Monday, February 01, 2010

Avoiding Eye Contact

Is it all right to openly express emotion? Think about it for a bit before giving your answer. Does it matter if the emotion is anger?

For the last several days I've been part of a flurry of email from a grass roots effort to start a group reading of James Joyce's Dubliners, entitled MotleyRead. Barbara was one of the folks doing the inviting and I knew some others being copied on the emails. So I agreed. Yesterday, I read the introduction by Brenda Maddox from the Bantam Classics version and the first story, Sisters. Maddox tells us that Joyce was angry, very angry. He was angry at the Irish, for the personal harm he had suffered, because all the real talent of prior generations had emigrated elsewhere, and those who remained seemed stuck in the mire. Yet I didn't see anger in Sisters. That could be me as a reader. Joyce is notoriously hard to decipher according to Maddox, though Dubliners is his most accessible work. I come at this with no schooling whatsoever. So my take away may very well be off the mark.

Sisters seems to be a child's perspective on the empty lives of adults, two sisters whose brother has passed on, he a Priest with some unspecified, perhaps illicit behaviors, and one explicit habit that personally I found revolting; he consumed snuff. (I've got an older friend who now seems to be withering away who used to consume chewing tobacco, absolutely dreadful.) The sisters appear to have no life of their own. But Joyce doesn't seem to be angry at them. It's more that he feels sorry for them.

Yet anger remains on my mind. While I was starting on Dubliners I was finishing How Markets Fail, by John Cassidy (economics reporter for the New Yorker). I saw Cassidy and Andrew Ross Sorkin on the News Hour during the Winter Holiday, which is how I became aware of the book. There has also been a flurry of activity on a variety of econ blogs talking about a piece Cassidy had in the New Yorker from mid January on the Decline of the Chicago School. So I was intrigued. Indeed the first third of the book is a decent intellectual history of classical and neo-classical economics a la the Chicago School. The middle part of the book is an equally decent treatment of the rather traditional economics of market failure, along with the critique of homo economicus by Kahneman and Tversky. None of this is particularly upsetting nor new ground, at least for me.

The last third of the book, which chronicles the history of the recent financial crisis from the perspective of the myriad players, is a different story. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and I'm still quite angry about it. The train wreck that is the financial crisis is about to happen yet it is full steam ahead with no application of the brakes till it is far too late. Principal culprit in this tragedy is Alan Greenspan, former Chairmen of the Federal Reserve, who gets spanked by Cassidy on two counts. He kept interest rates too low for far too long, well after the economy had recovered from the original bubble and perhaps the Fed was responsible for that earlier bubble too. More importantly, Greenspan over extended the teachings of Adam Smith, who warned that financial markets were unlike other markets and prone to instability without adequate regulation, the Invisible Hand be damned. Greenspan argued that these market were self-regulating, in a manner far more effective than anything governments might do. He therefore ignored much evidence of a situation spiraling out of control.

Greenspan as the overlord of of the entire mess is first in line for blame. But there is plenty to pass around. The CEOs of the various big banks and financial houses get their share, though Cassidy takes pains to explain the "Prisoner's Dilemma" they were operating under and that they almost had to go into high risk-high yield real estate securities or be accused of seriously under performing the market relative to their competitor financial houses. I buy this argument not very much. A better argument for me is that even people at the top didn't appreciate the risk their companies were taking on. Either way, through a combination of myopia, hubris, enormous greed (the incomes these people made is truly infuriating) and a prior of riding the bubble these people let their "too big to fail" institutions march to the brink. And then there are the other players, the issuers of the deceptive and predatory loans who cared about their origination fees but nothing else, and the borrowers with the bad credit histories with eyes bigger than their stomachs, taking out mortgages on homes they knew they couldn't afford. Surely, the financial crisis is our current day Sodom and Gomorrah.

As we are all aware, with the unemployment rate hovering around 10% and state government budgets shriveling into nothingness, the damage caused by the defaults on loans in the housing market have created cycle after cycle of destruction elsewhere in the economy. My Campus is feeling it bad now. So we have to shrink, in staff if not in students, perhaps damaging the essential character of the place in way that may be very hard to remedy. And some of of the current problem is because leadership on this campus, as elsewhere, suffered from the same bubble mindset that prevailed in the financial markets. So we lived beyond our means even before the dam burst. People feel smarter than they actually are when they feel they can print money. Witnessing that, how can one not feel aggrieved?

Feeling angry, I look for soothing alternatives. I had recorded Mozart and the Whale on a lark, watched a bit of that and then put it aside. So I turned it back on after finishing Cassidy and watched the rest. It is a love story about two people who have Asperger's Syndrome, a subject close to me because one of my children probably has it, and perhaps I have it too. The male lead struggles with eye contact, something I had problems with, particularly as an adolescent. There is a poignant scene where he tells the girl its awkward and he doesn't know what to say, a heroic trumpeting that breaks your heart. For me the problem, with authority or with girls or with somebody I didn't know, is that I would know what to say if I were off on my own and without the pressure of the moment. Then I might say it very well. But it took a lot of nerve to stay in the moment, so often I didn't or I flubbed it.

