“The mob believes everything it is told, provided only that it be repeated over and over. Provided too that its passions, hatreds, fears are catered to. Nor need one try to stay within the limits of plausibility: on the contrary, the grosser, the bigger, the cruder the lie, the more readily is it believed and followed. Nor is there any need to avoid contradictions: the mob never notices; needless to pretend to correlate what is said to some with what is said to others: each person or group believes only what he is told, not what anyone else is told; needless to strive for coherence: the mob has no memory; needless to pretend to any truth: the mob is radically incapable of perceiving it: the mob can never comprehend that its own interests are what is at stake.” ― Alexandre Koyré, Reflexions sur le mensonge
North and South is a novel written by Elizabeth Gaskell in 1855. It's main character is 19 year old Margaret Hale, the daughter of Rev. Richard Hale and his wife Maria. At the beginning of the novel, she has been living in London with her Aunt Shaw for ten years as a companion to her her aunt's daughter Edith. Aunt Shaw is is Margaret's mother's widowed sister who is of higher social and economic status because she married well. Mrs. Hale is generally considered to have married beneath her; Rev. Hale is an unambitious vicar in the small village of Helstone in southern England. As the novel picks up, Edith is getting married to Captain Sholto Lennox and moving to Corfu where he is posted. Though very fond of Edith, Margaret is growing tired of the shallow pursuits and vapid social interactions that constitute her life in London. She is relieved that after the wedding she will be returning to Helstone to live with her parents. Margaret has had only brief visits to Helstone during her decade in London and has formed an idealized picture in her mind of life there- quiet, peaceful, and perfect. She attempts to describe it to Henry Lennox, brother to Edith's fiance, who has become her friend. Or rather, Margaret regards him as a friend: he has developed deeper feelings for her though being a cautious, methodical lawyer, he has never expressed them. So, oblivious to his regard, Margaret happily returns to Helstone and settles there.
Margaret is content, filling her days making charitable visits in the parish, helping at the parsonage, and wandering through the countryside. Her happiness is marred only by the realization that her mother is somewhat discontented with life in Helstone, and by the vague notion that her father is worried about something. She reasons that some of this discontent and unease is caused by the situation of her brother, Frederick. A naval officer, he was involved some years before in a mutiny and now lives secretly in Spain to avoid courtmartial and execution.
Margaret's peace is further disrupted by Henry Lennox turning up and abruptly proposing to her. Caught off guard, she awkwardly fumbles for words to refuse him without hurting his feelings. She doesn't succeed,but Henry hides his disappointment behind a mask of cynical indifference which Margaret finds off putting. She is relieved when he returns to London. Margaret's intuition about her father's state of mind proves correct. Rev. Hale is having a crisis of faith- not in God, but in the tenets of the Church of England. He doesn't feel that he can, in good conscience, remain in his post as a vicar and so has resigned from his parish. Hale has been corresponding with his old college friend Mr. Bell who owns land in the northern factory town of Milton. He suggests that Rev. Hale move there and take work as a tutor. Mr. Hale has decided to do this and finally confides in Margaret, who is completely shocked. He pitifully begs her to break the news to her mother, as he can't bring himself to do so. Reluctantly Margaret does it, dealing with her mother's confusion, grief, and anger while her father absents himself from the house. Within weeks they have left their home in Helstone and are travelling towards Milton and a completely new way of life.
The above image is from the 2008 made-for-TV BBC miniseries Little Dorrit which is, obviously, an adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel by the same name which was published as a serial between the years 1855 and 1857. It stars Claire Foy as the titular "Little" Amy Dorrit, a young woman who lives in Marshalsea Prison for Debt with her father who has been ensconced there for twenty years for his unpaid debts. To make some money, she works as a seamstress for a sour old woman named Mrs. Clennam. Meanwhile in China, Arthur Clennam's father dies, his last wish being that Arthur return to England and put things right with his mother. He gives Arthur a watch that is to be returned to her (Mrs. Clennam). Arthur goes to England and reunites with his mother, giving her the watch. She claims not to know anything about it but opens it and reads a note it contains; it says, "Do not forget". She refuses to tell Arthur anything. Arthur meets Amy Dorrit at his mother's house and takes a friendly interest in her. He finds out about her family's unfortunate position and wishes to help Amy. Witnessing his unpleasant mother's uncharacteristic benevolence towards the girl, Arthur begins to suspect that his family had something to do with Mr. Dorrit's ruination, and that his mother has hired Amy out of guilt. He attempts to look into the particulars of the debts which caused Mr. Dorrit's imprisonment and goes to the Circumlocation Office to try to find official documents dealing with the case. The word "circumlocution" literally means 'roundabout speech' and is defined as "the use of many words where fewer would do, especially in a deliberate attempt to be vague or evasive." In Little Dorrit, the Circumlocution Office is Dickens' satirical government department which is a place of endless bureaucracy where a person is sent in circles, forced to fill out form after form, buried in paperwork and governmental red tape until he gives up trying to get anything accomplished. The object of the office seems to be to stonewall and obfuscate, and give people the runaround. Gee, this sounds vaguely familiar. Arthur's attempts to find documents relating to the Dorrit's situation at the Circumlocution Office result in him being buried in bureaucracy, the office depicted in the movie as containing a downward spiralling staircase covered in heaps of papers and documents (seen above) . Below is a clip of Arthur's arrival at the Circumlocution Office:
