The novel as weapon

All’s fair in love and war, and in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, one of the weapons is literature. After Helen Lawrence marries for what she thinks is love, she learns, to her chagrin, that her husband, Arthur Huntingdon, has bad habits—drinking, gambling, and womanizing—and finds life insufferably dull without them. Will he desert her for the big bad city of London, or will he learn to be contented with a quiet life at home? Briefly he tries to amuse himself by telling stories of his old love affairs, but Helen reproves and silences him. Their domesticity would be bliss if only he could content himself with her sort of fun: the reading of nice books.

He’s unable to. “He never reads anything but newspapers and sporting magazines,” Helen reports. “When he sees me occupied with a book, he won’t let me rest till I close it.”

But because this is a Brontë novel, and not a Sunday school treatise, books aren’t entirely benign. During the couple’s first quarrel—in recollecting a married woman who once romanced him, Arthur is insufficiently moralistic, and Helen becomes upset—Helen gives him the silent treatment, and literature becomes a tool that enhances her power not to pay attention to him.

This is a neat reversal of the conventional slur on novels in the period, which was that they vitiated women’s minds by filling them with fantasies and distracting them from duty. Arthur is revealed to be weak precisely because he can’t or won’t read novels. “From dinner till bed time, I read,” Helen reports, of the progress of their combat. “Meanwhile, poor Arthur was sadly at a loss for something to amuse him or to occupy his time.” Because it’s rainy, he can’t take his horse out for a ride, and he is reduced to fidgeting indoors—”watching the clouds, cursing the rain, alternately petting, and teazing, and abusing his dogs, sometimes lounging on the sofa with a book that he could not force himself to read, and very often fixedly gazing at me, when he thought I did not perceive it.” Helen, on the other hand, “managed to preserve an undisturbed, though grave serenity throughout the day.” #Winning.

After dinner, Arthur drinks “an unusual quantity of wine,” and the weaponizing of books becomes explicit:

I returned to my reading; and he endeavoured to occupy himself in the same manner; but, in a little while, after several portentous yawns, he pronounced his book to be “cursed trash,” and threw it on to the table. Then followed eight or ten minutes of silence, during the greater part of which, I believe, he was staring at me. At last his patience was tired out.

“What is that book, Helen?” he exclaimed. I told him.

“Is it interesting?”

“Yes, very.”

“Humph!”

At this point Helen discovers that literature offers a further tactical advantage over one’s spouse:

I went on reading—or pretending to read, at least—I cannot say there was much communciation between my eyes and my brain; for, while the former ran over the pages, the latter was earnestly wondering when Arthur would speak next, and what he would say, and what I should answer.

Even when you’re losing, a book can make you look like you still have the upper hand.

On gay taxes

Over at Slate, I have an essay about the existential pleasures of filing taxes as a gay married couple.

Peter’s culture diary

Peter has written a culture diary for the Paris Review blog. The first installment ran yesterday; part two is imminent.

In other news, an MP3 of “Melville’s Secrets,” the lecture I gave last week about Moby-Dick, sperm, and industrial capitalism, is now downloadable from SUNY Geneseo’s website.

Chapter opening

Williamstown, Massachusetts, 22 May 2010

Blog reader, I married him.

Against repressive antisentimentalism

Dear Mark,

When you and I read Kierkegaard’s Either/Or this spring, in a group that met every morning for a week in the second-floor cafeteria of the Houston Street Whole Foods, we had many arguments about the nature of marriage. Now I seem to be joining you in another, though our private conversation has become, in something like the ambiguous transformation wrought by marriage itself, public. Either/Or, as you know, is divided into two parts, the first written by a Seducer, who approaches the problem of human relations aesthetically, and the second by a Judge, who approaches it ethically. Neither approach proves satisfactory; a better title for the book would be “Neither/Nor.” To the surprise of those of us who know you personally, your essay “On Repressive Sentimentalism” has caused some in the blogosphere to mistake you for a figure like Kierkegaard’s Seducer. In disagreeing with you, I suppose I run the parallel risk of sounding like the Judge, who is, I believe, in somewhat greater danger of losing his soul, because in order to preserve decorum, he seems willing to smother the spark that makes human relations possible at all. Keeping the danger in mind, I will risk answering you.

I dissent from many of the claims in your essay, but I feel my resistance most strongly to the following sentence:

Opposing gay marriage is like denying the wishes of people who want to feed your pets or take out your garbage.

