In her book The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich employs the legal concept of proximate cause to consider the extent to which the things that have happened to us dictate who we are and what we will do. Marzano-Lesnevich joins an investigation into a murder and the life of the murderer who was a child molester to her own memoir of growing up in a family in which she was molested by her grandfather. At 18, she confronts her grandfather about what he had done to her as a child. He responds that he too was abused as a child. So, she wonders, is there no escape from this cycle? Worse, is there no holding to account if the proximate cause continues to recede?
The troubles of the house of Atreus do not begin when Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia. Agamemnon’s grandfather, Pelops, was served in a stew to the gods by his father and rescued by Demeter. And his father, Atreus, serves up his brother Thyestes’s kids to Thyestes and only one son – Aegisthus — survives. Aegisthus is the man that Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, is having an affair with when Agamemnon returns from battle and the man who helps Clytemnestra kill Agamemnon in the bathtub to exact revenge for killing Iphigenia. Aeschylus writes a final part to this story to address the question of how there can be freedom from what has gone before. On Aeschylus’ telling, justice is the break of the bloodletting cycle of revenge. Each actor in the family up until the intervention of Athena into this story has been constrained to seek revenge by what has befallen them or what has gone before them. Athena introduces freedom into the story by justifying Orestes and refusing the Furies drive to exact revenge on him. But this freedom for Orestes comes at the real cost of Clytemnestra’s murder going unpunished. On the calculus of Orestes’ familial responsibility, he must exact revenge for his father’s death, but this revenge will also require its own revenge. Athena frees Orestes not by ending that familial responsibility, which he does fulfill, but by allowing Orestes not to be held responsible for fulfilling that responsibility. Read more
Tolstoy famously begins Anna Karenina with the line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I just finished reading Mercury, by Margot Livesey, reviewed here in the New York Times, having read Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth last semester, reviewed here in the Times, and while it is more intricate a novel, it seems to me that together these stories show unhappy families to be exactly alike. People hold secrets. People stop listening to one another. People don’t see the needs of those closest to them. People resent one another. This is what makes an unhappy family.
The mystery is what makes a happy family. Read more
Soon after the election in November, I heard someone read Hans Christian Anderson’s short story “The Emperor Has No Clothes” aloud. We know the story as one about an emperor who thinks he has a beautiful new set of clothes, but does not so he walks around naked. The people of the city are aghast but no one says anything until a child calls out, “The emperor has no clothes!” But what this summary leaves out is all the ways that fears of not appearing wise contribute to the fiasco and make fools of the whole community. Read more
I just finished reading Elizabeth Costello, by J.M. Coetzee. The novel–is it really a novel?–is a series of addresses by a fictitious Australian author, Elizabeth Costello, framed by her interactions with her son, fellow authors, her sister and finally, a Benjaminian before-the-law type last chapter, and a prologue with a possibly fictitious letter. I’m writing this without reading anything else about the book because I want to keep working on my own sense of what the novel is about. I am not yet sure. But I think it is about something important, maybe about something only a novel can say, or rather, something a novel can best trouble. Read more
Grace: it’s not about life after death, it’s life after debt.
By some lucky happenstance (grace?) I finished reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel Lila in the same week. In his book, which is discussed at length in this seminar at Crooked Timber, Graeber attempts to establish that human relationships are not reducible to and do not originate in economies of credit and debt. Graeber argues, as I have long thought, that Nietzsche’s exercise in taking the calculability of all human relations to its logical conclusions in his Second Essay in On the Genealogy of Morals is not meant to defend but to mock such a schema. Graeber points out that there is something insulting about considering your relationships with others in terms of debt. To consider a relationship one of debt suggests a calculability to it, a way of measuring what is owed, a way of holding one another responsible because of the IOU between you. When I was in junior high and high school, my mother did not like us getting rides from our friends’ parents because she felt like that obligated her to give rides to our friends. She didn’t like giving rides. Fine.* I think about Aristotle talking about how friendship is the opportunity to exhibit virtue to others, to have someone to be generous to. But still, human relationships are always in excess of debt, irreducible to what is owed, made obscene by the sense that it is merely the keeping of obligations and demanding that they be met (this is likely why I’m not a Kantian).** It is this element of human relationships that Graeber calls communistic. Read more