January 25, 2020

1. Island Fiction

One of the best forgotten novelists of the 20th century is Gerald Edwards (also known as G.B. Edwards, or Gerald Basil Edwards). Edwards was born and raised on Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands. He wrote just one novel, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, which is set on Guernsey.

Edwards has been compared to the Italian novelist Lampedusa, who also wrote just one novel, The Leopard. Edwards was born in 1899, Lampedusa in 1896. Like Edwards, Lampedusa can be called an “island novelist”; Lampedusa grew up on Sicily, and The Leopard is set on Sicily. Both Edwards and Lampedusa led retired lives, insular lives, isolated lives, detached from the mainland, devoted to literature. Both writers died unpublished and unknown. Both writers preferred the old ways to modern ways. Here’s a sample of Edwards’ novel:

Mind you, I am not one of those who say living on Guernsey in the good old days was a bed of roses. I think living in this world is hell on earth for most of us most of the time, it don’t matter when or where we are born; but the way we used to live over here, I mean in the country parts, was more or less as it had been for many hundreds of years; and it was real.... When I think what have happened to our island, I could sit down on the ground and cry.

Lampedusa also could have sat down on the ground and cried about the changes to his island. One scholar said that Lampedusa and his protagonist “are both nostalgic vestiges of a pre-modern world, casting critical eyes on the new, mercantile and mechanical vulgarity that encroaches upon their island.” Edwards was especially disgusted by tourism, which he called “an incubus that saps the natural and spiritual vitality of the island.”1

Both Edwards and Lampedusa became close friends with younger men, and both wove these friendships into their novels. Both of the younger men became intellectuals, and both wrote biographies of their now-famous friends. Lampedusa’s younger friend was a distant relative, Gioacchino Tomasi, who later wrote Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: A Biography Through Images.

Lampedusa and Tomasi

Edwards’ younger friend was Edward Chaney, who later wrote Genius Friend: G. B. Edwards and The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. Chaney became known as a cultural historian; he wrote several books about the Grand Tour.

Edwards left Guernsey and wrote about it from memory, as Joyce left Ireland and wrote about it from memory. When Chaney became friends with Edwards, Edwards was lodging in a house in Dorset, having left his wife and children years earlier (perhaps he felt that he wasn’t able to support his family). Chaney recognized Edwards’ genius, and encouraged him to complete his magnum opus; as Eckermann encouraged Goethe to finish Faust, so Chaney encouraged Edwards to finish The Book of Ebenezer Le Page.2

Chaney compares Edwards to Giovanni Verga, another writer of “island fiction.” Verga grew up in Sicily, and wrote fiction set in Sicily. Verga’s short story Cavalleria Rusticana was turned into a play, and then into an opera. Verga is known for his realism (verismo), and Cavalleria Rusticana is considered the first verismo opera. D. H. Lawrence was much impressed with Verga, and translated one of his novels, and one of his volumes of short stories; Lawrence called Verga “Homeric.”

Verga was born about fifty years before Edwards and Lampedusa, and he lived a more public life, becoming a “Senator of the Kingdom.” One wonders if 20th-century writers like Edwards, Lampedusa, and Pessoa were more isolated than earlier writers, less likely to become senators.

2. What’s Wrong With America?

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Yuval Levin discusses the decline of American institutions, and how they can be re-built. Levin argues that Americans don’t trust their institutions because their institutions fail to mold the character of their members, fail to make their members trustworthy. He says that the most respected institution in the U.S. is the military, because the military succeeds at molding the character of its members.3

Americans are living through a social crisis [Levin writes]. We can see that in everything from vicious partisan polarization to rampant culture-war resentments to the isolation, alienation and despair that has sent suicide rates climbing and driven an epidemic of opioid abuse....

If we are too often failing to foster belonging, legitimacy and trust, what we are confronting is a failure of institutions....

Each core institution performs an important task — educating children, enforcing the law, serving the poor, providing some service, meeting some need....

