Saturday, July 27, 2013

BETTER FOOD FOR A BETTER WORLD (2013) - by Erin McGraw (book review)


In five minutes he had them tossing Indian clubs at each other, precise as a metronome.  Watching them reminded Vivy that real jugglers didn’t strive for unhesitating ease, which was boring.  Real jugglers took pleasure in the unbalanced, the nearly missed, the little accidents that brought life to an act.  Only the amateurs wanted perfection.  (pg. 18)

Some things shouldn’t be shared, if not for the sake of common decency, then for the sake of aesthetics. (pg. 123)

A brief description of the plot does not immediately or necessarily attract one's interest.  (Plot: three married couples band together to run an ice cream store and then marital troubles ensue.)  Instead, it was who wrote it and who was behind the new “literary imprint,” Slant, that motivated me to read it in the first place.  To my delight, I found that there is something indescribably subtle about Erin McGraw’s new novel.  It’s almost imperceptible at first, but as you continue reading the story, you begin to notice that everything (the characters, the atmosphere, the moral and the mood) is not what it at first appears to be.

Just about immediately, as you turn through the opening pages, the slogans begin to appear.

First, we find that one of the partners running the Natural High ice cream store has arranged to print motivational aphorisms on all the store’s napkins.  Then it turns out that all three couples in the story attend a marriage support group.  The consequent clichés and slogans figure so prominently in the lives of these characters that they actually think in them.  When a troubling question or a problem arises, the appropriate axiom for the situation instantaneously directs their thoughts.

The slogans appear innocent enough at first, but then grow into something relentless:

“A Community Business Serving Its Community ... Small is beautiful ... Harmony is sustainability ... Know Your Vision.  Embrace Your Vision.  Make Your Vision ... Right Imagination Is the Parent of Right Desire ... Responsible Action Is the Gate to Freedom ... The Boat of Commitment Can Sail Over the Waters of Uncertainty ... The Marriage of Intention and Action Bears the Offspring of Clarity and Joy ... Our Goal Is Not Gold, but Wholeness ... Each individual holds the wealth of the universe ... Hard Pavements Make Good Roads ... Secrets Are Toxic ... Consistency, Commitment, Contentment ... No Goal = Black Hole ... The Present Is Our Platform To Tomorrow ... It’s never a bad thing to learn ... We trust the wisdom of the group to see what we by ourselves can’t see ... Secrets lead to secrets ... Two Minds, Two Hearts, One Life ... Opportunity Is the Corner of Fate and Desire ... Truth and Hope Bring Life ... Anything worth doing is worth doing well ... Many hands make light work ... The only way out of pain is through pain ... Play a little.  Tell a few jokes.  Haven’t you heard?  You’ll live longer if you laugh ... Communication Is the Key that Opens All Doors ... We trust the group to see what we ourselves are blind to ... Strong medicine is good medicine ... We can only build from where we are standing ... Communication is the ground of commitment ... Growth begins at Ground Level ...”

This is not abnormal, at least in the popular sense.  In the modern day workplace, in the self-help book, in the university, in the church, there are thousands of truisms that are repeated to us and by us in a continual and almost torrential downpour.  I'm afraid to say that even the pastor of my own church virtually modeled his whole sermon recently after one -“Discouragement is the devil's tool that smears the window of reality.

The problem with a truism is that it does not immediately appear to be harmful.  How could it?  It is, after all, true; or at least, it is generally true.  Often it’s creative, clever and sounds quite nice or comforting.  There is something ... sentimental about a motivational slogan.  It’s as though it were designed to help and encourage us.  It nails down feelings that we have into short and easy sentences.  Or at least ... if we didn't have those feelings to begin with, the slogan helps convince us that we did have them after proper recollection, recitation and repetition of the aforesaid slogan.

I was struck while reading English philosopher, Roger Scruton, when he alleged that one of the problems with modern day culture is that we have been taught to actually think in clichés.  So many clichés have been repeated to us so often that they now appear in our thoughts and guide us as we direct our responses to other people and to the world.  This, according to Scruton, is not only dangerous.  It is the death of the mind.

It is, really, evidence of the absence of thought.  Just think of it ... living your life endlessly repeating overly simplistic and reductionist slogans.  You would be mentally, for all intents and purposes, well ... a parrot.

