Monthly Archives: March 2008

a strange journey

I had an invitation to attend a conference at Ditchley, a Georgian mansion in Oxfordshire, early last December. On my way to Dulles Airport, I learned that my father was in some danger; a cancer that we thought had been removed might have spread to his lungs. But the lab results were not expected for several days, my trip was short, and I decided to proceed. I arrived at Heathrow early the next morning, worried but not in panic.

The journey from the airport to Oxfordshire was familiar; I had taken the same early-morning ride every time I arrived for terms of graduate school at Oxford. That morning, the views from the van were exceptionally beautiful: the landscape miraculously green compared to Maryland in late fall, and perfectly trimmed and manicured. Some of the villages northwest of Oxford–clusters of limestone buildings behind ancient walls–are so picturesque that they have been purchased by international billionaires as vacation homes. One that we drove through apparently belongs to a Saudi prince.

And then there was Ditchley. Some sentences from Brideshead Revisited just happen to describe it, down to the details: “We came to our destination: wrought-iron gates and twin, classical lodges on a village green, an avenue, more gates, open parkland, a turn in the drive; and suddenly a new and secret landscape opened up before us. … The woods were all of oak and beech, the oak grey and bare, the beech faintly dusted with green … ; they made a simple, carefully designed pattern with the green glades and the wide-open green spaces … and, lest the eye wander aimlessly, a Doric temple stood by the water’s edge, and an ivy-grown arch spanned the lowest of the connecting weirs.”

The house itself (the real Ditchley, not the imaginary Brideshead) was a great stone rectangle, its stern lines broken by cheerful statuary on the roof and curved symmetrical glass passageways leading to the wings. We sat, still dressed in clothes worn overnight, in a Louis Quinze “saloon” beneath an elaborate ceiling of plaster and fresco. There were antlers on the walls among the stucco pilasters and a misty view of the folly through the grand French doors.

It was hard to communicate with the States: no cell phone coverage and only two cranky computers in the basement. But news of my Dad was beginning to trickle in and it was looking very worrisome. Still, there didn’t seem to be anything to do but participate in the reception, the first “debate” (as the English call a plenary discussion), and a fine dinner.

The next morning, there was still no definitive information from home. After the morning sessions, I went along for a visit to Broughton Castle in the afternoon. Broughton was four centuries older than Ditchley. Apparently, Henry James called it “perfection, what with moat, gatehouse, church, and gorgeous orange and buff stone.” We drove over the moat and into the front court to park beneath the gothic windows of the great hall. The door was opened by none other than Lord Say and Sele, resident of the house, as all his ancestors have been since 1306. He and Lady Say and Sele collected small admissions charges from each of us and then took us on a tour of their home. (Broughton has a castle blog, by the way.)

They were a completely charming elderly couple, unpretentious, humorous, and apparently interested in the opinions and backgrounds of their visitors. Lord Say and Sele took particular delight in the fake stones and synthetic carpeting that Hollywood film crews had left behind after using his house as a set. The moat, he told us, had no military purpose; it was just one of those things you had to have (in the fourteenth century) to impress your neighbors. One fireplace upstairs was carved by the same continental artisans who decorated Henry VIII’s palace of Nonesuch, which later burned to the ground. Thus the Broughton fireplace is one of a tiny number of truly sophisticated Mannerist works that survive in England, where it looks two centuries ahead of its time. The kitchen, built in the middle ages beneath Gothic arches, is still the best place to prepare food, so now it has a refrigerator with art by grandchildren, hanging cabinets, and a range.

Not long after we had returned to Ditchley, I spoke to my mother and learned that my father’s cancer was aggressive and untreatable. He had only a short time to live. I made arrangements for an early return but could not get out of Oxfordshire until the next day at the earliest. So there was nothing to do but attend another reception and then the formal dinner. It was a black-tie affair, although I had forgotten to pack mine. We spoke of the differences between US and British social policy. A countess sat opposite me and a retired British Army officer to my right.

I like to think I am blasé about stately homes. Not only did I grow up partly in England, but my father was an authority on some aspects of English historical culture. He wrote, for instance, a whole book about neoclassicism; and Ditchley is a neoclassical house. I was not to the manner born, but I was to many manors dragged from a tender age, and I know a thing or two about places like Ditchley–even a bit about its architect, James Gibbs. But it was hard not to be impressed by the candle-lit dinner scene.

Not too many hours later, I was sitting with my father in his hospital room, showing him brochures of Broughton that he managed to enjoy. He was being quite amazingly brave. Less than two months later, he was dead.

happiness over the course of life

Imagine two people who experience exactly the same amounts of happiness over the course of their whole lives. A experiences most of his happy times near the beginning, whereas B starts off miserable but ends in happiness.* We are inclined to think that B is more fortunate, or better off, than A. If the story of A’s life were written down, it would be tragic, whereas B’s tale has a happy ending. But does B really have more welfare?

One view says no. The happiness of a life is just the happiness of all the times added up. Maybe we feel happier when we are on an upward trajectory, but that extra satisfaction should be factored into an accurate estimate of our happiness. If A and B really have identical total quantities of happiness over the courses of their lives, they are equally well off. Any aesthetic satisfaction that we obtain from the happy ending of B’s life is no reason to declare him better off.

Another view says says that happiness is equally valuable at any time, but we wish devoutly that our own happiest times are still to come. That wish colors our estimation of other people’s lives; but perhaps it shouldn’t. Just because I want the end of my life to be (even) better than the beginning, it doesn’t follow that B was better off than A. Once the ledgers are closed at death, it no longer matters how the happiness was distributed.

