This week, for my sins, I read The Power of Positive Thinking and The Art of the Deal. I won't list my sins here, but you can tell by the penance that they are great. Norman Vincent Peale does not lay any great stress on sin in The Power of Positive Thinking. For him, it is more important to improve one's attitude, to think positively, than to say domine, non sum dignus.
And this shapes the philosophy of one of his former congregants, Donald Trump. At the moment we ask for forgiveness, we must acknowledge our own weakness, and also forgive the weakness of others (forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us). When Donald Trump reviles the weak, glorifies winners, and humiliates losers, he shows what becomes of the philosophy of Norman Vincent Peale when it is practiced by someone without Peale's innate gentleness and decency.
Lately I’ve been reading several things: Ludwig Pastor on Pope Leo X, various interviews by Michel Foucault, and a biography of Marcel Lefebvre. Since I hope to write more extensively on some or all of these topics for First Things, I will reserve my comments for the future.
A What I've Been Watching for this week:
After seeing its unprecedented 99 percent approval rating on rottentomatoes.com, and reading pages and pages of online reviewers gushing over how delightful and genius and subtly salacious Whit Stillman's new film, Love & Friendship is, I came to the theater with high hopes. And yes, the production of the film was excellent. It was beautifully done—the costumes, the style. And it was creative: in the beginning, when new characters would come on the screen, they would suddenly be frozen on camera and a very funny epithet would appear underneath them in a modern font. That was neat. And of course, witticisms abounded. Kate Beckinsale is a good actress.
But, that is about all of the positivity I can muster, and everyone's abounding enthusiasm eludes me (Rolling Stone called it “one of the best films of the year”? Really?). Ultimately, it was dull. There was no character development. Kate Beckinsale's scandalous, devious central character, Lady Susan, who supposedly provides us with a rollicking good time as we watch her destroy the lives of those around her, is not interesting because she doesn't appear human—there is no discernible ounce of decency or softness in her to battle with her pernicious side. We never see anything else in her; she simply remains the same throughout. All of the other characters are flat, too—and I thought Austen was known for her penetrating insight into human nature and for her character development?
If this seems like an immature film, it is probably because no maturing happens in it. Not all that is witty is gold.
This week, I saw a play at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture. It was a story about a robotics breakthrough that leads to a vastly different version of the 20th century. But, like so many robot stories, it was really about human error: specifically, what a poor God humanity makes.
The play is Universal Robots, by Mac Rogers. It's doing some riffing on Karel Čapek's play R.U.R., the work that coined the term “robot” in the first place. But this production, directed by Jordana Williams, is telling its own story, in which Čapek and his sister/playwriting collaborator (based loosely on his real-life brother, it seems) become pivotal characters. We begin with a philosophical dispute among drunk intellectuals in a nameless café in Prague. Čapek, sparring with rival artists, first attacks the utopianism of Communism and then defends his use of the fantastical in his plays. So of course, when a young woman shows up with a prototype automaton, Čapek leaps at the opportunity to shape the destiny of Czechoslovakia. Čapek and his sister are appointed to the President's ethics committee to oversee robot development. With the very best of intentions, they reason or stumble their way into teaching their creations pain, self-preservation, empathy, war, self-programming, killing, death, marital love, and finally prayer—perhaps not the order most conducive to humanity's wellbeing in the new world under construction. Most of the talented ensemble get turns playing the robots at various stages of uncanniness—from jerky C-3PO movement to Stepford wifely grace.
The play runs through this weekend, closing on June 26th. Catch it while you can!
Jordan Zajac, OP
I recently embarked on Stoner by John Williams, a stubborn little novel full of oddities. Contrary to the initial impression that the title inspires, it’s not “high” literature—that is, an addiction novel à la Trainspotting or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Instead, the title simply refers to the surname of the protagonist, William Stoner, a rather unremarkable farm boy who struggles to carve out a meaningful life for himself as a literature professor at his home state’s major research institution, the University of Missouri.
If Stoner sounds vaguely familiar, it is probably because of a second oddity, one pertaining to its reception history. Stoner rose from the ashes of literary obscurity (it was out of print for decades following its 1965 publication) to bestseller status by 2013. It has been heralded as “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of.”
The novel is also surprising in its structure. The opening paragraph reads like an obituary. So just as the reader is figuring out this is a story about a character named William Stoner, he is simultaneously being informed that William Stoner is already dead. It’s a device reminiscent of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. In both Stoner and Ilyich, we learn that the protagonists were unremarkable men. Our work becomes to figure out how and why they struggled to find fulfillment. Tolstoy’s aim was overtly evangelical; the novella was the first work he finished after a conversion experience, and his intention was to sketch, in brutal starkness, the superficiality of Russian bourgeois culture. That novella was not a commercial success. Insofar as Stoner has won acclaim, I look forward to finishing it and trying to discern why this tale of personal disappointment and frustration has struck such a chord with popular audiences.