It’s always fun to debate with Noah Millman. So let me do so now!
First of all, make sure you read Noah’s terrific post on wilderness and related matters. I think here Noah and I are just talking at different analytical levels. When he says that people live everywhere, including the wilderness, he is making a valid sociological and demographic point, and indeed the whole post is full of valid and worthwhile sociological and demographic reflections. But in my posts I was talking about our myths, our stories, and in our stories the wilderness is simply defined by the absence of humans from it. The wilderness is where humans don’t and can’t live, and we like to tell tales that prove that point: consider just two recent examples, 127 Hours and Grizzly Man. And in our stories, people who manage to survive in the wilderness usually do so only by becoming less human, indeed inhuman, as many of the tales of wild men demonstrate.
So on the one hand we have sets of myths that distinguish between the human world and the wilderness; and on the other hand we have sets of myths that distinguish between the life of the city and the life of the countryside. Those are conceptually distinct. Perhaps we have only one myth of the suburbs — that suburban life is uniformly drab, conventional, and boring — because suburbs haven’t been around that long. For much of the history of human settlement, people walled themselves in and the dangerous world of enemies, animal and human, out: human culture had to achieve a certain degree of technological sophistication and political stability before it could accept a gradual transition from the densities of the city to the openness of the countryside. (And even today the American traveler in Europe will invariably be struck by how quickly that transition is made in many cities, especially smaller ones: riding out of a city on a train you can look down or away for a moment and miss the suburbs altogether.)
Now to the really interesting stuff, i.e., Noah’s report on a performance of Measure for Measure. Noah writes, “The Christian apologetic tradition in interpreting the play reads Vincentio as a kind of figure of divine providence, working behind the scenes to arrange a happy ending for the drama.” Well . . . that’s a Christian reading of the play — by which I mean “a reading that sees the play as being deeply concerned with Christian theology” — but it’s not the only one. There’s another theologically-alert way to approach “the old fantastical Duke of dark corners” that starts from the point that, to quote Noah again, “Like Hamlet and Prospero, Duke Vincentio is a theatrical director.”
The Duke, Hamlet, and Prospero are not just garden-variety directors: they are directors of morality plays that they themselves have written and in which they cast others. (They also play parts themselves, but not always willingly.) That is, all of them write scripts and press other people into playing parts that — so these directors insist, and sincerely too — are for those other people’s own spiritual edification. Prospero wants those who have wronged him to be frightened into repentance and submission; Hamlet wants his usurping stepfather to be forced to acknowledge his guilt in a public setting — “The play’s the thing / Wherein to catch the conscience of a king” — then later takes up the role of the morally eviscerating preacher to try to bring his mother to repentance — “You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you.” And the Duke . . . well, Noah’s description of the play indicates just complex and how theatrical a web he is trying to weave.
But none of these go quite the way the playwright-directors want them to go. Hamlet catches the king, but discovers that Claudius’s repentance makes it harder to justify murdering him, and then soon thereafter is interrupted in his interrogation of his mother by the return of his father’s ghost. While Prospero is creating a beautiful masque for his daughter and her beloved, he forgets the machinations of his enemies — who have not been intimidated into repentance by the shows he has put on for them, not even by the great tempest itself — and when he recalls their plans to murder him the masque crashes to a sudden close: Enter certain Reapers, properly habited: they join with the Nymphs in a graceful dance; towards the end whereof PROSPERO starts suddenly, and speaks; after which, to a strange, hollow, and confused noise, they heavily vanish. And as Noah points out, all of the Duke’s plans are going wildly awry until the situation is rescued by pure coincidence. (Maybe even not then, depending on how a given production stages Isabella’s response to his proposal of marriage. Since she is given no lines, we have to guess, though the most reasonable guess — that she is horrified and disgusted by his advances — is almost never dared. As far as I know John Barton, in his 1970 RSC production, was the first director not to have Isabella accept the proposal, though even he did not have her reject the Duke: all the actors exit, leaving Estelle Kohler’s Isabella alone on stage to ponder her options.)
