Joseph Epstein on how to get a standing ovation
Whenever Hollywood takes on what it thinks is a radically courageous subject, be sure that it is in reality only an occasion for a warm bath of self-congratulation, usually in already used, morally tepid water. I took a pass on The Cider House Rules, one such movie, because I don’t go to movies about abortion, a subject and issue that seems to bring out the sanctimonious virtucrat in everyone. I’m told that the movie makes the claim that abortion is O.K., and maybe better than O.K., a damn fine thing. This is a proposition so utterly accepted by Culture No. 1 that it would require a social Geiger counter so fine not even Hammacher Schlemmer sells it to discover anyone in Hollywood who disagreed with it.
I did see American Beauty, another Hollywood adventure in bogus courageous movie-making, which presented another opportunity for one of those slightly skuzzy baths just referred to. I’m a bit uncertain myself wherein the courage of this movie derives. From showing a chap wanking in the shower-through isenglass, to be sure, and from behind? From portraying two gay men as sweethearts, in every sense of the term? From showing suburban American family life as one inexorable nightmare? From mocking ambition? From suggesting that all violent emotion is really an expression of repressed homosexuality? From suggesting that adolescents are so much wiser than their parents? From all of this and a few further bits of received wisdom that I’ve probably overlooked.
All this, surely, is the stuff out of which standing ovations on Oscar night are made. Had I been in the Oscar-night audience when American Beauty won all its awards, I would have sat that standing ovation out, muttering to myself that-harummph, harummph-the only brave people in Hollywood are its stuntmen.
A Reading List for Every Young Woman
TWQ has hosted a number of symposia. In one, we asked participants to pick four books every educated young lady should read.
Dear Jane (I’ll call you Jane):
You ask me to recommend four books for your college reading list. That’s a good number, four. It forces your correspondent to choose works for more than pleasure, or even literary value. I guess it’s the old, “What books would you want with you on a desert island?” question, particularly appropriate for college, where life is best when insular. The four I offer you are high on pleasure and literary value. But I believe that they also present several minds worthy of your admiration. If you emerge from college knowing whom to admire, you’ll be way ahead of the game. You’ll note that of the four I suggest, only one author is a woman; I am only a feminist when it comes to rights.
First, I suggest that you read Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Boswell himself was an interesting combination of fellows: one corrupt and weak, the other wishing to improve himself by an attachment to a superior person. The man he wrote of, Dr. Johnson, was superior in ways that are deeply moving as well as intellectually impressive. Johnson was poor, and was always on the side of the poor. But he could not tolerate cant about human nature, and he balanced his mind between conservative moderation and liberal impulses (much like our own Constitution). He also feared death so gravely that he could hardly speak of it, which suggests that he appreciated what he could not know. He was physically unattractive, too, which put him at a useful distance from the world, and undoubtedly honed his capacity for sympathy. Best of all, he was equally generous and stern, and (thank God) judgmental. You’ll like him.
The greatest war novel ever written is All Quiet on the Western Front. I want you to read it even if you already have. People call it an antiwar novel, and, on one level, I suppose it is. But its finer quality lies in the depiction of human helplessness in the face of human impulses-war being the deadliest. There’s no better account of the danger of pride or of the pettiness of men at arms. And, of course, it will break your heart.
Finally, The Great Gatsby. And before you roll your eyes to heaven, let me assure you that I did the same thing at your age. And yet it is an endlessly rich novel, not just because of the old theme of yearning, but because every character counts. And every character represents a major American type, thus idea. There are no minor characters in Gatsby. Huckleberry Finn may be the novel of the discovery of our national soul. But Gatsby is about the way we turned out. It really is as good as the people you mistrust say it is.
Well, Jane, that’s my list. Enjoy the books, enjoy college, and don’t forget to write to your folks. Best, Roger.
Austen, Aristotle, and Bagehot were realists. So was David Stove (1927-1994), a brilliant but little known Australian philosopher. Almost anything by Stove could be read with immense profit. His most important work concerned irrationalism in the philosophy of science, that benighted swamp of confusion popularized by covert irrationalists like Karl Popper and Thomas “Mr. Paradigm Change” Kuhn. But Stove was also an occasional essayist of scintillating power and insight. And my fourth suggestion is his long essay “The Intellectual Capacity of Women” (available in my anthology of Stove’s writings, Against the Idols of the Age).
