Life Among the Lowly

September 20, 2011

Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe is one of those tremendously important novels that I never wanted to read.  Yes, Lincoln greeted Stowe with the remark, “Here is the little lady who made this great war,” and it incited the howling protest of the south (as well as scores of ‘rebuttals’), but I expected a melodramatic and not very satisfying literary experience.  I was wrong.  The book is suspenseful, direct, and extremely powerful.  As an American, that is a person who lives with the political and social legacy of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow all around me, it is at times, a harrowing read.

In American English, an Uncle Tom is a black man who is compliant and subservient to his masters, often in an obsequious and fawning manner – that’s the cliché.  The character of Tom in the novel, however, is not like this at all.  In the introduction to my edition, and this NYTimes piece on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the book, the writers account for this contradiction by pointing out that the novel, which was incredibly popular, was immediately copied, parodied, adapted to the stage, and eventually found its way into, of all things, Minstrel Shows.  Along the way, a novelistic broadside against racism and slavery became a comedic entertainment perpetuating racist stereotypes.  Such is the wending path of culture.

The book is sentimental at times, particularly in two areas:  the description of the slaves; and the treatment of religion.  Stowe portrays the slaves almost always a fine souls, at the worst, a little ridiculous:  not genuine people who will be good, bad, or indifferent.  They are filled with noble sentiments, and their faults are only the product of their degraded state in life.  They are described often as having the positive attributes of childhood:  sincerity, directness, empathy.  Whether this was Stowe’s actual view or a means to make her characters more attractive to her readers I do not know. As the editor remarks in the introduction, this sentimentality has a radical element in that directing such feelings toward African slaves involved contradicting their status as chattel, often regarded as members of a non-human or sub-human species. 

The treatment of religion, especially in the depiction of the death of the little angel, Eva, is a fine example of Victorian religious sentimentality, and might bring to mind Oscar Wilde’s quip about Dickens:  One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.   But it is sincere nevertheless:  Stowe was serious in her belief that adherence to Christian teaching would make the institution of slavery impossible.

Abolitionists, of which Stowe was one, sometimes criticized Uncle Tom for being too light in its criticism of slavery.  This may have to do with the fact that the slaves are, for the most part, house servants and higher level members of the plantation staff, and have relatively good masters.  Perhaps Stowe felt she could not write convincingly of the thoughts and feelings of workers spending their days toiling in sugar cane and the like, and in this, she followed an important writers’ guideline:  write what you know.  By focusing on the hardships of slaves under benign masters, who nevertheless face servitude and the potential breakup of their families, she opens, but leaves unanswered the question, how much worse would it be for those with hard masters?  The slaves live in fear of “being sold down the river,” (I never knew the origin of that phrase!)  i.e. shipped off to plantations further south where the hard labor kills them off quickly.  Then she brings that about for Tom, who is sold to the vile Simon Legree.

Stowe is not the least sentimental when she skewers the hypocrisy, intellectual, theological, and political, that surrounds the peculiar institution.  A lengthy section in which Tom is owned by Augustine, a jaded and refined member of the plantation élite, provides a stage to walk on and dismantle all sorts of notions that were argued about slavery in the pre-Civil War days.  Augustine knows all the arguments, and dismisses them all as humbug.  He knows it’s wrong, and that slavery is based on nothing but might and self-interest, but he does nothing about it – does not free his slaves – because he claims to be lazy and indifferent, but he is kind and thoughtful to his human property.  His cynicism masks the corruption and despair of a soul polluted by the institution that makes his leisured affluence possible.  His wife, a clear ancestor of Tennessee Williams’ neurotic belle, Blanche Dubois, spends her days in bed with headaches and complaints, and has nothing but contempt for her servants.  Augustine is also an atheist, which Stowe sees as the cause of his moral inertia, but with the death of his daughter, he is shaken loose of his torpor, but too late.

Augustine, a typical Victorian ideal figure – he has a Grecian profile, alabaster skin, golden curls, and a noble temperament – may represent the class of people Stowe was trying to influence.  Certainly the grim and vulgar Simon Legree is a species of the white trash, in the North and South, with whom she would not bother.  Ophelia, Augustine’s Yankee cousin who comes to stay with him, represents a properly religious northerner.  Although she is abolitionist to the core, she is stung when Augustine truthfully points out to her that she is disgusted by the Africans in her midst.  As always, the southerners claim that you northerners don’t know how to treat our negroes.  Ophelia, in touch with her Christian faith, changes however, and repents of her moral error.

Very often, Stowe points out with brutal clarity how what would be considered immoral and intolerable among whites is considered perfectly normal for whites to inflict on the slaves:  breaking up families and selling them off like horses at auction, for example.  In one stunning passage, she explicitly compares an escaped slave, George, who holds off his pursuers with a rifle, to Hungarian freedom fighters opposing Austrian oppression, a cause supported by many Americans.  What is the difference, she asks, other than color?  So much for sentimentality.

