The world’s “black dog”

Silk Screen illustration 2016 by jpbohannon.

Winston Churchill called his bouts with depression “having the black dog on his back.” This was not original  with him, but was a common saying, referring more often to moodiness than depression. One historian likened it to the phrase “getting up on the wrong side of the bed.” But nevertheless, the phrase has been attributed to Churchill and ever since been associated with depression.

God knows, the world that Churchill saw certainly could buckle the strongest man’s knees.

And so it seems to be these past few months, as well. From Paris to Brussles to Orlando to Dallas to Nice  to Turkey to everyday traffic-stops, there has just been an onslaught of horrific and discouraging news. President Obama, in his speech after the Dallas shootings, said that “this is not who we are.”

But I wonder. Not we as Americans specifically–although I do wonder about that–but we as a species.

Sure, I know the heartwarming and hopeful stories as well: from high-school kids doing serious global service to individual neighbors coming together to help another in worse shape than they, from those who put their lives on the line to those who fight against power when it seems determined to crush the weak. I know people whose every thought seems to be how to better the lives of the sick and  dispossessed, the impoverished and the abused.

And yet these past few months have been relentless.

Last week, I read two novels by Dag Solstad, Shyness and Dignity and Professor Andersen’s Night. Both deal with teachers–Norwegian literature teachers–at the end of their careers. They both (a high-school teacher and university teacher respectively) question the value of the literature they profess. (Both are teaching Ibsen.)  The struggle to make students realize the value of literature has been ongoing throughout their career–that is always the natural give and take between student and teacher, although both feel it increasingly worse– but now they feel that that value is questioned by society itself. From evolving technologies–and  the distractions they provide–to current pedagogical trends and goals that emphasize success in a future career, they feel out of place, like dinosaurs, supporting a cause that is no longer relevant in the ultra-modern world.

And it is easy to believe that.

As hundreds are gunned down, blown-up, crushed, drowned, stripped of their homes, it is hard to rationalize the need to read a 150 year old Norse play, or a 450 year British play , or a 2500 year old Greek. Novels, poetry, drama, short fiction…it all feels so powerless against men with efficient guns and deficient ideas.

And yet, never before has it been so important.

Study after study has linked reading literature with an increase in the development of EMPATHY. Even the youngest teenager, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, understands on the simplest of levels, the importance of “walking in another man’s shoes.” Reading has always been a way of experiencing different lives, different cultures, different ideas.  And this is what it needs to continue to do. It is our insularity, our tribalism, our fear of (and intolerance to) the “other” that is that root of much of the world’s pain and horror.

I KNOW that art, music, literature, theater, dance are more than just “nice things” for entitled leisure. They are essential to us as a species.

I KNOW these things to be true. But these days I do not FEEL it.

But I must continue doing what I do, nevertheless: read and write.

However, as I read this, the “black dog” is wagging its tail frantically and banging up against the door.

 

 

 

 

The Ethical Society: Deed before Creed

The Philadelphia Ethical Humanist Society

The Philadelphia Ethical Society

On Wednesday night I attended a rally to kick off the political campaign of my brother-in law Chris McCabe, who is running for judge in Philadelphia and who has now collected the 1000 names necessary to put his name on the ballot. The campaigning officially began this week.

The rally was held at the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia, an inconspicuous building on Philadelphia’s ritzy Rittenhouse Square. I had been there before.

Several years ago, I had been awarded a fellowship by The National Endowment for the Humanities to read “Texts of Toleration”–those works that promoted liberty, free will, and understanding. The opening reception was held at the Ethical Society. That both events were held here made sense: the pieces we were to read dealt primarily with the ethics of society and my brother-in-law is one of the most socially conscious people I know.

Deed before Creed

Deed before Creed

And now, I was here again.  I don’t know if I remember seeing the plaque at the front steps the first, but I liked what it said: “DEED BEFORE CREED.” In our modern world, we are too often reminded that belonging to a particular “creed” is no assurance that “goodly deeds” are to follow.  Certainly, we can point to most of the major world religions to find evidence of this.

And so, I decided to look into this place that calls itself “The Ethical Society.”

