June 29, 2005

In Defense of "Compassionate Conservativism"

Nobody — not one single pundit — with posting rights to NRO's Corner could muster a defense of "compassionate conservatism"? Forget naked partisanship. Forget (for just a moment) principle! Not one NRO writer is willing to step into the fray simply for the sake of offering contrast to John Derbyshire's self-refuting, faux defense?

It is a fixed belief among millions of the stupider sorts of Americans -- college Humanities professors and the like -- that the Dems are the kind party, while the GOP is the unkind party. If you talk to ordinary citizens much, this comes through all the time. ...

Philosophically, intellectually, and metaphysically, "compassionate conservatism" is of course turkey poop. But this is p-o-l-i-t-i-c-s.

Perhaps what so irks me about this commentary's being left to stand for eleven hours (and counting) on conservatism's online hub is that the act of disagreeing would, in itself, accord with the points begging to be made in response: that there are indeed stark differences among those who are, on a mainstream scale, considered to be "conservatives." Moreover, if (as I, for one, believe) the liberalism of recent history is on the wane, then the next rift to define the culture wars will derive from those stark differences.

Whether libertarians renovate and restock the fallen strongholds of liberals or social conservatives grudgingly admit that they are the left-most side in a battle with Paleos, "compassionate conservatism" surely offers an early marker of the sides. It is not fowl feces to stake out ground on the field of sensibilities. Put differently, it is not necessarily a cynical ploy when a politician correctly identifies a space for which there is a constituency. This holds even if the catch phrase is not immediately associable with any particular initiatives; in "p-o-l-i-t-i-c-s," rhetorical constructions themselves have force.

Derbyshire's fellow citizens don't share his emphasis on Reason versus Unreason (with the latter covering both the hateful Amiri Baraka and some unspecified segment of intelligent-design advocates), his classification of such pursuits as English studies as "spurious academic disciplines," or his belief that science will triumph over "our instincts and preferences and faith" to prove that "our cherished beliefs about the Self are largely illusions," free will among them. Many Americans cherish those beliefs more than they cherish science; many prioritize helping others over being rational. And some among them require explanation of why particular solutions are more rational means of helping others than are alternatives that seem more direct.

Conservative solutions can be understandably counterintuitive to those not disposed or at liberty to follow political issues closely: guaranteeing fewer Social Security benefits to ensure more, restricting marriage to protect families, and going to war to secure peace, to name a few. Perhaps when one intends to advocate such things, it helps to create a perception that ensures more than two words of explanation before distrust kicks in. In a word, compassion.

It is without question that conservatives and (distinctly) Republicans have only recently begun to break the fog of stereotyping that places an undue burden on their visions for improving our mutual lot. But if impressions of a stupider sort still come through "all the time" in conversation with ordinary citizens, I can't help but feel that appeals to compassionate conservatism are more rational than the condescension that casts "a couple hundred thousand" ordinary citizens as dupes of "a snappy, easily-remembered slogan" or, worse, "pork wrapped up in schmalz."

If Jonah Goldberg isn't alone in synonimizing compassionate conservatism with "runaway spending and some of the worst lurches to the center of the Bush years," then I suggest that we expend some effort in explaining what the phrase ought to mean — not the least because the forces of dehumanization have already begun eyeing the banner of compassion for their own causes.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:18 PM | Comments (12)

June 27, 2005

A Revolution's First Mumble

The following, from a Lee Harris piece on Tech Central Station about the Supreme Court, brings to mind a question:

The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza argued that those with power had an unlimited right to exercise this power, and observed that they invariably will seek to push this right to the utmost extreme that they can get away with -- anticipating Lord Acton's famous remark about the corrupting effects of absolute power. Yet Spinoza offered a ray of hope. Eventually, he said, those who are exercising unchecked and capricious power will push people too far, whereupon the latter will rise up and, often in a spasm of irrational frenzy, cast out the few who have arrogated to themselves mastery over the fate of the many.

Unless, of course, the many happen to be made up of Americans, who seem to have an unlimited capacity to be pushed around by those who claim to be speaking in the name of the law.

Has anybody among the ranks of conservatives considered marching on the Supreme Court? Asking the question answers it; the idea seems somehow... inappropriate. But why? My readership, here, has declined dramatically in the recent months that necessity has required my time to be spent elsewhere than at the computer, but perhaps even we few, if we can begin a small-scale murmur with our mumbles could set people to wondering why something so obvious should seem so revolutionary.

Think of the relative lack of coverage that even a major pro-life rally claims. Now give that massive crowd the target of the U.S. judiciary. Perhaps the effects could be government-shaking.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:01 PM | Comments (47)

June 26, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 10 (p. 191-198)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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D. had been reading for several hours when she decided that her eyes and her mind needed a break. Breakfast had been a mess, with hungry morning scavengers tripping over each other in the large but cramped kitchen, so she thought that she might see how much work would be involved in straightening out the dining room enough to use it.

She looked up from her book. Huck, Steinbeck, and Jim were her only company in the courtyard. An occasional tap of typewriter hammers served to remind everybody that Martin was still in his room. She leaned over to pet Jim. "Where is everybody?"

Huck finished a paragraph and looked around, saying, "Well, Jake's a-fishin', John's off wherever 'e goes in the day. I think Nick went inta town fer more champagne, an' Holden's prob'ly off mopin' 'round the forest."

D. counted the bedroom doors of the opposing balconies. "What about Alex and Sal?" she asked.

"Don' know. Guess there ain't no 'countin' fer those two, seein' as Sal's al'ays off travlin', as he calls it, or sleepin' in the day time, and Alex ain't seemed ta be 'round much anyways."

D. scanned around at the doors again. The only rooms that were still unoccupied were Nathaniel's and the one between her room and Steinbeck's. "Looks like there's only one more vacancy," she observed. "I'm not taking anybody's room, am I?"

"No," Steinbeck told her. "You and Alex took our last two." Then he added, "And we've an extra if Othello doesn't come back."

"Mightn't he?"

"It's hard to say," Huck took up the thought. "It'll only be 'is second year."

All had been said on the topic, so D. returned to the thought that had originally raised the question, "I thought that I might straighten up the dining room."

Huck nodded and said it was such a good idea that he'd help. Steinbeck concurred, following them through the door to the eastern side of the house. Most of the papers and notebooks in the dining room were already in the boxes, and the majority of the boxes had lids nearby or already on them. "Where should we put all these?" D. asked.

There wasn't any storage room of which any of them knew, so D. suggested the adjoining hallway, considering, in the back of her mind, that it might make for a good time passer to find some way to store them there attractively. "No," said Steinbeck, "that hallway is generally understood to be Sal's domain, and I think he'd object that the boxes dampen the acoustic echo of his saxophone or something along those lines."

"So was he the one who woke me up late last night?"

"Yes. He always gets me out of bed, too. I think that he's trying to begin a tradition for himself, always playing the same tune and shouting the same line at the same time his first night here. That's the only time that he's discourteous enough to be loud so late at night."

"I guess I can live with it just this once," D. smiled.

"Well," responded Huck, "'ts been two 'r three a season. He al'ays disappears, inta the nation, he says, an' comes back a coupl'a weeks later. But he does spend a consider'ble 'mount of time in that there hallway, so we oughtta find some'er else fer the boxes."

They decided that it wouldn't upset anybody terribly if they put the boxes in the ballroom against the wall that it shared with the courtyard.

D. had expected to see some type of expression of Sal's personality when she first entered the southern hallway, to coincide with Jake's paintings to the north, but she found nothing but dust and a few dried leaves of the last Autumn swirling around in the wind that squeezed through the partially opened French doors. The boxes had nearly all been moved when Jake returned with a basketful of fresh water trout.

Saying, "Damn, Jake! I ain't never caught but a fish 'r two anywheres 'round here," Huck snatched the fish and began preparing them while Steinbeck and D. dragged the grill and a bag of charcoal to their usual summer place in the east and Jake took a shower.

The congregation of northern balcony dwellers ate contentedly on the lawn, and Jim trotted from person to person for scraps. While D. sifted through the remaining bones and flesh of her trout, she heard the muffled sound of Sal's saxophone seeping out into the early afternoon. "Should somebody ask him if he'd like to join us?" she asked, gesturing toward the music.

