Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”

What is the “relation between literature and life” in Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”? Maybe just this, that they both might move us to tears. But moving readers to tears may not have been Flaubert’s intent. If readers want to be moved to tears, all they need do is hit the streets, where reality resides, or watch the news. They don’t need books. But is crying into a book a kind of pleasure?

“’A Simple Heart’…moved me to tears,” Russell Baker said, in “Hymns to Joy,” a New York Times article, the quote selected for the back of a New Directions “Bibelot” (NDP819, 64 pages). What was omitted in the ellipsis was Baker’s simple guess that most literary folks probably will have read Flaubert’s tale of the long life of a 19th Century French servant, Felicite, but he had not. Baker selected it as he was gathering reading material to take on a vacation. But the angle of his article wasn’t about Flaubert or reading that moves one to cry, but the suggestion that reading for pleasure has become a lost pastime. But wouldn’t a common reader going on vacation want something a bit more éclair than Flaubert? But what is pleasure?

Like Baker, I had never read Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” and I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard of Russell Baker. A cursory search found a witty, prolific journalist, and a host of Masterpiece Theatre – ah, of course. But I was sure of Harry Levin, also quoted on the back cover, having read his “Critical Introduction” to James Joyce. In Levin’s book “Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists” (1963), he says his subject is “the relation between literature and life.” Can literature not true to life move a reader to tears? Should literature resemble life? But what is life? In any case, while I wasn’t moved to tears by Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” I was moved to put something up on the blog – but what?

A recent post over at Bristlehound’s “navelgazer” blog takes on death as its topic. It’s a good post, witty and courageous. But as I get older, I think less of death than I do of getting older. Jenny Diski recently put something up at the Guardian on the topic of aging, concluding aging might be something easier to read about than to live through. I’ve written a bit about aging in past posts, and Flaubert’s passages on Felicite’s aging and passing reminded me of Atul Gawande’s moving articles on aging. How we respond to death may simply reflect how we respond to life. If life is a bummer, so too is death. If we take grudges to the grave, or we let others pass without our making amends, life is constriction. But none of this should bring tears to any reader’s eyes. Flaubert named his heroine Felicite for a reason, and he was a master of realism. Felicite is happiness, happy, another Gawande theme. But what is happiness?

Felicite is happy in spite of her predicament. This is why Flaubert named her Felicite – she is Flaubert’s definition of happiness. Her life begins with the existential decision to leave home after a potential partner jilts her for a chance with a woman with some dough. The only dough Felicite knows is the kind made into bread. But while Felicite is dependent on her mistress, she is independent in her capabilities, her skills, her ability to read others. It all seems so random, yet the plot elements also seem to fall into place naturally, inevitably, logically. Felicite examines her life, and it is worth living. Her every day is part of the exam, a test, in the end, she passes, even as the house decays and implodes upon her, while life in the street explodes with color and ritual and motion.

The Way We Don’t Age Now: Unhappiness and Hunger in the Land of Plenty

Hunger is a condition of life: no hunger, no life. The spider spins her web, hungry for the busy bee dancing by hungry for blues. The cactus patiently awaits the coming of a distant, dithering cloud. The salmon swims against the current, hungry to finish its ritual. A homeless man wanders into a soup kitchen, hungry for food, and stays for the writers’ workshop, hungry to tell his story (Frazier). When we are hungry for something, are we happy or unhappy? Yet when our every hunger is satisfied, we are dead. Do we grow less hungry with age?

Sometimes, we are hungry to forget. Senility may satisfy that hunger, but the hunger to interfere with memory can occur at any age – consider the days spent on our many varieties of smack, dementias of the soul. Our culture inconsistently values certain kinds of hunger while frowning on other kinds of hunger: healthy hungers might include hunger for money, attention, or success in a chosen field; unhealthy hungers might include greed, fame, or the trappings of success. The poet is hungry for a new word, the salesman for an easy client, the surfer for an empty wave, the injured for revenge, the soldier for peace; we can be hungry for anything. Maslow suggested a hierarchy of hungers, but that seems too easy, for hungers can strike with surprise, while we often don’t recognize the source of our hunger, and self-actualization can lead to complacency, smugness in one’s work, for example.

