Saturday, February 27, 2016

On "normal" saints: I'm going to need a bigger tweet

Recently on Twitter, a complaint was raised that saints like Elisabeth Leseur get promoted as normal, relatable people despite having social privileges that the targets of this promotion lack.[1] The response was made that holy men and women are never "normal" -- because their holiness makes them unusual, and their lives are always going to be distinctive as a result. This is an interesting discussion to me, and as you can tell, I already have too much to say to be able to say it on Twitter, not least because I think there are some important distinctions that need to be drawn -- so here we are.

So what exactly are we talking about when we talk about "normal"? We have to make a distinction between the spiritual and the historical here. The objection that saints are never spiritually "normal" is exactly right, of course; holy men and women get held up as spiritual role models precisely because they are not normal, and this spiritual excellence often (although I don't think always) puts their lives on a different track than if they weren't so holy.

Historically, though, we can absolutely talk about saints being "normal" -- although it's a fuzzy and, I think, ultimately pretty unhelpful label, although you can't beat it for being popularly accessible I guess. What we're really talking about is how unusual a particular person's background and circumstances were for their time. Is this someone who had a lot of advantages or disadvantages? Were these activities or those choices pretty typical? This is obviously essential to understanding how someone's spiritual life played out in practical terms.

However, the root of the complaint that started all this is in "promotion". Members of the church in all states of life recommend particular saints as role models, and in the modern era there has been a special emphasis on finding "normal" saints who can be relatable to a wide variety of "normal" people. It's at least a post-Victorian thing [2] but John Paul II's unprecedented burst of canonizations was meant to strengthen the saints as agents of teaching and evangelization precisely by increasing their diversity. Eagerness to find a saint for every demographic is part of what gets Elisabeth Leseur a spot in the saint rolodex even though she's not quite there yet.[3]

So at last we come down to the nut of the question: is it classist to suggest that Leseur is a good role model for wives struggling in a marriage to a difficult and irreligious man? Leseur was a wealthy woman at the head of an affluent upper middle class household in 19th century France. Her life was worlds away from what is the average in North American and Western Europe today. I don't know much about her, but I would assume that her job was primarily to direct and manage servants, and to ensure that she and her husband maintained their social status. She certainly didn't have to worry about a career and as far as I know she didn't have to worry about money.

Suggesting that Leseur is relatable for 21st century women can feel, from this perspective, a little bit GOOP-y. However, I would push back against the inclination to dismiss her as an unrealistic, impossibly privileged role model. For one thing, it's undeniable that women do find inspiration and role models in women like Martha Stewart, Gwyneth Paltrow, and a whole host of impeccably curated instagram/pinterest/reality tv stars. Yes, these figures can inspire feelings of shame and inadequacy, but I don't think we can say that's all they inspire, and women so reliably flock to such figures that it's just not true to say they aren't relatable. They clearly are on some level, if only in the realm of fantasy and aspiration. In that sense, Leseur's material circumstances can't be an absolute barrier to being perceived as "normal" and her life story as encouraging.

More importantly, however, Leseur was normal for a woman of her time and social position. The older I get and the longer I spend studying history the more profoundly I am struck by the fact that we all live our lives in a historical context that is totally out of our control. The elements of a holy life are timeless, but we don't live our lives in a vacuum. The options that are available to us -- even to those who are willing to break out of the mold and forge new paths and whatnot -- are limited. Leseur was a married woman who lived a married life that must have looked pretty normal to her contemporaries.  As such I think it's perfectly valid to put her forward as a model for women whose lifestyles wouldn't raise any eyebrows, even though that looks vastly different these days. It's true that none of us are nineteenth-century haute-bourgeoisie [4] but I am tempted to say that's the whole point. She didn't live in a vacuum any more than I do.

If there's a problem, it's less about the desire to find "normal" saints who can help people with the problems in their lives and more about a narrow approach to the saints as historical figures. If we expect "normal" people in the past to look like "normal" people today we're setting ourselves up for failure, or at least fiction. We shouldn't waste time with such an unrealistic expectation. Granted, I would say this, but a good social-historical perspective works wonders. The saints become a million times more interesting and inspiring when we stop trying to set them up as "just like me" dolls and start trying to understand them as people who were called to live in the times they happened to be born in -- which is in fact "just like me" -- and succeeded.