This has been a subject over the last year that I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around.  It's a kind of thinking that I find myself constantly guilty of.  I can’t help but refer to a quote that I’ve used before by James J. Kilpatrick in The Writer’s Art.  He cites a linguist, Louis DeBakey, in his discussion of clichés:

“Clichés, said Dr. DeBakey, ‘are the language of thoughtlessness,’ and indeed they are. They are poor, tired, but comfortable and familiar cubbyholes to which we retreat when imagination fails us. All of us recognize clichés. They fall like casual dandruff on the fabric of our prose. They are weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. If we consider all the uses of our words, surely we can find something better than the bromide - for a bromide, by definition, is a chemical compound used as a sedative. Bromides put us to sleep.”

So while the cliché is bad form for the writer, it is even worse for trying to think.  It’s as if the  cliché kills thought and reflection.  When you find yourself thinking in clichés, you aren’t really thinking.  Your mind is just rehearsing and regurgitating pre-packaged fragments already given to you.  They place a halt to anything that might lead to actual thought.

If it is true that language makes thought possible, then what exactly is it that happens to your thoughts if they consist of mainly of motivational slogans?

In his book, Less Than Words Can Say, Richard Mitchell considers people who do this and asks, “Do they solve problems, or do they simply rummage around for a suitable slogan? Are they the people Socrates had in mind in thinking about that unexamined life that wasn't worth living? Can they examine life?”  Indeed, when my thinking is just the repeating of slogans given to me, can I examine anything at all?  Mitchell worries that this could be a serious problem:

“People in that condition don't think of themselves as being in that condition because they don't think of themselves--they don't think at all. To think, we must devise connected chains of predications, which, in turn, require fluency in language. Those who are fluent in no language just don't have the means for thinking about things. They may remember and recite whatever predications experience provides them, but they cannot manipulate them and derive new ones. Mostly, therefore, they will think and do those things that the world suggests that they think and do.”

But the problem doesn’t stop there, and this is where we see a little of McGraw’s genius.  At the marriage support group in the novel, “Life Ties”, the protagonists have memorized a long list of slogans to help them “deal” with any problems in their marriages.  Once again, at first the slogans sound innocent enough.  But eventually the “support group” begins to take on a sinister edge.  The slogans begin to possess an almost dictatorial tone.

It reminds one a little of Orwellian newspeak.  When any character deviates from the accepted axioms of the support group, the attitude of the group turns hostile and accusatory.

McGraw helps this along by giving us occasional short little chapters that are not through the eyes of any one character.  Instead, they are written through the eyes of the collective.  The collective that is encompassed by the marriage support group itself - self-satisfied, voyeuristic, gossip hungry - these chapters are written as if to view each marriage through the hungry and devouring eyes of the support group audience - written as if all the slogans were assumptions already accepted as dogma directing individual persons and unique marriages into one conforming mass.  And ... the rules and mottoes of the marriage support group hold up a sentimental ideal for marriage itself.

Here is where Scruton’s idea that we currently unconsciously all think in clichés begins to make our modern reality appear ominous.  We haven’t just been taught to think in clichés.  We’ve been taught to feel in them too.  It's as if we have a whole set of pre-packaged and methodologically listed “feelings” that we are ready to use to respond to events in our lives.  This is the problem with sentimentality.  We each have a set of sentimental expectations about things like marriage and relationships.  But our sentimental idea of marriage or relationship is never going to align with reality.  These feelings that we are supposed to have never occur like we have been told that they will.

Discussing the writing of T.S. Eliot, Scruton writes:

“For, as Eliot made wonderfully clear in his critical essays, sentimentality causes us not merely to write in cliches, but to feel in cliches too, lest we be troubled by the truth of our condition.  The task of the artistic modernists, as Eliot later expressed it, borrowing from Mallarme, is ‘to purify the dialect of the tribe’: that is, to find the words, rhythms, and artistic forms that would make contact again with our experience ...”  [emphasis added]

This is one of the reasons I deeply appreciate McGraw’s Better Food for a Better World.  I think she has succeeded in the task of Mallarme's and Eliot’s “artistic modernist.”  Her story is set in the modern world.  It is engulfed by typical and popular forms of thought and experience.  And yet, it does what many other novels do not.  Many modern writers absorb our modern culture’s sentimentality and clichés.  They use these clichés seriously, as if there were nothing at all ever wrong with them - as if they were insightful or even new.  They indulge in sentimentality because they cannot distinguish it from real feeling and because it sells on the market.  McGraw uses the slogans of the ice cream store’s napkins (and of the marriage support group collective) while knowing exactly what they are.