"It would be a friendly gesture," said Jake, "but he'd turn it down."

"Oh? Why do you say that?"

"He likes ta keep his gut lean, he says," Huck told her and then added, "fer the spahrs pickins he gets on the road."

"Well that's silly," said D. unassailably.

She walked through the front door, and the sound of the sax belched out a blues that bounced and bumbled around the empty hallway. She lingered in the dining room to wait for a break in Sal's playing. When it became apparent that no pause was forthcoming, she slid one of the few remaining boxes from under the table and dragged it to the door as an excuse. Turning the knob and propping the door open with her left foot, she hoisted the box and pushed through into the hallway.

Sal was leaning back against the inside wall, with one heel against the baseboard, looking through the French door. When he saw her move through the corner of one slit eye that was barely visible behind his dark glasses, he stopped playing and asked her, "'D'ya like a hand?"


His black hair shot out from his scalp in curly commotion and slid down his head as bushy sideburns leading to a youthful scruff that ran in patches across his cheeks until it broke into an overgrown turmoil around his mouth and chin as if pulled, magnetized, to the saxophone that was so often at his lips. From his neck down, splotches of stains were scattered across his well worn, and in places torn, t-shirt and jeans, as if the hair on his head and face were disposed to falling off in liquefied languish to the music, and the dirt leapt from his flaking leather sandal shoes and held parched and dry to the white strands that hung from the cuffs of his jeans.

He swung his horn on its strap around to his back, swaggered over to D., and slipped the box into his arms. D. was trying to place the name, "I feel like I should know, but what book are you?" and added, "If you don't mind my asking, that is."

Sal smiled, a long sly smile that pulled back farther on the left side, "What book am I? or what book is me?"

"Well which is it?"

Sal's smile grew, now showing the top row of teeth that were not old enough to be an unpleasant yellow. "The book is me, and I am Sal Paradise," he said, drawing out the "ise." "I always have been, and On the Road was a book about me written before I was born."

Satisfied with his answer, Sal asked D. where she had been bringing the box and started loping down the empty hall, sliding his toes, heels, and feet irregularly so that the hard soles of his sandals reverberated with a varying rhythm of tap-shsh-tap-shh-tap-tap.

"So I'm told that you like to travel," mentioned D. to fight back the silence that resonated like a grand pause when Sal flopped the box on top of another and came to a stop.

"Yass. Since I was old enough to leave my house I haven't been back for so long that my home is one big club under the sky where the night life is just to dig the world and the world's creatures and the crazy cats who share the bed of grass and take the endless commute across the country with a job that's never got to 'cause it don't exist."

"So I imagine that you've accumulated a huge number of stories."

"Well there's one difference 'tween me and Kerouac's version of me: I ain't a writer; I'm a musician. But I can pass a long haul on a train and entertain from the passenger's seat well enough if it's what the company wants. Dean's always askin' me to give him the ballad tour, but I say, 'Man, you got to Go.' 'Cause the road is pictures and a song, and no words can make the pass."


"Yes, the man himself who everybody seems to think is called Nathaniel. But I know they're wrong, 'cause I know time and so's he. And I know Dean, and he's eternal, and he won't be captured by a word or a bunch of words."

To emphasize the ineffectuality of words, Sal swept his horn under his arm in one fluid motion and blew a short melody.

"Is that the Dean theme?" D. asked humorously.

Sal parted his lips from the mouthpiece, "He ain't got just one, and ain't none of them ever exactly the same. When I first came here it was the winter, and all I wanted was to find myself a little warmth because I was used to bein' gone on the West Coast or down Mexico way when it's cold 'round here, but I hadn't seen snow in a while, and it's no good to only have the heat all the time, and what do I find? The craziest cat with the wild grit of the city out in the country. I guess his sound woulda been something like this..." and he rasped breath of gravel in a swinging jig through the saxophone... Boowaahh-da-da-dyadada-boowee... "and he'd play the piano soft and low with a melancholy chord and an out there rhythm like this..." this time the music turned minor and almost painful to listen to for all the disjointed sadness of it... Daee-daee-dy-dy-dyee-dy-twee-doo. "I thought that he must be grappling with something and that it was no good for him to be millin' 'round a sad silent castle like this in these mountains, and I dragged him out into the world."

D., who had been looking out the long row of windows while she listened, trying to picture the snow swirling through the trees and into the courtyard while Nathaniel sat at the piano shivering at what he played, looked up. Except for John, and Nick to an extent, she had yet to hear of Nathaniel outside of the Pequod.

"You traveled with him?" she asked.

"Oh yeah. He wanted to hoof and hitch it all the way across the country, and I didn't see any reason to disagree. Like two mad hermits on the side of the road, one with a horn and the other just bein' a melody." He played a series of forceful and shifty blasts... Blaahh-blaahh-droo-blablabla-eee. "We caught some rides and even insane Dean took the wheel and cracked us most of the way through the original colonies on his way to warmer weather like he was spinning the Earth faster to spring screaming down the road so fast that the teeth of the car's owner chattered as quick as the pistons and then stopped, 'cause he saw that Dean had it under control and there was nothin' to do but sit back and dig the feel of it all. But the guy was heading to Pittsburgh, so he made Dean pull over on Route 80 because he didn't know the way and lit out fast when we stopped for drinks at this little bar halfway into town, where we stayed long enough to realize that there wasn't nothin' to dig in Pittsburgh but a few college chicks who hadn't gone home for the holidays. They let us crash at their house for the night and drove us to the train station off this old brick road where we caught a train with some money that Dean had on him. We chose a train that headed southerly to get to where standing on the side of the road wouldn't be so painful and so Dean could see the Mississippi where Mark Twain must have gone up and down in a steamboat.

"We killed the time on the train just groovin' with the factory workers and some down-on-their-luck farmers and even a kid who'd been let out of jail in Jersey and been headin' home to Harrisburg, PA, but decided to keep going. In Louisiana we got off the train with the kid and had a few drinks. Dean pulled me to the side and said, 'Dig the kid, man, he's talkin' about snagging a bottle or two for the trip.' And the kid did get one bottle so that it barely showed in his pants leg, but when he tried to slip one down the other leg he was so gone that he did it upside down and had a big dark wet spot on his thigh that some girls we'd been talkin' to saw and made a big fuss which got us caught. But we were lucky, because Dean smoothed it over with the bartender, so he just threw us out without callin' the cops so that the kid wouldn't go straight back to jail.

"On the street Dean went wild and ran up and down in a hound-dog sweat lookin' for the sound of jazz that we heard floating on the lukewarm air. We found the bar with the jazz goin' on and the band leader was this old black fella who played the piano like Monk and sang the blues in this deep voice. And we dug him until a trumpet man with long hair and sunglasses stepped up and went way out and off on a solo that got every foot stomping to keep the distant beat. Well the guy jumped down off the stage and waved his horn from one side to the other like a weapon and people swayed back but didn't move 'cause the guy had it, and when he came to us, I spun my sax around and he laughed and blew at me and I returned it, and there was Dean right between us pointin' back and forth egging us to go and go and when we got to where there wasn't any farther to go he started bangin' his hands together and stomping to get us farther, and we went right along with him until there was nothin' to do but squawk back and forth with a" Sal spit wind into his horn, bourh-bourh-bourh, "and out of nowhere, the trumpet man and the old soul at the piano smacked back into the tune like they had never left or had some secret communication goin' on, and before he hopped back up on the stage, the guy with the trumpet played with one hand while he shook my hand and slapped Dean on the back while Dean smiled goofy like a kid whose just done something really right for the first time in the presence of a master.

"Next we swung down into Arkansas and hitched a ride with this wacky old hick in a rattlin' rusty pickup truck who told us stories of a whore named Cheryl-Lynn who had moved two states over and that he just had to find, but he wanted to get some rest so he let Dean take the wheel while he slept in the back on this ratty old mattress that he had brought just for the occasion. I don't know how he slept, but he did, and we had to be honest and stop where he told us, and he took an awful long time to get up when we got there. He thanked us and told us that if we waited for an hour that really turned out to be about twenty minutes, then he'd take us as far as Nevada, because he had come into a little bit of money that he wanted to turn into a fortune. And Dean told me to dig the guy and remember his face, and I still do, because he had the look of freedom, but with a shadow that knew he was fooling himself and didn't have much farther to go.

