Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Why Reading Matters

This is a rough draft of some thoughts that have been simmering in the crock-pot of my brain the last few days.  See, I have decided to go back and try to take the road not taken, and apply for a graduate program in English Literature, and a key part of that process is to spend some time thinking about WHY I want to do this and where I want to go with it. 

The first and easiest answer is that I want to do it because literature, and studying literature, and thinking about literature in a structured and critical way just makes me happy.  It's like champagne for the soul, finding a great book and then rummaging around inside it and parsing why I enjoyed it so much.  It's like eating chocolate, or crawling into a freshly made bed, or eating a really fine meal: it's a pleasure so great, it's physical.

So I can explain to myself why I want to spend time doing this, but there is really something more.  I mean, I have a lovely life where I could just read books and think about them without committing to something as grueling as graduate school.  There is something I want to do in addition to just reading for my own pleasure, some larger goal I have in the back of my mind.

The obvious end to graduate school is teaching, isn't it?  People who become English professors don't get ther without going to graduate school, for instance, and there is a part of me that sees teaching English as a seductive career path.  But why go to graduate school?  Why not be a high school teacher, for example, or even do something entrepreneurial and write a book or monetize a blog or free lance for a newspaper/magazine?  Why, and especially at my advanced age, go back to school?

I think that I want to go to school in part because I need the structure and support to launch myself: I don't really have the passion for launching a business venture, and the dreary necessity for commercializing oneself is draining my enthusiasm.  At least from where I sit.  Of course, one markets one's self even in academia, but before I do that, I'd like the chance to get my intellectual ducks in a row.  And I need some deadlines and mentoring and expectations, etc. to motivate myself properly and get that accomplished.  And THEN I can go do the monetization/networking/self-promotion as necessary.  But I need a little space to think first.

Which brings me to the point of this post: what do I think about when I think about literature?  There are two different answers.  First, there is the activity of reading a particular work and analyzing it.  Looking at the structures, the historical context, the plot, the themes, all the elements that make a book great.  Great writers put a lot of thought and craft into a great book, and it often takes a lot of thought to figure out what all goes into a truly meaningful work.  That's a lot of what I did as an undergraduate, and it's what I continue to do as a social reader.  I drive my friends nuts, because what I have to say about a book often takes longer than a book club wants to spend on something most of them just read cursorily.

Second, though, is the larger question about why literature matters at all.  And in this election season, I've been thinking about the importance of narrative and its role in our society.  It's not just in books any more (if it ever was), but the stories we tell ourselves are incredibly important to things like what we do about Guantanamo, or who we elect as president, or whether we work to reverse health care reform, or how we engage internationally.  History and diplomacy and foreign policy and politics and myriad other things are all fundamental exercises in narrative and that affects everybody.

I practiced law for about a decade, handling various disputes over medical care and automobile accidents and even a divorce.  But only one, and even that was an appeal on a larger issue.  But what makes law work the way it does is fundamentally about narrative.  And the issue is how do the facts of a case make a compelling narrative and how does that narrative fit the prejudices of the judge? 


Karon v. Karon, 435 N.W.2d 501 (Minn. 1989).

In one case, there was an issue about a divorce before the supreme court where I clerked.  The man and woman had amicably settled their issues and went their separate ways.  The wife had declined spousal maintenance (what most people know as "alimony"), which she had an absolute right to claim.  In the final divorce decree, they had agreed to language that stated "there shall be no changes made to this decree."  Well, of course, something changed.  In less than five years after the divorce (the details are hazy, but I could look it up) the former wife was diagnosed/contracted MS and could no longer work.  Now, it was important for her to have some form of spousal maintenance, because she really couldn't support herself alone.  The issue for the court was whether there was some mechanism by which she could get some money from her ex-husband.

The details were technical and legal: did these people have the authority/ability to deprive the court of jurisdiction to amend the divorce decree?  I mean, in a civil society based on laws, can two people agree that a court is not allowed into a area--an area that courts traditionally have every reason to be in--even if one of them changes their mind later?  Can you ask a court to enforce the provision of a divorce degree that says the court has no jurisdiction over the divorce decree?  At what point do the interests of the larger society have an interest in asking a husband to pay spousal support rather than having the woman go on welfare?  These were juicy legal arguments, but in the end, they were really just ways of asking: was it fair, in light of the way the situation had changed?