Then she inserts them into her characters very thoughts and it ends up demonstrating their stuntedness and deformity as human beings who cannot relate to each other.  Communication between man and woman breaks down when all the man and woman have to give each other are motivational slogans.  When McGraw writes from the point of view of the marriage support group collective, she gently shows us how the sentimental ideal of marriage embodies the pop psychology assumptions of the group and how they are not as evidently ideal as at first they appear.  It’s almost as if Scruton had described the very problem that McGraw’s novel seizes upon and reveals to us:

“[S]entimentality plays a central role in modern culture - it is the mask with which fantasy conceals its cynical self-regard.  Sentimental feeling is easy to confuse with the real thing, for, on the surface at least, they have the same object.  The sentimental love of Judy and the real love of Judy are both directed toward Judy, and involve tender thoughts of which she is the subject.  But this superficial similarity marks a deep difference.  The real focus of my sentimental love is not Judy but me.  For the sentimentalists it is not the object but the subject of emotion that is important.  Real love focuses on the other: it is gladdened by his pleasure and grieved by his pain.  The unreal love of the sentimentalist focuses on the self, and treats the pleasures and pains of its object only as an excuse for playing the role that most appeals to it.  It may seem to grieve at the other’s sorrow, but it does not really grieve.  For secretly sentimentalists welcome the sorrow that prompts their tears.  It is another excuse for the noble gesture, another occasion to contemplate the image of a great-hearted self.” [emphasis added]

This inability to distinguish between “love for other” and the self-satisfied-love of one’s own “love” for other is aptly and cleverly portrayed as McGraw’s novel progresses.  There is a great difference between sharing the feelings of another person and taking pleasure in the fact of what you feel about the feelings of another person.  One sort of feeling is directed outward, the other is directed inward.

The sentimentalist is, perhaps, the equivalent of an emotional voyeur.  The voyeuristic thrill is obtained by watching and obsessing over the intimacy and experiences of others for the purpose of obtaining the feelings that watching gives.  McGraw writes as though this is how the marriage support group thinks:

When goosey newcomers look ready to bolt, we lean over and whisper, “He totaled her car.  She poured wine onto his computer.  He broke every bottle in the house, including makeup and bath oil.  She shot his dog.” ... The mildest-looking Life Tie-er can turn to his wife and tell her he’s been running drugs, or intends to start.  Nobody wants to miss a meeting like that. (pg. 111)

The marriage support group collective feeds off of the situation where they learn that a wife's husband has been cheating on her: 

She became our obsession.  We discussed her after meetings, and, then, as time went on, in phone calls and over lunches.  Was the woman in denial?  Was she plotting her revenge?  Was she truly ready to put the betrayal behind her, dipping into some Christlike fund of forgiveness?  No one believed that.  After ten months, her back still straight, she revealed her own affair with the same woman, which had ended the night before.  We kept a safe, riveted silenced while the group leader, poor thing, had to ask the questions, quote the slogans, suggest the woman put together a list of chores for atonement ... The phone calls started as we got home, and picked up again around breakfast time.  We tried to imagine the silence at the couple’s dinner table and in the bathroom.  The slightest gesture either party made would touch off memories - the same memories, but not the same.  We imagined them getting dressed in the same room, then different rooms, then never bothering to undress at all.  It was his fault.  It was her fault.  We played out every scenario we could think of, and why not?  (pg. 113)

As one continues through the pages of McGraw’s writing, one can’t help but get the impression that there is both a fake and real way for a husband and wife to really love and engage with each other.  You can take pleasure in how your spouse makes you feel; or, you can take pleasure in your spouse as the person he or she inherently is.  As a man, I could enjoy marriage because of the all the satisfying accoutrements of my relationship with a woman; or, I could enjoy the woman herself.  I could marry her for the feelings she gives me; or, I could marry her for the very essence of her being.  When the character David says, “... Sharing is the real pleasure of marriage.  I learn what Cecilia knows.  She learns what I know.  That way we’re bigger together than we are apart ...” (pg. 107), the critical question is how important this sharing (that makes the sum of them bigger than the two of their parts) is to him compared with his wife, Cecilia, herself.

If that doesn't make sense, consider this.  Adhering to the sentimental outlook on marriage, what happens when one eventually doesn't enjoy how one's spouse makes one feel?  What if the sum total of marital accoutrements cease to be satisfying?  What if I no longer take pleasure in all the feelings that a relationship with a woman gives me?  If the existence of a relationship depends only on the feelings that the other gives you, then when those feelings cease or change, isn't the reason for the existence of the relationship destroyed?