"While we waited we talked about the universe and folks and how the key is to just go with the current and leave nothin' undone. And when the guy came out, Dean took the wheel and was quiet and went slow for him, and in the middle of some big empty field, he pulled over and told me to take the wheel.

"I didn't want to leave him out there in the middle of the country with not much money, and it had been a while since we had seen another car going the other way, but Dean just swung down from the seat and smiled. 'See ya soon,' he said and began walkin' away. I watched his back in the red parking lights, and when he disappeared into darkness, I tapped the breaks to get one more look, and he was gone."


"Don't know. He just went," was all that Sal could say. "I made it out to California and swung in the Sans for a while, and took my time gettin' back across the country in the spring, and late in July I got back here and found Dean had gone farther than I could follow, 'cause he had it and he knew time, but he slid down to where I could understand, and we dug the summer together, but he had changed altogether, and I knew that it had only been a short swing for Dean and would never happen again but in a dream that I love to have. I guess it would be sad if it was anybody but Dean, but at least I had that quick run with him as he was when I could still get to where he was. I'll never get far enough now 'cause I don't have it in me. And I know me. Sometimes I think it'd be better just to go and see if I can't get out there myself and not come back ever, even if I found it 'cause then Nathaniel and I would know each other too good."

"So what keeps you coming back?"

Sal looked like he was thinking hard for a long half-a-minute and said, "Well alackaday. I just want to see what happens next. And besides, its a good place to stop when I'm in the East." He stamped his foot on the ground of the East like a man amazed to be home after a long hard trip. The sound ricocheted from wall to wall and even seemed to jingle a spiral up the two staircases. "And I dig this echo!"

He made his saxophone sing for a moment, then strolled across the ballroom. When he got to the line of windows, he spun, appearing to smile at D. from behind his glasses and his instrument, and slid sidelong to the last window to D.'s left. Leaning against the glass, he shoved with his shoulder and almost fell through. D. gasped and tensed to run to his aid before she realized that the window had been built to swing open with nearly no signs that it should. Sal stuck his horn into the warm afternoon air and blew.


"I..." D. began to offer the lunch of which she had lost her memory in the sweeping jump of Sal's story. She stopped and smiled inwardly, turned, and went through a door into the courtyard.

The sun radiates down from high in the western sky and heats the towers and the treetops and the tiles of the roof. It reflects at obtuse angles from the western windows of the house, illuminating the underside of the trees that loiter at its edge. The nearest trees, those that are always in shadow, seem to stretch to the warmth. The light sifts into and out of the wrinkles of bark and undulates as the wind blows and sways the trees. Across this stage of flowing lines a spotlight swings from left to right, as the sun is reflected more strongly by metal. And as we squint our eyes to the brass light, it is impossible to tell from whence the music comes.

June 24, 2005

What It Means to "Compromise" on Marriage

To the post in which I announced my latest TheFactIs.org piece, "notdhimmi" comments:

Mr. Ponnuru observed shortly after his "4th way" article hit the world that his email on the topic was generally one of two forms (paraphrasing)

1. Email from opponents to SSM, claiming "The SSM activists won't accept anything less than full marriage, just like man-woman marriage".

2. Email from supporters of SSM asserting that anything less than full marriage, just like man-woman marriage, wouldn't satisfy them.

I think there's a clue, here, on how well this 'compromise' (really a unilateral partial surrender) would work.

I recall that observation (although I couldn't find it in a quick search), and it seemed to me at the time that the combined emailer view of the issue is a little pat. As much as it draws on real and valid opinions of those on both sides of the issue, it misses an important quality of solutions such as Ramesh's and mine: namely, that the "compromise," in this sense, is between an array of political groupings, not individuals, and not feuding factions.

For such compromises to function, they don't require representatives of all sides to sit down and agree to a collection of bottom lines and concessions. Rather, they require only that enough people find the solution fair and agreeable to change the calculations of more adamant parties. Consider that the emails that Ramesh mentioned were written within the context of the debate as it stands, politically.

If a large enough segment of the population were to take up an Option Four–type position, intractable supporters of full same-sex marriage would risk being tagged as, well, the intractable ones in the debate, and they might lose all. Furthermore, if the compromise offered a more attractive footing for future advocacy than would exist without the compromise, all but the most resistant activists would move toward it. The sides' current refusal to budge is, itself, a calculated action and, as such, can change.

That, as it happens, is where my tweaking of Ramesh's suggestion comes into play. The idea, essentially, is to solve the marriage debate by rerouting it toward the civil union debate — to challenge the notion (against which I've railed for years) that "civil union" means specifically "marriage by another name." Same-sex marriage supporters would thereafter have to rebuild the connotation of "civil union" in a slower, more cultural, less-by-default process. Same-sex marriage opponents would thereafter have to actually define their views of "alternative families" and bolster marriage culturally — beyond its civil benefits.

The point, again, is that these "have to" steps would be reactions to a compromise that the broader society has decided the parties must make.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:06 PM | Comments (42)
Marriage & Family

June 23, 2005

Turning Discord into Harmony

My latest column, "Juggling Spheres in the Marriage Debate," begins with activists' invasion of Notre Dame Cathedral and makes its way to suggestions for resolving the current impasse in the same-sex marriage battle.

Coming Attractions...
Barring the emergence of a more immediate topic, my next column will address that Lee Harris piece that everybody's been talking about.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:20 PM | Comments (8)
Marriage & Family

Me in a Nutshell

Well, it doesn't explain my understanding of my purpose in the universe, but my bio (in brief) is up on TheFactIs.org. One thing it may help to explain is my lack of posts lately.

Of course, I left "homeowner" off my list of roles, and that's what has put my schedule over the edge for the past month-plus. I'm hoping to be done with this year's assignments (from my live-in foreman) within the next couple of weeks. I'm expecting to be done by mid-July.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:57 PM
Diary & Confession

June 19, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 10 (p. 184-190)

A Whispering Through the Branches
< Previous | Beginning | Next >

In the evening, D. unpacked her clothes into the empty drawers of the desk in her room. She felt listless, as if with her time in the house and the activities with which she filled it at her discretion, the ability to do anything left her unable to find any one thing that she actually wanted to do. To this day, she had merely been filling time spent primarily waiting for the ability to leave. She had returned planning only to meet this personality who was so intriguing that nearly a dozen fully grown men would return summer after summer seemingly for the sole purpose of telling stories about him. Of course, she knew that there must be more to it than this, so she left her plans after Nathaniel's arrival ambiguous. Now, with the end of her current situation indefinite, she felt listless, as if she needed a project to intersperse with the reading that she intended to do — some sort of goal.

She heard Jim barking somewhere outside of the house, and it occurred to her for the first time that he had been strangely absent from their walk that afternoon. Whatever the reason for Jim's absence, she had had Huck to protect her, and then Steinbeck, as well. She noticed that she had forgotten, at some indiscernible time, that she was in need of protecting. She didn't want to admit it, even to herself, but the idea that there was somebody wandering in the forest and concentrating solely on frightening her kept a titillating tinge of fear in the atmosphere. She scoffed at thoughts of her impending boredom because she still had, at least, the specter of Alex to cast a shade of danger upon even the most mundane of activities, especially when she did them alone.

Her heart picked up its pace just a bit. She was alone at the moment. In fact, she had been standing with her back to the door and her senses dimmed to the world, and with her senses keyed up once again, a tap at the window made her jump a little. It was a branch reminding her of the wind. She giggled at herself and put her hand to her chest with an inwardly laughing smile, but the heart under her hand was unsoothed. Tilting her head to discover other sounds of which she had been unaware, D. felt a rising discomfort because there were no other sounds. She held her breath, feeling silly for longing so much to hear Jim bark again or John snore or someone talking.


