May 27, 2013

1. Miscellaneous

A. In my book of aphorisms, I wrote

Three American politicians — Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama — came from broken homes, and were raised by single mothers, and later, step-fathers. Throughout history, eminent men have often come from father-less households; such a household seems to breed sturdy independence, precocious maturity, and a gregarious nature.

I recently discovered more examples of this pattern. Mike Mansfield was the Senate Majority Leader from 1961 to 1977. When Mansfield was about 3, his mother died and his father sent him to live with a relative in Montana. He became a “habitual runaway.” At 14, he joined the Navy, after tricking officials into thinking he was older. By the time he was 20, he had served in the Army and the Marines, as well as the Navy.1 Surely this qualifies as “sturdy independence” and “precocious maturity.”

Robert Byrd, who was a Senator from West Virginia from 1959 to 2010, and rose to become Majority Leader, was also from a broken home. His mother died when he was ten months old, and he was sent to live with relatives.

B. I saw Belle de Jour, a 1967 French movie, directed by Luis Bunuel. It’s a highly-regarded movie, by a highly-regarded director, but I found it disappointing, even disgusting. Bunuel seems to revel in the surreal and the perverse — not my cup of tea.

C. I discovered a Harvard historian named David Landes. According to the New York Times,

David S. Landes is one of our best historians of industry and technology. His Unbound Prometheus (1969), about the Industrial Revolution in Europe, and Revolution in Time (1983), about clocks and clockmaking, both recently expanded and reissued, are indispensable histories; while his magnum opus, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998), which demonstrates how staggeringly much Landes knows about almost everything, was one of the most unlikely, if most richly deserving, of recent best sellers.2

In addition to these scholarly works, Landes wrote a more casual book called Dynasties: Fortunes and Misfortunes of the World’s Great Family Businesses. The younger economic historian Niall Ferguson called Landes one of his “most revered mentors.”

The New York Times review was written by Charles R. Morris, who is himself a prominent writer on economics. Morris won a Gerald Loeb Award for The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash.3 Morris also wrote The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy.

D. Fond of travel? Lufthansa allows you to go around the world with one ticket.

E. It’s well known that Alfred Russel Wallace discovered evolution at about the same time Darwin did. It’s interesting to note that both Wallace and Darwin were influenced by Malthus’ Essay on Population; Malthus led both of them to the idea of the survival of the fittest. (Malthus, in turn, seems to have been influenced by Benjamin Franklin’s “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind.”) Since Malthus wasn’t a biologist, this is a case of ideas from one field influencing a different field.

In 1858, when the essays of Wallace and Darwin were read at the Linnean Society, they caused no excitement, and the Society’s president declared that the year had brought no important discoveries. Likewise, when Mendel published his ideas on genetics in 1866, their importance wasn’t recognized, and they aroused little interest.

F. One contemporary writer who has written about Wallace is Tim Severin (see Severin’s Spice Islands Voyage). Severin is an English traveler/adventurer who has written a series of books about his journeys. His first journey, made in 1961, was along Marco Polo’s route. Later he tried to follow the route of Odysseus (on his journey home from Troy), the route of the Pequod (the ship in Moby Dick), and the route of Sindbad the Sailor. Severin won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award for The Sindbad Voyage.4

2. Dogging Steinbeck

I recently saw an interview with Bill Steigerwald, author of Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing the Truth About “Travels with Charley”. Steigerwald argues that Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley isn’t an authentic record of Steinbeck’s travels, as it purported to be; rather, Steinbeck fabricated parts of his account. Steigerwald couldn’t find a publisher so he self-published. Steigerwald is a “rare bird” — a self-published author who made it to television.

Steigerwald mentions a travel writer named William Least Heat-Moon; I became interested in Heat-Moon, and watched an interview with him. He’s known for Blue Highways, which describes his journey across the U.S. on secondary roads. Later he wrote River-Horse: A Voyage Across America, which describes his boat trip across the U.S. (He took the Hudson River to the Erie Canal to the Allegheny River to the Ohio River to the Mississippi River to the Missouri River to the Salmon River to the Snake River to the Columbia River.)

Heat-Moon likes Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, which apparently inspired him to become a travel writer. Heat-Moon says that Steinbeck’s best travel book is The Grapes of Wrath. Heat-Moon is charming and articulate. His name is Indian, his family is part-Indian. Since his father called himself Heat-Moon, and his older brother called himself Little Heat-Moon, he called himself Least Heat-Moon.

3. The Civil War

I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. I’m much impressed with it, though I’d seen it before, years ago.

