Friday, September 30, 2016

The Size of Judgment



I won’t judge you for your lifestyle—just for the way you hang the toilet paper.

So—with a touch more pith and punch—runs one popular social media meme.  The first time I saw it I chuckled in spite of myself; after that my instinctive reaction has been to shudder.  Like much adroit modern rhetoric, the meme captures an undeniable truth and serves it up with that soupçon of humor which rarely fails to make truth more flattering to the intelligent mind.  This is what makes memes effective, not necessarily in convincing anyone else, but in persuading oneself and ones already simpatico friends of the wisdom of ones’ collective ways and ideals.

The truth in the meme here—I do think it is altogether true—is that there is a certain human tendency, perhaps exacerbated by postmodernity, to find fault with others not for their real sins but only for their less egregious flaws.  Even the word “sins” I am using somewhat facetiously—perhaps “faults” would better express my meaning.  Let me take what I consider to be an innocent and uncontroversial example.  If Mrs. Jennings suffers from a habitual disregard for other people’s privacy, invading their bedrooms at any and all hours to regale them with information which she is sure (not inaccurately) to be of interest, and expecting (with somewhat less accuracy) to be the recipient of dear and personal secrets in return—if, I say, Mrs. Jennings has this habit and so imposes upon you, it is unlikely that you will in fact directly confront her with a formal accusation of this, her severest and most deeply-rooted fault.  If you must take out your frustration on Mrs. Jennings—or if, in the course or ordinary conversation, you merely wishes to twit her with something—you will rather point to something else: to her habit of wearing bonnets rather larger than is the fashion, or her tendency to talk a great deal of her grandson.  Faults such as these you cannot (unless Mrs. Jennings is very touchy indeed) be faulted for noticing; indeed, if she and or you are clever enough about the game, they may be turned, with or without your consciously intending it, into a sort of compliment to herself, and so increase your mutual pleasure in the interaction.

So it is, to descend into the present day, with the toilet paper.  I have never met a person with whom the topic has arisen …

I cannot say it has arisen frequently, but looking back
I find it rather more stalkish a subject than I would have expected;
and am embarrassed before the shade of Mrs. Jennings at the consideration.

… who has not been positively proud of the way they hang it.  On a topic of no particular importance, we take tremendous delight in defending our decisions to face back or face front; we concoct—nay, I must think we possess, given the strength with which we adhere to them—elaborate arguments for the position we (or should I say our tissue du bathe?) have taken up, and will not budge from them come hell or high water.  And we are not afraid, as we would not be of Mrs. Jennings’s bonnet, to notice these little discrepancies in other people, and to wag our heads and fingers at them for their differences.  But a difference of opinion which might have real consequences we are much more reluctant to voice.

Now part of this might be mere charity.  We quite rightly do not want to upset Mrs. Jennings (we would not, even if we were not staying in her house); and so if she were the sort of person who is truly and heartbreakingly addicted to being fashionable, we would not breathe a word about her too-big bonnet.  And we would be quite right to keep mum in the matter.  Likewise, if someone …

Perhaps an OCD person? the sort whose sink always looks like this?
or one who is addicted to keeping their bathroom pet-and-child-proof, 
who feels acute terror when a flaw is discerned in their otherwise perfect plan?

—I say, likewise if such a person would truly be distressed by realizing that you disagreed with them about the hanging of their bathroom tissue, it would be kind to avoid the topic altogether.

But I think there is something more dangerous than kindness afoot.  We have become a very discriminating society.  We are full of little judgements about things which are of no particular matter, from toilet paper to the difference between a Graco SnugRidge 30 and a Graco SnugRide 35 …

Does it really matter?  really, truly?
Please don’t tell me if so; I’ve already bought mine.