After a long moment of near, and largely self-inflicted, agony, she heard feet shuffling toward her from the eastern end of the house. She strained her ears to determine the number of steps but couldn't tell if it was two or four feet making their way down the northern balcony. Panicking whimsically, but with real anxiety, she slid backwards toward the window, planning to open it as a means of escape. She glanced about for something, anything, that might be used as a weapon, feeling a little ridiculous about herself for being so nervous. She had hardly seen Alex during the past month, and the other seven men in the house were no apparent threat to her, and they were all nearby. Surely, it would be Huck coming to offer her an evening snack. Or maybe it was Holden coming to petition for her approval. In fact, she felt as if the fact that she had just been considering the danger of Alex meant that it could not possibly be him. Fate seems always to be bent on disproving itself, so the appearance of Alex now would be a too coincidental a proof that Fate existed.

It was Alex. His sly looking green eyes slipped around the door frame, and his head and body followed. D.'s heart stopped. She would scream. He wouldn't dare attack her here, now.

As Alex's shoulder came into view, D. saw that there was a large hand on it. Jake stepped behind him.

"I found this young man pinned against a tree by Jim this afternoon just after you and Huck left. We've had a little talk."

D. breathed deeply but struggled to not show it. "Oh, I had been wondering where he had gotten to," she said, not sure, herself, which "he" she meant.

"Well, Alex here has something to say to you, don't you, Alex?"

Alex shuffled his feet and grunted something barely audibly.

"What was that? I don't think she heard you."

His face was toward the floor, and his sneaky eyes crept from his feet, to the side, at D.'s feet, and then back to his own. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

Jake squeezed his shoulder, "Speak up!"

"I'm sorry!" Alex jerked at the squeeze and looked at D. His voice had cracked over the "o" in "sorry," and suddenly his entire effect on her had changed. Suddenly the dangerous and unpredictable young devil was replaced by a kid in his late teens, perhaps no less dangerous, but infinitely more overt.

Jake smiled at D. "He understands that he'll be asked to leave if he can't manage to be more cordial to you. And you don't want to be asked to leave, do you?" Alex mumbled and looked away, but not before D. caught a look that slithered across his face, begun by a slight snarl of upper lip and culminating in an undulation that passed across his eyebrows. In a fancy of imagination, D. thought that she had seen something, not an impression, but something tangible and manifest slip past the black holes of his eyes, and D. knew simultaneously that there was more to the threat than being asked to leave and that there was still something in Alex of which she ought rightfully to be afraid. She hoped that Jim had become accustomed to sleeping in her room at night.

Even so, despite any lingering uncertainty, D. felt safer. Safe enough, in fact, to marvel at the fortuitous timing of the day's events. If it were a script, or a game, a line had been drawn in her favor, and she hoped that the extra work to which Alex would be put in order to harass her would dissuade him from trying. It's much harder to see that sort of activity as a game when the odds are more heavily stacked on the victim's side, and D. thought that, in his consciencelessness, Alex had merely been playing the game of the youth of his day.

After dark, the whole crew was gathered at the house, and it seemed to D. that the vacation atmosphere was becoming more defined. She was leaning back in the grass of the courtyard, twiddling the leaves of a nearby weed between her fingers listening to the rhythmic undulation of summer night bugs, and she looked around for the first time as a guest, not haphazardly and in glimpses between other, more immediate, thoughts, but thoroughly and carefully as if creating a picture in her mind. The light in the courtyard, she observed, was not merely the ethereal glow of the moon overhead, as it had previously seemed in a vague sort of non-thought, but was largely provided by candles that were placed sporadically around the yard and the balcony, each flickering unevenly with the occasional breeze that managed to sift its way into the yard.

She supposed that somebody along the way had figured out that putting candles in different spots and at varying altitudes would prevent any but the strongest and craziest winds from blowing them all out simultaneously. Occasionally, if enough candles had flickered out to make a palpable difference, or merely in passing, one of the party would relight the more easily reached of them. Looking at a candle that balanced precipitously on a balcony overhead, dripping its wax down a banister until it hung down over the grass of the yard like an opaque summer icicle, D. wondered if anybody ever worried about fire. She asked and received as an answer a varying bunch of looks, some suggesting mildly agreeing concern, some indifferent, and some offered through knowing smiles as if to say, "That could never happen here."

She wondered how much time John, who was presently asleep on his chair, might have to spend during the winter scraping wax from wood. Then she detected several banisters that were unusually thick with darkened wax and decided that that particular demand on John's time must be limited.

Apparently in reference to something that he was reading, crouched over the book on the piano bench with a candle so close at hand that D. worried for his hair, Steinbeck spoke, "I wonder why it is that we as a society have allotted so much recognition and money for superficial entertainers."

Martin, who was flipping idly through his dictionary, casting sidelong glances at everyone and smiling nervously at D. when she caught his eyes on her, nodded in agreement, "The money would be more decently spent on essentials," he said, and everybody understood that he meant those essentials that he, himself, provided.

"I think it's valuable as hell for people to distract everyone or something," said Holden, apparently thrilled to be able to hold up his end of a conversation. "I mean, who wants to give all the money that they have to work so goddam hard for to somebody who's only going to do something that doesn't distract them. Not me. But I don't care. Really, I don't. Because just because a person makes alot of money and all doesn't mean that everybody thinks they're more important than them."

"You're wrong, Holden," Jake told him matter-of-factly. He had been fingering the books against the northern wall. "We give the most power and money — and they're really the same thing these days — to those who give us the most in return, and if the person to whom we give the money and power has more of it than we do, then we are admitting that they provide us with something with which we can't provide ourselves. We don't always think of it that way, but maybe we should."

Sitting up from his book to better parry the idea, Steinbeck suggested, "I agree. Certainly, one does not need money to feel important or even to keep one's self occupied, but it would be in ignorance of the facts to claim that it isn't a method of approval that makes life much easier. And I agree with you, too, Holden, that distraction is a valuable commodity. What I can't seem to understand is why we manage to pool so much of it for people who distract us for such a short time and do that poorly. It just seems that, if we were to consider our own thoughts to be the finest of distractions, then our distracters would have to work harder at their creations in order to give us more to consider. I believe that we can choose to enjoy less obvious means of entertainment."

Huck spoke up from his position under the willow. "Take Nathaniel. Such a mind in his head and a c'ncern fer humanity, but I don't 'magine he makes what 'mounts to a spit on a bonfire 'pared ta well regarded acters an' athletes. I re'lize that he don' need as much reward from de money givers, on account of it comin' from elsewhar fer him, but are th'others really worth a hun'red times him in th'world's eyes?"

Although none of them were talking loudly, a breath of their conversation had wafted its way up to Nick, who stood sipping champagne in the southern tower; he called down an answer. "I'll tell you why they're worth so much. If you work at a desk or doing some otherwise useful but uninteresting task, who would be willing to watch you work? What distraction or story could an everyman offer? That's why celebrities make so much: people want to watch them work. I bet that I could name a greater number of frivolous celebrities than any of you could name great thinkers."

Steinbeck turned toward Nick's voice. "That's only true in two limited senses," he said, raising his voice to be heard. "Only athletes are paid for their process. Otherwise it is always the final product that earns attention, whether it be a painting, a book, a movie, or a harvest of wheat. As far as renown is concerned, if you're talking in terms of current or recent celebrities, you're probably correct, and that is exactly the reason for my objection, but if you look over time, even the last fifty years, then you remember the thinkers, who are also the creators. I doubt that you could name more performers from over one-hundred years ago than you could name thinkers. So in a grander scheme, you will lose your bet, and the area in which you might win would only prove me right in my original suggestion."

"Well I don't care either way. Long as I get my kicks, the rest of the world be damned." At first D. thought that Alex had finally spoken from the shadows of the corner in which he lingered, but then she noticed that it had really been a stranger standing over him in the southern balcony. She couldn't see much of this new face in the darkness, but what she could see looked scraggly. He continued, "You can sit here groaning about society all you want, but it'll all go on without you. Better to just slip through it and dig it all while you can."

Steinbeck said something about indifferent complicity, but the newcomer wasn't interested. He just slipped into the second room from John's and shut the door.

