Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad is a writer I have been meaning to read for years.  I knew he had written some of the great classics in literature. What I didn't know is that prior to beginning his writing career, Conrad had spent his early years at sea starting out as a sailor and eventually rising to the level of ship's captain with the British Merchant Service.  He uses this knowledge about sea travel to marvelous effect in Lord Jim published 1900, a novel that deals with guilt and redemption.

And so, when Lord Jim begins it is the late 19th century.  Jim, the title character, is a young English maritime officer who has grown bored with his profession.  As a young boy he read stories of high drama at sea, a chance to be a hero and test oneself against the elements.  But Jim has been sailing for a few years and his voyages have been uneventful.

And then Jim accepts a job on the Patna, a ship carrying 800 passengers on a pilgrimage to Mecca.  The voyage starts out routine but suddenly at night the Patna hits something and begins sinking.  Jim watches in horror as his fellow officers and the captain get into one of the few lifeboats prepared to abandon ship with the passangers sleeping below.  Jim doesn't want to get into the lifeboat:

"He was not afraid of death perhaps, but I'll tell you what, he was afraid of the emergency.  His confounded imagination had evoked for him all the horrors of panic, the trampling rush, the pitiful screams, boats swamped - all the appalling incidents of a disaster at sea he had ever heard of.  He might have been resigned to die, but I suspect he wanted to die without added terrors, quietly, in a sort of peaceful trance".

And so at the last moment, with Jim fearing the chaos that will ensue, he jumps into the lifeboat.  A day or two later a French ship rescues Jim and the officers and they learn that the Patna miraculously has also been rescued.  All of the passengers are safe. An inquiry is held back in England.  Jim's fellow officers don't bother to show up and their sea licenses are revoked.  Jim insists on attending the inquiry believing possibly that he can convince the court that he behaved differently somehow than his colleagues.  However his officer's licsence is revoked as well.

It is during the inquiry that we are introduced to the novel's narrator Captain Charles Marlow who attends the inquiry and though Marlow doesn't appprove of how Jim behaved he is empathetic.  Maybe he sees some of himself in Jim.  Throughout the book Marlow tries to figure out Jim's psychology.  What is he searching for in terms of finding peace? It's not a fascination I shared at first.  I didn't judge Jim for what he did.  Who knows how any of us would have behaved?  But it seemed that Jim didn't so much feel guilt as shame and he was angry about that.  He was angry a good deal of the time.

Marlow tries to set Jim up with other jobs at sea under a different name but then someone would mention the Patna at the new place he worked and Jim would walk off.  Why couldn't Jim find some other career and most important where was his gratitude that the 800 passengers had survived?  Jim is upset that the image he had of himself didn't measure up in a crisis but you can recover from shame and humiliation.  It's alot harder to recover from the kind of guilt he would have suffered if the passengers had drowned.

Jim finally lands a job managing a trading post on a remote island where they have never heard of the Patna.  It's a chance to prove himself and start anew.  He falls in love with a young woman named Jewel and the native people see him as a great leader (Lord Jim) due to his protecting them when he first arrives.  Jim has found peace and his friend Marlow who visits notices the change.  Jim cares about the local population and has a number of ideas to make improvements on the island.  This ideal circumstance though cannot last.  I won't go any further as to why except to say that my image of Jim changed.  He shows himself in the end to be the romantic, mysterious young man that Marlow suspected he was all along and very brave as well.

I recommend Lord Jim.  Book four on my 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic tragic novel.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Destruction of Hillary Clinton by Susan Bordo

In the months after the 2016 Presidential election Hillary Clinton retired for a bit from public life.  She stayed at her home in Chappaqua trying to regroup. It had been a brutal campaign with chants of "lock her up" at Trump rallies and you would think that the Hillary haters would be relieved that they hadn't seen or heard from their nemesis for awhile.  But instead accusations of why is she hiding began to be heard.  She's a sore loser etc.  I remember Jeanine Pirro at Fox for example prowling the grounds near Hillary's home with a nasty smile on her face whispering into her microphone about how there was no sign of Hillary yet.

