’re all foreign up until now), the negative outcomes are always more significant than anything we anticipated.

3. We have a lot of naïve, innocent young men that become jaded, disillusioned, and/or permanently physically or mentally impaired by the experience.

4. Lots of young American men who had grand and idealistic aspirations die.

5. Even more innocent civilians in the affected countries die.

6. Often our intentions may initially appear good and reasonable superficially; but our ignorance of the realities of other cultures and other lands is profound, despite the seemingly best efforts of all of our intelligence agencies and our Departments of State and Defense, and our intentions pale before the ugly realities: the pain, suffering and destructiveness of war.

7. We often more than we would like find ourselves allied with local partners in foreign lands who have questionable credentials and who are seen as corrupt and self-serving by the local populace.

8. The extraordinary costs of our foreign wars significant increase our indebtedness to creditor nations like China currently. The current and future costs of the Iraq and Afghan wars have drained resources that could have facilitated the provision of universal health care to our own citizens and assisted in the elimination and treatment of multiple diseases like malaria and HIV worldwide.

You will forgive me, I hope, for reflecting that our lack of insight and judgment and foresight are unfortunately all too human, given man’s history of war after war after war. Who is responsible for the decisions that led us to our current predicament in these situations? Presidents. Yes. The Presidents’ cabinets and our elected representatives in Congress? Yes. What about you and me? Do we get off scot free?

We humans expect to learn from history, especially from our own experiences. We haven’t got it yet!

Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.  –  Winston Churchill

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Hesse Excessa

Posted by Mike

I first read Hermann Hesse a very long time ago. He was popular with the post-hippy college crowd back in the 70’s; they thought he was saying something to them about finding their way in the world, about individuation, being their own person(s). I read Steppenwolfe , Demian, and Siddhartha. This was a very long time ago. At the beach last month I was desperate to read something – besides the New York Times on-line. There were lots of paperbacks in the living room; most of them seemed to be the kind of romance novels that you see in the libraryin the paperbacks section . In any case, there wasn’t much to read at the beach house that appealed to me. So what did I come upon? A copy of Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund [Hesse, by the way, was the Nobel prize winner in literature in 1946]. Am I going to let this opportunity pass by? No. Of course not. So I picked it up and read it – over the course of a couple of days. What’s it about? It’s reminiscent of the earlier works I read by Hesse: there is a lonely protagonist. He is isolated and has only one friend, whom he quickly leaves, for twenty years of wandering the countryside. What does he do? Basically he womanizes – ad infinitum. Finally he becomes entranced by art and apprentices to a sculptor for a year and produces several fine works which reflect the inner spirit of the sculptor. He tires of the commercialism of professional sculpting, never becomes involved in any significant relationship or community, leaves sculpting and begins wandering again. He becomes ill, returns again to the monastery where he was raised after his mother’s death, and succumbs in the presence of his old friend, Narcissus, who has become the abbot.

In many ways the story is touching. Critics suggest that Hesse is contrasting the Apollonian versus the Dionysian spirit as described in Neitzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. That may be the case; however, despite Goldmund’s extensive philosophizing throughout the book, what I see is a description of a highly narcissistic personality, who takes advantage of virtually every person he comes into contact with, who is unable to establish any kind of relationship to which he makes a commitment or in which he must make any sacrifices, and who is completely unable to participate in an interactive, interrelated, committed community with others. Ironically, the other title character in the novel is called Narcissus; but it is Goldmund who is the narcissistic one. The picture that we have of Narcissus is a bit limited; we know, however, that he has embraced community his entire life and has committed himself to helping and leading others in a compassionate and understanding way.

If you’ve never read Hesse, N and G may be excessa, but find one of his classic novels and read it.

Hermann Hesse Der Steppenwolf 1927.jpg

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Catcher in the Rye

Posted by Mike

So Linda and Jenny raved about The Catcher in the Rye. Jenny had read it three times. Linda said the writing was spectacular. I guess it’s kinda hard to live up to superlatives all of the time. So since Linda was reading it for two book clubs I thought I’d give it a try, having neglected it the first time around. I did. I read it. What’s the big deal, I said. Another coming of age story; had enough of those. Linda said it wasn’t a coming of age story at all. I thought about it and sort of agreed with her. It’s more of an adolescent tragedy; though come to think of it, it’s sort of like a coming of age thing, except that you don’t have the great outcome that you’d expect from that kind of story. The outcome’s a little uncertain – to say the least. Guess I wasn’t in the mood for an adolescent tragi-comedy; or maybe I’m so far past “coming of age” that it’s positively ludicrous; or maybe the life of a maladjusted rich kid from New York City in the 1940’s is just something I can’t understand or relate to.

Linda said to me, “What’s wrong with Holden?” I really couldn’t answer that on the spot. I thought I should be able to. You know, my being a psychologist and all that. So I vamped. I know; it was dishonest; but at least I’m telling you the truth now. Then I thought about it for a while. A couple of things came to mind. First of all Holden had no adult whom he could really confide in – someone who truly seemed to understand him and that he could talk to.  Certainly not his parents, who were too preoccupied with parties and their position in society and in doing things the right way – although to tell the truth we really don’t get a clear picture of what Holden’s parents are like. Then I thought that there really isn’t anything wrong with Holden; but what’s wrong is society and everyone and everything else. Salinger really makes a pretty good case for society being the problem. Holden clearly has issues: his younger brother dies of leukemia; he witnesses the death of a fellow student who was being traumatized by other boys at school. He doesn’t fit in. He sees the phoniness of the society that he is a part of; he can’t and won’t adjust. He fails in school after school – and finally has a breakdown.