Sentimentality and trite slogans can lead me to think that I always ought to feel a certain way about a relationship.  Since this is not rooted in reality, when I don't feel like the sentimental ideal tells me I am supposed to feel, then I will conclude that there is something wrong with the relationship instead of something wrong with my own deluded self.  In contrast to such an outlook, there is an entirely different view.  There is another possibility that it is not things having to do with my self-satisfaction that ground the existence of any relationship.  One's spouse is not the object that one uses to accomplish one's emotional ends.  Consider what this means.

There is transience and an instability to the former and there is a timelessness and transcendence to the latter.  So how do we distinguish the two?  When I marry a woman, how can I avoid allowing my sentimental ideals to control my expectations for who she should be as a person?  This is the problem.  Our culture has embedded us with expectations for the romantic relationship.  There are now a whole series of satisfactions expected to be met, obligations expected to be upheld, responsibilities expected to be insisted upon, images expected to be copied and boxes expected to be checked.  It's all very theoretically Hallmark.

“‘Marriage creates a single unit, without boundaries or divisions.’” (pg. 170) Is a statement like this true?  It’s one of the slogans of the marriage support group in the novel.  We have certainly heard it taught that this is the sort of thing that constitutes a healthy marriage.  It’s not a coincidence that McGraw describes the group as loosely affiliated with a popular Unitarian church.  She gives a description of the group early in the book:

Dimly based on AA, the group had rules and goals and slogans, but mostly the meetings were just talk: disappointments, surprises, betrayals, the occasional triumph.  People talked and then the others gave feedback.  Somehow, amazingly, the talking helped.  Husbands and wives discussed and revised and recommitted themselves to their marriages.  They explored their difficulties.  They found new solutions.  “Cheaper than divorce,” somebody always said.  “The weekly news,” somebody else would add. (pg. 26)

I may be venturing into territory that I have no experience with which to understand, but I’ve always personally found the idea of a “marriage support group” a little creepy.  Local community is important, but there are different kinds of community.  Talking with your friends about your struggles in life is profoundly valuable, but taking the struggles of your marriage to a group of people to hear their “feedback” seems irresponsible somehow.

In McGraw’s novel, the group “Life Ties” seems knowledgeable enough at times about the self-delusions of its own members.

Most people tell boring lies, so formless and obvious that a kid would spot them.  A really good lie feels like a right angle: clear, symmetrical. (pg. 73)  Then there are the lies people don’t know are lies, the self-deception buried under layers of wishful thinking.  These lies turn people into actors who give Oscar-level performances because they don’t know they’re performing.  Huddling, sharp-eyed pinch-purses brag about their generosity.  World-class narcissists explain how they work for - live for - others.  A needle-thin woman who regularly puts in ninety hours a week at her law firm insists that her greatest pleasure is lazy mornings with her cat and a mug of tea. (pg. 74)

But how is sharing your self-delusions to a support group audience that knows you are self-deluded supposed to help you exactly?  Sure, I can realize that other people are narcissists when they “share” things with me, but how exactly is welcoming them to voice their narcissism productive?

McGraw makes “Life Ties” begin to appear sinister when a newly engaged couple, Court and Tina, enters the group.  They are immediately submitted to a onslaught of cross-examination:

“What kind of marriage are you looking for?” ... “By coming here before your wedding, you and Tina can make sure your foundation is perfect” ... “It takes work.  Are you ready to work?” ... “...what questions do you have for Tina?” ... “Do you have any fears you haven’t shared?” ... “Are there things you haven’t asked about?” ... “You don’t need to say anything, of course, unless you’re ready to” ... “But this is a safe place, if you’re ready” ... “Are you asking her now, Court?  Is this your way of asking her to tell you?” ... “Often we need help expressing ourselves, especially at first” ... (pgs. 97-98)  “Truth is the start of healing.  Secrets are toxic,” said the man with the goatee, whom Cecilia wanted to slap. (pg. 99) “The truth needed to be told.  Secrets are toxic,” said the financial woman. (pg. 105)

The support group acts as if they are there to help the newly engaged couple.  The couple seems to believe them.  Nice sounding things like truth and openness and safety are insisted upon.  Helpful advice is offered enthusiastically.  Collective approval is offered as a bestowment upon the acquiescent.  They know what the couple needs.  They know what the couple should do, how they should live, how they should relate to and talk to and experience each other.  They know what's healthy.  They know support group heresy when they hear it.

“There’s plenty that I don’t know about Tina,” Court said slowly.  “There’s plenty she doesn’t know about me.  That’s all right.  We’ve got a lifetime to find things out.  Where’s the fun of waking up with somebody every day of your life if she doesn’t stand a chance of surprising you?” (pg. 98)

The problem with statements like this is that it goes against the all-consuming rule demanding the sharing of everything.  Everything needs to be shared.  Every personal failure, every present doubt, every past mistake ... all needs to be shared.  But that means good things can be shared too, right?