The Civil War generals seem to make the same mistake over and over: they attack an entrenched enemy, and get mowed down. This was Lee’s mistake at Gettysburg, Grant’s at Cold Harbor, Burnside’s at Fredericksburg, Sherman’s at Kennesaw Mountain, Hood’s at Franklin, etc. Before Cold Harbor, Grant’s troops were so sure they’d be killed that they sewed their name and address onto the back of their uniform, so their corpse could be identified and their relatives contacted. One of Napoleon’s maxims was never to make a frontal assault on an entrenched enemy. Clearly, such an assault is a bad idea, yet the Civil War generals couldn’t seem to resist the temptation to make it. Even Lee, one of history’s great generals, attacked an entrenched enemy (Pickett’s Charge), paid dearly for it, and regretted it.

One of the stars of the Ken Burns documentary is Shelby Foote, author of an acclaimed three-volume history of the Civil War. Foote was a novelist as well as historian, and he takes a literary approach to history. Foote was a Southerner, and a friend of the Southern writer Walker Percy. Another Southerner who took a literary approach to history is Clifford Dowdey, who was slightly older than Foote. Dowdey wrote several works on the Civil War, including a one-volume history of the war (A History of the Confederacy: 1832-1865, also called The Land They Fought For) and a biography of Lee.

Two other Southern men-of-letters who wrote about the Civil War were Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. Warren wrote Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back, The Legacy of the Civil War, and a study of John Brown. Early in his career, Tate wrote biographies of Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee. Though Warren and Tate aren’t known primarily for their Civil War writings, these writings have received high praise, especially their books on Jefferson Davis. H. W. Crocker, for example, describes Tate’s biography of Jefferson Davis as “provocative, aphoristic, a must-read book to put the war in its proper world-historical perspective. Though Tate’s political prescriptions are manifestly, ferociously wrong, his diagnosis is acute.”

Warren and Tate were involved in a literary movement called New Criticism.

4. Jury Duty

I recently served six days on a jury. It was interesting and educational, but also tense. It was a medical malpractice case; the plaintiff alleged that a routine blood draw had resulted in a serious injury to the nerves in her forearm. I learned a lot about medicine as well as law. I’ll never look at a courtroom or a jury the same way.

A month or two ago, I received a letter saying I had been chosen for jury duty. I had received such letters before, but I had never actually served on a jury, so I assumed the same thing would happen again. On the appointed day, however, I was told to go to court. There were about fifty people summoned, but only fourteen would be selected for the jury. We waited in a hallway for about three hours, then finally we were called into the courtroom.

The judge asked us a series of questions: “Would anyone be severely inconvenienced by being on this jury? Does anyone know the plaintiff, or know any of the lawyers in the case? Does anyone feel that malpractice is wrong?” Many of the fifty prospective jurors were eliminated through these questions. I didn’t answer “yes” to any of these questions, and I was chosen as one of the fourteen jurors.

A jury has twelve people, plus two alternates. Over the next few days, our two “surplus members” were removed (we didn’t know why), so we ended up with just twelve. The trial lasted for six days, but the first day was consumed largely by jury-selection, and almost every day ended at 1 p.m., so the total number of “trial hours” was about twenty. As I sat in the jury box, it almost seemed like a dream, I never expected to become a juror. The judge appointed me foreman of the jury, so it was my job to organize the jury deliberations at the end of the trial.

Since this was a civil case, not a criminal case, it didn’t require a unanimous jury; ten out of twelve jurors sufficed for a verdict. Furthermore, the case didn’t have to be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but merely “more likely than not.” The plaintiff didn’t ask for a specific sum of money, and no specific sum was ever mentioned. The plaintiff’s lawyer did, however, say that she was expected to live another 29 years, and she had already lived with her injury for 7 years, so he wanted the jury to calculate the annual “cost” of the injury, then multiply that cost by 36. Some jurors, including myself, were tempted to award a small sum to the plaintiff, so that both sides would feel they had a partial victory; eventually, however, we felt that the system was pushing us to a definite verdict, rather than a compromise.

We jurors sat silently through the whole trial. We couldn’t ask questions; if we had a question, we could pass it to the court officer. I asked a question about the definition of negligence, but my question seemed unexpected and unwanted, so I regretted asking it. In general, the courtroom seemed a peculiar place, governed by rigid rules.