If you believe that gays who marry resemble people offering to take out the trash, then you believe that gays who marry are offering a service. I presume you mean that they are surrendering their sexual wildness for the sake of social approbation and in the process are making a gift of sexual orderliness to the common weal. If that is all marriage is—a bargain wherein autonomy is traded for status—then it is indeed a ridiculous bargain for any sexually potent adult to make. (Lurking behind the cartoon figure of the promiscuous gay man, whom your essay eulogizes, is his inevitable twin, the gay eunuch.) But surely it’s possible to imagine marriage as something else, something that our Kierkegaard reading group tried to investigate, as did the reading group that followed it, which tackled Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness. Would it be mere rhetoric to suggest that marriage is in fact itself a form of wildness?

Your claim in the sentence quoted above, which is a sort of a joke, has two lemmas. First, you imply that marriage is a surrender of sexual liberty. I don’t think that’s accurate. Marriage is Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell standing side by side in the closing scene of His Girl Friday, nattering on with the same jollity when handcuffed to each other as when not handcuffed. Marriage is indifference to handcuffs. There are always opportunities to escape. The strange discovery that makes marriage possible is that one has the liberty not to—the liberty to make the same choice, day after day—and that one happens to want to make a consistent choice. It is a paradox, at least. Will one happen to want to make the same choice forever? Maybe not. Separation and divorce are always possible, in our world, and maybe they give marriage its poignancy. The possibility of separation proves that no two people stay chained to each other unless they want to. It even seems to be the case that people who want to stay chained to each other sometimes can’t manage to. It is at any rate an error to think that marriage is a surrender of liberty. It is an exercise of it.

The second lemma of your joke is less seemly. It is mockery of anyone—in this case, gays—who wants the general social approbation implied by marriage. I suspect that you yourself will find this indigestible if you stop and think about it. Do you really intend to mock homosexuals, who have long been considered and in some circles still are considered pariahs, for wishing to have proof that they are no longer so thought of, at least as a matter of law? Your joke will only seem funny to readers who have taken social approbation for granted for so long that they now see only its conformist aspect and no longer its psychological and social benefits. Yes, yes, society bestows its approval conservatively; do you really think that people who have gone without it for most of their adult lives are unaware of that? You are somewhat in the position, here, of a millionaire who styles himself a radical and makes fun of the lengths that other people will go to in order to become rich. The radical thing would be to share the wealth, or to campaign for a more equitable economic system.

I’m not denying, by the way, that people in a marriage customarily agree to forgo sexual opportunities outside it. I’m saying merely that they agree to because they realize that they want to forgo them. Such a realization cannot happen to a Foucauldian motley of bodies and pleasures. Bodies have no free will; left to their own devices, they say yes to every pleasure they can obtain. Such a realization can only happen to a self, or to something you might even denominate a soul. Selves and souls, you might reply, are fictions, and I agree that they are not a given but are something people make in the course of living. I believe, nonetheless, that they are worth making. Keats called the world a “vale of soul-making,” and on that understanding, a refusal to make a soul is a denial of incarnation—a refusal of one of the world’s highest pleasures and deepest experiences. I am not of course saying that only married people have souls. I am saying that it’s worthwhile to have a soul, in part so as to have the capacity to make a choice like marriage, but mostly because it would be a shame to go through life without ever thinking about what Hopkins would call the sakes of it. This is diving rather deep in order to answer a relatively shallow question, I admit, but this way of arguing about marriage seems to require it.

I dissent from any deprecation of the self, and a fortiori of the soul, in the name of liberating the body. A liberated body is merely an animal, and there are stark limits to the liberty that an animal is capable of. Human liberty goes further—it involves something else—and to exclude that something else from a human life is sort of to miss the whole point, frankly.

What exactly that something else is, in a marriage or in a life, is hard to say without misrepresenting it. Emerson recommends modesty on the subject, and I wonder if your error has been to show such an excessive modesty that in your essay you pretend, as a conceit, that this something else does not even exist. But it does, I believe, even if it is invented.

yours,

Caleb

The personal and the political

Further to the questions I raised last month about the Templeton Foundation, Mark Oppenheimer has written a first-person account of his work there as an editor and gives his assessment of the foundation’s engagement with the issue of institutional bias.

My reply to the Templeton Foundation

[For the background and progress of this controversy, please see my earlier posts "A Big Question about the Templeton Foundation," "Boycott the Templeton Foundation," and "The Templeton Foundation Responds."]

Dear Mr. Rosen,

Thanks again for your considered response. I think I understand your position, and it isn’t ultimately with you that I’m quarreling but with John M. Templeton, Jr. However, to help myself think through matters, I’m going to try to respond to your letter carefully and in some detail. I’m posting this reply on my blog, as well as emailing it to you.

The best place for me to start might be with your description of Mr. Templeton’s gift of $1.1 million to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign, a campaign that succeeded in depriving gays and lesbians in California of the right to civil marriage. You describe it as a “private, strictly personal contribution.” It may have been a personal contribution, but I disagree that it was a private one. It has been reported by the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and its effect was certainly public. It changed California state law. I don’t think the difficulty in distinguishing public from private is incidental. On exactly this question, as it happens, the institution of marriage is famously ambiguous. The lived experience of a marriage is private, so much so that it’s probably inaccessible to any third party. (William Dean Howells: “Married life is as much a mystery to us outsiders as the life to come, almost.”) But a marriage ceremony isn’t valid without witnesses, and the fact of a marriage is public and is subject to the law. It is subject to law in a rather strange way. There are a number of civil and legal benefits associated with marriage today, but for most of its history, marriage has come before the law mostly in the process of its dissolution, either by death or divorce. Legally speaking, marriage isn’t “for” husbands and wives; it’s for children, widows, widowers, and the divorced. Indeed I think that’s one reason it’s taken so long for marriage to seem worth fighting for. When you’re living with your partner in good health, the ratification of marriage hardly seems necessary, except as a way to overcome such inconveniences and petty injustices as having to pay income tax on healthcare granted to you through your partner’s employer. Nonetheless, these inconveniences add up. The New York Times recently published an article listing all the contracts and legal documents that a gay couple need—even if they have a Massachusetts or a California marriage—in order to approximate a straight union. I imagine the eyes of most straight readers crossed, if they even made the attempt to read it. I know mine did. Injustice is often petty; it’s natural to want to look away.

I’ve strayed slightly off topic. My point is that marriage is a public matter that affects, and to some extent structures, an experience that most people think of as extremely private. It does so in large part by defining limits and end-states, but it does so nonetheless. And so when Mr. Templeton gave money to deprive gays and lesbians of marriage, I would argue that he was not only engaging in a public act, involving a change to the laws of California, but also intruding into the privacy of gays and lesbians in California who live in committed relationships. In effect, he walked into their bedrooms, he sat down at their breakfast tables, and he took something from them. It is worth keeping in mind the size of Mr. Templeton’s donation; he is reported to have been the third-largest donor to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign. It is also worth keeping in mind that Mr. Templeton lives in Pennsylvania not California. The size of the donation, the willingness to reach across state lines, the publicity inseparable from law and any advocacy of change to it, the violation of others’ privacy implicit in the denial of marriage to them—all these elements suggest to me that even though Mr. Templeton contributed from his personal funds, and gave the money as an individual, it is fair game for me and others to respond to his contribution as a public matter.

In the comment I submitted to your website, I asked (half in bitter jest, I’m afraid) whether the Templeton Foundation might be willing to pose the question “Is marriage a civil right?” to the next group of thinkers it recruits. You responded: “The answer is no, we wouldn’t, because such questions are not part of our mission, as set out by the late Sir John Templeton.” I’m not persuaded, though, that my suggestion is as outlandish as all that. According to your website,

The mission of the John Templeton Foundation is to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life’s biggest questions. These questions range from explorations into the laws of nature and the universe to questions on the nature of love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity.

Perhaps what you mean is that my proposed question is trivial. If so, then I agree. Is marriage a civil right? Of course it is. But the question in the context of California’s ballot initiative is a rather big one. A better way to phrase it: Should civil marriage be denied to gays and lesbians? Seen in that light, I think the question does fall under your purview. If any marriage can succeed without love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity, I’ll eat the hat I bought yesterday, which is made entirely of synthetic fibers and has very long ear flaps. To judge by the nationwide protests that broke out after Proposition 8 succeeded, whether civilized people may continue to deny to gays and lesbians the benefits of marriage is one of the biggest questions of the hour. Though it isn’t how you describe yourselves, others have characterized the Templeton Foundation as encouraging the intersection of religion and science. Here, too, gay marriage would seem to be pertinent, because science offers no grounds for continuing to deny marriage. Only religion does—and fewer religions every year.

