Lives of Quiet Desperation and Worse

quiet desperation

You’ve no doubt heard of the James’ Brothers – no, not Jessie and Frank – I’m talking about William and Henry, William the so-called “Father of American Psychology,” Henry the famous novelist, author of Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw.

As it turns out, William wasn’t all that fond of his younger brother’s prose style.  Here’s a snippet from a letter William wrote Henry regarding his novel The Golden Bowl, considered by many critics to be a masterpiece:

Why don’t you, just to please your Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style? Publish it in my name, I will acknowledge it, and give you half the proceeds.”

William went on to say in a subsequent letter concerning his brother’s elaborate style,  “Say it out, for God’s sake, and have done with it.”

He goes to suggest that Henry should write the kind of novels Finley Peter Dunne wrote in his “Mr. Dooley” series, highly popular at the time but all but forgotten today.

Henry replied, “I mean… to try to produce some uncanny form of a thing, in fiction, that will gratify you–but let me say, dear William, that I shall greatly be humiliated if you do like it, and thereby lump it, in your affection, with things of a current age, that I have heard you express admiration for and that I would sooner descend to a dishonored grave than have written.”


Henry and William James

This encounter between the James’ brothers prompted Caroline Gordon to write How to Read a Novel because it brought home to her that high intelligence does not guarantee even competence when it comes to understanding the nature of novels.  Here’s a world renowned philosopher and psychologist who preferred Mr. Dooley to The Golden Bowl.

[William James’s] suggestion [that Henry imitate Dunne’s work] was made with the best will in the world [. . .] and could only have sprung out of ignorance – not only of the particular problems his brother was facing, but of the processes by which a novel comes into being.”  Caroline Tate from Chapter 1 of How to Read a Novel

Which brings me to David Brooks, the New York Times op-ed writer.  Over the years, I’ve come to grow somewhat fond of David Brooks.  He’s what we English teachers call a “dynamic character.”  No, not that the bespectacled, thoroughly decent, nervously head- bobbing pundit possesses a dram of charisma, not dynamic in that way, but dynamic in that over the course of the 20-plus years I’ve been reading and listening to him his consciousness has expanded.  He’s grown.  Unlike virtually most so-called conservative commentator I’ve read in the last ten years, David Brooks has dared to consider the other side of the argument without summarily dismissing it on an ideological basis.[1]


Yet, Brooks, too, like William James, is not a very preceptive reader of novels. In his critique of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, for example, he misses a crucial point about the nature of serious American fiction in general and contemporary Late Empire America in particular.  Mr. Brooks possesses an analytical rather than a creative mind and so misunderstands, I think, how fiction comes to be.  In a very quick survey of great American novels, it’s also hard to find what Brooks claims is missing from Freedom:

Franzen ignores anything that might complicate the Quiet Desperation dogma.  There’s almost no religion.  There’s very little about the world of work and enterprise.  There’s an absence of ethnic heritage, military service, technical innovation, scientific research or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling. (my emphasis)



Could it be possible! This 21st Century New York Times columnist hath not yet heard of it, that GOD IS DEAD!

Scarlet Letter

Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter


Work and enterprise?

Moby Dick?


The Jungle?

the jungle

The Grapes of Wrath?



Military Service?

A Farewell to Arms?



Technical Innovation/Scientific Research?

White Noise?



I’ll add in closing that mocking the bourgeoise is not limited to American novelists.  I defy Brooks to find anything particularly lofty and ennobling about Madame Bovary (except for the majestic artistry of Flaubert’s genius).  I’m with Caroline Gordon on the ol’ novels-of-ideas front.  Really great novels arise from the dark realms of really a powerful unconsciousness  whose taproots spring from the ancient terrors of predatory night.  Create a cast of characters who exist to prove an abstract point and you end up with Tom Wolfe – an entertaining puppet master, or worse, Ayn Rand.[2]

If Mr. Brooks is looking for happy Americans, I suggest he look towards Hollywood. After the credits have rolled, citizens seeking escape usually drive home with smiles on their faces after experiencing rosy resolutions.  On the other hand, read the novels illustrated above, and a life of quiet desperation seems practically Edenic.

[1] I should add the Never Trumpers Jennifer Rubin and Bill Kristol.

[2] Flannery O’Connor ( a close friend of Caroline Gordon’s) on Ayn Rand “I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.

3 Contrasting Visions of the Trump Presidency


Boy, I really didn’t realize how dark Trump’s vision the US is until I read his inaugural address:

Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories, scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge . . .

I first thought Trump may have actually written this himself. I couldn’t think of a professional speechwriter who would come up with a simile so imagistically clunky as “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.”  But it turns out Miller and Bannon are to blame.

Anyway, are you visualizing the image?

