June 29, 2011
David McCullough just published a book on Americans in Paris between 1830 and 1900; it’s called The Greater Journey. Brian Lamb interviewed him for two hours. It was a great interview, a meeting of an interesting historian, an interesting subject, and a master of the interview. Should we view the interview itself as a work of art — perhaps as valuable as the book? Should we view the interview as a cultural form that our era has invented? Or should we view it as the oldest, most basic form of culture — a conversation between two people? As long as we have such books, such authors, such interviews, it can’t be said that the U.S. doesn’t have a culture.
I knew that McCullough was a popular historian, but I didn’t realize that he’s an impressive intellectual. He has a range of interests, a variety of enthusiasms; for example, he says “I love architecture.” McCullough appreciates style, and marvels at how well 19th-century Americans could write, though many had little formal education.
McCullough shares my cultural hedonism, my feeling that literature and art should be enjoyable. This is characteristic of the layman, as opposed to the professional scholar. “To me history ought to be a source of pleasure,” McCullough says. “It isn’t just part of our civic responsibility. To me it’s an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is.”1 McCullough isn’t an academic, and he didn’t major in history; he majored in English at Yale, and he thought of writing novels or plays.
His work strikes a chord with laymen; his study of John Adams is “One of the fastest-selling non-fiction books in history.” For McCullough, history isn’t just a pleasure to study, it’s a pleasure to write; he says he enjoyed writing all of his books, but his Paris book most of all. I was reminded of Ruskin, who said that the first question to ask about a work of art is, “Was it a pleasure for the creator, did he put his heart into it, or was it just a task?”
McCullough tries to write about subjects that he finds interesting, that he would want to read about — if a good book existed on that subject. I was reminded of Salinger’s advice to writers:
McCullough says that any of the chapters in his Paris book could have been expanded into an entire book — such as the experience of Americans studying medicine in Paris, how they struggled with the language barrier, with cholera epidemics, with the civil unrest known as The Paris Commune, with the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, etc. He says he could have written an entire book about Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whom he calls the best American sculptor of the 19th century. He quotes Saint-Gaudens on the profession of sculpture:
And when the sculpture is set up in a park, how many people give it a glance as they pass by?
McCullough writes with the same manual typewriter that he used when he wrote his first book in the 1960s. In addition to his Paris book and his John Adams book, McCullough has written about the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, Truman, the young Teddy Roosevelt, etc. He also published a volume of essays called Brave Companions.
His son, David McCullough, Jr., is an English teacher at Wellesley High School, and in 2012 he delivered a commencement speech that has become a classic. The son is certainly a credit to the father.
McCullough concludes his Paris book with a passage about the American painter Mary Cassatt, who went to Paris in 1866 at age 22, and died there 60 years later:
I also saw Brian Lamb’s interview with Mike Daisey. Daisey is a one-man performer, a monologist. Daisey comes from northern Maine, and attended Colby College. He’s somewhat vulgar, a bit like Rush Limbaugh, though not as political or as conservative. He’s now touring with a monologue about Steve Jobs and Apple Computer (Daisey himself is interested in technology, and uses Apple products).
Daisey wanted to know where his iPhone was made. He found that it was made by Foxconn, a huge, Taiwanese-owned company whose biggest factory is in Shenzhen, in southern China, not far from Hong Kong. The factory stretches as far as the eye can see, and employs some 375,000 people. Foxconn not only makes many Apple products, they also manufacture for Microsoft, Dell, and other big companies.
Daisey spoke to workers as they were leaving the factory. He says that Foxconn employs children, and he describes speaking to a 13-year-old worker whose job was to clean iPhone screens. Daisey describes Foxconn as a “brutal” company; fourteen Foxconn workers committed suicide in 2010, several by jumping off the roof of the factory. Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple and still a major stockholder, heard Daisey’s monologue and was reduced to tears. Later he lunched with Daisey, and vowed to try to improve conditions for workers.
Daisey is planning to do a 24-hour monologue. He says he hopes that people who come to hear it will stay longer than they planned to.
Update March, 2012: Questions have been raised about the accuracy of Daisey’s Foxconn stories.
A. Has anyone written a history of cycling, or made a documentary about it? Since bikes are simpler than cars, they were invented first. Before cars came along, bikes ruled the road, the world was your bike-path. This was the golden age of cycling. The young D. H. Lawrence took long rides in the country, the elder Tolstoy rode around his estate, T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) added gears to his bike, so he could zip around France (he was studying Muslim influence on Western architecture), the Wright brothers worked as bike mechanics while tinkering with the first airplane.