I have noted with some amusement that even the title of Stove’s essay on women tends to elicit a frisson of anxiety. “He is not going to…wouldn’t dare… You don’t mean to say that he actually argues. . . .” Well, yes. “I believe,” Stove writes in his first sentence, “that the intellectual capacity of women is on the whole inferior to that of men.” He offers as his main reason for this belief the uncomfortable observation that “the intellectual performance of women is inferior to men.” In other words, he explains, it is the same sort of reasoning as that which convinces us that “Fords are on the whole inferior to Mercedes; or as that which convinces dog-fanciers that Irish setters are not as smart as labradors; or as that which convinces everyone that the intellectual capacity of seven-year-old children is on the whole inferior to that of nine-year-olds. They do not do as well, and we infer from this that they cannot do as well.” Of course, this is not, Stove readily acknowledges, proof: “performance is no infallible guide to capacity.” Still, “it is, in the end, the only guide we have or can have.”
Is Stove right? I really don’t know. Would it matter if he were? Probably not. But at a moment when young women are surrounded by a chorus of feminist claptrap, how refreshing it would be to entertain, if but momentarily, a contrary opinion that, even if mistaken, is carefully argued, wittily expressed, and genuinely provocative. Jane Austen would doubtless have raised an eyebrow if confronted with David Stove’s essay. But I suspect she would also have been amused. She might have penned a compelling reply. One thing we can be sure of is that she would not have started whining about misogyny and the depredations of patriarchy.
I was followed into the world by seven siblings. Because the three closest in age to me were sisters, I acquired an intimate view of certain kinds of female reading habits at a very early age. Indisputably, just as there are chick flicks there are gal books. Even as a youngster I understood that dipping into the occasional Laura Ingalls Wilder or Judy Blume, though perhaps unrewarding on the merits, was an act of considerable anthropological utility.
It is important for men and women to have a sense of the literature, whether juvenile or mature, that exists more or less exclusively for enjoyment by the other sex. So any mandatory reading list for young women should include at least one quintessential guy book. The one I’d recommend is The Natural Man, by Ed McClanahan. No guy I know has failed to find this coming-of-age tale, with its bawdy vernacular, a tour de force of comic insight into the adolescent male condition. It would be helpful for women to understand this, if only as a warning.
Does anyone dispute the importance of positive role models? There is by now a capacious amount of updated role-model literature for young women, much of it mediocre and some of it appalling. A second book to include on the reading list would be Hildegard of Bingen, by Fiona Maddocks. Hildegard (1098-1179) won’t be a role model for most modern young women in any literal sense (she was a nun), but she deserves some sort of transcendent role-model status. Known mostly for her music, Hildegard possessed one of the most widely creative minds and forceful characters of her age-imagine a combination of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Hannah Arendt, Madame Curie, Margaret Thatcher, and Joni Mitchell.
A role model of a different sort, and of value for fostering the virtue of negative inducement, is the actress Joan Crawford, memorialized in her daughter Christina’s Mommie Dearest, a third suggestion for the list. Every reader will have her own most memorable moment-is it the scissors-and-the-yellow-dress scene? the Bon-Ami-scouring-powder-in-the-bathroom episode? the reading of the will? Bookshelves today sag with manuals about mothering in general, and about combining motherhood and career in particular. Mommie Dearest provides no practical advice at all, but it will leave the young reader with a powerful emotional resolve: “Dear God, whatever I do, don’t let me be like her.”
Finally, there should be something from the Bible. Angry feminists would likely recommend the Book of Deuteronomy, always cited as one of the ur-texts of patriarchal oppression. But I would favor the Song of Songs, with its incomparable poetic evocation of mutual love, two-thirds of its verses written in the female voice. Some scholars have even suggested that the Song of Songs was composed in part by a woman. Who knows? But it is highly charged stuff-and for that reason was the most frequently copied book of the Bible by medieval scribes. As Hildegard of Bingen could have told you.