Florida National Cemetery, Headstones, war heroes


rusted-out factory

rusted-out factory




Perhaps there are more than a few rusted-out factories in Michigan, but down here in South Carolina where I live I couldn’t locate one to save my life. I asked my son who drove up from Orlando yesterday how many rusted-out factories he’d seen during the seven hour trip, and he said that the only factory he saw had smoke coming out of the smokestacks.

Also – and I’ll move on – the children in South Carolina suffering from poverty aren’t huddled in inner cities but eking out their existence without Medicaid expansion in shacks that litter the landscape like, um, shacks.

Okay, now that I got that off my chest, I’d like to offer brief synopses of how three thoughtful pundits perceive the Trump presidency, and I’ll go from darkest to brightest for sanity’s sake.

Sarah Kendzior

skSarah Kendzior, the author of The View from Flyover Country, is an anthropologist who specializes in authoritarian states and writes for various newspapers. She considers the accession of Trump as nothing less than catastrophic. She foresees a coming kleptocracy as a fragile democracy succumbs to fascistic institution-gutting by Trump and his mob-like nationalistic white-supremacist cronies.

In 2014 she served as an expert witness for an Uzbek refugee. Here is her account:

My job was to tell the judge about Uzbekistan: a country ruled by a dictator who abuses executive power to obtain personal wealth, threatens independent media and protesters, spies on real and perceived enemies, packs his administration with lackeys and relatives, refuses to disclose his financial holdings, molds public opinion through media domination, persecutes innocent Muslims under the pretext of fighting terrorism, and distracts the citizenry with pageants and spectacle, often proclaiming that he is making Uzbekistan great again.

She goes on to note

American authoritarianism will not be a carbon copy of other states. Mr. Trump’s authoritarianism will exploit pre-existing vulnerabilities – corporate corruption, institutional rot, systemic racism, a weakened economy, a struggling media, celebrity worship – and exacerbate them until our nation is no longer recognizable.

Should this occur, it may look like home, but it will not feel like home. What may be wrenched from us is a fundamental sense of security and sovereignty. When cable outlets are not promoting white supremacists or debating the humanity of Jews – yes, this is what our media airs now – they occasionally document Mr. Trump’s kleptocratic behaviour.

It’s almost dark enough to drive me to the nearest burnt-out strip mall to see if I can score some smack; however, Dr. Kendzior preaches resistance, not submission, and yesterday’s massive protests offer some hope that we’ll not take Trump lying down.

But we are still here, we the people, the inconvenient background players in Donald Trump’s self-serving shakedown of the American dream. We the people have been calling our representatives, demanding to know what is going on. We the people never did form that more perfect union, but we are not about to trade in the red, white and blue for the gold-plated facade of a tyrant tycoon.

We the people look out for each other – even when no one looks out for us.

David Brooks

brooksChances are you’re familiar with David Brooks, the affable guy-next-door conservative columnist for the NY Times and frequent contributor to the soon-to-be privatized PBS.

Brooks is considerably more upbeat about the survival of our democracy:

Some on the left worry that we are seeing the rise of fascism, a new authoritarian age. That gets things exactly backward. The real fear in the Trump era should be that everything will become disorganized, chaotic, degenerate, clownish and incompetent.

He sees hope in the possibility that the polarization Republicans and Democrats will end as the two join forces to quell the megalomaniacal maelstrom that will be Trump’s governing style:

We’ve wondered if there is some opponent out there that could force us to unite and work together. Well, that opponent is being inaugurated, not in the form of Trump the man, but in the form of the chaos and incompetence that will likely radiate from him, month after month.

Brooks ends his most recent column with this Panglossian hope:

With Trump it’s not the ideology, it’s the disorder. Containing that could be the patriotic cause that brings us together.

Peter Leyden

d6qgkbh_400x400According to his by-line, Peter Leyden “is the founder and CEO of Reinvent, a media company.” He sees Trump’s inauguration not as “the beginning of an era – but the end.”

He posits that Trump’s atavistic wish to flip the calendar back to the USA’s manufacturing heyday is doomed because of the evolution of technology into an ever-increasing interconnectedness of digital technologies, which “will be totally global and operate on a planetary scale.”

Whereas Brooks sees Trump uniting the Right and Left, Leyden foresees him being the “vehicle that will finally take down right-wing conservative politics for a generation or two” by “completely and irrevocably alienat[ing] all the growing political constituencies of the 21st century: the Millennial Generation, people of color, educated professionals, women.”

He goes on to say suggest that it’s actually ultimately fortunate that Hillary lost because she “would not have been able to finally bring down the conservative movement and its archaic ideology.”

Wesley Moore

meWesley Moore is a very confused and woebegone blogger. He has no earthly idea what’s going to happen. You can find him at any number of Folly Beach drinking establishments or loitering in the parking lots of burnt-out strip malls.