There is a saying: where you stand depends on where you sit.  And among the clerks, we felt there was a strong message of denial from the male justices.  Post-feminist, young people that we were, we read it as a case of men insisting on the fiction of a fresh start.  Of course, the husband in question had already remarried, and had a baby with his new wife.  I thought at the time, and I continue to think, that there was a strong message of wish fulfillment that a man could walk away from decades of marriage as if it had never happened.

Of course, this played into the then current disapproval of dead-beat dads: it was the same narrative.  A man felt he was entitled to walk away from a marriage of however long a duration, and have no lasting ties to the woman or the children of that marriage, and that was just wrong.  It was bad for the children, it was damaging in the case of changed circumstances, and it was a moral hazard.  You might not still be married, but you are not "status quo ante."  You can't go back to where you were before you married, and there was no reason society should allow that.

At the time, the court had five men and two women on it, and the oldest and closest to antediluvian was the most vocal of the right for a man to walk away.  On the morning of oral argument, there was a deep rift between the judicial camps, just as there was between the parties.  The clerks, the parties, and the judges all went into the courtroom with the same two narratives, arrayed on one side or the other: the right to tabula rasa post divorce, and the continuing obligation of social ties in light of changed circumstances.  She could have asked for spousal maintenance, and the court would have absolutely had the right to amend the amount of that maintenance and could have made it permanent.  I certainly saw it as a gift she had given to her ex-husband, and I felt it was churlish and obnoxious for him to refuse to help her in this situation.

We were surprised, therefore, when one of the amici curiae stood up and pulled the roof down around all our ears.  "You cannot go into this decree and alter its terms," she thundered, "because to do so is to establish the precedent that women are incompetent to contract.  Women have fought since the Victorian era to be allowed to own their own property, to make their own contracts, and to be allowed to control their own legal and economic destiny.  If you alter the plain terms of this divorce, you are doing so because you believe that this woman was not competent to make her own decisions and that you have a paternalistic right to go back and alter the plain terms of her wishes."

What this amicus had done was to change the narrative.  It was no longer a division between the pro-wife and pro-husband forces.  It was no longer an esoteric consideration of the ability of parties to deprive a court of its traditional jurisdiction.  It became a question of whether women had the right to make their own decisions about their future and have those decisions be respected, regardless of what happened in the future.

And that became the dominant way of thinking about that case, at least among the men who still wanted to have the chance to walk away from a failed marriage without any lingering ties.  They could decide in favor of the husband without being selfish or obnoxious--they were "honoring" the woman's wishes!  Sure, it was a bad bargain she had made, but that was no reason to nullify it, right?

Okay, in a subterranean way, the final decision carried more than a whiff of paternalistic stink.  It was a bad bargain.  It was a bad enough bargain that it felt fundamentally unfair to enforce it.  But if we considered that we were enforcing it against a disabled woman for her own good that made it okay!

A good feminist critic could parse this better than I can, but I'll give it a shot: a woman made a bargain that turns out to be against her best interests, although she couldn't have known that at the time.  Once the unfairness became apparent, she sought to amend the deal.  The court decided she couldn't amend the deal, because that wouldn't be in her own best interests, albeit in a vaguely theoretical way that was of no help in the present instance and that offered only limited prospective relief against a theoretical future hazard of future contracts involving theoretical women who were not in any way before the current court.  Presumably, the next time Frima Karon got divorced, then, she would remember NOT to put a clause in that divested the courts of jurisdiction.  Because there's no point in alleviating a difficult situation that is right in front of the court when you could imagine vague future circumstances that might be handled.  If they ever happened.

But we were young, and had been ambushed.  There was no way the clerks were able to assemble a compelling counter-narrative, especially since this one enabled the fantasy of no-strings divorce while dressing it in pro-feminist disguise.  The reality of the court practice at that time was that the court retired to their conference room to make their decision immediately after oral argument, without consulting clerks or having any court staff present.  And the amicus argument won the day.  This is from the published decision:

Amicus for the Family Law Section of the Minnesota State Bar Association stated at oral argument that setting aside the stipulation and decree is insulting and demeaning to women. Counsel who argued on behalf of the association is a woman. She took that position in response to counsel for respondent's implication that women involved in divorce cannot understand or act to protect their rights even when represented by counsel; therefore, the state must protect them in the manner it protects children in the role of parens patriae. Amicus's argument is compelling.