The American Ethical Society was officially started in 1877 in New York (as the New York Society for Ethical Culture) when Felix Adler gave a sermon that focused on the immorality of exploiting the underclasses–which at the time included women and labor. Adler’s European education informed his Kantian belief that morality could exist separate from organized religion.

Within ten years of the founding of New York Society, three other societies were established in the U.S., in Philadelphia, in St. Louis, and in Chicago.

*     *     *     *     *     *

In 1867, Matthew Arnold wrote:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

The retreating “sea of Faith,” the general Victorian uncertainties of the day, was the impetus for the foundation of the societies in Britain.  One can trace the American ethical cultural movement to various ethical movements in early Britain.  There was a South Place Ethical Society in London as early as 1793. It became a Unitarian chapel a few years later and is most noted for its strong support of women rights. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Unitarians moved out and the place became the South Place Ethical Society.

A few years after Adler had established the Ethical Culture Movement in the U.S., the Fellowship of New Life was established in Britain, bringing together some of the more innovative and brilliant intellectuals of its time. The fellowship did not last long, but was instrumental in finding the Fabian Society which had a large impact on British intellectual and social thought of the time.  Within years, however, there were four Ethical Societies in London and over fifty societies in Great Britain by 1910.

*     *     *     *     *     *

So what’s it all about?

As far as I can tell, the Ethical Society basically acknowledges and celebrates the inherent worth of all people. It emphasizes that moral action is not dependent on religious creed and that the betterment of self implies a betterment of society.

That all seems pretty good to me.

*     *     *     *     *     *

And then one of those weird coincidences.  Four days after beginning–though not finishing–this blog post, I read a review of two volumes of work by Bernard Malamud.  In the work they mention, that Malamud, the son of Jewish immigrants, wanted to marry the daughter of Italian Catholic immigrants.  Malamud’s father was highly against the marriage. (He did not speak to his son for years afterward.)  But they married anyway–at the New York Ethical Society.  It is a small bit of information, but it highlights the society’s pushing aside of parochial prejudices and celebrating a basic goodness.

Series: The Deadly Sins–Sloth

 

Gustave Doré Slothful Penitents (Abbot of St. Zeno)

Gustave Doré
Slothful Penitents (Abbot of St. Zeno)

“In the world sloth … is the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing and remains alive only because there is nothing it would die for. We have known it far too well for many years.”

Dorothy Sayers, “The Other Six Deadly Sins”

Series: The Deadly Sins–Lust

"Lust" illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

“Lust”
illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

“And there we lay. Not speaking, not stirring until finally I moved my face across hers, and kissed her. And at last the age-old ritual possessed us, and I bit and tore and held her, round and round. . . . Later there would be time for the pain and pleasure lust lends to love. Time for body lines and angles that provoke the astounded primitive to leap delighted from the civilised skin, and tear the woman to him. There would be time for words obscene and dangerous.”

Josephine Hart, Damage

Series: The Deadly Sins–Anger

"Anger" illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

“Anger”
illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

“One night I accidentally bumped into a man, and perhaps because of the near darkness he saw me and called me an insulting name. I sprang at him, seized his coat lapels and demanded that he apologize. He was a tall blond man, and as my face came close to his he looked insolently out of his blue eyes and cursed me, his breath hot in my face as he struggled. I pulled his chin down sharp upon the crown of my head, butting him as I had seen the West Indians do, and I felt his flesh tear and the blood gush out, and I yelled, “Apologize! Apologize!” But he continued to curse and struggle, and I butted him again and again until he went down heavily, on his knees, profusely bleeding. I kicked him repeatedly, in a frenzy because he still uttered insults though his lips were frothy with blood. Oh yes, I kicked him! And in my outrage I got out my knife and prepared to slit his throat, right there beneath the lamplight in the deserted street, holding him by the collar with one hand, and opening the knife with my teeth — when it occurred to me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was in the midst of a walking nightmare! And I stopped the blade, slicing the air as I pushed him away, letting him fall back to the street. I stared at him hard as the lights of a car stabbed through the darkness. He lay there, moaning on the asphalt; a man almost killed by a phantom. It unnerved me. I was both disgusted and ashamed.”

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man