One thing we don’t seem to be too hungry for is old age.  Maybe that’s because, as Atul Gawande has said, “We are, in a way, freaks living well beyond our appointed time. So when we study aging what we are trying to understand is not so much a natural process as an unnatural one.” One consequence of the newness of aging longer, Gawande suggests, is that “we give virtually no thought to how we will live out our later years alone.” And not only are we unprepared to stop our fall, “most of us in medicine,” Gawande says, “don’t know how to think about decline.” A geriatrician could help, if we could find and afford one, but doctors don’t like working with old people, so there’s a woeful shortage of geriatricians, while what we need when moving into old age isn’t medicine and a rest home but a purpose for living, a hunger.

But we value youth; wrinkles are a bummer. A recent article in Forbes (Barlow) indicated men in increasing numbers are undergoing cosmetic surgery because business prefers good looks, in spite of studies that show beauty used as a gauge for skill lacks credibility. We value youth, good looks, and money; where does this leave old folks? “You wonder too much for a Sandman,” Logan 5’s partner, Francis, tells him. “When you question, it slows you down” (Logan’s Run). No one is hungry in Logan’s plastic city, a truncated Shangri-La. But that’s not quite right, for the Runners are hungry, hungry for Sanctuary, though they are not quite sure where or what that is, and no one finds out, since no one lives past the age of 30. Life has become a limited Internet access contract. “Adults regress toward adolescence; and adolescents – seeing that – have no desire to become adults” (Bly viii).

Why are Americans not happier? At the Becker-Posner blog, Becker, the Nobel Prize winning economist, confesses, “I admit I do not know why average degree of happiness has not risen in recent decades in the US as incomes rose.” But happiness, in the economist’s world, seems to having something to do with having something to do: “…perhaps utility has in fact not improved over time, or perhaps more likely happiness statistics are deviating from unmeasured increases in utility.” Posner, the Federal Judge, trying to explain why, while income has risen in recent decades in the US, happiness has fallen, reminds us that “Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations that people fooled themselves in thinking they would be happier with more money. Maybe so; but as long as people do have this strong preference, economics can explain a great deal of human behavior.” Yet one thing may be certain, as evidenced by the results of psychoanalysis: explanations alone don’t make us happy.

Recent studies on happiness agree that money does not buy happiness: “…a half century of escalating consumption has not brought Americans increased satisfaction” (Kolbert). As we buy and throw away, and buy and throw away again, the problem seems to be that we do not know what will make us happy. In the absence of hunger, the only thing left to do seems to be to take a nap. But we awake, hopefully, from our naps. In Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Mirror,” old age is the face of a “terrible fish” that rises daily from a dark lake of sleep and gradually molts with the face of one’s memory. Yet in Logan’s Run, when the young people discover the first old person they’ve ever seen, they are fascinated by the wrinkles in his face, marvel that he not only knew his parents but also was raised by them, wonder what the words “beloved wife husband” on the tombstones mean. “That must be the look of being old,” Jessica says, touching the “cracks” in the old man’s face. Meanwhile, Francis, Logan’s ex-partner, catches up with the Runners, and says in anger to Jessica, “He was a Sandman; he was happy.” The Sandman does not hunger to question, and Logan’s answer that there is no Sanctuary, no opposing viewpoint, “does not program” on the inside.

Perhaps one source of our current unhappiness is similar to that of the Cumaean Sibyl’s, whose immortality, like a new washing machine sold without a warranty, did not come with eternal youth. She aged and aged, increasingly unhappy, until nothing was left but her voice, and after a thousand years of withering life, her last wish was to die. If we could live without pain or stress, all of our needs provided for, as in Logan’s Run, able to buy a new face or even a complete body any time we tired of the old, the only catch though that we could not live beyond a certain age, what age would we select? The source of our unhappiness may be our unwillingness to grow old, the inability of our youth obsessed culture to value the wrinkles of old age as beautiful, desirable. In a culture so hungry for youth, people die earlier and earlier. We need to develop a hunger for old age.

Works Cited

Barlow, Tom. “Loving that Face in the Mirror.” Forbes 27 October 2011.
Becker, Gary. “Happiness and Wellbeing.” Becker-Posner Blog 10 January 2010.
Bly, Robert. The Sibling Society. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996.
Frazier, Ian. “Hungry Minds.” The New Yorker 26 May 2008.
Gawande, Atul. The Way We Age Now.”  The New Yorker 30 April 2007.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Everybody Have Fun.” The New Yorker 22 March 2010.
Logan’s Run. Dir. Michael Anderson. 1976. Film.
Plath, Sylvia. “The Mirror.” Performed by Natalie Clark, Radio Theatre Group, August 2011.
Posner, Richard. “Why Aren’t Americans Happier?Becker-Posner Blog 10 January 2010.

also note: “Pastures of Plenty,” a song by Woody Guthrie; “Land of Plenty,” a film (2004) by Wim Wenders; and the song “The Land of Plenty,” by Leonard Cohen (2001).