A third view says: even if the amount of happiness is the same at two times of life, somehow the quality of happiness is better if it comes later, because then it’s more likely to be the outcome or satisfaction of one’s plans and one’s work. That is sometimes true, but it’s not necessarily the case. One can be happy late in life because of sudden dumb luck. One can have early happiness as the well-deserved accomplishment of youthful efforts.

I incline to a fourth view. Happiness is not more valuable if it happens to come later. But a morally worthwhile life is one that develops, and one should take satisfaction in one’s own development. Thus we think of the old person who has learned, grown, and become better–and who is satisfied with that achievement–as a moral paradigm. He or she happens to be happy, but what matters is that the happiness is justified. The child who is naively happy makes us glad but does not inspire our admiration. Thus our intuition that happiness is better late in life does not mean that it has a greater impact on welfare. Our intuition is a somewhat confused reflection of our admiration for a particular kind of mature satisfaction.

*This topic was raised by Connie Rosati in a fine paper she delivered at Maryland this week. These views are my own and I’m deliberately not summarizing her interesting thesis because I didn’t seek permission.

ignorance and apathy?

I’m having an email correspondence about whether Americans are politically ignorant and apathetic. Those are harsh and undiplomatic words, but they could be true.

Are we apathetic? Voter turnout is low compared to other countries, around two thirds in presidential years. But about 60 percent of Americans volunteer, according to the DDB Needham survey; and that represents an enormous voluntary contribution of time and energy. Just under 50% attend meetings at least annually. That rate is lower than it used to be, but it’s still a large voluntary contribution of time.

Are we ignorant? I’m not sure. According to Pew, 93% can identify Hillary Clinton. 88% know about the surge in Iraq. 69% can generate the name of Dick Cheney, but apparently more can pick him off a list when offered a multiple-choice format. Are these numbers too low? It may help to set them in context. For example, 49% of Americans think that antibiotics affect viruses. Just 60% can pick the right definition of DNA off a multiple-choice list ( source). 37% think that kissing can spread HIV, and 16% think you can get it from a toilet seat (source). 14% of adult Americans score “below basic” level in literacy, meaning that they have no more than “simple and concrete literacy skills.” In short, more people can identify Hillary Clinton than can read a paragraph of prose. Many more are right about the Iraq surge than about how one contracts AIDS.

This interests me because literacy and medical information pay off directly for an individual. Even people who are rather selfish should be motivated to obtain skills and knowledge that they can use in their own lives. Political knowledge, in contrast, does not pay off for an individual who thinks in selfish or narrow terms. Maybe being well informed will make you a better voter or help you in a community meeting. But there are hundreds of millions of other people who vote and attend meetings, and you can easily get away as a free-rider.

A model, then, of human behavior as self-interested would predict very low levels of political knowledge and interest. What we observe seems better than that to me. Surveys always reveal disturbing gaps in knowledge, whether we ask about geography, science, religion, or any other topic. Politics doesn’t stand out as a particularly weak point.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t work to enhance both knowledge and participation, especially so that we can reduce inequality by social class. That will require more than “messages” that provide citizens with information or exhort them to participate. I think a feeling of responsibility already has some positive effects on people’s political behavior. Without it, 110 million people wouldn’t cast ballots in election years. We need to reinforce people’s sense that they ought to engage by providing stable rewards for participation, such as institutions that actually respond to their legitimate activism. It is, for example, hard to persuade people to vote in congressional elections when the districts have been drawn so that only about 10% of them are even remotely competitive. It’s hard to follow the news when the local TV station serves up only rapes, fires, and murders. It’s hard to improve local education if the No Child Left Behind Act has centralized educational policy. And it’s hard to seek office in a union if the union has closed.

the “general turn to ethics” in literary criticism

I need to revise my book manuscript about Dante, which is under consideration by a publishing house. In the book, I argue that interpreting literature has moral or ethical value. Literary critics, I claim, almost always take implicit positions about goodness or justice. They should make those positions explicit because explicit argumentation contributes more usefully to the public debate. Also, the need to state one’s positions openly is a valuable discipline. (Some positions look untenable once they are boldly stated.)

I had taken the stance that contemporary literary theorists and academic critics were generally hostile to explicit ethical argument. My book was therefore very polemical and critical of the discipline. But I was out of date. In Amanda Anderson’s brilliant and influential book The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory (Princeton, 2006), she announces: “We must keep in mind that the question. How should I live? is the most basic one” (p. 112).

This bold premise associates her with what she rightly calls the “general turn to ethics” that’s visible in her profession today (p. 6). This turn marks a departure from “theory,” meaning literary or cultural theory as practiced in the humanities from the 1960s into the 1990s. “Theory” meant the use of (p. 4) “poststructuralism, postmodernism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, postcolonialism, and queer theory” in interpreting texts and discussing methods and goals within the humanities.

“Theory” tended to deprecate human agency. Poststructuralism “limit[ed] individual agency” by insisting that we could not overcome (or even understand) various features of our language, psychology, and culture. Multiculturalism added another argument against human agency by insisting “on the primacy of ascribed group identity.” Anderson, in contrast, believes in human agency, in the specific sense that we can think morally about, and influence, the development of our own characters. We don’t just “don styles [of thinking and writing], … as evanescent and superficial as fashion” (p. 127). Instead, we are responsible for how we develop ourselves.

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