"Well Sal's here," said Steinbeck. "Bang the drums."


D. woke up late at night to a screech from somewhere out in the woods. Jim was standing on his hind legs with his paws against the sill of the half-open window. He barked.


It sounded like some kind of horn not far off to the north.


It was a saxophone in the night, and Jim barked again. D. got out of bed and looked out the window.

Brrooahh-dee-didilee-op, doodoo-ahh, doodoo-ahh-dee-didilee-op!

From somewhere out between the trees, D. heard a voice call out, "Dig the American night! I'm back in the soft cooing eastern mountains!"

She listened for another blurt of the sax, but the chirping of crickets rose up and silenced the horn. An owl seemed to take up the tune in a softly fading refrain. After a while D. went back to bed and fell asleep.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:16 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches

June 12, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 9 (p. 174-183)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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They decided to take a short break and sat on the grass of a shaded area by the stream's side. Steinbeck waited to see if anybody else had anything to say, then resumed his story.

"I think Fate must have some mechanism of sliding balances, because that next summer another woman came, and it must have seemed an omen to Nathaniel, who had watched so many years pass bringing only men. The impression must have been doubled by the fact that this next woman was almost an exact opposite from Charlotte.

"She was quiet and reserved. She seemed to have one of those codes of conduct that dictates that anything fun must disguise some evil impulse. I can't say whether her morals were religion-based or not, but if they were, it's likely that she saw our lifestyle as a prime point of entrance for the devil and herself as a kind of missionary saving us through conversion. At least that's the only way that I've found to explain her remaining here for more than a day or two, because she was humorless and uninterested in philosophical discussion.

"Her age was difficult to determine. Her behavior bespoke an older woman preparing for the grave and its posthumous rewards, but on the other hand, she was gorgeous, and that made her look very young, since we tend to attribute beauty instinctively to youth, as we attribute truth inherently to beauty until we are proven wrong."

"Well the young do, anyways," interrupted Huck.

"Perhaps the elderly do, as well," D. defended the idea. "As one ages, youth must become a broader category, and beauty in an older person must make those who match his or her age feel younger by association."

Huck ceded the point. He was outnumbered.

"So while Nathaniel had been entirely prepared to deal with a whore, he was ill-fitted to handle what he got: a saint," Steinbeck continued. "It would be a lie to suggest that there were any of us who didn't have our secret fantasies about this newcomer. Men will often brag about lascivious intentions that they don't really have, but when faced with apparent purity, they will usually dream quietly of tearing it down. Very few will admit to this as a goal, perhaps, because it hides a jealousy and a malicious will to destroy that which they do not feel they themselves have. Or perhaps this is another lie, and they are reserved because they desire purity themselves and in their obtuseness feel as if their natural impulses make them inferior.

"Whatever the case, we all played our little games of flirtation, with the possible exception, again, of John, who seemed uninterested in the whole affair where it went beyond the benefit of persuading everybody to leave him to his business. Nathaniel played his hand by becoming quiet, almost pious, himself, but because that state of being was new to him, his behavior seemed surreptitious instead. He would often find excuses to break his silence to chide her about one thing or another. One day he found her alone in the central garden and said, 'Well, it seems apparent that you intend to stay for a while.'

"To which she responded coyly, 'I thought I might.'

"'Then you'll have to choose a name.'

"'Why? It's silly.'

"'It is not silly,' Nathaniel justified the tradition. 'It is an opportunity to pick a name that suits you. It can be a chance to be different, maybe even to finally be who you are.'

"'Aren't I who I am regardless of my name?'

"Nathaniel thought for a moment. 'It's hard to tell if a name affects who you become or if who you become affects what your name is thought to represent.'

"The woman smiled a smile which, though it may have been a trick of the light, seemed a shade sinister. 'Fine,' she said. 'Call me Lolita.'"

Steinbeck grinned at a chuckle from D.

"Despite, or perhaps in the face of, her new name, and I can tell that you appreciate the irony of it, Lolita became even more constrained around Nathaniel, almost to the point of coldness. Needless to say, this conduct infuriated and further intrigued Nathaniel until he seemed on the verge of insanity with it. Maybe he saw Charlotte's absence as a rejection and, since he had somehow come to expect lust and rejection in that order, felt that Lolita was unjustly rejecting him without the benefit of the lust.

"'Why did she choose that name, damn it?' he would often say. To tell the truth, the majority of us came to believe that the entire charade was no more than a game and that Lolita would eventually succumb to Nathaniel as we all, in our own ways, had done."

Standing up and brushing dirt and grass from his bottom, Huck suggested that they get moving. Without a significant break in the story, Steinbeck and D. agreed and followed him.

"With Charlotte, Nathaniel had convinced himself that a slut was pure and honest, and now in honesty and purity he heard a sensual promise. And because when the situation is taken in this way the futile games become just so much waiting, Nathaniel grew impatient.

"'I wish we could just skip all this nonsense, regardless of the ending,' he said. 'I could handle not having her if rejection didn't follow so much teasing. I wish she wouldn't play these games.'

"'Maybe she isn't playing any games,' John suggested.

"'Oh she is. She's hiding something, and I think she's being untrue to herself.'

"John didn't agree, but he was sick of the topic. The whole situation was an annoyance to him. He walked away, probably to find himself a bottle, and called back, 'I knew there would be trouble having a girl that pretty in our small community.'

"But none of it mattered to Nathaniel. He had written the story in advance and came to believe that he could hurry the inevitable climax if he could only better play his part, and for his part he took that of the doting courtier. He began following her around and servicing her, which, to a woman who saw herself in the service of a higher morality, must have seemed either to represent one successful convert, to be a reward for good work done and a helper toward a more rapid success, or simply to be inappropriate.

"There are events in our lives that, no matter how we try, we can never quite follow back to their beginnings. Sometimes the progression from one stage to another is so subtle that the climax comes before we've noticed the accumulating pressure. Sometimes there might not have been a gradual acclimation, and an event comes as tornadoes do, unpredictably because we haven't the perspective to see their beginnings below, above, or around us. One such event thrust out of Lolita and slashed open wounds which may never heal in any of us.

"I don't know what turmoil inside her spun its way through to her actions. Perhaps her purity had been a disguise or a method of suppressing a part of herself that she did not like. Maybe she discovered that, despite the sinfulness of it, she enjoyed the power that she had come to have over the Pequod, especially over Nathaniel. I believe that it is just a mild shift that turns an angel into a devil, because any true opposites must pivot on a single idea. And to ask why the change took place and why it went in the direction that it did is to wonder why a vast body of water swells out of season and picks its way randomly across a field, destroying one farm while irrigating another.

"It would be impossible for me to explain the circumstances that brought John and Lolita out into the woods together. I cannot fathom what he could have done to break her resistance or how she might have manipulated him as part of some secret plan. Nor do I understand how, with all these acres to wander, Holden came to be napping against a nearby tree, concealed by bushes. The real John Steinbeck thought of virtue as a constant across the human spectrum and sin as something that every generation must learn or invent. Perhaps it is learned by accident through misdeeds that adults consider themselves to be too late to suppress and that are discovered by the young, or perhaps the young misconstrue the significance of virtuous acts and invent sin in that way. I cannot pick and choose between these options because I do not know the thoughts of any of those involved. It is possible that Holden had stumbled upon a vile act that John and Lolita wished to conceal deep in the forest. Or it is equally possible that John and Lolita's lovemaking was as pure an act as can be, and it was Holden who, peering through the bush at the two naked bodies writhing against each other, witnessed an act that he did not understand, but that both titillated and disgusted him.

"If this last is the case, then it would seem that so much time of obscurity among the ranks had made him eager for a chance to stand out, even if in a negative way, and to effectuate a change. He sought no council but snuck away from the scene after he had taken what enjoyment he could from it and brought an anthill crashing down by telling Nathaniel what he had witnessed. But he couldn't have expected Nathaniel to react the way that he did.

I imagine Holden thought that the news would bring him into Nathaniel's consciousness and that Nathaniel would wait and take out whatever aggravation he had on John and Lolita. But Nathaniel was gone before the couple had returned. With a terrifying look at Holden, he stormed off, and none of us saw him for several days.