How to Keep Your Head
Roger Kimball on the management secrets of Liz Tudor, CEO
Perhaps you did not know-I certainly didn’t-that Elizabeth I was an ardent champion of diversity. But so she was. The female president and CEO of Lucent Technologies Canada Corp. tells us so: “Whether you are the leader of an empire, a corporation or a family, diversity is key. As Queen Elizabeth I so evidently knew, surrounding yourself with the best and the brightest, embracing diverse points of view and fostering free expression leads the way to unleashed creativity, unmatched innovation, and unlimited success.” Not that Bess was up-to-date on everything. “Elizabeth was, perhaps, least skilled in the democratic style of ruling,” we read, “(but, it must be remembered, democracy was little practiced in her age).” Thanks for that reminder!
The Lost Art of Educating Children. What’s to be Done?
Eugene Ham praises a great teacher who couldn’t get a job today.
A lot of people have said that Greenville, Mississippi, has produced so many writers that there must be something in the water. But some older and wiser types give the credit to a frail, Jewish schoolteacher, an “old maid,” in the parlance of her day, who loved the arts and whose dramatic delivery was so much fun that for three decades students daily badgered her to read aloud.
Miss Carrie Stern had not majored in education-she was, instead, a born teacher. A school superintendent named E.E. Bass had no trouble recognizing that her broad knowledge of history, literature, and the fine arts, and her love of young people more than qualified her to teach. Bass and Stern’s shared notions of what constituted education are classically absent in most of the public schools where I have taught for the last thirty years.
With Bass’ encouragement, Stern created and carried through one of the first public school programs in art instruction in the United States. Ordinary students, rather than just those whose families could afford private lessons, received instruction in drawing and painting, as well as exposure to art history tied directly to their studies. With no formal budget for anything but the most rudimentary supplies, the program persisted for decades. She also founded the first high school newspaper in the Southeast.
One year Miss Carrie Stern staged a production of The Rivals by Richard Sheridan that was recalled with fondness by the actors and the audiences even in my childhood. One late spring, during the region’s prolonged dusk, she staged the pageant scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream beneath great oaks and illuminated by Japanese lanterns.
William Alexander Percy, author of Lanterns on the Levee (and uncle of the novelist Walker Percy), celebrated Miss Stern in his memoirs as a patient mentor, who was, during his appren-tice years in poetry, his sole source of encouragement and criticism. David Cohn, who went on to become a journalist, wrote that she was a teacher who made the Italian Renaissance so vivid that he spent his high school years “as much in the Rome, Florence, Venice of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as in my twentieth-century Mississippi town.”
She is said to have taught history as an engaging story with startling turns. My uncle once said that Miss Stern’s narratives took them to the front in World War I far more vividly than the Pathe newsreels.
Miss Stern wouldn’t be able to get a job teaching today-not unless she obtained certification at some dreary teacher’s college. Her passion for her subject matter and conviction that art and history are essential for the survival of whatever matters in the human condition would count for nothing. In rejecting the creative, the passionate, and the learned in favor of trained facilitators, we have ensured that art, history, and literature become the frills available primarily to those who can afford them.
How Do Women Rule? Just Like Men
Christine Stolba Rosen says folks who believe women rulers are nicer don’t know their herstory.
“Can we bring ourselves to recognize our common interest as women and wield power on the basis of it?” feminist and former Dukakis campaign manager Susan Estrich asks in her new book, Sex & Power. And how might women exercise power? Women, Estrich chirps, “talk less, and let others talk more; listen more, exercising influence and wielding power indirectly . . . the discussion is more open; and conflicting views are more often and more readily voiced.”
Who’s she kidding? History abounds with sagas of powerful women who did not let others talk more, weren’t good listeners, and didn’t particularly relish the open exchange of conflicting views-who were, in short, as manly, if not more so, than men.
Want to raze a village? Boadicea, England’s warrior queen, was just the gal to get the job done. A revered figure and a sentimental favorite of Victorian painters, Boadicea is commemorated by a statue that stands on Westminster Bridge, near the Houses of Parliament. She is remembered for her bravery in leading a revolt against her country’s occupiers, the Romans, in 60 A.D. Alas, recent discoveries at an archeological dig near Colchester-a town seized and destroyed by Boadicea-led dig director Philip Crummy to compare Boadicea’s program and tactics to “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans.