Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Zeitgeist: The Spirit of the TImes in Books

I've never studied German although my father was born in Germany, and things German are the closest that I have to a heritage. (My mother's provenance, prior to the flatlands of northern Texas, is unknown to me.) I don't like those polysyllabic German nouns or the oversized egos that sometimes go with them. Who would become a Germanophile when your mental salon could be peopled by Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Pablo Neruda? Who likes cabbage and pork?

Some of those overlarge German nouns have, however, become indispensable. Zeitgeist is one: time
Mynah Bird (
plus spirit: spirit of the times. Matthew Arnold, the darkling-plain guy, characterized the zeitgeist of Victorian England as change and insecurity. The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution were no fun for anyone except those with capital to invest and a crackling fire to go home to. Gender roles changed in the working classes and calcified in the upper. Darwin--why didn't he just stay home?--arranged things so that people who found comfort in church pews on Sunday mornings could no longer do that without an occasional visit from the mynah bird of cognitive dissonance.

It was a confusing time, and not surprisingly, it became the era of the three-decker novel. It took a lot of pages to deal with what all this uncertainty meant for personal relations. I've read more than my share of these novels. You can say what you want about them (why those ridiculous names--Uriah Heep, Mr. Slope and Mr. Quiverful, Gwendolyn Harleth?) but they did take their zeitgeist seriously.

Apparently we humans respond in all kinds of ways to the reigning zeitgeist. In the seventeenth century, for example, when orderly life based on reason was looking like a distinct possibility, Leibniz (German!) and Newton (English) came up with the principles of calculus at more or less the same time, living in different countries, never having met or corresponded with one another, and without access to Google.

Lately I've been reading contemporary novels looking for clues as to how we might weather (and if we might weather) the tiny dovetailing problems of economic collapse, environmental destruction, population overshoot, and resource depletion. Some novels are political in an overt way, making political action the center of their characters' lives. Others, especially novels written in English, tend to represent general turmoil as conflicts in personal relations. What's going wrong in the world is also going wrong, maybe in disguise, in living rooms. (As always) here are some thoughts:

1.  Female Unitarian ministers are the new generals. They lead by imperfect example and by inviting people with diverse views to sit down together around a plate of cookies.  See The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout and Jamesland by Michelle Duneven.

2.  Tragic deaths occur more by accident than intent. Plenty of people may still be writing murder mysteries, but on the literary side, cars get knocked out of gear and run over loved ones. See The Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison and, again, The Burgess Boys. What we're facing in the next decades isn't the payback for new mistakes, but the wages of old ones, run out of control.

3.  The "problem of masculinity"--see dovetailing crises above--may be solved by gentle men. I don't mean men in nice clothes and expensive shoes, but men who let others' pain get to them. See Burgess and Evison and Jess Walter's books. In Walter, even (especially?) the guys carrying guns are gentle men.  See as well Jack Driscoll's The World of a Few Minutes ago for diagnosis of aforementioned problem and promising medicine.

Three thoughts are as many as I can offer today. That's one short of a Sunday sermon. (I logged a lot of time in church pews.)