Saturday, October 19, 2019

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South is the first Elizabeth Gaskell book that I have read. I found this to be wonderful story that contained interesting characters and explored both personal relationships as well as larger social issues. In a way, Gaskell’s books are like a combination of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens with a little bit of Leo Tolstoy thrown in. 

This is the story of Margaret Hale. The book opens as the nineteen - year old Margaret is preparing to attend her cousin’s Edith’s wedding. Margaret has spent much of her adolescence living with her cousin’s rich and somewhat frivolous family. We are also introduced to Henry Lennox, who tries to unsuccessfully to woo Margaret throughout the book. At the point that Edith is married, Margaret returns to live in the country community of Helstone where her father, Mr. Hale, a is pastor. Initially, Margaret enjoys the bucolic and country life during which time she assists her father as he brings charity and succor to the local inhabitants. However, due to Mr. Hale’s schismatic views, he decides to step down as pastor. The family is forced to move to the industrial city of Darkshire, where Mr. Hale will earn a living as a tutor. There, the family interacts both with the mill owners and the poorer mill workers. John Thornton is a strong willed but principled mill owner that Margaret’s father is tutoring. Much of the book concerns itself with the romantic attraction between Margaret and Thornton. At first, Margaret spurns the businessman, but as the story progresses, her attraction for him increases. Nicholas Higgins is a mill worker and union leader. Labor tension bring Thornton and Higgins into conflict. This strife also opens the door to lots of philosophizing and debate  between the major characters about economics, capitalism, personal freedom, and more.

Later, Margaret’s brother Frederick comes into the picture. Several years earlier, Fredrick was an officer in the Royal Navy. While standing up to his abusive captain he becomes involved in mutiny and was forced to flee England under penalty of death. At one point in the plot he sneaks back into the country to see his dying mother. During the remainder of the story Margaret engages in efforts to clear Fredrick’s name. 

A lot of words in this book are devoted to debates and discussions between Margaret and John Thornton. Margaret’s views can best be described as a Christian based liberal, social reformist with a tinge of aristocratic paternalism thrown in. Thornton is a laisse fare capitalist with a strong sense of personal ethics. Though it seems that Gaskill favors Margaret’s positions, she puts strong arguments into Thornton’s mouth and shows that his point of view is not completely invalid. This all intertwines with Nicholas Higgins’s pro - union and pro - labor views. It is also clear that Gaskell is somewhat well versed in these theories as well as economics in general.

What I found distinctive about this book is that it combined an interesting story and well - crafted characters with philosophical and social discussions and debates about social issues, economics and religion. Here, I am reminded of the Russian novelists such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. Anthony Trollope also played on this ground a little with political issues but not to the extent that Gaskell does here. 

In addition to the philosophizing the work is filled with interesting characters. I found Thornton’s portrayal to be intriguing. He is originally shown to be a tough businessman who was raised by a tough but still loving mother. He displays a strong ethical code based on personal responsibility. However, early on he reaches out to Mr. Hale in order to advance is education and immerse himself in culture. In what I think is a wonderful passage, he talks about the industrial machine known as a steam hammer and its inventor using colorful language and literary analogy,

so thoroughly was he occupied in explaining to Mr. Hale the magnificent power, yet delicate adjustment of the might of the steam-hammer, which was recalling to Mr. Hale some of the wonderful stories of subservient genii in the Arabian Nights— one moment stretching from earth to sky and filling all the width of the horizon, at the next obediently compressed into a vase small enough to be borne in the hand of a child. 'And this imagination of power, this practical realisation of a gigantic thought, came out of one man's brain in our good town. That very man has it within him to mount, step by step, on each wonder he achieves to higher marvels still

Later Thornton grows. He genuinely falls in love with Margarite. While he does not become pro – labor he takes innovative steps to reach out to his employees, tries to make their lives better and eventually earns their respect.

Mr. Hale is also interesting. He is very principled and ethical. However, he shows a lot of weakness. When he makes his decision, based upon religious convictions, he places his family in a position where they will endure hardship. Yet when it comes time for them to relocate, he is paralyzed with inaction and leaves the emotional and logistical work to Margaret who is only a teenager.  Later, when it comes time to tell a woman that her husband is deceased, he once again is unable to act and leaves the task to his daughter.  This combination of principles and weakness seems a fairly unusual thing in literature. 

Margaret is obviously the center of the book. She is charismatic young woman. She earns great esteem from both lower and upper - class men and women that she encounters. She is calm and at times stoic. She is intelligent, she is a reader, and is easily able to hold her own ion all kinds of discussions that delve into philosophical and social issues. 