This is what hatred looks like and it's not a pretty picture.  Hatred can't leave someone alone and the question is why?  Why the Hillary hate dating back to 1992 when she became First Lady?  And how big a factor does Hillary's gender play in all this obsessional rage and what role did it play in 2016? I have searched for a book to answer these questions.  I assumed it had yet to be written but actually Susan Bordo tackled this subject back in 2017 when she published The Destruction of Hillary Clinton and it has turned out to be the book I needed.

Susan Bordo is an English Lit and Women Studies Professor at Kentucky State University.  She is the author of a number of books, one of which, Unbearable Weight, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.  Ms. Bordo makes clear at the beginning of The Destruction of Hillary Clinton that by destruction she does not mean Hillary Clinton the woman who as the author notes is "as resilient as they come".  Instead what Bordo is referring to is that while we have had rough Presidential campaigns before in our history what happened in 2016 was different, "an all-out assault on the character and candidacy of Hillary Clinton".  

As to how we got here Susan Bordo takes us back to 1992 and Bill and Hillary Clinton's arrival on the national stage.  Hillary was a new kind of First Lady.  A Yale Law School graduate, first female partner at her law firm.  She was opinionated, smart and had kept her maiden name while Bill was Governor of Arkansas.  When you first enter public life you can slip up.  Hillary's exasperated comments during Bill's campaign for example about how she wasn't going to sit home and bake cookies was unfortunate.  Ditto for Bill Clinton's remark about how if people elected him they would "get two for the price of one".  Hillary apologized for the cookies remark but for her enemies its never enough.  They have been parsing every word she utters for almost thirty years and I marvel at her strength.  Subjected to the same treatment I would have been a basket case by now.

Susan Bordo writes about all of this and tells us that being from the same generation as Hillary she has always felt a kinship with her which many younger women figuring the battles have all been won, cannot understand.  Bordo quotes Hillary's experience back in the early 1970's taking her law school admission's test as an example of what her generation faced:

We had to go into Harvard to take the test, and we were in a huge room, and there were very few women there, and we sat at these desks waiting for the proctors or whoever to come and all the young men around us started to harrass us.  They started to say, "What do you think you're doing?  If you get into law school, you're going to take my position.  You've got no right to do this.  Why don't you go home and get married". 

The majority of Susan Bordo's book focuses on the 2016 campaign and as Bordo sees it the destruction of Hillary Clinton's campaign was book-ended by two factors.  One was the interference in the general election by FBI Director James Comey pertaining to Hillary's emails which Bordo discusses at length.  The other factor involves Bernie Sanders' supporters

These people in so many ways are my natural colleagues, and most are as upset as I am by Trump's victory.  But they played a big role in the thin edge (not a landslide as Trump would have us believe) that gave Trump the election.  For while Trump supporters hooted and cheered for their candidate, forgiving him every lie, every crime, every bit of disgusting behavior, too many young Democrats made it very clear (in newspaper and internet interviews, in polls and in the mainstream media) that they were only voting for Hillary Clinton as the "lesser of two evils," "holding their noses," tears still streaming down their faces over the primary defeat of the person they felt truly deserved their votes.  Some didn't vote at all."

Susan Bordo is writing here I believe about a small segment of Bernie Sanders' supporters.  Most who voted for Bernie in the primaries had no problem voting for Hillary in tne general and I saw a statistic that bears that out.  But its also true as we head to 2020 that Democrats need to pull together whoever the party nominates be it Biden, Harris, Sanders, Buttigieg etc.  No staying home this time or going third party.

The Destruction of Hillary Clinton was published in April 2017 and alot has happened since then but the book doesn't feel dated.  And if fifty or sixty years from now America has still not elected a woman President people may come back to Susan Bordo's book to learn the reasons why.