Foreword: Take Heart
Plato banished poets and playwrights from his ideal Republic because he felt they dealt in irrationality and half-truths. Only philosophers, who deal in absolute truths, could occupy his Republic, thus safeguarding it from emotion and unreason. Likewise, lately, some have questioned the idea of literature as a source of helping develop human empathy since it requires half-truths and the condemnation of some characters to allow us to empathize with others. It demands that we live with degrees of uncertainty and delayed judgment. Critic Wayne Booth discussed this issue in The Rhetoric of Fiction, in effect saying, “So what” if we identify with Hamlet and condemn Claudius, or if Othello is not fair to Cassio or Lear to the Duke of Cornwall. In his best plays, Shakespeare hardly made pure heroes and villains of anyone.
Even in the face of political correctness and professional outrage, literary writers can’t be prohibited from centering our interest and sympathy for certain characters and restraining sympathy for others. They can even imbue sympathy in some antiheros, such as Heathcliff, despite the character’s bizarre and even cruel behavior. Literature must be able to witness malice among some and inherent destructiveness in certain situations. When reading As I Lay Dying for the first time, I didn’t feel revulsion toward any one character but a deep appreciation for the way an author can empathize with a family living in a place and circumstance so diminished that almost any choice its members make can be cruel, even to the point of absurdity.
Empathy in life or in literature is never about merely identifying with a character or set of circumstances but about sharing—in whatever style or method—their lives and the events that comprise them. Literature is replete with the paradoxes of real life. Some believe that the common denominator of postmodern literature, beginning sometime in the 1960s, is that it came from serious writers giving up on naïve empathy and on the easy logic or coherence in literature. In a chaotic world where the apocalypse is another world war or bullet or bomb away, why insist on order, even in the form of a literary work? There are no heroes or villains, only characters navigating a world that does not make sense. In Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, protagonist Yossarian hopes only to not go on the next bomb run, to not die, even in a righteous war. Call him paranoid, call him a coward, that’s fine with him. And to follow his experience in war closely, the writer cannot use artificial logic or neatness, even in the form of the novel.
Foreword: How Did I Get Here?
“How did I get here?” is a recurring question in one of my favorite songs, “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads. It is an anthem to the uncertainty of human existence that suggests the existential feel of much of this issue.
While several post-World War II philosophers such as John-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus are called “existentialists,” they were less a school than a group of related thinkers stretching back to the nineteenth century. Their ideas are kindred but quite individual. They came from an understandable beginning, as late eighteenth-century industrialization created an urban working class. Marx was predictive of existential thought, due to the threats to individual freedom that he argued would happen in developed capitalist economies, regardless of the label used by political leaders for their economic systems.
Foreword: Moving On
When excited about a piece of writing, I often sense a largeness to it that exceeds what I first fully understand. As an editor, I’ve had that experience too often to remember. I love something and then struggle to articulate why, and it may take me a while to do so with any certainty. Perhaps it comes from rightness of form and richness of theme, including a necessary ambiguity in the subject. I may not fully get it at first because often the best writing is, in fact ,wonderfully complicated, both in what it is about and sometimes in the way it’s done. Literature has an almost biological element: its DNA shows similarities to past writing as well as newness and variance. It carries a suitcase or wears at least some of its clothes from the past. It doesn’t simplify life but sees and shows its messiness. This is shown in much of this issue, with the theme of moving on while at the same time still in ways still carrying the past.
Foreword: What You Live For
What You Live For
One would like to think the pandemic has inspired us to be more productively introverted, weighing what we are doing and why. But of course, the truth is that the pandemic has given us little choice but to be more introverted and self-evaluative. Regardless of the terrible way it has come about, it may be useful to look under the camouflaging dust of “normal” life and ask a few existential questions. What have we genuinely missed about normal life, what do we really care about, and how should we admit to changes?
Foreword: True Confessions
In 2007, during the events surrounding the funeral of my mother, Betty Speer Morgan, who was one of my heroes, my brother and I shared childhood stories, including one that our mother herself had told us not that long before. When we were children—he about six, me three—we had driven her nuts with endless sibling bickering, breaking things and chasing each other around the house. One day, when one of us broke yet another china dish, she had had enough. She got so angry that she proceeded to throw the rest of her china, all of it, piece by piece, out the front door of the house. In the confessional mode, I then remembered that for three or four years after our family had moved to the small motel where we lived, and which we ran as a business, with both my brother and I renting rooms to soldiers and their families from Fort Chaffee, I had stolen money out of the cigar box that we used for a cash register—as much as a couple of dollars at a time to go to the movie or buy cokes. My brother was surprised and mildly shocked by this and expressed as much. Later, as we were driving past the place where the motel had stood, he asked if I had forgiven him for throwing me through the glass shower door. I told him that I hadn’t because I didn’t remember his doing it. “I did it three separate times,” he told me. “I felt guilty about it for years afterward.”