At the end of my previous post about Isaac Asimov's essay on JRR Tolkien's LOTR series, Asimov had opined that the One Ring is technology on which, despite the damage it inflicts on the environment and population, we have become completely dependent. He asks if this is the inevitable and final victory of "Sauron". At this point Asimov answers his own question with a 'no' and goes on to explain his reasoning. He points out that the idyllic pastoral Shire- England- is a nostalgic fiction. While there were aristocrats and landowners who lived fairly comfortable lives, the vast majority of people had much harder, poorer, and more laborious existances: "Those who inherit the traditions of a ruling class (as Tolkien did) are too aware of the past pleasantness of life, and too unaware of the nightmare that filled it just beyond the borders of the manor house." Asimov makes the salient point that, whatever problems and ills have been caused by industrialization, it has also been a force for good in many respects. Industrialization resulted in in an upsurge in leisure time for millions and a corresponding dramatic rise in literacy. It resulted in the working class having disposable income and better opportunities in education and employment. In addition, the industrial age has seen may diseases and conditions which used to kill large segments of the population prevented or cured, and seen the average life expectancy almost double. If we can't give up our One Ring, there's good reason for it. If the ring is leading us to destruction, Asimov says, it's because we are greedy and foolish. He is hopeful, however, that we can learn to use its power wisely: "No, the One Ring is not wholly Evil. It is what we make it, and we must rescue and extend those parts of it that are good."
I think that Isaac Asimov was probably right in detecting an undercurrent of distaste for industrialization in Tolkien's works. It seems fairly obvious, for example, in Saruman's turning Isengard into a factory to produce weaponry, decimating the nearby forest to do so. And then Saruman takes his show on the road, traveling to the idyllic Shire and laying waste to it as well. Also, we know that Tolkien adored the wilderness, preferred bicycling to driving, and the Latin mass to an English one- in short, he showed a marked preference for the poetic ages past than the prosaic present of factory towns and dirty cities. I have a certain sympathy for this point of view. Asimov is correct, however, in stating that the benefits of the modern industrial age, for the average person, far outweigh its costs. This was true even in 1980 when Asimov was writing this essay and pollution from factories was a whole lot worse than it is now. Since then, companies have gone a long way towards cleaning up their emissions and pollutants. I'm not saying that everything is perfect- obviously not- and we're still distressingly dependent on foreign oil often coming from reprehensible sources, but conditions have markedly improved. If the One Ring is technology, I would say the lure and danger of it now is not what it is doing to the environment, but what it is doing to the individual. More and more people seem to be eschewing personal relationships for online ones. Instead of taking pride in personal accomplishments, many now seem only to get gratification or feel a sense of worth by garnering a large online following, people they don't- and won't- ever know personally. Unrestrained and desperate for attention, they say and do outrageous and debasing things for "clicks". Because of the impersonal nature of these online connections, many feel free to viciously attack the characters of those they don't like, seeking to destroy them, free of the consequences that saying such vile things face to face would bring. None of this can possibly be healthy, but it's too late to close Pandora's Box. In a way, we have become slaves to our devices (some more than others) and we can no easier rid ourselves of them than Frodo could bring himself to destroy the ring. And we've granted the purveyors of our technological "rings" an amount of power over our lives that Sauron would envy.
I am currently reading the book pictured to the left, A Reader's Companion To The Hobbit And The Lord Of The Rings, which is a compilation of essays written by various authors on the subject of JRR Tolkien's most famous works- The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. These essays are taken from various sources over quite a stretch of time: some were written contemporaneously with the release of Tolkien's books, and some were produced years later. Some of the essays are admiring while others are dismissive and even scornful. The one I am going to discuss in this post was written by famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in 1980, entitled The Ring Of Evil. In his essay, Asimov gives a quick overview of the Lord Of The Rings narrative and its struggle between good and evil. He then poses the question, "What does this struggle represent?" Asimov briefly points out the obvious fact that the LOTR books were written in the 1950's, in the years following the horrors of W.W. II. Tolkien had lived through 1940, when Great Britain alone stood against the forces of Nazi Germany. Asimov writes that the Hobbits of the Shire can be read as an idealized representation of the Britain and its inhabitants; behind Sauron is the dark shade of Adolf Hitler.
