Book notes

  1. The Handmaids in L.A.
  2. Philip Francis Queeg, President
  3. Crunchy Cons → Benedict Option
  4. Literature of the lost cause

I didn’t set out to have a book theme. It just emerged. Then I consciously excluded any items that didn’t fit. You may see them another day.

Sometimes literature teaches truths that mere propositions can’t touch. As a callow evangelical/fundamentalist youth, I simply could not wrap my head around “truth” that wasn’t propositional. Mark Hanchett (High School Senior English teacher), you planted some seeds that eventually germinated.

Indeed, so often do writers seem to “write better than they know” that they seem like prophets.

1

I’ve commented on The Handmaid’s Tale a few times since I read it recently for the first time, unaware that a Hulu TV series was in the offing. Wednesday, Ross Douthat deepened my tepid appreciation and led me to an ingenious take from Charlotte Allen.

Douthat:

[C]onservative Christians should approach “The Handmaid’s Tale” as something more than just a hate-read for the same reason that socialists should read “1984” or even “Atlas Shrugged” and techno-optimists “Fahrenheit 451” or “Brave New World.” So long as you don’t accidentally decide that what you’re reading is not a warning but a blueprint, it’s always a useful exercise to think about how the ideas you treasure can be turned to wicked or inhuman ends.

The religious reader who approaches Atwood’s novel with an open mind will still find that it sometimes veers into obtuse or silly territory. But“The Handmaid’s Tale” also works harder than its critics sometimes claim to make the theocratic turn seem understandable and plausible, an outgrowth of complexity and not just simplistic liberal stereotypes and paranoias.

Two of the novel’s moves, in particular, are perceptive artistic extrapolations from 1980s trends. The first situates the Gilead regime’s quest to control the means of reproduction in the context of an enormous fertility collapse, caused by the combination of environmental catastrophe and rampant S.T.D.s. Such an existential crisis is both a (relatively) plausible hinge into religious revolution and a shrewd insight into the anxieties lurking below the surface of the Reagan era.Writing at a time when “population bomb” obsessions were still current, Atwood (like P. D. James in “Children of Men” in the early 1990s) grasped that the post-sexual revolution baby bust was more likely to be a central culture-shaping force.

Allen:

The idea, in these mostly liberal media outlets, seems to be that under President Trump, America has become — or will become terrifyingly soon — a militant Bible-based patriarchy (hello Texas, hello Mike Pence) in which women have no rights, especially no reproductive rights, and are divided into rigidly stratified social classes whose very names give their status away: privileged, churchy Wives at the top, Econowives in the lower social orders, and cook-and-bottle-washer Marthas who do the housework for the Wives and their powerful husbands, the Commanders.

At the very bottom are Handmaids, political pariahs (wrong ideas, such as feminism) who become the literal property of the top-dog men and are forced to bear their children. (The Wives suffer from environmental pollution-related fertility problems.) As the New Republic’s Sarah Jones, one of the “timely” crowd, explains, “Of course, we don’t divide women into classes of Marthas, Handmaids, Econowives, and Wives; we call them ‘the help,’ ‘surrogates,’ the working class, and the one percent.”

We also have a rigidly defined caste of Marthas (and “Marthos,” their male counterparts), because the Wives and their high-earning husbands need them to mop their floors, care for their children, mow their lawns and trim their trees, all for bargain-basement wages. And so we have the irony of Malibu declaring itself a sanctuary city out of “solidarity” with its servant class, many of whom are in the country illegally, who can’t afford to live anywhere near their wealthy and high-minded masters and mistresses.

Finally, the Handmaids. As in the fictional Gilead, real-life elite-class Wives have something of a fertility problem, although it’s related not to environmental degradation but delayed marriages and childbearing attempts of women who pursue high-power careers. Thanks to 30 years of advances in egg-transfer technology since Atwood published her novel, today’s gestational surrogates don’t have to get into embarrassing “threesome” sexual positions with the Commanders and their Wives in order to do their jobs. And they tend to be drawn not from the ranks of political dissidents, but from the financially strapped Econowife class (military bases are common surrogate-recruiting centers) who are willing to put up with a year’s worth of uncomfortable hormone treatments and possible pregnancy problems for the $40,000 or so that they receive.

(Living ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ — courtesy of the secular liberal elites of L.A.)

2

More treasures from literature:

Back in 1951, Herman Wouk published the definitive book about the Trump administration. He set it in the 1940s, during the war in the Pacific, aboard a destroyer-minesweeper skippered by a paranoid man with a compulsion to blame others for his mistakes. The captain was named Philip Francis Queeg, his ship was called the USS Caine, and the novel was “The Caine Mutiny.” It won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s a dead certainty President Trump never read it.

But maybe he saw the movie , in which Humphrey Bogart plays Queeg, a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination, or the Broadway play, “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” — but none of that is likely, either. The character of Queeq would have been too close to home for him and the mutiny too terrible to contemplate.

In seizing command, Queeg’s fellow officers invoked Article 184, which is the Navy’s version of the Constitution’s 25th Amendment….