Another theme here is the contrast between people who hold different philosophies, religious beliefs and partake in different lifestyles. This is inherent in the title of the book, the North of England representing industrial, capitalistic bustle and the South representing a more laid back, rural agricultural and aristocratic lifestyle. As Margarete and her family are displaced from this southern world, they are made keenly aware of these contrasts. At first Margaret faces the industrial Milton and its factories with dread. As the book progresses however, both she and the reader begin to see that both the North and South ways of life have their merits and drawbacks. Margaret connects with all kinds of people in the industrialized town. Towards the end of the story, when it comes time for Margaret to leave Milton she is struck with melancholy as she has to leave people and a place that she one looked upon with dismay. All this is intertwined with the growing attraction between Margaret and Thornton. Alongside this attraction, both Margaret and Thornton begin to moderate their philosophical ideas and move towards each other. Throughout the story various characters’ differences on religious issues also come to light. The story flows in a direction that indicates that social interactions work best when people tolerate one another and look to bridge gaps. All this reminds me of the novels of E.M. Forster. In many of Forster’s books, the theme of connections between different social groups, philosophies and cultures is explored. This is the first Gaskell novel that I have read so I do not know if these are reoccurring themes in her work. But as far as this book goes, it seems to have influenced Forster’s ideas. 

This is an excellent book. Gaskell has managed to combine the strengths of Victorian novel with some very interesting philosophical musings. The novel is full of compelling of characters and relationships. In this way I thought that this combination was fairly unique for British literature of the time. I recommend this work to fans of Victorian literature. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik

A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik has been an examination of the belief system known as liberalism.  The book, first published this year, has gotten a fair amount of attention among those interested in political and social issues. Gopnik is a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1986. Despite a few quibbles that I have with the author’s presentation of definitions, I found this work to be well thought out and coherent analysis of its subject.  Regardless of one’s views on liberalism, it is a set of ideas that has an enormous impact on humanity.  Thus, I think that this is an important book.

Before saying anything about this book, it is necessary to define a few terms both in regards to general meanings and in regards to how the author uses them. The term “liberalism” has several meanings. For the most part Gopnik is using the universal definition. That is, liberalism is really neither right or left on the political spectrum.  It is the belief in tenants such as democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, secular government, science, racial and gender equality, capitalism, globalism and more. It is the rejection of both right and left extremism.  However, this definition gets muddled as in some countries and places liberalism refers to something else. In the United States and elsewhere, liberalism often refers to a belief in all the previous mentioned values plus a moderately activist government that provides social programs and that implements at least a moderate level of regulation. Gopnik calls this left – liberalism. Making things even more confusing is that fact that in some countries the term liberal is actually tied to a more right - wing belief system and in still other places it is tied to libertarianism. Gopnik lays this out early in the book. The definitions that the author uses are more or less in sync with my understanding of these terms as well as the technical definitions of these terms.  I find his labels to be accurate and useful and will use them for this balance of this post. This work is primarily concerned with the universal definition. However, a curious quirk creeps into Gopnik’s reasoning relating to all this.

The first chapters of the book present a history of liberalism. Though not a comprehensive account, Gopnik covers the lives and beliefs of many scientists, philosophers, artists and writers who have advanced liberal ideas. A large group of individuals is touched upon including Michel de Montaigne, George Henry Lewes, John Stuart Mill, George Eliot and more. Of particular interest to me, the author talks a fair amount about Anthony Trollope’s Pallister novels. Those who are regular readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of Trollope’s books including the Pallister series.  He sees these novels, I believe correctly, as an examination of liberal change and the government of Britain during the Nineteenth - Century.

Most of the balance of the book consists of Gopnik’s philosophical ponderings on the virtues of liberalism. He argues that liberalism is a key driver of progress. He contends  that liberalism has been instrumental in the reduction of poverty, increased life expectancy, the reduction of violence, the expansion of freedom and equality and more. The author paints a picture of liberalism taking the middle ground between the extremes of both the right and the left. He identifies right wing populism, right wing authoritarianism, Marxism and an extreme form of leftist identity politics (what I have been calling postmodernism in previous posts) as being diametrically opposed to liberalism. 

Throughout the book Gopnik tries to provide genuine arguments that come from both the right and left against liberalism.  He does a very good job here and tries to present some anti – liberal arguments fairly. Furthermore, he even grants that sometimes there is a point to these arguments. 