… to the precise SPF of the sunscreen we slather on ourselves vs. on our three-year-olds.  I do not mean that we are especially careful as a society.  Our spelling and punctuation are in general atrocious, as any teacher of college Freshmen will allow; and the evidence of alarming and consistent decreases in our critical thinking abilities is apparent with every new election season.  But if we are not careful, we are precise: when we decide something tickles our fancy, whether it be a Pinterest page or a recipe for perfectly organic vegan granola bars, we become the most stick-in-the-mud sticklers on earth, curators worthy of the Metropolitan.  We are experts and connoisseurs of small judgements, but we will not venture to large ones.  Indeed, it might be said that the greater a modern person’s judgment, the smaller their judgments will be supposed to be; for any man capable of extending himself to judgements in the truly great and consequential things of life—any man willing to judge for himself, let alone for others, concerning what really matters; and to speak as if human beings were creatures with a true nature, capable of discerning and of navigating the roads to (and indeed able to in some sense merit) heaven and hell—well, a man who has the effrontery to pretend to be able to even approach such judgments—is judged to be a man of no judgment whatsoever.

This is why, although it is both funny and true to suggest that I judge friends not on their lifestyles but on how they drape certain choice bathroom accoutrements, I am finding it less and less funny and wishing more and more that it were not true.  I rather wish that I had the courage to tell Mrs. Jennings that it is a bad habit to come bursting into people’s rooms and injecting herself into their lives (no, I am not unaware of the irony in the example which I have chosen).  And I rather wish I had more courage than I do in making known my real opinions about what used to be called Christian morality.

I do not mean that I think ought to be confronting my ideologically diverse acquaintance with the fact of our substantial disagreements at every corner.  That would be fruitless.  The only point of such confrontation is to make some impression on the other party’s mind, such as might potentially aid in stimulating some alteration of their life; the prudence of charity thus dictates that such confrontations should only occur when one judges that there may be some hope of coming off as moderately rational, even if not wholly persuasive.  Mrs. Jennings is perhaps not best confronted when she is already in your bedroom.  But is it always prudence that counsels me to keep my mouth shut and my fingers on the scroll bar?  Or is it not, half the time at least, a fear of being judged for having exceeded the purportedly limited capacities of my all-too-human human judgment?

As a matter of conscience, I fear the answer to that question is up to me—and likewise to you, dear reader, mon frère.  For however large these verboten contraband lifestyle judgments are considered to be, they are nothing at all compared to the really big judgments, in which one attempts to discern malice or acedia, zeal or goodwill, the intentions of one’s own heart.  So I leave you—by which I really mean myself—not with a judgment but an exhortation:

Be not afraid.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Hard-Headed and Soft-Hearted



(To steal a title from one of Peter Kreeft’s favorite lines.)

My theory of yesterday to the contrary notwithstanding, it is important not to imagine that previous generations were too unlike our own.

There is an old canard the goes around some academic departments that parents of the medieval and Renaissance eras did not particularly care about their children.  Probably influenced by Lawrence Stone’s tremendous tome on the topic of family relations (whether they have read it or not) some students of the periods tend to assume that a peculiar combination of social relations and extremely high infant mortality combined to detach parents from their children at birth.  Let the baby grow for a few years, learn to mind his manners, and prove that he wasn’t going to fall dead from the plague, the toothache, or a random marsh fever, and THEN we might consider thinking about him with a smidgen of affection.

If that all sounds rather heartless, it is; if it sounds incredible, it is that too.  There is a fair amount of documentary evidence, in fact, to indicate that many parents did love their children, even their fragile newborns, intensely (sorry, L. Stone).  One of my professors liked to use two of Ben Jonson’s  poems as exhibit A in the case for early modern parental affection.

“On My First Daughter”
Here lies, to each her parents’ ruth,
Mary, the daughter of their youth;
Yet all heaven’s gifts being heaven’s due,
It makes the father less to rue.
At six months’ end she parted hence
With safety of her innocence;
Whose soul heaven’s queen, whose name she bears,
In comfort of her mother’s tears,
Hath placed amongst her virgin-train:
Where, while that severed doth remain,
This grave partakes the fleshly birth;
Which cover lightly, gentle earth!