If there is a sound theological reading of these characters and these actions, then, it is not the allegorical one that would have then seen as “God figures.” Rather, it seems to me, the better reading requires us to see in Hamlet, Prospero, and the Duke the immense moral dangers that powerful and intelligent men confront because the very greatness of their abilities encourage them to play God, to manipulate other people, for their own good of course. It is a temptation only the exceptionally gifted face fully, because only the exceptionally gifted can persuade others to play the assigned parts. Though none of these Shakespearean characters is contemptible — there is much to admire in Hamlet, Prospero, and the Duke alike — they endanger themselves and others precisely because of their eminence.
In an odd way they are reminiscent of Milton’s Satan, who comments about his own fall from greatness, “lifted up so high / I disdained subjection, and thought one step higher / Would set me highest.” Hamlet, Prospero, and the Duke come to think (though hardly consciously) that they are different in kind from those around them, and that the ordinary rules of human conduct don’t quite apply to them, can be suspended in a good cause. But that’s not true. They are in fact not gods. Two of them — Hamlet and Prospero — come to see this. I’m not sure the Duke does. At the end of Measure for Measure he seems quite pleased with himself. There might be a terrible crash in his future.
Consider this a placeholder post for some thoughts that need developing. The issues involved here are immensely complex but of first-order importance for those who care about genuine human flourishing. Today I just want to juxtapose two quotations.
The first is from an essay by Kyle Baxter called “On the Philosophy of Google Glass”:
What I find most troubling is the philosophy underlying Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s thoughts on devices like Glass. They say that Glass’s goal is to get technology “out of the way,” but that isn’t it. The idea is that we will all be better off if we’re always connected to the web, always on, and have uninterrupted and instantaneous access to it and humanity’s “knowledge.” The idea that Page expresses is that if I can immediately learn about something I don’t know much about, I’ll be better off. I’ll be able to make smarter decisions and live a deeper, richer life by spending the time it would have taken to research and learn about something on more meaningful and substantive tasks.
I think, though, that is a terribly deluded and shallow understanding of what it means to “learn” about something. When we — humans — learn about something, we are not simply committing facts to our memory so we can recall them in the future. That’s a very tiny part of a much larger and much more important process. To “learn” about something is to study the information (when historical events occurred, what happened, etc), find connections between it and other things we’ve learned and experiences we’ve had, and to synthesize it into something greater — knowledge. Knowing, say, the Pythagorean Theorem in isolation isn’t of much use, but connecting it to your need to identify another object’s location suddenly makes it very useful. And more abstractly, knowing Roman and Greek history isn’t very useful all on its own, but being able to learn from it and apply its lessons to current political difficulties might prove very beneficial.
Now, I’d like to consider that passage in light of another one, from the farewell speech of retiring historian Donald Kagan:
Because of the cultural vacuum in their earlier education and because of the informal education they receive from the communications media, which both shape and reflect the larger society, today’s liberal arts students come to college, it seems to me, bearing a sort of relativism verging on nihilism, a kind of individualism that is really isolation from community. The education they receive in college these days, I believe, is more likely to reinforce this condition than to change it. In this way, too, it fails in its liberating function, in its responsibility to shape free men and women. Earlier generations who came to college with traditional beliefs rooted in the past had them challenged by hard questioning and the requirement to consider alternatives and were thereby unnerved, and thereby liberated, by the need to make reasoned choices. The students of today and tomorrow deserve the same opportunity. They, too, must be freed from the tyranny that comes from the accident of being born at a particular time in a particular place, but that liberation can only come from a return to the belief that we may have something to learn from the past. The challenge to the relativism, nihilism, and privatism of the present can best be presented by a careful and respectful examination of earlier ideas, ideas that have not been rejected by the current generation but are simply unknown to them. When they have been allowed to consider the alternatives, they, too, can enjoy the freedom of making an informed and reasoned choice.
If Kagan is right, then one of the greatest challenges educators face — in any time — is to awaken students from their “dogmatic slumbers.” (This is what Kant said reading Hume did for him.) That is, students need to learn that they have been for almost all their lives the passive recipients of what the dominant culture around them designates as knowledge. Michel Foucault was right when he referred to that dominant culture as the “power/knowledge regime,” because dominance is precisely the command of the power that decrees what counts as knowledge.