More Dorothy Day, Less Franklin Graham

Brooks quixote_04David Brooks, whom I like personally from his television and radio appearances, but with whom I rarely agree, has a thought-provoking but quixotic op-ed piece in yesterday’s Times.

Brooks begins with a blunt statement of fact: “Christianity is in decline in the United States.” He goes on to point out that its “gravest setbacks are in the realm of values,” particularly in the realm of sexual permissiveness. Premarital sex is virtually universal, out-of-wedlock pregnancy no longer a cause for shame, adultery considered a trivial misstep, etc.

On the homosexual side, not only does gay love dare speak its name, but it shouts it out, Martha-Reeves-and-the-Vandellas style. Gay lovers have stepped from the shadows of alleyways and stroll openly holding hands on the sunny side of our streets, their streets, and to that, most of us — and least the people I hang with — shout Hallelujah!

Of course, others disagree. Brooks quotes Rod Dreher, author of How Dante Can Save Your Life, who suggests that it is “time for Christians to strategically retreat into their own communities, where they [can] keep ‘the light of faith burning through the surrounding cultural darkness.’” Dreher adds, “We have to accept that we really are living in a culturally post-Christian nation. The fundamental norms Christians have long been able to depend on no longer exist.”

Of course, Christianity is complicated. Jesus himself never considered himself a Christian. After all, on the night before his execution, he was celebrating Passover.

Although Christianity and Islam have incorporated elements of Judaism, they aren’t syncretic in the sense that they don’t see Yahweh, Jesus, or Allah as cultural masks for a universal deity that transcends tribal affiliations. In other words, fundamentalists in these religions mistake their myths for history, and this literalism has been [gross understatement alert] problematic (cf. the Inquisition).

Science is the enemy of literalism. Obviously, Noah would have a hard time rounding up penguins in Mesopotamia. Less obviously, scholars agree that Judaism was originally a polytheistic religion and that there is virtually no archeological evidence of an Egyptian captivity. On the Christian side, N.F. Gier writes in God, Reason, and the Evangelicals:

There is no record of Caesar Augustus’ decree that “all the world should be enrolled” (Lk. 2:1).  The Romans kept extremely detailed records of such events.  Not only is Luke’s census not in these records, it goes against all that we know of Roman economic history.  Roman documents show that taxation was done by the various governors at the provincial level.[1]

So some people, naively in my view, tend reject the mythic truth of Judaism and Christianity when they dogmatically argue that the bible is literally true. Millennials especially have little patience with ancient edicts that restrict their behavior. They dismiss it all as “a big bunch of bullshit.”

Enter genetics. I believe that the great shift in US citizens’ acceptance of homosexuality lies in its not being a choice but a biological imperative. Commonsense tells us that we don’t choose our sexual orientations. No one remembers that special day during puberty when she decided to opt for boys instead of girls. So it follows that if people are hard-wired to love certain sexes, why not allow people of both sexual persuasions to make lifelong commitments? Doing less seems uncharitable, and in one sense, un-Christian.

Brooks urges Christians to abandon their “decades-long culture war that has been fought over issues arising from the sexual revolution” and to “consider a different culture war, one just as central to [their] faith and far more powerful in its persuasive witness.”

Here’s his alternative:

The defining face of social conservatism could be this: Those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families. Those are the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other. Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life.

In other words, he urges the religious right to become missionaries in their own culture. I love the idea, but alas, as many of the commentators on the piece point out, this solution ain’t going to happen.

After all, Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Perry attend Christian-themed prayer rallies but in the name of ideology refuse to expand Medicaid in their states, essentially preventing their indigent populations from receiving healthcare.

But, yes, Mr. Brooks, I agree. A cultural war that “is s more Albert Schweitzer and Dorothy Day than Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham, more Salvation Army than Moral Majority” is a concept devoutly to be wished.

[1] I fault the copy editor for that inelegant sentence, which could have been cast: “Roman documents show that various governors at the provincial level levied taxes.”

The Grammarians: Covers

Roll over, Edmund Burke!













Believe it or not, George Wills, Tucker Carlson, and David Brooks played together in a cover band in the early ’80’s called the Grammarians.  Here’s an exclusive playlist of their first and only album, a self-published collection of cover songs with grammatically correct lyrics. Unfortunately, all of the albums have been bought by the Koch Brothers and destroyed, along with the original tapes.

Here’s what we’re missing:

“I Can’t Get Any Satisfaction” – The Rolling Stones

“It Isn’t I, Babe” – Bob Dylan

“Love Me Tenderly” – Elvis Presley

“Everyone Has Something to Hide Except for My Monkey and Me” – the Beatles

“Whom Do You Love” – Bo Diddley

“What Did I Say” – Ray Charles

“There’s Nothing like the Real Thing” – Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell

“Lie Down, Sally” – Eric Clapton

“There Isn’t Any Sunshine When You Are Gone” – Bill Withers

“I Feel Well” – James Brown