One of Gopnik’s points is that liberals often talk about concepts like reason, individual freedoms, pragmatism, democracy etc. While these are key tenants of liberalism, compassion and empathy also to play a vital part in liberalism. 

Another important theme is that liberalism rejects both utopian and radical ideas. Liberalism recognizes that the world is messy. It tries to use a combination of reason and compassion to make the world better. However, liberal philosophy acknowledges that there are no perfect solutions, that gradual change is better than revolution and that persuading people through democratic means is always better then compelling people. Gopnik writes,

Liberalism accepts imperfection as a fact of existence. Liberalism’s task is not to imagine the perfect society and drive us toward it but to point out what’s cruel in the society we have now and fix it if we possibly can . An acceptance of fallibility and , with it , an openly avowed skepticism of authority — these are core liberal emotions even more than concerns about checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches

The author compares other ideologies as idealized and unrealistic visions of the future in contrast to liberalism which is not about idealization, does not look for magical solutions and is unromantic. He uses a rhinoceros metaphor below because Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill were two key liberal thinkers who were also involved romantically and who used to meet at the rhinoceros cage at the London Zoo. Gopnik writes, 

Most political visions are unicorns, perfect imaginary creatures we chase and will never find. Liberalism is a rhinoceros. It’s hard to love. It’s funny to look at. It isn’t pretty but it’s a completely successful animal. A rhino can overturn an SUV and—go to YouTube!—run it right over, horn out.

The author digs deeply into religion’s role in all this. Like me, he sees religion as a mixed bag, sometimes people have used religious beliefs to effectively advocate for liberal values but at other times these beliefs have been used to oppose liberalism. He delves into this issue in some detail in the ways that religion and liberalism interact.

Gopnik also brings up other important issues. He believes that in the long run capitalism and globalism, a key part of liberalism, benefit humanity as a whole. However, sometimes on the local level, for limited periods of time, these systems have contributed to human misery.  Gopnik ponders some liberal responses to this dilemma. Once again, I agree with the author’s reasoning here.

Up until this point I agree with almost all the prepositions that I have mentioned.  However, at some points the author seems to get a little fuzzy with the meaning of liberalism. Despite clearly differentiating between universal liberalism and left – liberalism early on, Gopnik starts to mix the concepts later in the book and seems to place some clearly left – liberal ideas into the liberal basket. He seems to insert government social spending and regulation policies into his conception of universal liberalism. This might be attributable to the fact that these are not set definitions and everyone has a slightly different interpretation of all this.  I should mention that I am a left - liberal myself. I believe in universal liberal concepts but I also believe in a mixed system economic system that includes a fairly robust mix of government social programs and regulations. In fact, on the vast majority of political and social issues I am in agreement with the author. However, I think that this kind of government activism is not a part of universal liberalism. Liberals, in the universal sense, include people with moderate - right views and libertarian views that are opposed to left - liberalism. I may be nitpicking here, and perhaps I am getting a little bit into an arcane argument, but I think that universal liberalism is a vitally important set of ideas that needs to fit in people that I disagree with on some of these left/right issues.

One other quibble that I have about this book is that I think that it ignores non - Western sources of liberal ideas. Gopnik focuses heavily upon enlightenment figures. He also mentions Christianity. The Enlightenment was of course vital. It was the greatest explosion of liberalism is history, at least up until that point. However, the more I delve into these issues I realize that some liberal ideas did come from elsewhere in the world, the Islamic Golden Age, Chinese Civilization, some Native American Groups, particularly when it comes to gender, are just a few examples of what I am referring to. I wish that Gopnik talked about these influences just a little. This is a bit of a controversial issues and I realize that not everyone agrees with me on this. 

Despite a few qualms I have on principle with Gopnik’s drift on the definition of liberalism, I agree with most of what is presented here. I concur that liberalism has been the great force in human history that has made things better for people in almost every corner of the Earth. As they have been in the past, liberal systems and values are under pressure from both the far right and the far left. I am very much on board with concepts such as slow and careful change, democracy, basic freedoms, the value of reason matched with compassion, the rejection of both far right and far left radicalism, and more that is here. 

I liked this book and I thought that it is valuable. This is an important piece of political and social philosophy that is very much relevant to the world today. Even if one disagrees with Gopnik’s premises, he is a fair writer who brings both knowledge and understanding to this topic. If one does not agree with all the precepts of liberalism, as a system and a belief system it has had a profound influence upon the world. This book is an excellent source for anyone who wants to understand that system. I highly recommend this book to those interested in these topics.