But if awakening students from those slumbers has always been the task of the true educator, that task is all the more difficult in a time of technologies of knowledge, or “knowledge,” that asymptotically approach omnipresence. Google Glass, along with a whole range of similar technologies, enforces the very passivity which truly liberal education is concerned to defeat. Technological futurism and solutionism (to borrow a term from Evgeny Morozov) are looking more and more like the chief enemies of a truly liberal — liberating, empowering, humanizing — education.
Early in Herman Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game there is a fascinating passage concerning debate. The novel is set in an imaginary country resembling Switzerland, some centuries in the future, and its action centers on the “Pedagogical Province” of Castalia, a series of quasi-monastic scholarly communities dotted throughout the land. Into one of those communities, called Waldzell, a visitor comes, an outgoing and rhetorically gifted young man named Plinio Designori. Plinio stands in the midst of a group of adolescent scholars-in-training and cheerfully explains to them that their studies are frivolous and sterile, and that they are indefensibly parasitic upon the larger society. Some of the scholars ignore Plinio; but “still there were always several schoolmates gathered around [him]; he was always the center of attention, and whether or not there happened to be an opponent in the group, he always exerted an attraction so strong that it was akin to seduction.”
The novel’s protagonist, Joseph Knecht, joins this audience, and eventually he assumes the role of Plinio’s chief interlocutor and opponent. It falls to Joseph to defend his community’s traditions, which he does with determination and increasing skill. Though he lacks Plinio’s verbal agility, he compensates for it by long hours of study and preparation. Eventually he is able to refute many of Plinio’s claims, which leads Plinio to become more serious and nuanced in his critiques, which in turn requires Joseph to study and think harder, and so on. Iron indeed sharpens iron. Plinio comes to understand that there is much more to Castalia than he had suspected; and for his part Joseph comes to see that his community really does risk preciousness and isolation from the concerns of the “real world.”
But the relationship between the two boys is not symmetrical. The narrator explains,
Even when [Plinio] was being defeated on a point, he managed to think of the audience and contrive a facesaving or witty line of retreat. Knecht, on the other hand, when his opponent had driven him into a corner, was apt to say: “I shall have to think about that for a while, Plinio. Wait a few days; I’ll come back to that point.”
These contrasting responses indicate the boys’ contrasting temperaments; but more important, they indicate how they are differently situated. For Plinio has nothing to lose in these debates except “face”: the worst that can happen to him is to be shown unable to respond to a particular argument. As I have noted, he is a visitor to Waldzell from the “outside”; his parents’ plan is to have him absorb some of the community’s intellectual discipline and then return to his world of wealth and privilege. Whether he wins or loses an argument has no necessary bearing on the rest of his life. Joseph Knecht, by contrast, is not safe.
To be continued…
Novels and stories describe for us their characters’ sexual positions: people enacting instructions from the Kama Sutra, or from the smooth rational sheets that accompany IKEA boxes. As though narration is verbal geometry or even topology, an accounting of objects’ situation in space, the angles of their relation to one another. This reminds me of the idea that the self is socially constructed. So, people, first you are constructed, then you are positioned. It is hard to find active verbs and clear agency here. A spiritual exercise: to trace the genealogy of one’s sexual positions. Did you see it at the movies, or do you imitate a scene from a Jonathan Franzen novel?
I have a friend who is now a priest but was once a set designer who specialized in operas. That first career began when he was a child in Vancouver, B.C., in a family for whom Texaco’s Saturday afternoon presentation of the Metropolitan Opera was their closest approach to sabbath rite. By age ten he had become fascinated with the stories as much as the music and, unable to cross the continent to see them for himself, had to be content with imagination. But he was not content. So he waited for the end of each broadcast, when Milton Cross would announce the opera to be broadcast next week, and then each Monday retrieved the relevant libretto from his local library. He read it with passionate attention. The story bloomed in his mind. He designed sets and characters, cut their shapes from cardboard, painted them precisely. On Saturday all was ready. When the broadcast commenced, scene by scene, aria by aria, the boy brought forth his magnificent fragile rooms and placed the elegantly dressed two-dimensional people in them. He moved them into their proper positions. Sometimes he propped two of them against each other in a cardboard embrace; later, he laid the dead ones to rest. They lay then perfectly still, perfectly flat, in that position of repose which has no successor.