Each institution also forms the people within it to carry out that task responsibly and reliably. It shapes behavior and character, fostering an ethic built around some idea of integrity. That’s why we trust the institution and the people who compose it....

We lose faith in an institution when we no longer believe that it plays this ethical or formative role of teaching the people within it to be trustworthy. This can happen through simple corruption, when an institution’s attempts to be formative fail to overcome the vices of the people within it, and it instead masks their treachery — as when a bank cheats its customers, or a member of the clergy abuses a child....

What stands out about our era in particular is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence....

Many members of Congress now use their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies....

President Trump clearly does the same thing. Rather than embodying the presidency and acting from within it, he sees it as the latest, highest stage for his lifelong one-man show....

The few exceptions to the pattern of declining confidence in institutions tend to prove this rule. The military is the most conspicuous exception and also the most unabashedly formative of our national institutions — molding men and women who clearly take a standard of behavior and responsibility seriously....

All of us have roles to play in some institutions we care about, be they familial or communal, educational or professional, civic, political, cultural or economic. Rebuilding trust in those institutions will require the people within them — that is, each of us — to be more trustworthy. And that must mean in part letting the distinct integrities and purposes of these institutions shape us, rather than just using them as stages from which to be seen and heard. As a practical matter, this can mean forcing ourselves, in little moments of decision, to ask the great unasked question of our time: “Given my role here, how should I behave?”

Levin emphasizes trust and integrity, as I do, but he overlooks worldview, philosophy, religion. If an institution lacks a worldview, a plan, an ideal, how can it mold the character of its members? And what happens to a nation (that largest of institutions) if it lacks a philosophy, a goal? Has the U.S. lost its unifying philosophy?

As I wrote in a recent issue, “Each individual feels that he’s on his own, he’s going to sink or swim. American society [is] atomized, it’s a free-for-all, it’s ‘every man for himself.’” Our institutions can’t mold their members, perhaps because they can’t command respect, they lack a mission/ideal. Can an institution have an ideal if the nation of which it’s a part lacks an ideal?

When George Kennan was a diplomat in the State Department, he couldn’t believe in his work because he couldn’t believe in the ideal of American society. Kennan lamented the “headlong overpopulation, industrialization, commercialization and urbanization of society.”4 Although he concentrated on foreign affairs, “the exercise seemed increasingly, with the years, an empty one; for what use was there, I had to ask, in attempting to protect in its relations to others a society that was clearly failing in its relation to itself?” If society as a whole lacks an ideal, a goal, doesn’t that imply that each institution in society is futile, meaningless? An institution needs to serve a larger goal, just as the individuals inside an institution need to serve the institution’s goal.

If society doesn’t have an inspiring goal, then it can’t command the respect of people like Kennan, and each institution within the society becomes meaningless. People like Kennan become disillusioned with their particular institution, and they may even feel that they have an obligation to betray their institution and their society. When we discussed spies, we saw how some of the most admirable Soviet officers felt an obligation to betray the Soviet Union, and help the other side. I wrote, “Of all the double-agents, the most impressive seem to be the Russians. They had the least interest in money, and the firmest conviction that their own political system was rotten. In a rotten system, good men become traitors.” One might argue that the ideal is more important than the institution or the country.

In our society, no one wants to be a foot-soldier, a servant of something larger, because the larger institutions don’t have an inspiring ideal, and don’t command respect. As Ortega said, “The human army is now made up of officers.”5 Perhaps people respect the military because there the individual is forced to serve something larger; there it isn’t permitted for everyone to be an officer.

The military makes an explicit effort to mold character. At the Air Force Academy, for example, cadets are taught, “We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Integrity first. Service before self. Excellence in all we do.” Perhaps the soldier has fewer temptations, fewer opportunities to make money, than the lawyer, the doctor, the WallStreet banker. Can an institution mold trustworthy individuals if temptation is all around?