B. Bin Laden’s youngest wife was wounded in the raid that killed bin Laden. She’s now 29; she married bin Laden in 1999, when she was 17. Her name is Amal al-Sada, and she’s from Yemen. Even before she was married, “Amal al-Sada always told her friends and family that she wanted to ‘go down in history.’” When she was given the option of marrying bin Laden, she said, “This is destiny from God, and I accept it.”2 Did her desire for a role in history prompt her marriage to bin Laden? Or did she anticipate her role in history, through a kind of foreknowledge, and did this anticipation prompt her to say she would go down in history?
C. You encounter someone you haven’t seen for months. Then you remember thinking about that person a day or two ago. Your mental encounter anticipated, foreshadowed, your physical encounter.
D. What conclusion should we draw from the recent scandals of Anthony Weiner, Herman Cain, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Silvio Berlusconi (and the older scandals of Bill Clinton, JFK, etc.)? It seems that, in modern democracies, the men who enter politics, and succeed in politics, are long on charm but short on conscience; they’re warm, sociable, and likable, but have a weak super-ego.
E. Obama has scheduled withdrawals from Afghanistan for September, 2012, just in time to be a campaign crowd-pleaser. Yahoo, which isn’t a neocon stronghold, said “The president hopes to boost his prospects in 2012 by lowering the goals in Afghanistan.” Once again, as with his decision to demagogue Medicare, Obama is showing that he’s willing to sell out the country for his own political advantage.
F. A rumor is floating around Wikipedia that Nietzsche was familiar with Kierkegaard. I don’t believe it. Sure, Nietzsche may have read a book or two that discusses Kierkegaard, but Nietzsche never mentioned Kierkegaard by name, Kierkegaard never made an impression on him. Those who argue that Nietzsche was familiar with Kierkegaard cite the following passage as a reference to Kierkegaard: “Those moralists [Nietzsche wrote] who, following in the footsteps of Socrates, offer the individual a morality of self-control and temperance as a means to his own advantage, as his personal key to happiness, are the exceptions.”
But this couldn’t be a reference to Kierkegaard because Kierkegaard wasn’t a moralist, and he didn’t advocate self-control and temperance, nor did he advocate the pursuit of happiness. True, Kierkegaard admired Socrates, but not the moralizing side of Socrates; Kierkegaard admired the Socrates who said, “I know nothing,” the Socrates who tried to goad people into thinking for themselves, into being individuals. Furthermore, when Georg Brandes recommended Kierkegaard to Nietzsche, Nietzsche said he would read him, but he didn’t say, “I’ve heard of him,” or “I’m familiar with him,” or anything of that sort. Brandes recommended Kierkegaard to Nietzsche in 1888, while Nietzsche wrote the above passage in 1881.
G. In an earlier issue, I said I was planning to commit a crime so that I’d be sent to jail, where I’d receive free food, lodging, and medical care. Now that jest has become a reality: a man in North Carolina, James Verone, recently robbed a bank in order to go to jail, since he was desperate for medical care.
We now come to Christianity, the last of the major religions that Huston Smith discusses in his book The World’s Religions. Smith begins his chapter by saying
Smith says that Jesus began his ministry by quoting Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.” This leads Smith to point out that all religion is about spirit, about an unseen world. Science used to dismiss this unseen world as a fiction, but modern physics, according to Smith, takes a different view; Eddington said that the world is more like a mind than a machine.
We can only understand Jesus, Smith says, if we recognize the role of the spirit world, the unseen world: “The biblical tradition in which Jesus stood can only be read as a continuous, sustained-and-demanding dialogue of the Hebrew people with the unseen order.”4 The spirit world is depicted as above the earth, but this is only to stress that it’s distinct from the mundane world; it was understood that spirit and matter aren’t really spatially separate, they inter-penetrate and interact.
Though the spirit world is invisible, we experience its effects, and we can communicate with it, using techniques such as fasting and solitude. Jesus is said to have spent forty days in the wilderness, fasting and praying, communing with the Spirit, soaking it in, drawing power from it, before returning to the world. Jesus was part of a Jewish tradition of spiritualism, of mediating between the spirit world and the mundane world. His predecessor in this tradition was John the Baptist. Smith’s remarks on the unseen world remind us that the religious worldview is similar to the occult worldview.
Smith insists that the Jewish spiritualists possessed real power:
Jesus was part of this tradition, and he possessed this power, which often took the form of healing the sick. Smith quotes a New Testament scholar: “Despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.”6 Jesus has even been called “the most extraordinary figure in... the stream of Jewish charismatic healers.”7 Jesus aspired to do more than heal individuals, he aspired to heal Jews in general, and then man in general.