In many passages of the novel, Stowe references the sexual degradation that awaits pretty girls sold to less than humane masters, something which brought to my mind the statue The Greek Slave Girl by Hiram Powers, one of the most popular pieces of art in the 19th century.  Copies were made and widely distributed, and crowds lined up to see it.  The press did not often make the connection between Greeks sold into slavery by Turks and American enslavement of Africans, but some people did.  Moreover, literary accounts of ‘white’ girls, i.e. women who were legally black although of very light skin and hair, and were sold as slaves, were sometimes a sensation:  perhaps a truly white girl could, by mistake, find herself enslaved?  The knot of social/sexual issues surrounding all this is so huge, how can one hope to cut through it?  It is just this sort of mental/moral frisson, if not outrage, that Stowe calculated on producing in her readers.  Her armory was large:  if expositions of intellectual hypocrisy don’t convince try religion; If appeals to religious truth and values doesn’t work, try sex and violence; If that doesn’t work, try the sentimental.  They all lead to the same place – abolitionism.

I’m nearly through with the book, and I still don’t know why it’s called Uncle Tom’s Cabin…


Mentalités: Old and New

September 9, 2011

A relief in the apse of Narbonne Cathedral showing the mouth of Hell filled with damned souls.  To the right, a donkey pulls a cart with more unfortunates destined for the same.  The Virgin surmounts it all.

A storefront on a small street in Narbonne.  Not quite sure what the missing link between shopping and Darwin is, but clearly our view of mankind and its needs and ends has changed a bit.


Ontological Fallacy

June 28, 2011

I am reading this little book that gives a history of the arguments for the existence of God that have been advanced by theologians and philosophers in Europe.  Naturally, Anselm’s proof, known as the Ontological Proof, is given pride of place.  Wikipedia summarizes it thus:

1) Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing.
2) I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence is contained in the idea of God.
3) Therefore, God exists.

Never seemed convincing to me, and a surprising number of churchmen, including Thomas Aquinas, were not swayed by it.  On the other hand, the great atheist, Bertrand Russell,  during his early Hegelian phase, said: “Great God in Boots! — the ontological argument is sound!”   “God in boots?”  Doesn’t say much for Hegelianism.  The ‘proof’ lingers on, and I hear it thrown about by theistic journalists now and then.

I deal with it this way:  I can get no clear and distinct idea of what God is supposed to be.  It is a fuzzy, flexible, and profoundly unnecessary concept.  (That is, it explains nothing.) Q.E.D. God’s existence is not proven.

I cannot prove that God does not exist, but why trouble oneself with that?  I cannot prove the tooth fairy doesn’t exist.  A concept that makes no sense and cannot be proven is best discarded.


Douthat in Hell

April 25, 2011

Oh Ross, you devil, you!

In today’s New York Times, Ross Douthat makes ‘a case for Hell.’  This is what we are offered as the intellectual ballast of the ‘conservative’ political movement today:  a shallow exercise in theology.

One sentence in his screed stood out for me, emphasis added:

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”

Using GoogleBooks, I read through the introduction that Douthat cites:  some pages were left out.  Maybe they were the ones where Esolen makes this rather astounding argument about a poem that is often considered a literary summa of the medieval world-view, but I doubt it.  More likely, Douthat is not interested in what the terms Christian, Humanist, and Medieval actually mean, at least in literary terms.

The list of attributes he gives above are not normally associated with humanism, even in the simple version I recall from grade school textbooks, i.e:  man the measure of all things;  skepticism; finding truth with reason; lack of dogma; joy in daily experience, etc.  They are  associated with the medieval, Christian-allegorical way of seeing the world.  But for Ross, that is the only way, I suppose.

Douthat is the clever catechist:  He concludes by asking

Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?

If he had read The Inferno, he would know that Gandhi is certainly in hell, down on the First Circle, with all the righteous gentiles and unbaptized infants who died too soon.  They just sigh a lot – no torture – lamenting their missed chance at salvation.  All those intelligent B.C.E. philosphers are there too!  As for Tony Soprano, if there is no hell, there is no heaven.  I doubt any theologian really thinks what Douthat claims they think.

  

It would seem that the entire intellectual concept is rife with contradictions…


War, Noir, Atheism

October 2, 2010

On the beach

In earlier posts, I have commented on the connection of film noir and the experiences of millions of men during WWII.  I thought of this yet again after reading this human interest story in the NYTimes about two men who both landed at Normandy on D-Day and happened to be next to each other in a hospital ward in NYC awaiting open heart surgery.  Naturally, they formed a bond quickly.