Ending Net Asset Value; or, Hook up, hat up, and let go: “Calling Dr. Bartleby!”

Atul Gawande is a Harvard trained surgeon who writes eloquent prose on health and illness. His New Yorker pieces “Letting Go” and “The Way We Age Now” are full of pathos, ethos, and logos on how and when to die decisions and the bedpan reality of growing old. If he continues his work combining writing, doctoring, and educating, he may some day be up for a Nobel Prize. Gary Becker is a Nobel Prize winning economist and professor at the University of Chicago who writes in his blog, The Becker-Posner Blog, pedestrian prose sometimes infected with either-or fallacies. He shares weekly blog posts with Federal Judge and University of Chicago Law School Professor Richard Posner.

What usually passes for health care in our current reasoning is health care insurance. Those with insurance believe they have health care; those without may think they have neither. And the health care debate is derailed with decisions before legislators that have to do not so much with health care but with health care insurance.

Last Sunday, Becker included in his post what appears to be an economist based claim that includes a formula for calculating the value of a year of life: “Presumably, frail elderly people tend to receive less utility from a year of their current life since their lack of health prevents them from greatly enjoying their leisure time and consumption of different goods. However, the utility cost of any time and money they might spend on prolonging their lives is also lower for them. The fundamental measure of the value of a life year is the ratio of the utility gained to this marginal utility spent on prolonging life. This ratio could even be higher for the old and frail than for healthy younger persons.”

We are becoming increasingly Spartan by the moment, for the reductio ad absurdum of Becker’s argument would have us carrying individuals of any age whose disabilities or frailties preclude utility or whose cost to live outweighs their ability to “enjoy their leisure time and consumption of different goods” out to the rocks to die, as did the Spartans.

“Welcome to the 23rd Century: The Perfect World of Total Pleasure,” heads the poster for the sci-fi film “Logan’s Run,” which depicts a dome-covered society that eliminates growing old problems by zapping all citizens when they turn the age of 30. The police, called Sandmen, hunt down and kill those who would run from their forced to die moment. Yet there’s a myth, an old story, of life beyond the dome, where people are allowed to grow old. The place where people are allowed to grow old is called Sanctuary.

But there appears to be no Sanctuary for our elderly these days, at least not provided for by Medicare, for there’s simply not enough money to go around, the Becker-Posner argument seems to go, and we should spend what money there is to go around on those able to enjoy life and consume goods. Perhaps enjoying life, in the worldview of the economist, is consuming goods. In any case, the argument has been boiled down to an either-or moment: either we let old people grow old and die sooner than they would with life prolonging health care (including the R&D necessary to develop that care), or we go broke.

But there are other solutions. Yet there is another problem with Becker’s formula: the value of an old person’s life is not necessarily limited to what that person can enjoy or consume; the lives of the elderly may have intrinsic value to others. But not, apparently, to young doctors, for Gawande points out the current dearth of young doctors going into gerontology. There’s a shortage, and there’s no short-term remedy to what will be an ongoing need for specialists to treat the elderly. Gawande’s solution is for every health care practitioner to be versed in basic elderly care issues.

But to be fair to Becker and Posner this week, they do focus on quality of life versus quantity of life and the avoidable invasions of quality by a system not guided by health care concerns but by health care insurance. And Atul Gawande does also question quality versus quantity. What separates Gawande’s argument from Becker-Posner’s is his value of human life expressed in human versus econometric terms. It’s one thing to force someone to die at the age of 30; but is it something else again to force, or even to encourage, that same person to live beyond what most of us, including our ancestors, would recognize as living? Ah, Bartleby! Ah, Doctor!

Related: An Object Lesson in Health and Happiness

Where Dylan Thomas meets Atul Gawande; or, Let Go Gently, for Here Comes the Night

If Atul Gawande had been the editor for Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” we might have gotten something like, “Let Go Gently, for Here Comes the Night,” the long and “The long, the long and lonely night night, night, night, night, night, night…” as Van Morrison sang with Them, fading away.