“Don’t think that we only share the hurtful things.  We share our uplift, too.  Our vision.  Lately I’ve been visioning snowshoeing with Paul up a mountain, both of us helping each other, pushing each other until we get to the top, where we can look down and see the whole world.” (pg. 99)

Yes.  We can also share what we've been visioning.  And yet, the fun of this story is watching, ever so slowly, some of McGraw's characters begin to feel as if there were something wrong.  One couple, Sam and Vivy, are the two who are most outside the group collective.  As troubles ensue, Vivy is one of the first to ask questions and think about what has been constantly drilled into her head.

“People will craw up from their deathbeds to catch the post-meeting postmortem,” Vivy said.  “Everybody gets to have an opinion about everybody else.  Everybody gets to share it.”
“‘Our collective strength outweighs our individual desires,’” David said.  His tone was difficult to decipher.  If he’d been Sam, Vivy would have laughed.
“The smartest motto we’ve got.  Every time I have a desire I ram into the collective strength.” (pg. 160)

The “Life Ties” marriage support group has, in effect, built, as much as I hate to use the phrase, a sort of “social construct” based upon popular ideals for how a married relationship is thought to work.  Each person in the group feels the pressure to conform to these expectations.  Each of their slogans reduce the complexity of human life.  Attempts to follow the slogans end up diminishing the marriages of the men and women in McGraw’s novel.

“... We believe that we are put on this earth to improve it.  Through our marriages, we become models.” (pg. 39.)

How much pressure is going to be exerted upon a relationship, as difficult and challenging as any human relationship can be, if the purpose of the marriage is to change the world by becoming a model for everyone else?

“... We believe that marriage is a total union.  We share our thoughts, fears, emotions, and intentions with our partners.  Marriage creates a single unit, without boundaries or divisions.” (pg. 39.)

That’s all very nice, but what if one of the pleasures of a relationship are the limits and boundaries that can be sometimes crossed and sometimes respected?  What if limits are necessary to the existence of a person?  What if boundaries and divisions are precisely the things that make a good relationship possible in the first place?  It is no coincidence that McGraw has the attitude of the engaged couple undermine this accepted axiom:  “... I think being able to trust a fiancee is about the most important thing I know.  I admit that right now I feel like I just swallowed a boot.  But I’d hate to find myself in a spot where, if I was married, my wife couldn’t go off and try a job that appealed to her.  It’s a marriage.  She doesn’t have to punch a time clock.” (pg. 103)

“... We believe that our marriages are the center of our lives.  Every choice we make must consider our marriages first, last, and foremost.” (pg. 39.)

Which of us cannot imagine, or has not experienced, poor and damaging ways to follow this belief?  Marriages may be meant for many very special things.  But, perhaps, if a marriage becomes the very center of a person’s life, then the only result will be a warped and twisted relationship?

“... Every decision made alone is a betrayal.  Every decision made in community helps us build.  Through new marriages we build a new community.  Through a new community a new world.” (pg. 39.)

This sounds impressive ... unless it is possible to learn to trust someone so utterly and completely that you can trust that person to make decisions alone.  Maybe some decisions are better made with another person and maybe some are not.

If any of these objections to each of these “rules” has any reasonable basis at all, then how unhelpful would it be to just mindlessly repeat the rules?  If a relationship were struggling, if two people were going through the complicated and messy process of trying to learn how to love each other, how to truly get to know each other, how to interact with and adapt to another person wholly other than oneself, what could be one of the worst things you could say to them?  A banality, reduced to utter simplicity, worded as if it were always true when it most certainly is not.

How many pastors, teachers, counselors and therapists merely repeat textbook slogans to hurting and suffering people?  Why would a pastor, teacher, counselor or therapist mindlessly repeat a banality to a suffering or struggling person?  Because it's easy.  Because it takes little thought.  Because it avoids having to adapt to the complexity of individual human beings.

Remember the comparison here to Orwellian Newspeak.  What if there is such a thing as Pop Psychology Relationshipspeak?

“That we be lights to ourselves and one another.  That our actions bring us to new life, new vision, a new world.”  At a meeting some months ago Vivy, standing behind Cecilia, had hummed “Deutschland uber Alles” through the Gathering of Hope.  Cecilia hadn’t failed to think of the anthem since.  Tonight she took bitter pleasure in its stalwart rhythm, and kept humming while the group collected backpacks and notebooks. (pg. 107)