Levin deals with some of the same issues of trust and betrayal that I’ve written about in recent newsletters, but he approaches these issues from a different angle. Levin and I agree that an institution breaks down if its members lack integrity, and lose public trust. But we propose different solutions: he wants integrity to come from within the individual, and within the institution; in other words, he wants individuals and institutions to manage themselves. I propose to solve the problem through public anger, expressed in reforms; in other words, I propose a solution that comes from outside. Perhaps neither approach can really solve the problem, it’s very difficult to get people to act with integrity, especially if they’re powerful people, and they’re surrounded by temptation. We probably need a holistic solution, a reborn society, and that brings me back to philosophy/religion.

3. Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton, a prominent English conservative, died recently at age 75. I recommend his video “Why Beauty Matters,” which discusses architecture, painting, etc. and takes a critical view of the avant-garde. Scruton praises the planned community of Poundbury, which was built in a traditional style; Poundbury was supported by Prince Charles, who is a critic of modern architecture.

Scruton is often described as a philosopher who focused on aesthetics and politics. He took a dim view of analytic philosophy:

I remain struck [Scruton wrote] by the thin and withered countenance that philosophy quickly assumes when it wanders away from art and literature, and I cannot open a journal like Mind or The Philosophical Review without experiencing an immediate sinking of the heart, like opening a door into a morgue.

Scruton had some expensive tastes, like fox-hunting and fine wine. Perhaps it was these expensive tastes that led him into some questionable business deals, such as defending the tobacco industry in major newspapers.

Scruton co-founded a conservative periodical, The Salisbury Review, which was named after the Victorian conservative (and Prime Minister), Lord Salisbury. Scruton also started his own publishing firm, Claridge Press. Scruton wrote dozens of books, including several novels. Drummed out of academia for his conservative views, he often taught behind the Iron Curtain; he made numerous visits to Prague, and became fluent in Czech. In the last year of his life, Scruton was working on the libretto for an opera about a communist regime.

One might compare Scruton to John Ruskin, who was also a champion of older styles. Or one might compare Scruton to Henry Hope Reed, an American champion of classical architecture. Or one might compare Scruton to David Brussat, who defends the classical style from his base in Providence, Rhode Island.

One obituary on Scruton compares him to Edmund Burke, and describes him as “a conservative in the Burkean tradition and surely that tradition’s most eloquent and articulate defender in recent times.” When Scruton died, Boris Johnson tweeted, “We have lost the greatest modern conservative thinker — who not only had the guts to say what he thought but said it beautifully.”

© L. James Hammond 2020
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1. theislandreview.com/content/the-guernsey-gattopardo back
2. Chaney’s prose is complex, convoluted, and difficult to read. Here’s an example:
“Though closer to Lampedusa and Gerald than to Lawrence and Joyce in publishing relatively little and then leaving it to the next generation to have the bulk of his writings printed, perhaps only the similarly depressive Shakespeare got the balance between life and art right, retaining a foothold in his native Stratford and significantly enlarging this to return home and retire in prosperity.” Only a professor could write this badly.

I’m impressed with Edwards’ prose. In the paragraph that I quoted, Edwards uses lively expressions like “bed of roses,” “hell on earth,” and “good old days.” The colloquial tone reminds me of Salinger.

Edwards was fond of Victor Hugo’s Les Travailleurs de la Mer (Toilers of the Sea), which is set in Guernsey, where Hugo lived for more than fifteen years. back

3. The title of Levin’s piece is “How Did Americans Lose Faith In Everything?” and the subtitle is “Our institutions lost the capacity to mold character and have become platforms for performance instead.” Levin’s piece summarizes his new book, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream. David Brooks discussed Levin’s book in a column. back
4. George Kennan, Memoirs 1950-1963, Ch. 1

Nietzsche said that every type of decadence was a coming-apart; the individual isn’t a part in a whole. “What is the sign [Nietzsche wrote] of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence.... But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, dis-gregation of the will.”(The Case of Wagner, section 7) back

5. The Revolt of the Masses, Ch. 2 back