A passage in Luke shows Jesus in his role of charismatic healer:
Smith discusses the political situation in the time of Jesus. He says that Jews were under the power of Rome, and “were being taxed almost beyond endurance.”8 They responded to their predicament in four ways, which are represented by four Jewish sects:
Where did Jesus fit in? Unlike the Sadducees, he wanted change. Unlike the Essenes, he stayed in the world. Unlike the Zealots, he believed in peace, in loving your enemy. Jesus was closest to the Pharisees. But the Pharisees believed in strict adherence to Jewish law, and classified things as clean and unclean; this led them to classify followers of the law as clean, and others as unclean. Jesus, on the other hand, insisted that God loves everyone, God’s “central attribute was compassion,” Jesus “dined with outcasts and sinners.”12 Jesus protested against social barriers, against the existing order, against the Pharisee establishment, and this protest led to his execution.
We’ve all heard Jesus quoted, and perhaps his words have become stale. But Smith reminds us what a remarkable speaker he was. He says that the teachings of Jesus aren’t original — they have parallels in the Old Testament and in the Talmud. “But if you take them as a whole, they have an urgency, an ardent, vivid quality, an abandon, and above all a complete absence of second-rate material that makes them refreshingly new.”13 One thinks of Thoreau, whose teachings aren’t original, but have an urgency, a vivid quality. Smith says that the speech of Jesus has
Jesus didn’t appeal to authority. Though his teachings upended convention, he said in effect, “you know this is true.”
Jesus startled his hearers with his strange teachings.
The essence of Jesus’ message is, according to Smith, “God’s overwhelming love of humanity, and the need for people to accept that love and let it flow through them to others.”17 This teaching was consistent with Jewish tradition; “Jesus was an authentic child of Judaism.”18 But Jesus went further than other Jewish teachers; he refused to qualify God’s love, he refused to let The Law (the Jewish holiness code) obstruct The Love, he insisted that the Pharisees shouldn’t divide people into clean and unclean. He insisted on “God’s absolute love for every single human being.”19
Now Smith turns from the teachings of Jesus to Jesus himself.
His ego disappeared, Smith says, and people felt they were “looking at something resembling God in human form.”21
After Jesus was crucified, his followers felt that he lived on, that he was resurrected, that he appeared to them. His new body was the church, and his presence, his influence, was the soul of the church, the Holy Spirit descending on the church. His presence descended on his followers for the first time at Pentecost, and they felt it would be with them in the future, it would be with the church. His followers viewed Jesus as the Savior, and they began spreading the Gospel, the Good News.
One of their symbols was a fish, since the Greek word for fish, ichthys, is made up of the first letters of “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” If a Christian were in a strange town, he could follow the fish painted on walls to reach a secret assembly of Christians — the heads of the fish pointed to the assembly. “When a Christian met a stranger in the road, the Christian sometimes drew one arc of the simple fish outline in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both believers knew” they had met a fellow believer.22 Early Christians were persecuted by the Roman authorities, but they seemed to be in high spirits nonetheless.
The power of Jesus’ message, and the power of his example, were evident in the dramatic effect that he had on the lives of his disciples. Early observers noticed how the Christians loved each other, and how they treated each other as equals, ignoring class distinctions. “They had laid hold of an inner peace that found expression in a joy that seemed exuberant.”24
The source of this joy, according to Smith, is that they had been freed from fear (including the fear of death), freed from guilt, and freed from “the cramping confines of the ego.”25 Smith summarizes: “It is not difficult to see how release from guilt, fear, and self could feel like rebirth.”26
How did Christians become free from fear, guilt, and self? Through love, through the feeling that Jesus loved them, God loved them. God’s love poured through them, and spread to the people around them; they could love others because they felt loved themselves. “A new quality, which the world has come to call Christian love, was born.”27 Smith compares this process to an infant receiving love from a parent, and then being able to love others. He says “love is an answering phenomenon.... a response.”28
Smith insists that Christianity (and other religions, too) is more than ethical precepts, it’s a worldview.
When religion is viewed as a “vision of reality,” it closely resembles philosophy.
Smith turns to the three key tenets of Christianity:
Turning first to Roman Catholicism, Smith says that its primary functions are “teaching authority” and “sacramental agent.” He justifies the role of teaching authority thus:
To show how difficult it is to interpret the Bible, Smith looks at the Bible’s comments on divorce. “Mark 10:11 tells us that ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery’.... But Matthew 5:32 enters a reservation: ‘except on the ground of unchastity.’” And then there’s the question of re-marriage. If we accept the Matthew view, and say that a man whose wife is unfaithful can divorce her and re-marry, what about the unfaithful wife? Can she re-marry, too? So lots of difficult questions arise, concerning both theology and morality, and the Bible can’t answer them clearly, therefore the Church is needed to bring order to this chaos, the Church is needed as a teaching authority.