“On my First Son”
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ’scap’d worlds and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

A considerable amount of restraint is exhibited in both these poems—and that is, after all, consistent with Jonson’s style in general: he tended to exhibit classicism more deliberately and overtly in his plays than many of his contemporaries, and in his poetry he rarely if ever flew to the extremes of the Petrarchan metaphors of the sixteenth century or the metaphysical conceits of the seventeenth.  Jonson appears to have been a careful and deliberate craftsman, one eminently conscious of his own hard work (he was the first playwright to issue a complete works in his own name, an act which coming from a playwright of the time was considered evidence of an absurd degree of hubris).  But those facts make it all the more difficult to imagine a more heartfelt and tender epitaph than that contained in the antepenultimate line:

“‘Here doth lie / Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.’”

Monday, September 26, 2016

Did Shakespeare’s Wife Get Stressed Out?



One of the things that occurred to me, in considering the cautions we’ve received as soon-to-be first-time parents, is the implausibility of such cautions being delivered in another era.  In some other eras, perhaps: I could see Glencora just-made-Palliser being taken aside by some well-meaning aunt and counseled as to how her life would soon change EVEN MORE once that pregnancy corset came off and the baby inside came out.

Then again, the counsel probably wouldn’t do much for Glencora,
and Glencora is probably in more need of it than many a heroine of her era.
(P.S. No, this is not Victorian fashion.
For some reason, the Victorians didnt do the showing-off the-bump thing.)

But I can’t for the life of me imagine friends gathering around Ma Ingalls (pre-Mary) or Laura Wilder (pre-Rose) to tell them how tough things would be when the baby didn’t sleep through the night.  Nor, for that matter, can I imagine anyone telling Anne (née Hathaway) Shakespeare to Be Prepared.

Think about your average Renaissance Englishwoman for a moment.  Think about Wolf Hall.  (Actually, don’t think about Wolf Hall.  It’s too depressing.)  There are rushes on the floor.  This always seemed silly to me when reading historical novels as a child—until I realized that a lot of the floors were dirt, and actually, having sweet flag to cover that was probably better than, well, just walking in the dirt all the time.  (And if you’re thinking that maybe those rushes would have had their own inconveniences, there’s a theory for that.)

So: rushes (or rush mats) on the floor.  They keep down dirt, smell, cold … Ah, yes, cold.  Let me say a few words about cold.  Sometimes we think they wore a lot of clothing back then.  This is true.  It might have something to do with the fact that they were in the middle of the so-called Little Ice Age, when global temperatures were relatively low enough to freeze the Thames on occasion.  In other words: it got cold outside.  Also inside, because there was no central heating, and while fireplaces had been invented, the Franklin stove (a much more efficient bit of artifice) had not.

Admittedly, being in Florida makes me look at these pictures with nostalgia.
But then again—I have central heating and wood stoves.

Then there was food.  Techniques of drying, oil-packing, and salting were available; but in many places (despite the cold winters) you couldn’t reliably freeze things to preserve them.  Fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, and fish where all seasonal items.  Nuts, grains, and cheese and milk (because God made cows like mothers to produce milk on demand) could plausibly be eaten all year round.

Oh, and did I mention that the bathrooms were oftentimes outside (unless you wanted a chamber pot in your bedroom), and the animals were sometimes inside?  Probably not in the bedroom, though (in this regard, early modern folks may have been a little smarter than some of their twentieth-century descendants), unless your only room WAS the bedroom.

Just let your imaginations dwell on that picture for a while.

The fact is, in previous ages people dealt with a much more physical discomfort on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis than we did.  The additional hardship of adding a squalling newborn to the mix might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for some; but for many I suspect it was just one more facet of life-ain’t-easy-get-used-to-it.  And this particular facet, while it made just as much mess as the animals, smelled so much nicer (at least for the first few weeks)!