Atul Gawande, the Harvard Medical School professor, general and endocrine surgeon, and advisor to presidents, argues, in his latest New Yorker article, “Letting Go,” that Dylan Thomas’s famous poem might more efficiently and effectively have gone something like this:

Go gentle into that good night, Old age need not burn and rave at close of day; No need to Rage, to rage against the dying of the light. Wise men know dark is right, night is night, night is right, And they know whatever their words, those closest to them care. So wave bye-bye while you still can lift your hand, While you can still dance with your nurses, While you are still a wild man singing in the face of the sun, Do not grieve – grief is for those you leave behind. Grief is rage spent. Go, go gentle into that good night.

And maybe he’d throw in some stuff about shooting stars and eyes and then end with a prayer: “…my father, now brought gracefully down from the sad heights of the elevated hospital bed, all the tubes pulled out, the IV’s withdrawn, and you back in a warm pair of faded blue jeans, back home, back in the saddle again…while we with our mild tears fear and pray, go gentle into that good night; don’t ‘Rage, [don’t] rage against the dying of the light.’”

Gawande’s thesis is simple, clear, difficult but delivered with clarity: we need to have this discussion, to juxtapose Dylan Thomas’s poem against the raw night with the one now descending outside our window, the one the doctors can’t help us avoid, for they are not gods, and besides, like the gods of old, they make mistakes.

Dylan Thomas wrote his poem about his father dying just a short time before his own premature death. I’m not sure if Dylan raged against the dying of the light, but he sure seems to have worked it while he could. Yet, perhaps this poem is his own rage against his own hand he sees reaching for the light switch.

Listen to Dylan Thomas reading his poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Solving the Texas Textbook Massacre, Scandal, and Mystery

Textbooks are like disposable diapers, fodder for landfills, their obsolescence planned and forced new editions programmed with regularity. When I was a kid we couldn’t write in our textbooks. The nuns used them year after year – textbooks must not have been programmed to self-destruct quite so quickly in those days. We had to cover our textbooks with brown paper grocery bags, cut cleanly according to obsessive instructions, so the covers fit smartly around the edges, taped carefully so no tape touched the textbook. In spite of this care, or perhaps because of it, I don’t remember the title nor the author’s name of a single textbook I used in my twelve years of regular school.

A few summers ago I started noticing very old textbooks, from the early 1900’s, showing up in local garage sales. I started collecting them. One day I took a bagful down to the local used book store to see what I might get for them, but the owner was chagrined. “I don’t buy books like that,” she said, and wouldn’t even look down into the bag. Yet Powell’s “City of Books,” in Portland, does a brisk business filling newer-used US textbook orders from overseas, and textbooks, new and used, constitute an enormous, bizarrely regulated industry.

But the mystery of the Texas textbook scandal is why anyone cares, for who supposes students actually read the textbooks? And even if they wanted to, where are the school districts whose funding is deep enough to afford them? Schools that could have afforded new textbooks no doubt spend their money in other, more productive ways: building multi-million dollar sport complexes, for example. And if they have the textbooks, were they distributed? Or are they sitting in a warehouse, as Michelle Rhee discovered when she took over in DC? In any case, given the unaffordable prices and now the tampering with the credibility and reliability of textbooks, Texas teachers should forgo any of the changes forced by their state board of education and ignore textbooks altogether, avoiding their exorbitant costs, forced new editions, inflated purpose, and questionable educational effectiveness; and the rest of the country should follow their example.

Will the Education debate go the way of the Health Care debate? In the April 5, 2010 issue of the New Yorker, Dr. Atul Gawande said, “But the reform package [Health Care] emerged with a clear recognition of what is driving costs up: a system that pays for the quantity of care rather than the value of it. This can’t continue.” Neither can Education’s reliance on the textbook system, which is also too expensive and values quantity over quality. No one doubts this, but, as Gawande says, “the threat comes from party politics.” So too with Education. There is, Gawande says, “…one truly scary thing about health reform: far from being a government takeover, it counts on local communities and clinicians for success. We are the ones to determine whether costs are controlled and health care improves.” The same might be said for Education: it will count on local communities and local teachers for success, not state boards of education who confuse textbooks, editing, and censoring with teaching, and who would use a textbook to narrow the entrance to knowledge rather than opening the door to full and open access – access that is alive and growing on the Web, and that should be given more support to be leveraged by schools to lower the costs of education while improving the quality of instruction.