When I started these meditations I didn’t know where I was going with them. I had some ideas I wanted to play with but no thesis, no clear path of intellectual development. I wanted to try the experiment of presenting thoughts in post-sized chunks to see if they coalesced into anything meaningful.
My own view is that, so far, they have and they haven’t. That is, some strong themes have emerged but nothing that I would be so bold as to call a conclusion. And that’s fine with me: in general the world has too many conclusions and not enough explorations, especially about truly complex subjects.
What I want to do here is to point out some of the themes that have emerged strongly in my own mind, as a way of drawing together what I’ve done so far. I believe there will be more of these meditations, though I think it might be good for me to step away from the topics for a while to think and re-think.
- It is impossible to talk about the idea of the City without invoking its two opposites, the Countryside (where people dwell) and the Wilderness (where they don’t). I have not spoken of Wilderness much in these posts because my focus has been on human lives, human choices, and Wilderness is by definition a place where humans do not live, though they may visit.
- The City needs the Countryside so it may define itself by contrast as dense, fast, complex, and plural.
- The Countryside needs the City so it may define itself by contrast as spacious, slow, simple, and coherent.
- In the City’s narrative the key human virtues are courage (to face the strange and unpredictable) and tolerance (of cultural and moral difference).
- In the Countryside’s narrative the key human virtues are patience, persistence, and stability (“sticking,” as Wendell Berry might put it).
- Each narrative is largely self-praising.
- Each narrative depends on the belief that its own vision of human flourishing is somehow more authentic than the alternatives, though in general proponents of City and proponents of Countryside are united in their dismissal of all forms of human community that aren’t clearly urban or rural.
- There is a mythos of the City — by which I mean the very large city, the metropolis — and a mythos of the Countryside, but nothing of corresponding narrative power for any other variety of human placement.
- Those who live somewhere other than the Countryside or the vast City must content ourselves with stories about our lives that are not fundamentally place-based, that do not derive their contours from the particular configuration of homes and workplaces in which they dwell.
- Such people may feel their lack of place-based mythos as an impoverishment, but it may be a preservative against an idolatry of place that can produce both arrogance (in relation to those who live elsewhere) and weakness (in relation to the imperative of self-formation).
- That is, a person whose flourishing utterly depends on place — one who, for example, falls victim to paralytic boredom when not exposed to the stimuli of the big city — may be deficient in certain necessary human virtues. There is nothing wrong with preferring — even very strongly preferring — one kind of place to another, but it’s not good to be incapacitated by removal from that place.
- That previous point is complicated, and perhaps undermined, when the question of home is brought in. That topic will have to be dealt with another time.
So enough for now. Enough until I’ve had time to process all this and, who knows, maybe repudiate some or most of it.
First drones, now LARs — lethal autonomous robots. As Nick Carr shrewdly writes, interacting with a presentation by United Nations special rapporteur Christof Heyns,
Beyond the obvious moral and technical questions, one of the greatest and most insidious risks of autonomous killer robots, Heyns writes, is that they can erode the “built-in constraints that humans have against going to war,” notably “our aversion to getting killed, losing loved ones, or having to kill other people”:
“Due to the low or lowered human costs of armed conflict to States with LARs in their arsenals, the national public may over time become increasingly disengaged and leave the decision to use force as a largely financial or diplomatic question for the State, leading to the “normalization” of armed conflict. LARs may thus lower the threshold for States for going to war or otherwise using lethal force, resulting in armed conflict no longer being a measure of last resort.”
It seems clear that the time to think about lethal autonomous robots is now. Writes Heyns: “This report is a call for pause, to allow serious and meaningful international engagement with this issue.” Once LARs are deployed, he implies, almost certainly correctly, it will probably be too late to restrict their use. So here we find ourselves in the midst of a case study, with extraordinarily high stakes, about whether or not society is capable of weighing the costs and benefits of a particular technology before it goes into use and of choosing a course rather than having a course imposed on it.