The question that we jurors had to answer was, “Did the woman performing the blood draw act in a negligent manner?” In everyday speech, “negligent” means “careless,” but in a malpractice case, “negligent” means “in violation of the standard of care.” So the question became, “Did the woman performing the blood draw follow the standard of care for blood draws?” The blood draw took place seven years earlier; it had taken about five years for the case to come to trial.

The plaintiff argued that the phlebotomist (the woman who performed the blood draw) put the needle in the wrong place. The defense, on the other hand, argued that the phlebotomist put the needle in the right place, but may have hit a nerve anyway; the defense argued that even a properly performed blood draw can result in serious nerve injury.

When deliberating with the other jurors, I argued that it was very unlikely that the phlebotomist put the needle in the wrong place, and also very unlikely that a properly performed blood draw would result in serious injury. So we as a jury were faced with two scenarios that were both very unlikely, and it was impossible for us to determine the exact likelihood of either scenario. Were the odds of one scenario 1 in 10,000? Were the odds of the other 1 in 11,000? We couldn’t calculate the odds, no one could, so we couldn’t tell which scenario was more likely. We couldn’t say, “It’s more likely than not...” All we could say (I argued) was “this case is a tie,” and since the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, we had to rule for the defense. In baseball, they say “a tie goes to the runner.” In a civil case, I argued, a tie goes to the defense. The judge had asked us to use Reason, but I argued that this case showed the impotence of Reason.

At the start of the jury’s deliberations, most jurors were inclined toward the defense. We needed ten votes for a verdict, and we had nine at the start of deliberations. But it took at least an hour to get that tenth vote. We spent a total of almost three hours deliberating (and eating our lunch). Of course, jurors have an interest in reaching a verdict, because they can go home when they reach a verdict, so Time favors the majority. One might say that a jury is influenced by Time more than by Logic or Reason or Evidence. (There’s a well-known movie about a jury called 12 Angry Men.)

Both the plaintiff and the defense used highly technical arguments, and abstruse terminology. Did they expect jurors to understand such technical arguments? Both sides spent considerable sums bringing expert witnesses to the courtroom — doctors, phlebotomists, professors, etc. Several of the witnesses came from more than 1,000 miles away, and all the witnesses were paid about $300 per hour. The plaintiff’s legal team might have lost more than $100,000 on this case.

Why did the case come to trial? Why wasn’t it settled out of court? Perhaps both sides felt they could make a strong case, perhaps both sides took pride in their skill as lawyers, perhaps both sides wanted to make the other side regret its decision to go to trial. Perhaps the case was a “clash of titans,” a clash of top lawyers from top law firms, trying to prove that they should not be trifled with, their talent should not be challenged.

Throughout the trial, the lawyers often interrupted each other with objections. During the closing statements, however, there were no interruptions, and each lawyer could talk freely, and employ his favorite rhetorical strategies. The plaintiff’s lawyer spoke far longer than the defense lawyer, and used demagoguery. He attacked one of the defense’s witnesses, a Harvard professor of Jewish origin, perhaps the only Jewish person to set foot in the courtroom during the entire trial. The plaintiff’s lawyer seemed to think that none of the jury had any connection to Harvard, and that the jury’s attitude toward Harvard was one of resentment, envy, etc. So he emphasized this witness’s Harvard affiliation. When the jury was deliberating, I voiced my disapproval of this demagoguery, and was surprised to find that other jurors also disapproved.

The plaintiff’s lawyer also asked us to put aside any negative attitude we might have toward malpractice; evidently he realized that malpractice has a bad reputation, and many people believe it’s harmful to society.

5. The Boston Marathon Bombings

When I first heard about the Boston Marathon bombings, I thought the perpetrator must be a foreigner, a Muslim terrorist. I felt that an American wouldn’t have sufficient motivation. And when the authorities said there were two suspects, it strengthened my view that the crime wasn’t committed by a deranged American, but rather by foreign terrorists with political motives.

The Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the bombings, had committed serious crimes before. The older Tsarnaev brother, Tamerlan, committed a triple murder in Waltham on September 11, 2011, probably with help from a Chechen friend, Ibragim Todashev, possibly with help from Tamerlan’s younger brother, too. One of the three victims was a suspected drug dealer. The three dead bodies were covered with drugs and money, as if Tamerlan wanted to emphasize the depravity of the victims, and the nobility of the killers. Tamerlan had been a close friend of one of the victims, but had become estranged from him, and complained about his lifestyle, probably viewing him as decadent, profane, etc.

The Waltham murders, like the Boston bombings, had political/religious motives. But motivation is usually complex; few actions have just one motive. The motives of the Tsarnaev brothers were personal/psychological as well as political/religious. Tamerlan was something of a loner and a misfit, unable to complete his education, unable to find a niche in American society. He said he had no American friends. He often stayed home with his child, while being supported by his wife and by the government.

Tamerlan was doubtless named after the Muslim conqueror, Tamerlane, who lived in the 1300s, and called himself The Sword of Islam. Was Tamerlan Tsarnaev influenced by his name and his namesake?

6. Raymond Carver

The local GreatBooks group recently read Raymond Carver’s short story, “Cathedral.” It’s a good story, possessing both wit and depth; though it’s easy to read, it has a certain ambiguity that makes it perfect for a discussion group. Carver is known as a contemporary master of the short story; he stayed away from long-form fiction. Carver came from the lower-middle-class, and often wrote about that class. His writing has been called “dirty realism.” “Cathedral” opens with the following dirty sentence: “This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.” The faulty grammar gives this sentence a rough tone.

The narrator of “Cathedral” is a cynical man who seems to view life as dull, flat, and unprofitable; his own soul seems dull and flat. As one critic (Nelson Hathcock) wrote, “the narrator’s prejudices and cynicism comprise limitations from which he has been too boorish or lazy to free himself.”5 Another critic describes the narrator as “a friendless drunk and a meager husband.”6 Dinner begins with the following episode:

“Now let us pray,” I said, and the blind man lowered his head. My wife looked at me, her mouth agape. “Pray the phone won’t ring and the food doesn’t get cold,” I said.

As this episode shows, the narrator has no piety, no respect, no depth of soul. But Hathcock argues that the blind man’s visit changes the narrator, even before the blind man actually arrives. When the narrator hears about the blind man’s marriage, he feels sympathy, he feels “sorry” for the blind man, and describes his wife’s life as “pitiful”. The narrator uses his imagination to picture the last moments of the blind man’s wife. “The act of the imagination,” Hathcock writes, “becomes the first stage of genuine human contact.”7 The narrator is beginning to come out of himself, to connect with others, to feel respect; Hathcock calls this an “energetic transfer.” When they eat dinner, the narrator says, “I watched with admiration as [the blind man] used his knife and fork on the meat.”

As the narrator was previously a stranger to sympathy and admiration, so too he was previously a stranger to art and culture, which require one to come out of oneself, to have an “energetic transfer.” At the start of the story, the narrator has no enthusiasm for his wife’s poetry. At the end of the story, however, the narrator and the blind man watch a documentary that deals with cathedrals. The blind man suggests that they draw a cathedral, and the narrator seems deeply moved by this act of imagination. We might call this art therapy, or a deepening of the soul, or an immersion in the unconscious. The cathedral seems to represent the opposite of the narrator’s original cynicism and shallowness; the cathedral is the perfect foil for the narrator’s original worldview. By closing his eyes as he draws, the narrator becomes one with the blind man. Instead of taking the extroverted approach that’s typical of modern man, the narrator goes within, introverts, enters his own soul. In mythology, the wise man is sometimes blind (Tiresias, for example).

Carver was born in 1938, and was influenced by a creative writing class taught by John Gardner. Carver began to be known in 1967, when his story “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” was included in an anthology of best American short stories. His first collection of stories (also called Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?) was published in 1976, and shortlisted for the National Book Award. Perhaps his most highly-regarded story collection is Cathedral; “included in the collection are the award-winning stories ‘A Small, Good Thing’ and ‘Where I’m Calling From’.... For his part, Carver saw Cathedral as a watershed in his career, in its shift towards a more optimistic and confidently poetic style.”8

Carver was a heavy drinker, and almost drank himself to death, but he got into Alcoholics Anonymous and overcame his addiction. He died of lung cancer at age 50.

© L. James Hammond 2013
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1. Even as a teenager, Mansfield was fascinated by Asia, and this fascination lasted his whole life. He served as Ambassador to Japan under Carter and Reagan. back
2. Another writer who has dealt with the history of technology is Arnold Pacey. back
3. Another award for business books is given by the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs. back
4. For more about award-winning travel books, see the Dolman Best Travel Book Award. back
5. “‘The Possibility of Resurrection’: Re-vision in Carver’s ‘Feathers’ and ‘Cathedral’” by Nelson Hathcock, Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 31-9 back
6. ibid back
7. ibid back
8. Wikipedia. Other award-winning stories by Carver are “Errand,” “Kindling,” “Are These Actual Miles?” (originally titled “What is it?”), “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” and “Are You A Doctor?” back