You write that Mr. Templeton “is very careful to separate his own political activities from the work of the Foundation. Like you, he has strong views on Proposition 8, but he does not use the Foundation to promote those views.” I think this is your strongest argument against me. Mr. Templeton is the chair of the foundation; he and it share a name; he and it got their money from the same source. But they are separate entities, and it may be slightly unfair of me to urge a boycott of the foundation because I disapprove of the actions of the man. I am calling for a boycott nonetheless, because if your argument here is valid, and the two are indeed separable, then let the foundation continue without its current chairman. For me to suggest such a separation is meddling, of course, but I feel that Mr. Templeton has meddled, and turnabout is fair play. I also believe the importance of the issue justifies meddling. In 1948 the California Supreme Court struck down that state’s anti-miscegenation laws. If the chairman of a philanthropy were to have contributed that year to an initiative to amend the California constitution so as to restore its anti-miscegenation laws, some might have criticized a boycott of the philanthropy as meddling then, but I think few would so criticize it now, in retrospect. In calling for a boycott, I am arguing that spending more than a million dollars to deny civil marriage to gays and lesbians in another state has become, in the last couple of decades, the sort of act to which public opprobrium naturally attaches. I am arguing, in particular, that opprobrium attaches to it in the community of writers and scholars whose approval the Templeton Foundation pursues.

Finally, I’d like to address the first point in your letter, namely, that you declined to publish my comment out of “ordinary editorial discretion,” because it was off topic. But I don’t see that it is. I’m arguing that public opprobrium attaches today to a donation like Mr. Templeton’s. If I’m right, then any scholar who accepts the largesse of Mr. Templeton’s foundation in the future has some explaining to do. He will have to defend himself from the charge that he’s allowed money to sway his judgment—that he’s agreed to overlook Mr. Templeton’s antagonism to gay rights in exchange for receiving funds from Mr. Templeton’s foundation. I foresee that a certain kind of libertarian will argue that he can both support gay marriage and accept the Templeton Foundation’s money. But I think most liberal and progressive thinkers will appreciate the moral hazard, and my aim in calling for a boycott is to point it out to them.

There is another way of defending my contribution from the accusation that it is off topic, and that is to point out that an intellectual conversation, especially in matters of ethics, should probably be somewhat flexible about its topic. A kind of tact is required. On the one hand, a conversation degenerates into chaos if it has no limits, but on the other hand, it’s dangerous to rule a topic out before there has been a chance to explore it, because you might be missing a chance to discover an unexpected truth. I wouldn’t even raise this point if Mr. Templeton were chairman of a frankly partisan organization. But the Templeton Foundation asserts a belief in open-minded inquiry, and your Big Questions campaign makes much of the candid disagreement among the opinions solicited. You write, regarding Mr. Templeton and Proposition 8, that it should be understandable if “we do not wish to use the Foundation or its website to promote those who disagree with him on this issue.” It is understandable, and even to be expected, but if the Templeton Foundation is committed to open-minded inquiry, it’s wrongheaded. I am an individual. The Templeton Foundation is an institution. When an institution is committed to open-minded inquiry, it does allow individuals to use it to express their dissent, even with—perhaps especially with—the opinions of its leader. It’s not as if I asked the Templeton Foundation to post my dissent on its homepage. I asked to contribute 258 words to an online debate that currently runs to more than 27,000. So I’m calling foul.

All best,
Caleb Crain

The Templeton Foundation responds

A couple of days ago, I submitted a contribution to an online debate being held at the website of the John Templeton Foundation, regarding the foundation chairman’s $1.1 million donation to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign, which has succeeded in depriving gays and lesbians in California of the right to civil marriage. In addition to protesting the gift and wondering whether it was ethical, in light of it, for progressive thinkers to accept the Templeton Foundation’s money, I proposed, somewhat (but not altogether) in jest, that the foundation should take up the question of whether marriage is a civil right. Yesterday I wrote a little more about what I believed was at stake, and suggested that scholars and writers should boycott the Templeton Foundation. I’ve now received an email from Gary Rosen, chief external affairs officer of the John Templeton Foundation, explaining why he declined to publish my contribution. I’m publishing Mr. Rosen’s letter here with his permission.

Dear Mr. Crain,

It was my decision not to publish the comment that you submitted to our website. The website is an open forum for discussion of our current Big Question on the relationship between morals and markets, but your comment was not on that subject. It was about your unhappiness with John M. Templeton, Jr., the chairman of the Foundation, for his private, strictly personal contributions in support of Proposition 8. You are fully entitled to criticize his support of Proposition 8, of course, but we are not under any obligation to publicize your views on our website, which is for other purposes. This is ordinary editorial discretion on our part.

You ask if we might consider, as our next Big Question, “Is marriage a civil right?” The answer is no, we wouldn’t, because such questions are not part of our mission, as set out by the late Sir John Templeton. John M. Templeton, Jr. is a conscientious steward of his father’s legacy and is very careful to separate his own political activities from the work of the Foundation. Like you, he has strong views on Proposition 8, but he does not use the Foundation to promote those views. You will understand, I hope, that we do not wish to use the Foundation or its website to promote those who disagree with him on this issue.