This is precisely right: why should our government hesitate before authorizing lethal force if it is confident that none of our own citizens will be endangered (except, of course, the ones the Executive branch decides it wants to kill)? People who support the use of LARs say that they could make warfare “less deadly” — possibly, to those using them, but what about those on whom they are used? And what if the very lack of danger to the user (whether real or perceived) makes the deployment of such weapons the kind of thing that leaders do without serious reflection?
It’s easy to see a time coming when the most powerful nations find it too much trouble to negotiate with weaker ones: Why send diplomats when you can get what you want so much more easily by sending robots and drones? And in the U.S. what’s interesting is that, since these warlike actions can be undertaken without committing troops to the field, it becomes easier and easier to bypass the checks and balances that would otherwise be offered by Congress and the courts.
Am I a conservative? Heck if I know. All I know for sure is that the good people here at The American Conservative are interested enough in what I have to say to give me a platform on which to say it. For which I am genuinely grateful.
I am not and never have been a Republican. I feel roughly as alienated from that party as I do from the Democratic Party. I hold a number of political views that strong-minded Republicans typically find appalling: I think racism is one of the greatest problems in American society today; I am not convinced that austerity programs are helpful in addressing our economic condition; I am absolutely convinced that what many Republicans call free-market capitalism is in fact crony capitalism, calculated to favor the extremely wealthy and immensely powerful multinational corporations; I think that for all of the flaws of Obamacare, it was at least an attempt to solve a drastically unjust and often morally corrupt network of medical care in this country; I dislike military adventurism, and believe that our various attempts at nation-building over the past decade were miscalculated from the outset.
So is there any sense in which I might plausibly be called a conservative? I don’t really know; I’ll leave that to others to decide. It doesn’t really matter to me whether I fit into any pre-existing political or intellectual categories. I can only say this: that I do have three overarching political commitments (or beliefs, or convictions) that are more important to me than any others.
The first is that I strive to be a consistently pro-life Christian. I am aware that many people believe that the whole notion of a “consistent pro-life ethic” is a way for liberal Christians to minimize the evil of abortion by wrapping it in a whole series of other issues, and that may well be true for many, but I do believe that there is such a thing as a consistently pro-life position and that that position involves an absolute commitment to the unborn and also to the weak, the sick, the elderly, the mentally ill, and all the others who find themselves at the margins of our society, generally unloved and uncared for. My models in this quest are the Cappadocian fathers of the Church.
My second steady commitment is to the principle of subsidiarity. I believe that almost all of our social evils and shortcomings can be handled better by small, local organizations and empowered persons than by national institutions or for that matter even state-level institutions. There is no question that local communities can be cruel and indifferent to sufferings in their midst, but they are also more subject to shame and other forms of correction than high-level political systems. They can be more easily altered, turned, reformed. A great deal of suffering in America today is caused by the evacuation of intermediary structures: the church, the family, voluntary organizations. These intermediary structures are in desperate need of renewal and that can only happen if there is a systematic shift of power, wealth, and influence from state and national governments to local units. Among my chief teachers on this matter is Robert Nisbet, and another is Patrick Deneen, so let me cite the latter writing about the former here and here. Nisbet himself simply identified conservatism with this tendency: “The essence of this body of ideas is the protection of the social order — family, neighborhood, local community, and region foremost — from the ravishments of the centralized political state.”
My third leading political conviction is that the wisdom of our ancestors is both deeply valuable and tragically neglected. On this let me cite Roger Scruton:
Our work, it seems to me, consists in what Plato called anamnesis — the defeat of forgetting. We cannot ask young people to live as we lived or to value what we valued. But we can encourage them to see the point of how we lived, and to recognize that freedom without responsibility is, in the end, an empty asset. We can tell them stories of the old virtues, and enlarge their sympathies toward a world in which suffering and sacrifice were not the purely negative things that they are represented to be by the consumer culture but an immovable part of any lasting happiness. Our task, in other words, is now less political than cultural — an education of the sympathies, which requires from us virtues (such as imagination, creativity, and a respect for high culture) that have a diminishing place in the world of politics.