"The rest of us, having seen only Nathaniel's reaction to something Holden had told him, accosted the young man with our minds already set. We told him that it had been a cruel thing to do. But Holden chastised himself the hardest, and none of us were inclined to exacerbate his pain. Perhaps that is the reason he took on so, taking the blame entirely upon himself and pleading with us all to search for Nathaniel because the look on his face when he left would haunt him forever if anything disastrous happened.

"Martin was the first to exonerate Holden, because he was not used to being near somebody who was more vulnerable than himself. Huck, here, pointed out that Holden was only confused and fumbling between choices. Just when we had all calmed down as much as was possible, Huck went off looking for Nathaniel and John and Lolita returned. For Jake and Nick, the fire rekindled, and they raged. 'You knew how he felt about her,' said Jake to John. John merely shrugged and was wordlessly helpless. Holden looked at them as if ashamed. Martin stood in the corner watching the whole spectacle with detached interest.

"Again, the energy drained from those who were expending it. Huck returned after dark saying that Nathaniel had disappeared but would come back when he was ready. Late in the night, Lolita dressed in a white shroud that she had found somewhere. She walked barefoot down to that lake, filled the pockets with stones and swam out as far as she could. It must have taken a tremendous force of will because, though the stones in her pockets kept tugging her down, she wanted to make sure that she was far enough out that a spurt of indecision would be insufficient to regain the night air. As she died, she was thinking that she hoped her sacrifice was enough.

"When Nathaniel came back and was told about the tragedy, he began to cry and then forced himself to smile as if to reserve at least a little victory over death. To him, death was an enemy that he would one day defeat in a fair wrestling match, and he could not comprehend why somebody else would simply roll over.

"'You know,' he said to no one and everybody, 'it would have been possible for Charlotte to screw every man here, and I wouldn't have suspected or cared, because I didn't love her.'

"He started to walk toward his room, but Jake called his name. I think Jake wanted to say something beautiful and reassuring, but he just dropped his arms and put his chin to his chest. 'I'm sorry,' he said.

"We all knew that Nathaniel blamed himself, but I don't think that the fault lay with any of us. I think Lolita had been disgusted with herself long before any of us had met her, and now that others knew her shame, she understood that she had been correct all along — she was transparent and would never be able to hide her vain sinfulness."

The three came solemnly to D.'s rock. The afternoon had taken on a cool demeanor, and the woods were silent. D. regarded the stone and then turned to look for something familiar in the surrounding trees. "This way," she said. "I think."

When they had broken through the line of shrubbery that bordered the stream, D. turned her head to Steinbeck and asked, "So how does your story end?"

Steinbeck considered the question and laughed. "Well it hasn't ended yet; I'm still alive." Then he added, "And relatively young, as well."

"You know what I mean."

After nodding, Steinbeck confessed, "This story doesn't have a very satisfactory ending. I guess the only way to end it is with the end of that summer. It had come to a close quickly, but with the sweetness sucked out of it as with murky water at the bottom of a lake. I guess we were all anxious to turn the page and begin a new chapter. That's the real Steinbeck's sentiment, not mine, though I believe it's a good metaphor.

"Nathaniel's problems that summer were not so simply abated. They had seeped through the pages, as it were. Nathaniel, like many of Steinbeck's characters, and probably the author himself, was struggling with greatness. Steinbeck once wrote that 'a man's importance can be measured by the quality and number of his glories,' but 'glory' has always seemed to be too subjective and broad a concept by which to define the value of a human life.

"In Nathaniel's mind, he had caused Lolita's death. I don't know how he came to that conclusion, but he did come to it. Those last days of the summer, he tried with all his might to discern what sin Lolita had thought she had committed, because he believed that he was the one who had made an innocent impulse on her part seem sinful. Nathaniel had always been inclined to try for the larger picture of life, believing it to be dangerous to consider only specific aspects, but now, without knowing it, he was doing something exponentially more dangerous: peering only at one thing. One act. One line in what can only be handled safely with a view to the intertwining of many lines. No matter the path one takes, if that path is followed as far as it can be, we end where we began: with the choices made by the individual in a world of interaction. And none can shoulder the blame of others or fully understand their faults. We can only choose for ourselves.

"Huck once told me that it is too easy to follow the course of a group, be it society or religion or political party."

D. looked to Huck, but he showed no inclination to contradict Steinbeck this time.

"And as individuals, we are all responsible for our own lives, at the end of which we must look back and decide whether we labored for good or for evil. But we all want it to have been good, and here is where we must account for the group to measure how our conceptions of good and evil compare to those of others. There will always be somebody to contradict anything that we can possibly say, and since this is inevitably true, we have no string of constancy to which we can hold except to be honest always: to ourselves and to the world.

"To lie is to contradict any purpose that we could possibly believe that we have. Perhaps this can be the only test when we return, as we always do, to a heterogeneous society. No matter what we do, it cannot be good unless we are willing to share it with others. If we wish to hide it, we cannot truly believe in it ourselves. Maybe this is why so many are miserable in these days: too much time spent trying to justify lies so that we can never do anything but good in our own eyes. I think that it was the lie, whichever way it was directed, that killed Lolita. We're all suicidal in a way. How else can we explain modern society?

"I believe that this was the devil that Nathaniel battled for so long, and I think that at the end of that summer, he came to a point in his reasoning at which he realized that all of his reasoning and logic were the problem. One option is to struggle through it, thinking that it is just another of an endless series of problems to be worked out. Another option is to drop the whole thing by believing that finally your current conviction is the correct one. Nathaniel's conviction at the time was that humans can't choose to know everything; they can strive for it, but they'll never achieve it. But he believed that you can choose to know nothing. The former is to question why we are alive, and the latter is simply to live. This is the option that he chose for himself at that time.

"The day before I left, he said to me, 'I never saw either Charlotte or Lolita, because I created them. I used to be able to see through my expectations and see what really was. I have to find that again, and I think the answer might be to not look so hard. I never saw either of them. They were only ideas in my own head.'

"And it must have been a sad moment watching them go, his ideas, as he closed the door on them. But, like death, it is only a momentary pain, for once you've turned the bolt, you forget why you had opened the door at all. Nathaniel built a wall in his head that could not be passed in either direction, and only time would tell if the wall would prove to be a tomb or a cocoon.

"For my own part, I disagreed, and I told him as much when I said to him that perhaps the only thing to which we have an undeniable right is experience and asked him what value there could be to experience without learning."

As Steinbeck voiced this question, a glint of light came through the shrubbery and D. gasped. "I didn't realize that it was so close!"

They pushed through a final thicket, and there, where she had left it, was D.'s car. She walked around it and inspected the outside, then turned to Huck and Steinbeck with a look of childlike joy.

"Well," said Steinbeck.

"So I s'pose this is it," said Huck.

"Yes," D. told him, "I guess it is."

She took her keys from her pocket.

"How 'bout a g'dbye hug'n'kiss?"

Tearing, but not knowing why, D. complied. Then, without a word, she turned back to her car and put the key in the lock on the door. There was an unreasonably loud click as the door unlocked. Steinbeck and Huck looked at each other, waved to D., and turned to leave.

"Wait!" D. called after them. "You haven't finished your story yet."

Steinbeck, taking a moment to realize that the call was to him said, "Yes, I think I have."

"No, you haven't. You have to tell me what words of wisdom Nathaniel offered you in response to your question."

Steinbeck smiled. "Oh." He shrugged the implication that they hadn't been significant words. "Only that he would get well. Then he repeated it, 'I will get well. I haven't the right to do otherwise.'"

With that, Steinbeck, then Huck, turned and walked back toward the grumbling of the brook. D. opened her car door, and the hot, stagnant air of civilization rushed out to her. On the passenger seat was the duffel bag full of the clothes that she had told John negated her need to follow him home.

The wind has picked up, and the sky is darkening to the far west, bringing the brook's children so they can fall to earth and cause her to overflow and grace the legs of the trees. The trees will brighten at the renewed youth of their company, and Summer will begin.

