Friday, March 04, 2016

three funerals -- and a birthday

February has shuffled off the stage -- and so have three writers that have influenced my life. You will undoubtedly have heard of the first two. And you have certainly heard of the birthday girl.

Harper Lee was one of those one-shot wonders. Her To Kill a Mockingbird became what the clichéists would call a great American classic.

It was that. But it was far more. It was one of those moral primers that taught us the staying-power of objective truth in a society that was quickly being seduced by the easy-out of moral relativism.

Ostensibly, it is the tale of a black man charged with raping a white woman in depression-era Alabama, and how a white country lawyer, Atticus Finch, deals with his defense in a social system that was race-obsessed. All told from the perspective of Atticus's young daughter.

Harper Lee denied that the tale was autobiographical. But the parallels between her life and that of Scout Finch were too hard for most people to resist.

Fame did not rest easily on Harper Lee. She never became a recluse. But she prized her privacy in her rural Alabama home. She even ignored the vile rumors that her childhood friend, Truman Capote, had secretly written the novel for her -- rumors that were almost always traced back to Capote himself, who had relied upon Harper Lee for researching In Cold Blood, and then failed to credit her with even that.

But To Kill a Mockingbird stood on its own. The book is not great literature. It is merely a tale well told.

Some critics, including legal scholars, have attacked Atticus Finch's moral character: for not being a civil rights activist, for living quietly in a racist society, and, most damning of all, for making the rape victim a victim the second time by concocting a story not supported by any evidence in the trial. Some claim he violated a series of legal ethics requirements, and should have been disbarred.

Setting aside the anachronistic tone of moral superiority that infects many critics of anyone from the past, the novel's true value lies in its underlying code. This is not a treatise about legal ethics; it is a story about moral truth. And those are two completely different things.

Thomas Shaffer, amongst other law professors, assigns the book to his ethic students. He makes the reason clear in "The Moral Theology of Atticus Finch:"

Robert Ewell, the father of the "rape" victim in the Robinson case, was humiliated and saw his daughter humiliated by Atticus in the trial. The community which knew the truth but could not tell the truth, knew that Mayella was not raped, it knew but could not say that she attempted to seduce a black man and then lied about it, that her father lied, too, and that her father was willing to see Tom Robinson die to protect him and his daughter from a public certification of the truth. The community knew all of this in a way that it would not know if Atticus had not proclaimed the truth in the trial.
Atticus spoke truth to his community, family, and neighbors; and he expressed the virtue of courage. I fully accept Shaffer's theory. It is one reason, upon reading the novel in the early 1960s, I decided to become an attorney. It also helped pull me back from the precipice of Objectivism.

Five days after Harper Lee died in Alabama, Umberto Eco died in Italy.

Eco was one of those men who deserve the title renaissance man. Writing novels was not his profession; it was a method to pass on his Brobdingnagian knowledge base of symbolism and semiotics to the rest of the world.

His most popular novel (The Name of the Rose) was a murder mystery -- on its face -- set in a northern Italy monastery during the 14the century. The reader is introduced to social and theological disputes, and the struggle between logic and received wisdom. It is Sherlock Holmes in a cassock.

He followed it up with the conspiratorial Foucalt's Pendulum that makes the Knights Templar tales seem like child's play (and makes Dan Brown look like what he is -- a hack). Then came the psychological The Island of the Day Before that explores the mind of a 17th century noble adventurer; the scholasticist Baudolino that relies on the conceit of the Kingdom of Prester John to explore the 12th century European mind; The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana that poses the question that if we must reconstruct our memory from external sources, will the resultant memories restore who we once were?; The Prague Cemetery that tackles one of Europe's great sicknesses -- anti-antisemitism; and his satire of the tabloid press, Numero Zero, published last year.

Reading Eco is a challenge. But it is always worth the effort. When you put down any of his novels, you will be a changed person. And that is why we read, isn't it?

Unfortunately there will be no more novels from his hand -- unless some lost manuscript is found. And that may be the book's topic. He was like that.

The third death actually came in January, but I received the news in February.

Florence King will never be in the same celebrity category as Umberto Eco or even Harper Lee. But her writing was every bit as good as theirs. Anyone who has ever read Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady will know she was one of the best writers of the twentieth century.

I was introduced to her in her role as the star of the back page of National Review: "The Misanthrope's Corner." And misanthrope she was. World-class curmudgeon was another label that was often slapped on her.

Her commentaries on life were always original, and inevitable. Two virtues of the great writer. Especially her book reviews.

I could always count of the quality of her taste if she recommended a book. But her reviews were almost always better than the works she reviewed. Word is that she would spend hours perfecting a 1000 word essay, and would then conduct bone-jarring battle if an editor wanted to move a comma.

Several years ago, I stole one of her lines. When invited to attend events she had little interest in attending, she would respond (often hand-written on the bottom of the invitation): "I would love to attend. I just don't want to."

I just may have that carved on my gravestone.

The birthday was a February birthday. At the end of the month, my mother turned 88. So, I called her.

The years are catching up with her a bit, but she was getting ready for a trip to head off to a Republican conference on the Oregon coast. And she was upset. At Donald Trump.

Well, that is not quite accurate. She was upset at voters for voting for Donald Trump. My mother has always been a stickler for logic. Candidates should stand for something, and they should be able to defend their positions.

"He doesn't stand for anything. And he has no positions. It is just entertainment. How can people be fooled like that?"

And then the bombshell: "And he is so common."

Well, that is one thing that no one will accuse my mother of being. In her 88 years, she has created an aura of style that is all her own. And Donald Trump need not apply for any of it.

Happy birthday, mom.

And, Harper, Florence, and Umberto, we will miss your writing. But thank you for leaving behind what you did.

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