Some might say that the Bible contains the authentic teachings of Jesus, and the Church substitutes its own teachings for those of Jesus. But Catholics would say that the Church is the living word of Jesus, while the Bible is the dead letter; the Church is inspired by the continuing presence of God, the Church was founded by Jesus himself (“on this rock I will build my Church”). Jesus chose Peter to lead the Church, and the pope is the successor to Peter. The doctrine of papal infallibility says “when the pope speaks officially on matters of faith or morals, God stays him against error.”35
Freud once said that the teachings of religion (such as, “love thy neighbor as thyself”) run directly contrary to human nature. Smith agrees, and adds that we can’t follow the “supernatural” example of Jesus without help. The Church and its sacraments are designed to provide this help. There are seven sacraments, which “parallel the great moments and needs of human life.”
Turning to the Eastern Orthodox Church, Smith says that it has about 250 million members, most of whom live in Russia, Greece, Serbia, and neighboring countries. It resembles the Roman Catholic Church, and has the same seven sacraments. But while the Roman church proclaims new dogmas on issues like the assumption of Mary, the Eastern church is content with the old dogmas that were proclaimed before 787 AD.38
The Eastern church has no pope. It believes that truth is revealed through consensus, through councils; Smith speaks of “its exceptionally corporate view of the Church.”39 Salvation isn’t a purely individual matter, it’s a group matter; “One can be damned alone, but saved only with others.”40 The line between clergy and laity isn’t as sharp as it is in the Roman church; clergy are allowed to marry, laity can help to select clergy.
The Eastern church has a more mystical bent than the Roman church; while the Roman church believes that God’s presence may enter the individual on rare occasions, the Eastern church believes that part of Christianity is developing the capacity to experience God’s presence. In other words, the Roman church believes that the mystical experience is an exception, an act of God, while the Eastern church believes that all Christians should try to attain it.
In trying to account for the differences between the Eastern and Roman churches, Smith says that the Eastern church is more eastern, that is, closer to Asian religions in its emphasis on the group and its tendency to merge the individual in the All. Furthermore, the Eastern church was less affected by modern, European tendencies, hence it was more apt to preserve the flavor of primitive Christianity.
Turning to Protestantism, Smith says that the concept of faith is central to Protestants. Faith is partly a matter of belief, partly a feeling of love and trust. “Faith is a personal phenomenon.”41 According to Protestants like Luther, a good Christian isn’t someone who buys indulgences, performs good works, and believes a particular creed. Being a good Christian is a matter of the heart, it’s about feeling God’s love and loving God in return. St. Paul and Martin Luther “had been driven to their emphasis on faith precisely because a respectable string of good works, doggedly performed, had not succeeded in transforming their hearts.”42
In addition to faith, the other concept that’s important to Protestants is what Smith calls The Protestant Principle, which protests against all forms of idolatry. The first Protestants, Smith says, were the prophets who protested against worshipping idols. Later Protestants rejected the notion of papal infallibility. Protestants even criticized their own tendency to make an idol of the Bible.
Protestants do, however, place special emphasis on the Bible; they believe that, in the Bible, God speaks to the individual without the mediation of clergy or councils. Protestantism emphasizes individual freedom, rather than reliance on an institution. “Asked where he would stand if the Church excommunicated him, Luther is said to have replied, ‘Under the sky.’”43
In concluding his chapter on Christianity, Smith says that those interested in learning about Jesus should read Jesus: A New Vision, by the American scholar Marcus Borg. Smith also recommends a novel about Jesus called The Shadow of the Galilean, by the German scholar Gerd Theissen.
|1.|| Wikipedia. Another book about foreigners in 19th-century Paris is Threshold of a New World: Intellectuals and the Exile Experience in Paris, 1830-1848, by Lloyd S. Kramer. back|
|2.|| Associated Press, May 12, 2011 back|
|3.|| Ch. 8, p. 317 back|
|4.|| Ch. 8, p. 319 back|
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|6.|| Ch. 8, pp, 320, 321 back|
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|22.|| Wikipedia back|
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|38.|| The Roman church proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, and the Assumption of Mary in 1950. back|
|39.|| Ch. 8, p. 353. “The titular head of the Eastern church,” Smith says, is “the Patriarch of Constantinople.” back|
|40.|| Ch. 8, p. 354 back|
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