We feel the earth under our feet, and we know that there are those among us who are glad that we have been distracted from our slumber. Who can sleep in the heat of possibility? And now that we have missed our window of early Spring, we are eager for stories of morning, of rebirth, and of hope.

Let's stay a while. Let's linger a while longer and watch as three forms return toward the house in the woods at dusk. Two men and a woman, and she with a bag and a suitcase as if heading out for a restful vacation.

But we never leave our routines in the simple hopes of breaking our routines. We leave for the promise of difference, in the hope of something new, and, ultimately, to increase our store of stories.

June 9, 2005

Falling from Thoughts of Heaven

After the twelfth of the twenty-four episodes of Lost's first season, religious viewers thought they'd taken another step toward inclusion in mainstream culture, as represented by television and film. (Or at least one religious viewer did.) Lost treated religion seriously — acknowledging it as part of the society in which we live. Without a tone of sneering irony, as is expected in one direction, and without the feel of saccharine sincerity, as is expected in the other, two characters prayed to the "Heavenly Father" right at the end of a hit show that isn't definingly faith-based.

Well, by the two-hour season finale, it seemed as if Lost's creators had banned the word "God" except as an expression of emphasis. I can't help but wonder, as I have in my latest column for TheFactIs.org, whether "Religion's Gone Missing on 'Lost.'"

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:59 PM | Comments (6)

June 6, 2005

Wrestling Through the Sunrise

With the necessary qualification that I'm responding only to a single essay by him, I'd suggest that Rabbi James Rosenberg of Barrington, RI, is attempting to align himself in a discordant way theologically for ulterior reasons at which I won't guess:

I am one of those who believe that "the search is an end in itself, without any hope or possibility of ever attaining the goal of truth" -- at least not "The Truth."

Nevertheless, I deny with every fiber of my being that I am a nihilist, that I subscribe to a philosophy of nothingness. Rather, I call myself a God-Wrestler. God-Wrestling is shorthand for my lifelong commitment to spiritual struggle, a struggle that transforms and liberates, a wrestling that renews and freshens and chastens. It is Jacob's wrestling to become Israel. It is what God demands of me day after day, even when I'd rather be fishing. ...

I know Jewish God-Wrestlers and Protestant God-Wrestlers and Catholic God-Wrestlers. Ours is the approach of seeking and asking, not of finding and learning the "correct" answers. We do not claim to know for certain what God requires of us, because for us Scripture is not "the Word of God" but rather the record of our ancestors' efforts to get close to God.

Whether he considers it the Word of God or not, surely Rabbi Rosenberg knows his scripture well enough to recall that Jacob's wrestling match only lasts until the dawn, at which point the stranger (i.e., God) tells him, "you have contended with divine and human beings and have prevailed" (emphasis added). Rosenberg's treatment of this passage is especially telling in context. If the Bible is not the Word of God, then it is available for perusal and elision — as a source for useful analogies and representations tweaked to fit.

One needn't delve into this particular exegete's preferences, however, to justify my opening suggestion. That there's more to the Rabbi's statement than theology is evident in the fact that even his short piece in the Providence Journal cannot sustain a consistent view. Writes the man who doesn't believe there to be "any hope or possibility of ever attaining" Truth:

I would suggest that there are many paths that lead to God, many ways of walking in faith.

What Rosenberg in actuality suggests is that there are many paths that lead around God — always on the nighttime side of the mountain. God-Wrestling is an activity that can only be pursued indefinitely while darkness persists. With the light that dawn brings, we are bound to begin learning about our opponent.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:58 PM | Comments (14)

Coming to a Church Near You?

No doubt, many supporters of same-sex marriage will grimace when they read this news, but the likelihood of that reaction makes it no less legitimate to ask: Is this sort of activism in America's future — particularly if civil marriage becomes degendered?

About 20 members of the group Act Up entered the cathedral and proceeded to perform the mock marriage in front of baffled tourists and worshippers, according to an AFP correspondent at the scene.

One activist - dressed as a priest - pronounded the two women married, while other Act Up members chanted: "Pope Benedict XVI, homophobe, AIDS accomplice."

With security officials in pursit, they then fled the cathedral, but clashes broke out outside the Paris landmark, during which Monsignor Patrick Jacquin suffered a minor neck injury. He was treated at the scene.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:07 PM | Comments (140)
Marriage & Family

June 5, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 9 (p. 167-173)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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"So have there been women here before?" D. interrupted.

Steinbeck smiled at the innuendoed tone of her question. "But of course. You don't think that in a world of such diversity only men would find their way here, do you? Or did you think that we would turn women away to some other house in the wilderness with doors closed to men that would give women their equal due to solitude in the mountains? To my knowledge, no such counterpart exists. Well, perhaps there is one, at that, because, though we have had women, we haven't had nearly enough of them. What do you think, Huck, should we send out a troop to find our female counterparts?"

"Not at my age, Steiny, not at mine."

Steinbeck laughed at a joke that he did not share.

"Well, old man, you remember Charlotte, don't you?"

"I ain't so old that my mem'ry can't go back that short stretch."

Steinbeck laughed again. "Not to discredit your youthful vigor, but I suspect that there are men who have taken a memory of Charlotte to the grave, no matter the disrepair of their minds toward the end."

"She must have been pretty," guessed D.

To this comment, Steinbeck responded with a quizzical look that conveyed perfectly the thought that women should not think so little of men that a pretty face alone will procure deathbed remembrances. "No," he said. "In fact, at certain angles and certain lights, she was downright ugly. Her eyes and hair were black, but of an ordinary sort, and her skin was sallow and a little too loose on her body. But usually there was something about her that made you want to look more closely. Something was just off about her appearance, and the same was true about her personality. I think men might remember her after all else has become shapes in the dust because she caused a subtle disruption, like an ambiguous insult, or a puzzle that seems to have a solution that you don't want to figure out.

"Or maybe it was just that she was our first woman and we didn't know how to react to her. Sometimes I've felt, and maybe you could tell me better, that it must have taken great courage for her to stay amongst a crew of men cut off from society for such a length of time."

"We're not helpless, you know. Besides, almost everybody's been friendly and cordial to me."

"Oh, believe me, I know. I often think that women are the stronger half of the species, almost to the point of being unstoppable when they've got their minds set on something. But I think that I'd be uncomfortable, to say the least, in a detached mansion with a mob of strange women. Men may profess to fantasize about such scenes, but it's a rare fellow who wouldn't avoid the chance were it to arise, I believe.

"But in our situation here, I guess it helps some that we're not always cut off from the world. Some of us, I'm sure, lead very productive lives when we're not here."

Huck chuckled to himself.

"It's never comfortable to be different," suggested D.

Steinbeck nodded and then responded, "That it is not. But Charlotte," he said, bringing them back to his story, "always seemed to enjoy the extra attention and the leverage that came with it. I don't know what she did in real life, but I don't think that it fulfilled her or made her feel important or significant. When she came here, she must have discovered something inside herself that she didn't know existed, and she let it loose with a fury.

"I wouldn't say that she was bad, but... well, wait a minute... yes I would. She was a bad girl in every way that title can be made to apply reluctantly, and I understand that some people find that very attractive. Not to say that she drank excessively, or anything of that nature; in fact, I think she may have been a little afraid of what might come out of her mouth if she did. I guess what I'm trying to say is that she overacted. She took a role that didn't seem to be a perfect fit and stretched it out and damn near broke it.

"Take her name, for instance. She chose it from some children's novel either out of laziness or a fine-tuned sense of irony and took to calling Nathaniel 'Wilbur' and John 'Old Farmer Bill.' Only she didn't know if she had the right name, so she'd say, 'Old Farmer Homer or Joe or Bob or whatever.' John wasn't amused by her, but she must have hit some warm spot in Nathaniel, because he would blush when she called him names and would defend hers because the book from which it came often has a powerful influence on children."

"If it's the one I'm thinking of, I remember that it made me cry when I was little," D. offered.

"You're not alone in that," Steinbeck consoled, "but you have to admit that from a certain perspective it can appear to be an easy way to hide from the entire name choosing process."

"A little like yours?"