Moreover, what effect would affirmance have on other contracts entered into by married women? Would such a decision supporting the respondent ultimately lead to turning the clock back, outlawing not only antenuptial agreements, but also allowing parties to contest the validity of all instruments and contracts entered into on behalf of married women? Would we also question the validity of deeds of conveyances and purchases of expensive personal property? Where would the protection end? In short, intelligent adult women, especially when represented by counsel, must be expected to honor their contracts the same as anyone else. Any other holding would result in chaos in the family law field and declining respect for binding agreements as well.

Four of the five male justices voted to deny the change in maintenance.  Unsurprisingly, both the female justices dissented, as did my personal favorite of the judges (other than the one I worked for).  Even today, Minnesota has what is now known as the "Karon waiver" as a tool of family law.

Narrative matters, and often matters more than logic, or past precedent, or demonstrable fact.  Climate change is a matter of demonstrable scientific fact, as is that fact that a significant portion of that change is caused by human activity.  Yet people still deny it.  In order to understand why they deny it, it is important to understand a number of complex things about their thinking--which amounts to understanding the narrative they tell themselves.

In the most recent elections of November 2010, the voters of Oklahoma approved a law that prohibits the courts of that state from applying sharia law.  Conservative commentators have decried the alleged goal of Islamic fanatics to use sharia to "impose a theocracy" on the United States.  One can't help but wonder, however, if these commentators have any objection to using "Christian principles" as the basis of lawmaking?   And while the logical inconsistency is apparent to me--sharia and "Christianity" are equally theocratic when used as the basis for legislation--there are people who subscribe to a different narrative than I do, that allows them to see the one as a threat, and the other as good governance.

The Women and Men of Brewster Place

What literature we read shapes our approach to social narrative.  Back in 1982, Gloria Naylor published the book "The Women of Brewster Place" which assembled a number of short stories about African American women in more or less desperate circumstances.  What these women had in common was that they all lived in the same street, and many of their harrowing stories were the consequences of the actions of bad men.  Oprah Winfrey adapted the novel into a TV miniseries in 1989, and there was such a kick in reading stories where you could so easily be angry at the horrible men who had done such horrible things.

Then, in 1997, she published "The Men of Brewster Place" and suddenly all that self-righteous anger that had felt so good went sour.  Because she was (and is!) such a talented writer, Naylor went back to the horrible stories of her earlier novel and re-imagined the men's roles.  And surprise!  The men weren't just monsters, but were flawed and stumbling human beings who were trying to do the right thing too.  And it was no longer possible to just dismiss the women's misery as the fault of men, but a reader had to truly look at what happened from more than one perspective.  Naylor demonstrated that there was more than one narrative that contributed to the "facts."

It is the underlying narrative that allows us to make sense of our lives and our world.  Conspiracy theories make no sense to me, because I have never met anybody who would be able to sustain a successful conspiracy for any length of time.  Obviously, other people have no difficulty accepting that George Soros and ACORN are manipulating large swaths of public activity for their own purposes.  It's a compelling narrative to somebody, and the only way to overcome that mind-set is to understand what that narrative is and why it works.

So, as I look forward to the study of English literature, I find myself wanting to go beyond the realm of books.  Certainly, since I was an undergraduate, the realm of social discourse has grown fantastically.  Back in the old days, we had books, magazines, and a few TV and radio stations (which had the requirement of the "Fairness Doctrine" which meant that they had to broadcast "both sides" of an issue).  Since that time, our choices for consuming narrative include an infinite number of broadcast, streaming, podcast, satellite, MP3, YouTube, and blog outlets.  Fiction comes in the form of books, movies, YouTube videos, cable news, and any number of other formats.  Yet the nature of narrative remains the same: our understanding of them as narrative may not yet have caught up to the reality of our media-saturation.  And that fascinates me. 

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