Three Things for Tuesday

(That I’m putting out on Monday. See? I’m not always behind.)

1. Rebecca Mead on Marriage in Middlemarch:

This is one of the best things I’ve read on the internet recently. Rebecca Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarchwrites in The Atlantic about what she’s learned from re-visiting George Eliot’s novel “every five years or so—not on a strict schedule, but every so often it would occur to me that it was time to read it again.”

What matters to her now in the novel, she says, is the lesson it teaches about marriage. She writes:

It was really when I read it again in my early forties that this phrase, “the home epic” came much more into focus for me. The phrase comes from a passage I initially passed by, but now strikes me as having profound resonance:

‘Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honeymoon in Eden, but had their first little one among the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. It is still the beginning of the home epic—the gradual conquest or irremediable loss of that complete union which makes the advancing years a climax, and age the harvest of sweet memories in common.’

This is a perfect characterization of the immense but mundane journey that all of us take in forming families. The thing every person does—most all of us, anyway—is live in a family at one point, and live in daily relation to our closest relatives. The combination, in this phrase “the home epic,” of grandeur and domesticity rings very true: because marriage is a huge and grand endeavor, but it’s also day-to-day. Sometimes, one doesn’t see the arc and the significance of the whole journey until looking at it from a distance, from a more removed perspective.

Mead turns this perspective on her parents’ marriage, and then her own, and ultimately endorses “the high value placed on everyday, anonymous goodness in Middlemarch.”

It’s a gorgeous piece of writing.

2. The World Sucks and Nothing Makes it Better

I’ve read several pieces lately that have the same structure and thrust: this essay by Charlotte Shane at The New Inquiry challenges the myth that yoga leads to self-improvement, and this one, by Tony Schwartz, does the same with meditation. Both authors come at their subjects with authority—Shane is a longtime yoga instructor who has given up her practice, while Schwartz writes “I’ve spent hundreds of hours sitting with my eyes closed and my legs crossed.” Both note that people come to their thing expecting to be both better and happier, and say that while yoga and meditation can lead to these improvements, they don’t always do that and, in fact, sometimes they make people worse and less healthy. Shane says that people come to yoga with the idea that “to transcend your physical self, you must master it,” and then she writes:

It’s not surprising, then, that this institutionalized obsession with the body can have troubling manifestations in individuals. Some fixate on certain poses to the detriment of their health. I’ve met many yoga devotees with hamstring attachment pain, a symptom of an overaggressive pursuit of deep forward folds. Some adopt strict behaviors the medical community labels disordered, such as excessive exercising and highly restricted eating. Some are on constant “cleanses,” consuming almost all their calories in liquid form, moving from one regimen to another. Others also undergo protracted periods of gluten-free and vegan eating in the name of detoxifying, and all this while working their body strenuously for several hours a day through increasingly demanding postures.

Just as troubling, she notes that all of this emphasis on self-betterment leads to the idea that “With your mind’s fluctuations calmed, you access a level of excellence that non-yogis cannot. You become a morally superior specimen.”

It’s a paradox that we see when we think or talk about religion, too: religion is supposed to make us better but, most of the time for most of us, it really doesn’t. And far too often, it makes us treat each other worse. Practicing religion comes with real risk: instead of making us more generous or inclusive, it can confirm in us an ugly sense of moral superiority.

I think we can see a way out of this paradox in this (also gorgeous) essay by Kristen Case. She’s writing about the humanities in academia, fields that are subject to the same debates I’ve described above. Does reading novels make us better people? If so, how come so many shitty people are such prolific readers? Lord knows literature professors aren’t an especially saintly bunch.

Case answers with the religious concept of grace, which she sees (sort of) in two moments she has experienced in class. In one, a student of hers exclaimed, somewhat inarticulately, “Our houses are just big boxes,” after reading Walden; in the other another student revealed in office hours that she had been thinking for months about a passage from Heidegger that she had read in class. Case explains:

These moments—one of collapse and one of clarity—represent what is, for me, the heart of the humanities classroom. They are difficult to characterize and impossible to quantify. They are not examples of student success, conventionally defined. They are not achievements. I want to call them moments of classroom grace. There is difficulty, discomfort, even fear in such moments, which involve confrontations with what we thought we knew, like why people have mortgages and what “things” are. These moments do not reflect a linear progress from ignorance to knowledge; instead they describe a step away from a complacent knowing into a new world in which, at least at first, everything is cloudy, nothing is quite clear.

It’s hard to explain why we do things—yoga, novel-reading, prayer—that may or may not have any tangible benefits and it’s tempting, when we defend those things, to focus on what theymay bring. But Case’s essay is a nice reminder that linear progress isn’t necessarily the point, as hard as that may be to explain.

3. On Meaning and Happiness

Finally, there has been a lot of debate at the smart magazine websites about meaning and happiness, who has it and which is more important. A couple of writers at the Atlantic havewritten recently that meaning is more important than happiness. I guess I agree, but the opening to this tribute to Phillip Seymour Hoffman caught me short yesterday:

“Phillip Seymour Hoffman was one of the most miserable men I have ever met, and one of the most humane.”

What has come out in the hours since Hoffman’s death suggests that he was a man whose life was full of meaning, but horribly bereft of happiness. Both things matter.

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