Meanwhile, here I sit in southern Florida, in a  climate-and-humidity-controlled apartment—infested with pestiferous boxes, to be sure (finally cleaned up, hurrah!)—wearing soft, stretchy clothing (elastic is my new best friend)—near a refrigerator full of food—well, hm, not that full; maybe it’s time to hop in my gasoline-burning miracle and go to the nearest Walmart?  Oh, and if I’m worried that the new absence of manual labor in my life may result in a subpar birth experience, I can head for the also climate-controlled gym, or better still hop onto YouTube (metaphorically) and go through that pre-natal Pilates video again.  (Complete with an instructor who is almost exactly as pregnant as I am, which is … inspiring? embarrassing?)

To unfairly borrow the words of Yum-Yum, herself facing the culturally-distinct prospect of burial alive, “You see my difficulty!”  I have it quite easy, compared to my female ancestresses.  Everything around me is tailored to my comfort, my convenience, my needs; really, tailored to my preferences.

OK, well, maybe not being in Florida itself.  Because Zika. 
And humidity.  And having to stay indoors.  But still!

I’m hardly complaining about the situation.  But it does mean that the permanent presence of a baby will make this the first time in a couple of years that I’ve had to tailor my daily life around anything but the preferences of myself and one other rational adult.  And—especially if one’s memory of parents’ doing the same is faded or non-existent—I can see how that adjustment would be dramatic, not to say traumatic.  In this one regard, at least; in not having so great an adjustment to make, Shakespeares Wife had it easy.

P.S. One more advantage that our ancestors may well have had in the matter of child-rearing: sleep habits.  New scholarship is suggesting that divided sleep cycles were not unusual prior to the last century or so.  In other words: Anne Shakespeare may already have been up once or twice a night, before little Susanna came along.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Something Natural in Separation into Three



“‘That there was something natural, if not also divine,’ remarks Professor Pollard, ‘in the separation of mankind into three classes seemed as clear to mediaeval philosophers as it did to nineteenth-century railway companies’ (and does—he might have added—to some university examining boards).  The idea, he reminds us, is as old as Plato; and no doubt it is much older.  But we need not investigate the mysterious attraction which the number ‘three’ has always had for the human mind, nor attempt to trace the course of the idea in the Christina Fathers and in the mediaeval philosophers.  The immediate point is precisely the feeling of the naturalness or even divinity of the threefold division of society—a division in no respect thought to be a result of royal will” (Chrimes, English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century, 94, in his discussion of the three estates).

And did you further know that people are more likely laugh at and remember things when they come in threes?  The Romans had a phrase for it: omne trium perfectum (every triad is perfect).  Indeed, it seems that we are also more likely to believe things or consider them to be significant when they come in threes.  Advertisers, of course, have made hay with this principle; but so have very good storytellers indeed.  One cannot sit on a two-legged stool; a three-legged stool satisfies not only the (deplorably duplex) feet, but the mind as well.

That hyperlink is not an endorsement of the website or the ideas contained therein, by the way.  Being a Christian, and one moderately sympathetic to Platonism, I have my own suspicions about the importance of the number three.  For the moment, I will simply say that, not merely in the notoriously fertile and unreliable imagination, but even in the world of Euclidean arithmetic and geometry, there seems to be something qualitatively different about the number three.  One is not really a number, and two is questionably so; three is the first truly number-like number.  Two is a company; three is a crowd! (so went the old Shoppers Food Warehouse slogan, which promised to open a new register once the lines got too long).  But “crowds” by this definition are comparatively lovely things.  One is the number of solitude, and two is the mirroring number: the devil’s number, according to certain mediaeval and Renaissance thinkers, though (and, but of course?) also the number of romance.  But “Baby makes three”; or, as it is expressed in that immemorial sacred trifold rhyme dating no doubt back to the caveman, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage.”


And card games, naturally, involve sets of three as well.