So that’s largely what I believe about politics. And again, whether that qualifies me as a True Conservative I neither know nor care.
Just a brief follow-up to my earlier post on Wendell Berry: I have learned a great deal from Berry over the years, and some of his writings are among my intellectual treasures, but I’m not sure Berry’s ideas about place are fully, or even generally, compatible with Christianity.
Jesus was not much of a sticker: born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth, he conducted a good bit of his ministry in Galilee before dying in Jerusalem. His last years were itinerant because his message was both urgent and universal in its scope: it could not be confined to a locality. Thus “foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
His most influential disciple, St. Paul, imitated Jesus in this. Having already, before his conversion, come from Tarsus in Asia Minor to Jerusalem to sit at the feet of Gamaliel, he extended his peripatetic habits after his encounter with the Risen Lord. One of his strongest articulations of his task — “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” — suggests that he understood a kind of cosmopolitanism to be intrinsic to the apostolic vocation. “Our citizenship is in heaven.” He would travel far, and like his colleague Peter (a Galilean fisherman) would die in Rome.
There are Christians all over the world today because the successors to Paul declined to stay home. They were not “stickers.”
None of this means that affection for one’s geographical place in the world is of no value; but it does suggest that for the Christian it has at best a secondary and contingent value. There are higher commitments to which it must be subservient. To make it a first-order commitment —which as I read Wendell Berry’s work is what he does — is, as far I can tell, a form of idolatry.
Consider this to be a detour from the city meditations: not on the main road, but not far off it.
Last year Wendell Berry gave a lecture in which he said,
My teacher, Wallace Stegner … thought rightly that we Americans, by inclination at least, have been divided into two kinds: “boomers” and “stickers.” Boomers, he said, are “those who pillage and run,” who want “to make a killing and end up on Easy Street,” whereas stickers are “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.” “Boomer” names a kind of person and a kind of ambition that is the major theme, so far, of the history of the European races in our country. “Sticker” names a kind of person and also a desire that is, so far, a minor theme of that history, but a theme persistent enough to remain significant and to offer, still, a significant hope.
The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power. James B. Duke was a boomer, if we can extend the definition to include pillage in absentia. He went, or sent, wherever the getting was good, and he got as much as he could take.
Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it. Of my grandfather I need to say only that he shared in the virtues and the faults of his kind and time, one of his virtues being that he was a sticker. He belonged to a family who had come to Kentucky from Virginia, and who intended to go no farther. He was the third in his paternal line to live in the neighborhood of our little town of Port Royal, and he was the second to own the farm where he was born in 1864 and where he died in 1946.
The curious thing about this story is that Berry’s grandfather could not have been a sticker if a more distant ancestor had not been a boomer — had not pulled up roots in Virginia and moved to Kentucky — much as some more distant ancestor had pulled up roots in England and crossed the seas. Wendell Berry is then the descendent of both stickers and boomers.
What’s that you say? I shouldn’t call his ancestors “boomers”? It’s not fair to accuse them of being “those who pillage and run,” of being “motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power”? Well, I’m sorry about that, but Berry and Stegner say we only have the two categories. I’m just working with what I’ve been given. You’re a sticker or a boomer. Pick one.
Now I hope — I devoutly hope — that if I were to ask Wendell Berry whether everyone who voluntarily leaves the place of his or her birth is “motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power,” he would say “Of course not.” Equally devoutly I hope that if I were to ask him whether the virtue of being a sticker is the only reason why people stay in their home towns he would also say, “Of course not.”
So why does he insist on the validity of this binary code? It’s useless — it’s worse than useless, it’s simplistic and uncharitable. There are many reasons why people stay home, and many why they leave; and probably no single person is driven by one reason only. “There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive,” as Rebecca West is said to have commented.
One of the things I most deeply admire about The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is that Rod doesn’t universalize his choices. He goes out of his way to insist that he isn’t telling everyone to do as he did and return to whatever their equivalent of St. Francisville is; and he makes it clear that leaving St. Francisville when he was younger was something that he was right to do, that he had to do. But, having said all that, he makes a powerful case — as Wendell Berry also does in most of his works — for the deep meaning and value and virtue to be found in the kinds of small communities that in our country today are being more-or-less systematically diminished. It’s just that Rod does it without feeling the need to separate everybody into the sheep and the goats, the wheat and the chaff, the stickers and the boomers.