The movie starts to charm you and opens up seeming possibility that you wouldn't think is there. Then there is self-destruction. The culprit is anger. Overt expressions thereof become a deluge in Shangri-la. What is beautiful comes to an end. This is the reason to keep anger concealed. It wrecks, everything. Some things we may think are already a wreck, but if we look closer there is possibility. Knowing we may not have looked hard at first, we should be loath to destroy what might bud and flower.

Maddox tells us that Joyce while expatriate becomes homesick for Ireland and the friendliness of the people. The exasperation he felt as a young artist vanishes as a more mature yet somewhat broken adult, to be replaced by nostalgia and a warm glow.

We, who are clumsy in expression may then think twice about saying anything at all, let alone doing it with a righteous tone. I have not figured out why, if the task is to discuss Dubliners, there has been little or nothing posted so far on the substance of what Joyce wrote but instead the whole chazzerei on how the group should communicate via snail mail and how to obtain the book in its various forms. Yet the others likely have more people intelligence than I and may also have more personal attachment to these stories. So let the fun begin, even while I repress some sharpness of tongue and peer at the group effort though remaining in the periphery.


Barbara said...

Ha! You manage to weave in your beloved econ into a post about James Joyce and his story "The Sisters." And a movie about anger and about Asperger's..quite a post, Lanny.

As for Joyce and anger and critics/scholars's views and expertise, well, I put all that aside when I read a story and try to feel it, story-to-reader. Then I come back to some of the context of the writer's life and times. For this exploration, I am trying to pull the language close and not think too too much about what it all might mean.

I agree with you about it being about a story about a boy coming into contact with the emptiness of adult lives. It feels to me, too, that he's a boy of real promise and imagination, and they are all stuck, paralyzed, lacking depth. It says a lot to me, too, about priests (having grown up Irish Catholic and all) and religion and spirituality. I think the final two sentences of the opening paragraph set the tone, the contrast between his reaching for more and his fear that this is all there is for adults. I love how the story just drifts off at the end.

Have you read it aloud? I found the rhythms, the sounds, the cadences pulled me to the boy and his predicament but also to his control over the story--there's hope for him/there's no hope for him/there's hope for him/there's none. I'm thinking of responding to this story a bit more in other ways...

As for our reading, my my but you are impatient--we're only just starting things today. It's a February group reading, so I'm sure most people are just cracking open their books.


Chris Lott said...

Lanny-- there might be some confusion, but the reading didn't actually start until today! It stands to reason that most of the talk has been the chatter of people meeting-- some for the first time-- and figuring out our personal approach to what's very purposefully an only vaguely-defined effort!

More later...


Lanny Arvan said...

Chris - Let me apologize. You were perfectly clear about when this activity starts. I used my twisted logic - I only read this sort of thing on weekends, I had some time this weekend but who knows what will be in store in the coming weeks, everyone is probably in the same boat I'm in - and then I did something I don't usually do in my posts and got inside my own analysis, a little role play about what a stressed out person with Asperger's is like. None of that was intended for anyone involved in this activity. The stress is real enough, with what is happening on my Campus and nationally, and letting it get the better of us is probably real enough too, but it was too much and I'm sorry for that.

Barbara - I will try reading this aloud. It hadn't occurred to me to do that. The impatience is there when there is nothing else to replace it. It is why I need to be around other people who have interesting things to say, but why oftentimes I prefer to be alone, if that makes sense.

I don't know if Econ is beloved at this point. I used to live in my models in my head and I suppose love the theory for that reason. But I didn't feel compelled to bring the theory into accord with reality then and now that seems more important to me. So much of the theory has to be scrapped or applied in a piecemeal basis, where explaining what is going on is much more situational and not so easily represented as the consequence of some general result. I suppose that is why I'm now more interested in story telling.

Chris Lott said...

No worries from my end! If anything, I admire that you embedded your thoughts in a larger picture. I just wanted to note that we weren't all just frittering our time away talking about talking about it :)

Anyway, re: Joyce's anger. I'm no Joyce scholar-- I know little about his life-- but anger isn't among the first adjectives that comes to my mind based on my reading. Except, perhaps, when it comes to the Catholic church. Did Maddox mention anything about that?

I wonder because if that's true, then the symbolic value of the dead priest in "The Sisters" is obviously heightened. Even if he wasn't up to anything sinister or tawdry, he's a bit grotesque with his cavernous, snuff-filled nostrils and blackened teeth and maniacal, solitary laughter... if that's the Catholic church, then perhaps there is some anger there!

Chris Lott said...

Let me add that I mean anger on Joyce's part when I say it's not the first thing I think of. There's some very overt anger in Ulysses and, from what I remember, Portrait!

Alan said...

Interesting, I would have never pulled a theme of "anger" from The Sisters unless some Bit Literary Person told me, and at that, I am baffled too.