Foreword: Fighting Back
Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood.
—Dante, The Divine Comedy
While temperamentally many of us imagine human lives to be stable, a simple factual recounting of what happens through time proves that they seldom are. Surprises and shocks are in store for most of us. Bruce Feiler’s new book Life is in the Transitions discusses this idea abstractly and by example from detailed interviews of hundreds of individuals. They show that fixed patterns do not work well as life predictors in such areas as jobs, health, and personal commitments. They also suggest that insofar as we need a set of presumptions about our futures, it should allow for and expect transitions—not just small alterations but big changes. I appreciate this idea because it matches my own life experiences and because it is suggested by the radical changes in understanding in most areas of knowledge, from economics and history to the hard sciences.
Feiler points out that early worldviews were based on natural and cyclical time, partly because of the prevalence of agriculture in human life. Early mythologies were seasonal, though there were exceptions that admitted to linearity or the unexpected, for example in classic religious thought and literature. The nineteenth century moved to a worldview based on mechanical time, which is regular and linear. By the early modern era, the idea of life following a circle had been replaced by a concept of its proceeding through ages or phases or stages that were essentially predictable and fixed.
Foreword: Facing It
An old friend of mine called me in early May to tell me that he was alive, after all. He had caught covid-19 and been on a ventilator, his survival unlikely for several days. After three weeks in a hospital bed, he told me, “You don’t want to get this, Morgan.” Another friend, a writer and recently retired emergency-room doctor, sent me an e-mail summarizing the basics that he had learned about the virus from reading medical articles. He asked, too, if I remembered that in 1969, I had had a gun pulled on me by a revolutionary housemate. I didn’t, oddly enough, although I do remember this housemate repeatedly yelling at me for not being purely and totally revolutionary enough, and I do remember inhaling plenty of tear gas at demonstrations.
The events starting in Minneapolis and quickly spreading throughout the rest of the nation over the murder of George Floyd are indeed reminiscent of that year. Protests and less-than-peaceful demands for justice seem called for now, as they also did then, after Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, along with what seemed like the endless dragging out of the Vietnam War. “So it goes,” as Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim says after the latest disaster in the endless series of disasters in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Pandemics and racism and riots and the lack of national leadership make us think, “So it continues to go–and when will it stop?”
This issue of TMR reminds me of the basic ideas of Stoicism, a philosophy that arose long ago as an approach to dealing with the seeming harshness and unfairness of life. Stoicism in different manifestations has been one of the more resilient philosophies in Western thought. It began with the teachings of Zeno in the marketplace of ancient Athens, and it lasted through six centuries of Greek and Roman thinkers, including Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. It influenced the epistles of the Christian Paul and many later classics of European literature. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy begins with an epigraph from Epictetus—“Not things, but opinions about things trouble men”—ironic in this case, since Sterne’s antihero is so overloaded with bookish doubts and opinions that he does well to get out of bed in the morning.
Foreword: Elemental Force
I happen to have discovered a direct relation between magnetism and light, also electricity and light, and the field it opens is so large and I think rich.
—Letter to Christian Schönbein (13 Nov 1845), The Letters of Faraday and Schönbein, 1836-1862
Michael Faraday’s note to his friend Schönbein describing what he was learning about magnetism, electricity, and light was understated, considering that he had just helped crack open the door of what would become modern hard science. James Clark Maxwell’s book about the interconnectivity of light, electricity, and magnetism, published twenty years later, had an influence as profound as Newton’s Laws. In providing the “second great unification in physics,” Faraday and Maxwell ushered in twentieth-century science to a degree that Einstein said, “I stand on the shoulders of Maxwell.”
Elemental forces are as present in the arts as in the sciences. Attraction and repulsion, positive and negative, illumination and darkness, disruption and symmetry are pervasive in both the methods and substance of art. Like alternating current and atomic structure, literature offers protagonists and antagonists, stasis and movement, magnetic and repellent characters, light and dark tones, every emotion and its opposite.