"Of course! But I'll be getting to that in a moment." Steinbeck brushed a strand of his chestnut hair away from his temple and pushed up the corner of his mouth as if deciding where to resume his story. "So it was a mystery, if not a surprise, when it became evident that Nathaniel and Charlotte, who was nearly twice as old as him and not half as good a person, were in the midst of a fling. I think it was Huck who said... "

"Oh it was, was it?"

"... that once the first bits of innocence are toppled, it's difficult and maybe foolhardy to try to stop the chain reaction. Not that Charlotte began the process in Nathaniel, but perhaps she came to represent the next blockage in the flow of his progression, and the fact that she took away the need for him to overcome an inherent shyness made the advent of their having sex almost inevitable.

"From what I've been told, the love affair seemed to renew Nathaniel. He had been sullen and now began to cheer, as many of us do when we find ourselves in a new position, regardless of its virtue. Perhaps it was a sort of bravery that came from the promise of new stages and new experiences. It's always a flashing moment when that happens, and it sometimes kills people who rush headlong in a search of continued euphoria through newness. You can see it in our heroes: the live-fast-and-die-young waifs. It's hard to not question whether they know something that the rest of us don't. But since the rational far outnumber the impulsive, I wonder if there isn't a certain wisdom in shrewdness."

"So are the great people that you mentioned earlier the same as the impulsive ones?" D. asked.

Steinbeck seemed a little surprised by the question, so he rolled it around in his head for a while and then responded, "Great men are virtuous, and in our time maybe impulsiveness has taken on the mien of a virtue in popular thinking. I think they're similar in that the majority never understands what drives either, but it's a fine distinction. The difference is that great men act out of compassion for others, and impulsive people are selfish and act primarily for themselves."

D. noticed that Steinbeck used the word "men" in reference to greatness and "people" in reference to impulsiveness but decided to put her observation aside for the time being.

"This distinction is very close to what happened in the minds of Nathaniel's companions when the affair became public knowledge: everybody knew Nathaniel to have the potential for greatness, and they did not understand the impulsiveness of his actions. They where congratulatory and thankful that he had found something to bring him out of what had looked like a downward spiral, but they were also worried.

"More importantly, though, I think everybody was a little jealous, especially Nick. Whether of her or of him I don't think matters. It was the jealousy that friends feel when one becomes somebody else's lover. Friendships can never come to those burning moments of intense physical passion. A friend's passion is vague, cerebral, and thinly laid out across a spectrum of interactions. Perhaps a friend will last longer for this reason — a section of the blanket can tear and be mended by a hasty job of patching. Amorous relationships tear deep and long and often leave a couple disconnected. Who's to say which is the better. Of course, at the time Nathaniel would have insisted that he had both with Charlotte, because his strange feelings toward her prevented him from seeing her as she really was.

"I think the whole arrangement fell the hardest upon Jake. For some indiscernible reason, Jake sank into a flaccid silence. It might have been nothing more than Jake's tendency to be huge in everything, both vigorousness and morbidity, or maybe there was something more involved for Jake than the rest. But whatever his reasons, Jake hid behind his painting and took what solace he could from the company of others. But I can only attest to this as a guess, because he kept these two comforts so separate that they almost became contradictory. While he painted more, he hid his work from the world until Huck, who hates for things to be hidden as if they are shameful lies, found him out and hung the collection, really only two paintings, now that I think of it, in the northern hallway. Armed with the compliments of the rest of his 'family,' Jake came out of the closet, so to speak, and back into the fold."

Feeling that he had reached a cadence of sorts, Steinbeck left a pause for symbolic effect. D. could hear the gurgle of water in the near distance. "Mind you that everything that I've told you this far has been put together from bits and pieces of conversations that I've had, because this is the state of affairs into which I arrived. I told you that I'd get back to the 'cheating' of my name, and, as with greatness, I don't believe it to be cheating if one has the well-being of others in mind when one acts. Remember that I was the first new stranger since Charlotte, and it might not seem fanciful that I stirred something in Nathaniel that he had put to nap when he allowed Charlotte to assuage his troubled thinking. In part, the name that I picked and the game involved in contemplating its implications were meant to break Nathaniel out of the slave chains of sex. He had been caught up in a bodily temptation and had transferred the authority that it had over him to the flesh of the matter rather than the soul.

"Of course, it wasn't entirely my arrival that offered Nathaniel the pill of reality. Whatever it was, in its entirety, it was a bitter medicine and a strychnine revelation for him. If he had trusted himself, if he had believed in his own virtue, he may not have been so ruptured by his conflicting emotions. He struggled between his potent desire to grasp for the headboard of vice and his disgust with himself for being so distracted. It was as if he had woken from a dream and didn't know whether or not he should go back to sleep. Of course, we all were ready with pans, whistles, and shakes to pull him out to us. Well, not all of us. John seemed encouraged in a way by the turmoil that boiled in Nathaniel, because it proved that he was not perfect. There are such men who can only be vindicated by the shortcomings of others."

The churning of the brook was louder now, and D. was beginning to catch glimpses of the water as it rolled over stones and cast sparkles between the trees.

"Because I had come so late in the summer, it seemed as if the party dispersed soon after I had arrived, and I went home, as well. The following summer, Nathaniel got here early and was restless for Charlotte's appearance. During the break, he had braced himself to look his demons in the eye and reclaim his soul, but the experience was stolen from him because his devil did not return. Maybe Charlotte had fallen back into the patterns of her life and forgotten our house in the woods. Or maybe when the expectations of those who knew her out in the world forced a recrudescence of her docility she shivered at the role that she had played.

"Either way, she did not make a dramatic, or any, entrance. Her failure to do so was another mystery to us all, but this time a welcome one for most. Again, Jake's reaction, I remember noticing, was sad relief. Perhaps he felt as if his friendship had won a battle by default or something. Despite his priming and the number of times he had rehearsed the scene, Nathaniel was also relieved that he did not have to discover his real visceral and emotional reaction to Charlotte.

"The house was in disrepair that spring. How John manages to make anyone believe that he does much more than sit in his chair and drink is what my namesake called 'a triumph of insinuation.' There were leaves and twigs everywhere, interspersed by animal droppings and a thick coat of dust over everything. But it was good that the house was in such a state because Nathaniel returned from his recovery needing something to do. Most of the late spring that year was spent fixing things and cleaning. It gave Nathaniel time to think productively, just as he was doing productive labor. He and I were finally wiping the last pane of windows in the ballroom when Nathaniel turned to me and said, 'I should have seen her for what she was and shielded my mind from thinking more of her than she deserved.'

"'You've hit the mark there,' I said. 'But you've grown tremendously from the experience.'

"'I know. But I often wonder if growth must always be so difficult. It doesn't seem to be true for everybody.'

"With these words, I realized that, while I was only a year or two younger than him, my maturation had been simple. In fact, I hardly knew that it had happened at all. But then, compared to him, I only had to climb to a slighter level. Perhaps that is why he's always seemed so much older than me."

Almost as if Steinbeck had been subtly pacing their walk, just as he spoke these last words, the trio broke out into the meager river bank. D. thought she could make out in the distance, down the gradual slope of the hill, the rock from which she had fallen to begin her adventure.

From behind, Steinbeck, watching her follow the stream with her eyes, said, "Well, here's our grand river. It's not much of one, but it's all that we have, so we make it fill whatever pridefully symbolic purpose we need. Since everyone else has declined the privilege and shirked the duty of naming it, I've decided that it should be called Philus."

"Why?" D. asked.

Steinbeck laughed and Huck said, "He won't tell ya. Seems ta me he thinks it'd ruin the game."

"Yes, it would," Steinbeck confirmed.

D., having thought of something similar, changed the subject, but only slightly, by asking Steinbeck, "What do you think of that stained-glass window in the entrance hall?"

"I haven't worked it out yet," Steinbeck responded with perfect seriousness.

Huck glanced down the brook's length. "Will ya be able t'say where you came 'cross the river?"

D. nodded, "I think it was at that big rock in the distance. And it took me about forty-five minutes to get there from my car. Of course, it may actually be very close, because I was just wandering that day."

"Well, we're just wand'rin now."