(Roger Cohen)

Meanwhile, the Tweeter-In-Chief demonstrates his micrometer depth by calling the Manchester, England bomber and friends the worst thing he can imagine to say:

“We stand in absolute solidarity with the people of the United Kingdom,” Trump said, adding that the dead were “murdered by evil losers in life.”

One thing I have learned over nearly 70 years on earth is that people who routinely call other people “losers” are overwhelmingly nasty and narcissistic. I welcome the opportunity to avoid them and suffer torture when I must endure them.

3

Like many other conservative American Catholics, MacIntyre articulated the rationale that legitimated my growing disdain for the Republican party. I had been a soldier in Afghanistan, and I could not understand why Bush was pursuing a seemingly unnecessary war that was condemned by both John Paull II and Benedict XVI. I also had come see the pro-life rhetoric of the Republican party as just that — empty rhetoric. Rod Dreher’s book Crunchy Cons served a similar political purpose. Where MacIntyre provided the intellectual legitimation for a distinct conservative Catholic identity that included both a commitment to the authority of the Magisterium (an identity shared in different ways by other conservative Christians) and a growing skepticism of neoliberalism, Crunchy Cons provided the social imaginary necessary for this renewed identity. In this way, Dreher went beyond other conservative commentators by realizing the radicalism of MacIntyre’s claims and their practical implications for new modes of community of life.

Crunchy Cons was powerful in that it provided live portraits of conservatives who did not fit in with the increasingly narrow vision of neo-conservatism, with its commitments to militarism and the gospel of free markets ….

It is precisely in the light of this history, the history of the political reception of MacIntyre’s work that we must understand Dreher’s most recent book The Benedict Option. A number scholars have argued that Dreher has failed to understand MacIntyre properly, offering what they take to be a more adequate exegesis of final pages of After Virtue. For the most part these scholarly criticisms are correct, but they miss the point. The Benedict Option is neither a scholarly book nor a popularization of MacIntyre’s work. Instead it is political statement designed to impact the current political debate amongst conservatives.

In The Benedict Option, Dreher has continued the project that he began with Crunchy Cons by attempting to solidify a conservative identity that is unified by a commitment to orthodox Christianity, traditional moral norms, and unwillingness to accept the legitimacy of any part of the progressive agenda.

(Caleb Bernacchio) I don’t agree with everything I quote. Some things I quote for their self-evident absurdity. But I agree with Bernacchio that Crunchy Cons and The Benedict Option are kindred spirits. The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming halfway fits in that general cosmos, too. Only How Dante Can Save Your Life feels like an outlier.

4

I sometimes allow my fondness for modern Southern writers to spill over into a kind of “lost cause” romanticism, catalyzed by my conviction that on the right to secede, though not the cause for secession, the South was right and Abraham Lincoln was … well, Abraham Lincoln’s side won and thus wrote the histories, so I won’t go there.

Peter Augustine Lawler, newly reposed, appreciated the Southern writers, too:

Southern literature at its best is a critical account of the mind of the semi-dispossessed aristocrat. Faulkner and Walker Percy, for example, let us see the self-deception at the core of racist paternalism, as well as the neglect for the truth about natural rights taught by Jefferson. But they also let us see how empty middle-class life is from an aristocratic view, and how clueless those who so methodically devote themselves to the pursuit of happiness are about what human happiness is. True individualism, from this view, regards rights not as rooted in calculated interests but as points of honor to be exercised honorably.

Among the instances in which Southern Stoic virtue has elevated the American mind, the most obvious is Harper Lee’s character Atticus (note the name) Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus’s virtue had nothing to do with Christian charity or the liberal understanding of rights. He was courageously and paternalistically taking responsibility for his inferiors, for those who couldn’t defend themselves against the vicious mob that threatened the rule of law in the decadent South.

And then there are the Stoic characters of Tom Wolfe. There’s one who becomes “a man in full” by reading Epictetus, and so knows what to do as a rational man completely isolated in a maximum security prison. There’s also the star basketball player in I Am Charlotte Simmons who learns how to treat women and regains his manly self-confidence through absorbing—making his own—his professor’s very Stoic reading of Aristotle. In Wolfe’s novels, the foundation of coming to live according to this version of natural perfection has nothing necessarily to do with being raised with Southern “class,” but he shows us that, in the classically Southern version, becoming a member of the class of rational, responsible, relational men is a possibility available to us all.

Wolfe, by reminding us that it’s barely possible but highly countercultural to live as a natural aristocrat in our clueless and trashy time—when our institutions of higher education are the most clueless and most trashy parts of American life—frames a narrative of American moral and intellectual decline. His nostalgia for the past is meant to be selective, and it is meant, of course, to inspire personal action in the present. The purely Southern mind—like all aristocratic narratives—is a reflection on our movement away from what was best about the past. And so the Southern mind is anti-progressive, even as it suggests, with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that the one true progress is toward wisdom and virtue in a particular human life.

(From this essay, but via Rod Dreher)

* * * * *

Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.