The boy seems to have some mild anger, or maybe annoyance, that his companion is no longer there, or maybe grappling with that he is not feeling the feelings you are supposed to do at funerals (the desire to see the corpse smile?).

I see him as wanting to remember Flynn as he lived, while the sisters are focused on him as dead.

Lanny Arvan said...

Let me try to give a different spin. When I started here (1980) one of my colleagues was the daughter of the Ambassador from Belgium. She was very worldly and would occasionally making condescending remarks (I believe justified) to the effect that many of the students on Campus were provincial and couldn't see beyond their own experience. At the time upward of 94% of the undergraduates were from the state of Illinois and many of those were from the suburbs of Chicago. The bulk of them didn't see coming here as a transcendent experience, but rather a confirmation of what they already knew and were comfortable with.

One can be angry about that, so much potential is wasted by the complacency and it can create substantial negative impact for those who feel trapped, or simply treat it as a fact, that's the way things are, and not attach emotion to it. Based on what Maddox wrote, my sense is that Joyce was the first in actuality but more the second with the writing. Also, it is probably necessary to focus on the particular time in Joyce's life. Here I mean during the writing of Dubliners. He had enormous problems getting the work published, and that likely was a source of a different sort of frustration.

I will have to re-read Maddox on the Church themes. I know he stopped practicing his Catholicism. If I learn something further on this score I will post about it.

Chris Lott said...

I could swear I posted a comment on this yesterday, but perhaps I was hallucinating.

At any rate, the salient point was that-- if Father Flynn represents the church-- one might see a bit of anger toward the church in *that*

Lanny Arvan said...

This is guesswork, but it seems reasonable to me. I wouldn't deny any of the symbolism but I take these stories to be very personal and hence there is a lot of autobiography in them. The symbolic themes would then emerge from the the personal experience, rather than stand apart from them in an abstract way.

The second story makes clear in a way the first story doesn't that Joyce was a bookish kid and aware of that - he never won at playing Indians. If he had been sexually assaulted as a kid that would explain an awful lot. And if he had been placed in many ambiguous situations where his "manhood" was on the line, that too would explain a lot.

The anger then would stem from that. As I tried to indicate in the post with the reading on An Encounter, I know from my own experience that much of that anger is not directed at the perpetrators but rather at the institutions that would seem to be in a position to offer protection, but didn't. It is also a way to offset self-loathing, which must have been a factor for Joyce too, simply from the bookishness, though it doesn't come out in the stories, at least not directly.

If this is mainly right, even if a little wrong, then the symbolic interpretation would generalize the experience.

Chris Lott said...

Bringing in the biography (or the supposed biography if one doesn't have other evidence) is dicey. I wish I could remember what interview I was reading recently in which the author-- known himself for being very "bookish" and writing stories populated with outcasts, nerds, misfits, etcc-- turned out to have been a star athlete in school, first picked for teams, etc.

Perhaps in reading more than I have (it sounds like) about Joyce you have a better grasp on that aspect than I do!

I assume a lot of autobiography as well... for reasons lost in forgotten studies in college. I'm just not sure which parts of any particular work can be accurately understood through that lens. But then I'm a bastard child of the new criticism (don't consider the author's biography at all) and postmodern lit studies (the author is dead)... so I don't know much :)

Lanny Arvan said...

I have zero professional expertise to bring to this endeavor. I was a math major as an undergrad and took no English courses whatsoever. The Econ grad school, which was even narrower.

I can understand the warning about using autobiographical info and making inferences about tis (or from the writing to the autobiography). Taking abstract algebra as an undergrad I can recall being told by an upperclassman to not rely on my geometric intuition, as that could be insufficiently general.

But I like my geometric intuition and in general I believe we should be promoting use of intuition - even if it leads us horribly astray on occasion. (I do think we have to verify afterward and that is important but guessing first to find out what to verify seems to me important too.)

Since I'm such an amateur at this, the only tools I can bring here is to see if I've had parallel experience and reflect on that. Clearly that can be hit or miss. But what else is there.

Also, for the record, I do tend to express strong opinions on things I know next to nothing about ---- part of my training as an economist. I will modify the opinion accordingly when a better argument emerges.

I've got a very long biography of Joyce at home that I've never touched. Maybe now is the tiem.

Chris Lott said...

I don't know that there are any experts who have cornered the market in the area of how/when to bring in an author's life when considering their work!

Nor am I proposing to temper intuition at all. I'm just speaking for myself and my reading (and lack of knowledge of Joyce's life).

On the subject of geometric intuition-- what do you think about Joyce's claimed theory of composing Dubliners as a kind of gnomon? I'll be musing about that in the post I put up tonight w/r/t erasure and the geometric figure...

Lanny Arvan said...

Did you post that gnomon theory somewhere? I looked for it but didn't see it. I'm under the impression that the stories are sorted by different phases of his maturation. Not sure if this is the same thing or not, but if so it's just a chronology then.

Chris Lott said...

All I know is the reference in Wikipedia at : and then, of course, the geometric reference that I'm sure you know!

The rest is just me riffing :)