Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Many of the world’s great books seem to consist of every damned thing that entered their author’s minds laid end to end in captivating fashion. I’m thinking about books like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Arabian Nights, Rabelais’ Pantagruel, Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia epidemica, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, or Pynchon’s V. You will undoubtedly have your own favorites of the genre. These are all works of what might be called “the higher realism,” as they so perfectly imitate life in the compelling randomness of their subjects and associations.
I must invoke some such concept if I am get an essay written this morning. We have been in New York these last few days celebrating Christmas with two-thirds of our offspring and their families, the third having temporarily vacated Gotham in favor of South Carolina. That was our official agenda. An added benefit was to get away from the perils of small-town America to the comparative safety of the city streets.
Christmas Day was mostly bright, and in the afternoon everybody went over to Brooklyn to the Red Hook digs of Katherine (Katie*) and Richard for some babyolatry and a second delicious feast, this one the product of Rich’s day-long labors in the kitchen, and centered upon the perfect turkey. It was a memorably mellow evening. There, gazing in my geezerdom upon the tiny face of a one-month-old granddaughter, I could feel the full force of the prophecy of Micah: “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid”.
That was last night. Now it’s Wednesday, blog day, and I turn for inspiration to the Internet news. The first story that meets the eye concerns a new gun atrocity, one that in my recent preoccupation with celebrating the anniversary of the birth of the Prince of Peace I seem to have missed. The story involves a small lakeside neighborhood in the suburbs of Rochester, N.Y. In this place (Webster) on Christmas Eve a man murdered the sister with whom he shared the old family house, which he then torched with her remains apparently still within it. When the volunteer firefighters arrived, summoned by his telephone call, he shot two of them dead and wounded two others. He then killed himself as the fire, uncontested, burned down six additional adjacent houses. A lot of bad things do seem to happen in our country, but we can perhaps learn something even from something as bad as this one. In our continuing national quest to answer the question “What does it take to stop a bad guy with a gun” we can strike from the list of possibilities “Four good guys with fire hoses.”
Concerning the dead arsonist-murderer, said to be “possibly” suffering with “mental health issues,” a journalist had written thus: “Spengler had served 17 years in jail for killing his grandmother with a hammer but had done nothing to attract the authorities' attention since being granted parole in 1998.” This is a curious sentence, but two of its features in particular attracted my attention. The first is perhaps syntactical, perhaps penological. Why should killing one’s grandmother with a hammer earn you seventeen years in prison? What’s the tariff for a great aunt with a hacksaw? Why have we heard nothing from the hardware lobby? “Hammers don’t kill people; carpenters kill people.”
But the more obvious jolt came from the poor madman’s allegorical surname: Spengler. Spengler is not in my experience a common name. In fact so far as I know I have encountered only one other Spengler: Oswald Spengler, the once famous (he died in the month of my birth) philosopher of history. Spengler was, to put it mildly, a very gloomy thinker. His most famous book (Der Untergang des Abendlandes, 1918-22) is usually translated as the “Decline of the West”. But “decline” is a little mild. Spengler actually believed that European Christian culture was finished, kaput. And that was around 1920, before the twin political pathologies of the twentieth century, Bolshevism and National Socialism, had as yet strutted their stuff.
Some of Spengler’s analysis has proved errant. Western economic dynamism has in the long perspective remained impressive, and as political power seldom trails far behind economic power Spengler’s view of Western material “decline” was to say the very least exaggerated. But as I observe our current political impotence I have to admit that long-term developments in the moral life of the West, and especially in the American part thereof, come closer to justifying one of his more celebrated remarks: “Optimism is cowardice.” Then, again, I wonder if the man who said that ever could have looked into the face of a sleeping month-old baby as illuminated by Christmas lights.
*Only by orthographic finesse can I now distinguish (in writing) my wonderful daughter from my wonderful daughter-in-law.