Not a pretty story. It’s really a testament to the superficiality of the upper-middle class values of the Eastern establishment in the 1940’s or 1950’s, at least as Salinger saw it. Have things changed since then? I don’t know since most of my experience has been in the provinces. I expect the same kind of phoniness goes on; I just hope that there are more redemptive opportunities available now for kids like Holden Caulfield than there were when he was in school. Do I recommend your reading Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye? Well, it’s considered an American classic.  It’s a comic tragedy; but it’s also an indictment of some important aspects of our culture. We need to heed what it’s telling us about ourselves.

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Huck Finn

Posted by Mike

I’ve just finished reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I honestly don’t know if I’d ever read it before. What’s clear is that if I did I didn’t remember any of it. I didn’t read any of the critics’ comments in the preface prior to reading the novel; I didn’t want to be influenced. As you probably know it’s a picaresque novel, a series of adventures and misadventures, held together by a tenuous story. The central theme is that Huck is accomplishing two things at one time: he’s helping the escaped slave Jim to find his freedom at the same time that he is obtaining his own freedom from a life of convention with the Widow Douglas. Some of the adventures are pretty realistic; some are downright silly and so exaggeratedly over the top that this reader was put off by them. I’d call it a comic romance. The comedy part comes from the humor inserted by the writer into the situations and speech; the romance is falling in love with freedom, with the open road in a sense – in this case, the big wide, slow-moving, inexorable superhighway, the Mississippi River.

Like a lot of today’s readers I’m sure, I had some problems with Clemens’ frequent use of the “N” word. The review I read concluded that Clemens very definitely wasn’t a racist, and I’m convinced of that myself. Despite his upbringing as a poor white Southerner, Huck was out to help save Jim; that was apparent from the beginning, and his attitude toward the outcome confirmed that. In his ruminations, Huck vacillated regarding whether or not he was doing the right thing, but this was the writer’s way of reflecting to the reader the ingrained learnings of the white Southerner re race relations. If it had been a tragedy, which would have been a more realistic outcome of the events, given the time and place, when the two finally would have been caught, Jim would have either been returned to his owner or sold again into slavery – or worse. And Huck would have taken his licks, too. But we don’t have a tragedy, do we, so such a dark, more realistic ending wouldn’t do.

I don’t read novels very often. If you’ve read my earlier postings, you may remember what I said about reading Of Human Bondage last year. That’s a really long novel that reads like an autobiography, which it is to some extent. I got so involved that I was terribly worried about the protagonist when he was having some rough times. Well, can you believe, it happened again! Towards the end of this story, when Huck and Jim were nearing the end of the road, which would have been New Orleans, I began to worry: “What’s going to happen to Jim. There’s no way out, now.” That would have been the tragic ending. Clemens couldn’t do that, so he injected kind of a deus ex machina to help wind things up. Also, at the very end of the story, Tom Sawyer (yes, he’s there, too) is trying to lure Huck into another hair-brained romantic fantasy scheme of his. I practically said out loud, “No Huck. Don’t listen to him! Get away. Get away!”

If like me you’ve never read Huckleberry Finn, or you did but it was long ago, take it up again. It’s a good read.

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The Toughest Job

Posted by Linda

The toughest job I ever had was being a mother. It starts off as labor, continues as labor, and carries a lifetime contract with no vacation or retirement. Mary Cassatt 004.jpgThere are no clear job guidelines, no agreed upon standards, and no universal success measures.  There are no re-do’s, but plenty of do-again’s. The product itself has the final word on its producer’s competence and success, and the evals may careen widely over time in intermittent, often unscheduled, job reviews.  There is no contracted salary.

One might ask why women so consistently take this job.  Beyond persistent biological urges, campaigns by potential grandparents, and romantic longings brought on by the vision of a tiny sleeping creature with rosebud lips, a darling baby in darling clothes cuddling a tiny stuffed toy – beyond that, the answer is simple ignorance. One does not comprehend what one is getting into.

On the other hand, there is evidence to the contrary.  Above all, modern birth control applications are effective, yet not all mothers have only one child.  They re-up.  That’s not the only hard evidence of the job’s stranglehold on the maternal psyche.  Consider the besottedly loving looks and cooing issuing from mothers to even colicky infants,  the endless rounds of peek-a-boo, the willingness even once, to sing “Found a Peanut.” Then, at that practice leaving-home ceremony, graduation, that very mother tears up and clings to her child for life, as if her personal snuggly blanket, ratty from too many rounds in the washer/ dryer, but utterly loved, is gone forever.

It ought to be easier to release the toughest job ever, but it is not, maybe because each of us wanted to do it perfectly and could not, and maybe knew we could not even as we labored.  Maybe it’s because we know instinctively that “it doesn’t get any better than this” intransigent, chaotic, ineffable connection. What I have learned from that job is that I (we) should not be perfect mothers.  A share must be left for the child.  For me, being a mother is about my hopes and dreams riding on someone who must discover his/her own hopes and dreams. I get to watch and wonder. I get to love.

RenoirGabrielleJean.jpg

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