Sincerely,
Gary Rosen

Boycott the Templeton Foundation

More than twenty-four hours have passed since I submitted a comment to the Templeton Foundation’s online debate over the question, “Does the free market corrode moral character?” Though my tone was mildly caustic, my question was very much in earnest: Is the Templeton Foundation itself corroding moral character by renting the glamour and prestige of public intellectuals, in light of the $1.1 million given by the foundation’s chairman, John Templeton, Jr., to the recent successful campaign in California to take away from gays and lesbians the right to marry? The Templeton’s website warns “Comments will be edited for clarity and length.” It says nothing about censorship. However, as of Saturday morning, my comment, submitted on Thursday, hasn’t been posted, though several comments posted on Friday by others have been.

This suggests to me that the Templeton Foundation’s pretensions to belief in the free exchange of ideas are fraudulent. And John Templeton, Jr.’s support of the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign suggests to me that the foundation he runs is willing to blur the line between church and state in order to deprive a minority of the civil right of marriage. Until the Templeton Foundation addresses the issue of its chairman’s antagonism to gay civil rights, either by dismissing him or by issuing an apology, backed by equivalent funding to a group advocating gay civil marriage, I strongly discourage writers and intellectuals who believe in the free exchange of ideas, the separation of church and state, gay rights, or the protection of the civil rights of minorities from working with or accepting money from the Templeton Foundation.

A number of intellectuals and writers have already accepted money from Templeton, an organization that lobbies for the idea that science and religion can mix. Upon receiving an invitation to write an essay for Templeton for a fee, some of the liberal intellectuals among them may have had qualms, but they were promised editorial freedom, and they seem to have gotten it. (The essays were subsequently turned into ads for Templeton, which were published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic, and elsewhere.) The trouble is not in the words that the intellectuals wrote for Templeton, but in those words’ illocutionary effect, to borrow a term from linguistics. Even if their words contradict the stated or implicit goals of the Templeton Foundation in their essays, their willingness to collaborate signals that they consider the Templeton Foundation a decent enough member of the intellectual community to do business with. Many of the intellectuals are celebrated figures, who are no doubt asked to write many more essays and make many more statements than they can afford to, if they are to continue your more serious labors. Their consent therefore also signals that the Templeton Foundation is worth a pause in their labors. By consenting to write for Templeton, they loan the foundation some of their glamour and prestige.

John Templeton, Jr.’s support for Proposition 8 was only reported recently, and there’s no way that the intellectuals who wrote for it previously could have known about it. They get a pass, in my opinion (though if I were one of them, I would feel obliged to speak out about Templeton’s attack on gay marriage, to prove that when Templeton bought my words he didn’t also buy my silence). But it’s in the public record now, and I don’t think that intellectuals who think of themselves as liberal or progressive should collaborate with the group in the future, unless it corrects its course. Such a boycott would apply considerable pressure to the Templeton Foundation, whose gifts and prizes seem designed to collect intellectual prestige on behalf of its campaign to fuse scientific and religious issues. The sooner that John Templeton, Jr., is forced to recognize that his bigotry threatens to undermine his late father’s legacy, the better.

A big question about the Templeton Foundation

Suppose I live in a country that has long denied me a basic civil right, but recently, for a brief interval, that civil right became available to me. Suppose, too, that one cause of my losing this civil right was a gift from the chairman of a large philanthropic organization. Might it be possible to argue that the philianthropist's money has corroded the moral character of the country that I live in? If a philanthropist guilty of such an act of political oppression bought intellectual credibility by paying a number of professors and writers to hold a series of lofty debates, might he be said to have corroded their characters as well? As it happens, John Templeton, Jr., chairman of the Templeton Foundation, was the third-largest donor to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign in California, which in November took away from California's gays and lesbians the right to marry. I'd be curious to know how you folks at the Templeton Foundation reconcile the high rhetoric displayed here with the rather low and brutal practice of taking a civil right away from a minority group. And I'd also be curious how the public intellectuals that you paid to join you in this high rhetoric feel about their relationship to you now. Hey, it could be the topic of your next series: 'Is marriage a civil right?' And you could give snappy headlines to the answers, as you seem to like to do: 'Not in America.' 'Yes, for straight people.' 'Only in months that don't contain the letter R.'

That's my pro bono contribution to an online debate over the question "Does the free market corrode moral character?" being held at the website of the John Templeton Foundation, whose chairman John Templeton Jr. contributed more than $1 million to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign. You can add your two cents as well. (The ostensible longterm goal of the Templeton Foundation, by the way, is to persuade the public that religion and science have something to do with each other, which in my opinion they do not.) (And no, I don't live in California. That part is hypothetical.)