Asimov also points out, though, that a lot of the elements in Tolkien's works don't fit easily into that interpretation of them: "But then, too, there are wider symbolisms. Tom Bombadil is a mysterious character who seems to represent Nature as a whole. The treelike Ents characterize the green forests, and the Dwarves represent the mountains and the mineral world. There are the Elves, too, powerful but passe, representatives of a time passing into limbo, who will not survive even though Sauron were destroyed." He then inquires rhetorically, 'what does the One Ring represent?' In the books, it is powerful, controls the other rings, inspires an almost overwhelming urge to possess it, and it will utterly corrupt the person who does. Even the wise and powerful wizard Gandalf will not touch the ring and it is left to a small and weak Hobbit- Frodo- to bear its burden. In the end it corrupts him, too and Frodo is unable to bring himself to destroy the ring: "He has become the One Ring's slave. (And in the end, it is Evil that destroys Evil, where Frodo the Good fails.)"
"What is the One Ring, then? What does it represent? What is it that is so desirable and so corrupting? What is it that can't be let go even though it is destroying us?" Asimov's answer to these questions is one word- technology. He relates a story of how he hand his wife were driving along the New Jersey Turnpike and came to a section which drove past a series of oil refineries, replete with clouds of dark smoke and a stench that had them rolling up the car windows. His wife remarked, "Here comes Mordor,"and Asimov expands upon this thought, interpreting Mordor to be the industrial world which is slowly but surely covering the planet. The Elves, in his opinion, represent the preindustrial age which is fading away, while the Ents, Dwarves, and Tom Bombadil are different facets of Nature that are being destroyed or crowded out by industrialization. The Hobbits represent long gone pastoral life.
Asimov describes the temptations of our "One Ring": "It is the lure of technology; the seduction of things done more easily; of products in greater quantity; of gadgets in tempting variety. It is gunpowder, and the automobile, and television; all the things that the people can't let go once they do have them." He questions whether we would ever be willing- or able- to give any of these things up, whatever the cost in pollution, land ruination, and even human lives (pointing to the high mortality rates from car accidents alone). He also mentions the problem of our oil depedency, of which we need more than our own western countries produce: "We obtain it from lands that hold us in chains in consequence and whom we dare not offend. Can we diminish our needs in order to break those chains?" According to this view, our dependency on technology is destroying us, and there's no Mount Doom to toss it into; Asimov's next questions are: "Is all this inevitable? Has Sauron won? Have the Shadows of the Land of Mordor fallen over all the world?" His conclusions may surprise you, given the rather bleak nature of his interpretation of Tolkien so far. I will discuss them in my next post as well as give my thoughts on Asimov's essay.
We started our 2019 choral season last night and were given our music packet for the spring concert. The theme of the concert is 'Journeys' so all of the songs involve that topic in some way. One of the pieces which we're going to be singing is the jazz standard Route 66. The lyrics and the music for Route 66 were written in 1946 by Bobby Troup. Troup was a talented singer and jazz pianist who had experienced some success writing songs while in college. This was interrupted by World War II; Troup served as a Marine and was deployed to Saipan. After the war, he and his wife decided to try their luck in Hollywood so packed their belongings in their car and headed west. They traveled along two roads to get there- US 40 and US 66- and it was on the ten day journey along Route 66 that Troup wrote this song.
The song is basically a list of a lot of the towns and places along the historic Route 66 which is one of the original roads of the US Highway system, having opened in 1926. It's 2,443 miles long and for many years was the main route of anyone heading west to California. "Highway 66" figures prominently in John Steinbeck's Depression era novel The Grapes of Wrath, the path of many trying to escape the dustbowl. Route 66 was removed from the highway system in 1985 as it was replaced with interstate highways.
For those of who, like me, enjoy watching old TV series, it might interest you to know that Bobby Troup had a prominent role in one of my favourites: Emergency! This was a show which ran from 1972 to 1977 on NBC and was about the adventures of two paramedics with the Los Angeles Fire Dept. Bobby Troup starred as one of the doctors at the local hospital- Dr. Joe Early. Incidentally, Troup's wife Julie London also had a role in the show, as head nurse Dixie McCall. The version of Route 66 which our choir is singing is an arrangement by Dick Averre. Here's a vocal group singing this arrangement a few years ago:
This week we watched the 1950 movie Harvey which stars James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd and Josephine Hull as his sister Veta Simmons. Elwood inherited the family fortune and his widowed sister Veta and her daughter Myrtle Mae live with him. They are not grateful for his generosity, however, because they consider that his eccentric ways are hurting their social standing and Myrtle's chances of making a successful marriage. Elwood experienced some sort of psychic break a few years before when his mother died. After that, he made the acquaintance of a six foot tall white rabbit named Harvey who has become his best friend. Though no one else can see Harvey, Elwood introduces him to everyone he meets, buys train and theater tickets for him, and talks to him constantly. Elwood and his invisible pal spend most of their days sitting in a local bar ordering martinis, chatting with the other patrons, listening to their problems, and inviting random people- taxi drivers, workmen, etc.- home for dinner. This naturally frustrates his social-climbing sister and niece who decide that Elwood must be committed to a local mental institution and take steps to make this happen. Hijinks ensue. As those around him charge about stressed, angry, and litigious, Elwood wanders happily though life in an amiable daze, genial and generous. It makes you wonder who the crazy ones really are. "Well, I've wrestled with reality for thirty five years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it."