Before the surgery, the doctor told one of them not to be afraid.  The patient, who is 90, scoffed.  He said, ‘There’s nothing you can do that I can’t get through — I’ve been through Normandy.”  There’s a man who has built his life on bedrock.  Later on, he remarked, “After getting out of World War II, I’m not afraid of nothing and I’m not impressed by nothing.

The two men profiled worked in retail and construction.  Another war story I have read comes from Victor Brombert, who taught 19th century French literature at Princeton for many years.  (He is a noted expert on Flaubert and Stendhal).  He came from a family of secular, unreligious,  prosperous, bourgeois, French Jews who had the sense to leave before Hitler could rout them out and gas them.  After attending school in the USA, Brombert enlisted in the army and found himself on the beach at Normandy on D-Day.

The saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes.  I’ve never heard much evidence for this – to me it sounds like wishful thinking on the part of advocates of religion.  I have read stories similar to Brombert’s.

He relates that he was scared beyond belief, scared senseless.  He was trying his best to make his body as small as possible, clawing the ground so hard that his fingernails were in agony as he forced sand under them.  He was deafened and stupefied with terror at the sound and concussions of the shellfire around him.  At that moment, he came as close to prayer as he ever came in his life.  He promised himself that if he survived, he would never complain about anything again.

Not exactly a prayer to God, but not a bad way of life, either.


Atheism on the sly

March 31, 2010

It’s 1715, and Louis XIV, The Sun King is near to setting.  The Duke de Saint-Simon is concerned about the state of the realm after the great king, whom he detests, has passed from the scene.  The Dauphin (the direct heir to the throne) is dead, and the most appropriate successor is only three years old:  There must be a regency while he grows up to his majority.

The Regent will, of course, be the Duke D’Orleans, the son of Louis’ brother, Philipe d’Orleans, who was simply known as Monsieur.  (He was, I believe, a homosexual, something that was tolerated in the Court for a variety of nefarious reasons. )   The Regent, an intelligent man with many good qualities, is also a bit of wag, and takes pleasure at thumbing his nose at convention.  During a long church service with much music, he was seen to be assiduously following along in a prayer book.  When congratulated afterwards by an old family retainer, he responded with a laugh, “You are a great ninny!  I was reading Rabelais – and he showed the book’s cover.”  Saint-Simon comments that this was all for show since he was quite happy to attend the mass, Rabelais or no,  being a great lover of good music.

D’Orleans was a freethinker, however, and this could cause difficulties.  Here Saint-Simon counsels the future Regent on how to discreetly maintain his atheism, if atheist he must be:

Most damaging of all, I continued, would be to proclaim his godlessness or anything approaching atheism:  for it would make enemies of all religious bodies and at the same time antagonize every decent person who cared for morality, sobriety, and religion.  He would then find turning against himself that licentious maxim which he was so fond of quoting – namely that religion is a bogy which clever men have invented in order to govern and which is therefore necessary for Kings and republics.  If for that reason only, he might think it in his best interests to respect the Church and not bring it into disrepute.  I dwelt long on this important subject, adding that he need not be a hypocrite, only avoid plain speaking, observe the conventions (which was not hard if one confined oneself to appearances), refuse to countenance improper jests or remarks, and generally live like an honest gentleman who respects his country’s faith and conceals the fact that he, personally, sets no store by it.


My man, Dan

August 26, 2009

Not-blind watchmaker

The latest pseudo-intellectual sally to save the “God hypothesis” published on the NYTimes OpEd page brought forth some good responses from letter writers.  Among them, was this pithy observation:

…While personal revelation is an excellent way to know whom we love, it is an abysmal way to seek knowledge about the universe. It becomes an excuse to believe what one wishes to believe.

Paul L. LaClair   Kearny, N.J., Aug. 23, 2009

My hat’s off to Dan Dennett for his great response, quoted in full here (my emphasis):

To the Editor:

Robert Wright notes that the speculations he outlines on how a moral sense could evolve are “compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation.” Indeed, these speculations — actually rigorous abstract arguments — have been developed by evolutionary theorists who, like Mr. Wright, see our moral intuitions as real phenomena in need of an explanation.

But the point of these arguments is to demonstrate that there can be a traversable path, an evolutionary process, from, say, bacteria, to us (with our moral intuitions) that doesn’t at any point require that the evolutionary process itself have a purpose. In other words, their implication is that our moral sense would evolve even if there weren’t a creative intelligence in the background.

So the compatibility that Mr. Wright finds is trivial.

Go ahead and believe in God, if you like, but don’t imagine that you have been given any grounds for such a belief by science.

Daniel Dennett     Medford, Mass., Aug. 23, 2009

Dennett is the author of Consciousness Explained, one of the best books I have ever read on the mind-body problem.  I am tickled to see that the Wiki article cites T. Nagel’s criticisms of the book in its summary – one of my favorite parts of Dan’s book is his dissection of Nagel’s famous article, “What is it Like to Be a Bat?”