Instead of the traditional use of textbooks, teachers can use primary sources via the Internet. For in depth analysis, including background and extensive researched reports of current events, school libraries should subscribe to the Congressional Quarterly Researcher (the blog is free; access to the full reports requires a subscription – which most libraries provide). Extensive reports include credible pro-con discussion and annotated and linked bibliographies for further reading. Open Culture is another site that includes free resources, including language, culture, and math and science material – including links to podcasts from reputable universities. Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy is another site that features free and open access to the work of professional scholars (a current fund raising campaign seeks to establish a more permanent and viable funding source – so no, these sites are not free, though they offer free access).

Students are already using the Internet, and teachers can do more to leverage its resources. Google Books, for all the controversy surrounding the copyright issue, is getting better and students access the site without charge (apart from Internet service) for direct access to both primary sources and critical analysis. Credible and reputable periodicals are on-line, some with full access, others with limited access without a subscription. Scholarly journals are following suit and taking down their wall that limits direct access and frustrates students attempting to learn scholarship and research. And individual blogs such as the Becker-Posner Blog (Becker a University of Chicago Nobel economist, and Posner a federal judge), Caleb Crain’s blog, which augments his professional publications, and the World Wide Woodard blog, the blog of author and journalist Colin Woodard, just to mention a few – there are obviously many more – all provide direct, free, and open access to professional criticism, informed opinion, and scholarly research. Still other sites, like FQXi (Foundational Questions Institute – a physics site), provide forums for professionals to share papers and research, while giving students the opportunity to participate by reading and following the studies and discussion. It was on FQXi that I first saw Garrett Lisi’s recent physics paper, “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.”

What we need is an exceptionally simple theory of education. Hopefully it will include open access to primary source documents that might nudge textbooks away from the center of the student’s desk, where the drool is soaking into the garbage bag cover.

Update: 5-27-2010…It was announced this week that Portland Public High School District has posted just over a 50% graduation rate. I don’t think the problem is textbooks. Meantime, here’s a blog post that touches on a similar crisis in higher ed. Some appear to be worried about the adulteration of their disciplines as ethos moves online. Yet their ships are sinking – see the post referenced below and then read the top post (we agree with Levi): Larval Subjects.

Becker-Posner: fodder for rhetoric foragers

The shallow depth of the unstated warrants at the Becker-Posner blog makes for good fodder for rhetoric foragers. Consider this, from Posner’s half of their 15 Nov 09 post: “Should the U.S. economy grow more rapidly than the public debt, we’ll be okay. But the government’s focus appears to be not on economic growth, but on redistribution (the major goal of health reform) and on creating at least an aura of prosperity, at whatever cost in deficit spending and future inflation, in time for the November 2010 congressional elections.”

Redistribution may be an effect of health care reform, but there’s no evidence that it’s a goal; at the same time, distribution, and redistribution, is always a goal or effect or both of most legislative programs, so why mention it? Because redistribution is always viewed as a negative value (something one doesn’t want), particularly for those who do value the current distribution.

Posner’s claim is that the “major goal of health [care] reform” is “redistribution.” In Posner’s view, wealth should not be redistributed to achieve health care reform (redistribution by definition is a wrong).

Yet it’s impossible to have meaningful health care reform without some form of redistribution, so Posner’s unstated warrants here include that we should not have health care reform, that redistribution is a wrong, an economic wrong, and that he values this wrong over the health care uninsured – and over the inflated costs being paid by those who do have health insurance. Posner values the wealth of a minority over the physical and economic health of the majority, and the support for this is found in his cynical reference to yet another assumption – that any legislation that involves redistribution has as its root cause an upcoming election. It’s no wonder we never get anything accomplished.

Posner’s claim is that the government should not take something from someone who has and give it to someone who has not. Redistribution is a trigger word intended to attract those that have with its click. It’s quick draw rhetoric. Posner’s use of “government’s focus” also serves as a trigger, for the word government in this context is meaningless, or can only mean one thing – that entity constantly at work to take something from one and give it to someone else – it’s the government of Huck Finn’s father.

There are many entities at work on health care reform, including doctors and hospitals. For a thorough discussion of health care costs and what’s at stake in trying to lower those costs while insuring everyone, see Atul Gawande’s article “The Cost Conundrum,” in the June 1, 2009 issue of the New Yorker.