I write this as someone who admires Berry this side idolatry. I would owe him a great debt if the only thing he had ever written was the essay called “Poetry and Marriage,” or the one called “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” or the one called “What Are People For?” I could go on: I have been reading and profiting from his work for thirty years, and even did something to create a bit of a Berry cult at Wheaton College a long time ago. But about some of these matters pertaining to place — which is absolutely central to his concerns — his thinking is simplistic and Manichean and insufficiently aware of the real choices that many real people face.
So Vanya on 42nd Street — the film I mentioned much earlier in these meditations — begins outdoors, amidst the weary buildings of midtown Manhattan, as the camera picks up the actors making their way to the old theatre. By ones and twos they arrive, deposit their jackets and bags, pour themselves cups of coffee or tea, sit and chat. The camera settles for a few moments on a middle-aged man speaking with an older woman. Only after they’ve exchanged a several banal pleasantries does the viewer realize that the play has begun.
But the events of this play, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, occur not in a city but on a Russian country estate. It had been owned by a woman now dead; on her death it passed to her daughter Sonya, but her husband, Aleksandr Vladimirovich Serebryakov, assumes control of the property as his natural right. Serebryakov prefers to live in the city with his young, beautiful second wife. Sonya and her uncle Vanya manage the estate: they ensure that the crops and land generate the income that Serebryakov needs to live in proper urban style. Sonya and Vanya keep little for themselves, and clearly there is nothing elegant about the old estate itself, for which the dark and decrepit interior of the New Amsterdam Theatre makes a fitting image.
The estate is of value to Serebryakov only insofar as it provides income, and he has come to think that he can do better by selling the estate and making more adventurous investments. What this might mean to Sonya and Vanya he does not consider. It is this situation from which the tensions of the play arise.
But also embedded in this situation is a good deal of the history between the countryside and the city. Elsewhere in this series I’ve explored the highly traditional idea that the city is the place of corruption, a predatory realm where the ignorant or unwary are quickly victimized; but of course that’s how city-dwellers can imagine the countryside as well: not only according to the in-the-cabin-in-the-woods-nobody-can-hear-you-scream trope of horror, or the why-can’t-I-get-Thai-food-out-here trope of comedy, but according to a more serious fear that the countryside is functionally lawless. In the history of television and movies there have been countless stories of innocent and law-abiding urbanites caught helplessly in the sinister webs of Machiavellian rubes.
But more substantively, we might reflect that much of what people love most about big cities — especially the range of eating options — is possible only because people in the countryside grow or make what the city consumes. The story of Uncle Vanya is a familiar one in this respect: city residents as thoughtless and mere consumers of the real goods that the countryside produces. The city as vampire, the country as its innocent victim whose lifeblood drains away.
Some people are working hard to make cities more agriculturally self-sustaining, but they can never be completely so, and in any case leather for your boots won’t come from city cows nor linen for your suit from rooftop flax farms. But without the city how many buyers would there be for the flax and leather and cheese and arugula?
In Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West — and thanks to my friend Noah Toly for pointing me to this remarkable book — William Cronon writes,
Americans [and I would argue not just Americans] have long tended to see city and country as separate places, more isolated from each other than connected. We carefully partition our national landscape into urban places, rural places, and wilderness.
(This, by the way, is why we have so few narratives focused on the suburbs: they don’t fit our categories.)
Although we often cross the symbolic boundaries between them — seeking escape or excitement, recreation or renewal — we rarely reflect on how tightly bound together they really are…. As a result, there are few models for a book like this one, which tries to tell the city-country story as a unified narrative…. Still, throughout it all I have held fast to one central belief: city and country have a common history, so their stories are best told together.
Emphasis mine. Country and city have always been and will always be interdependent. What a shame, then, that so many of our cultural narratives insist on setting them in opposition to one another so that one way of life may seem more authentic or exciting or fulfilling than the other.