This point also applies if we step from the historical to the spiritual side of things, incidentally. The saints have achieved holiness precisely because they have followed God's call to address the particular weaknesses of their personality and the sins that are especially tempting to them. My particular struggles might not match exactly with a saint but that doesn't mean he or she can't help me; or my triggers to pride might not be exactly like a particular saint's occasions of sin, but his or her struggle with pride can still give me the example I need.

Ultimately I think that while the communion of saints provides us with a wide range of role models (as well as "holy helpers" with the inside fix), the saints also call us to learn solidarity across time and place and difference. Studying the lives of the saints should provide us with moments of insight into our own lives and connection -- think CS Lewis's definition of friendship as a "me too" moment. But it should also open our eyes to the diversity of human life and struggle. And of course, it's precisely through that diversity that God's mysterious unity becomes clear. I'll end this off before I go too far out of my depth, but I'll just note how struck I always am, when you start looking at saints in aggregate, by the way that diversity starts to align around the same simple (!) characteristics. There  isn't anything new under the sun even as the past is a foreign country; and when I get to a paradox I consider I've arrived in the right place.

[1] Leseur is actually a Servant of God, so rather far from being canonized, but she is often held up as a role model, so for the sake of our discussion I think we can elide the distinction. I will come back to this.

[2] One of my favorite books of saints is the 1949 collection edited by Frank Sheed, Saints Are Not Sad; the title is taking aim at the somber plaster statues of the 19th century.

[3] Although given that for centuries the process for canonization was basically popular acclaim I think it's fair to say that Catholics have a venerable tradition of not worrying too much about promoting people before their time.

[4] I look forward to being corrected in the comments.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Young, scrappy, and hungry

It's that time of week again -- not quite the time when #Hamalong posts are due, but a little afterward.

We're just on part three of the readalong (chapters ten through fourteen) but I may be starting to flag a bit. Only... four hundred pages to go?! Geez. This book is so unnecessarily long it makes me mad sometimes. You need look no further for an example than page 247:

Sometimes you come across a conflict in your sources, and you have to make a decision: do you think one or another option is more convincing, or do you present both and give them equal weight? But you know what you do first? YOU SHOULD CONSIDER WHETHER ANYONE, ANYONE ON EARTH, CARES OR SHOULD CARE. Honest to goodness, it's a scandal the way publishers cut corners on editing these days.

I've seen other Hamalongers commenting on Chernow's fanboying over Hamilton, and on that note my criticisms from last time stand. The thing I would add to that, which comes to the fore especially in this section as we get lots and lots of constitutional wrangling, is that he has what I would call an American historian's narrow vision. Yeah, that's right! I went there!

So Hamilton apparently gave an insanely long speech at a confidential convention (so it's poorly documented) that is a Big Deal because many people have taken this speech as characteristic of Hamilton's real opinions, and not in a good way. I say "apparently" because Chernow approaches this event as someone who has read and re-read every two-bit Hamilton biography ever attempted: that is, he eagerly jumps into discussing this speech as something that obviously we all know is a big deal. I thought he could have done a better job with setting this up, but ok, whatever.

The thing that got me -- and it's not just Chernow I'm picking on here -- is that apparently Hamilton's suggestion of an "elective monarchy" is some huge unforgivable sin. R U SRS? Constitutional monarchy -- yeah, the hereditary kind -- remains a very respectable liberal goal in Europe for at least another hundred years. I really don't understand why it's so outrageous for Americans to be putting forward ideas that are really not that far off the wall in any context except comparing them to what actually happened and we've decided has worked and therefore, in retrospect, was "right". Or, okay, I can understand why people might feel this way, but I don't understand how people who call themselves historians can write history this way. (I may be a little tired and cranky as I write this. Or a lot tired and cranky.) It's bizarre. Chernow himself writes that "admiration for the British political system was still widespread" right in between calling Hamilton's proposal "atrociously misguided" and a "blunder". The last two judgments appear in the text as Chernow's own.

Anyway, I don't want to just be negative. I was gratified by Chernow's statement that "those who criticize Hamilton for having engaged in a propaganda exercise in The Federalist must reckon with the tremendous continuity that connects the Federalist essays to both his earlier and later writings" (257). This is the kind of judgment that I am happy to accept from him. Maybe it's just the weight of being further along in the book, but this thesis about consistency is convincing and a satisfying way to understand a life. Incidentally, this characterization is part of what makes the musical so great too.

In this section I kept thinking about Hamilton the auto-didact: has there ever been any other time in history when someone could be so well self-taught? I mean, in the 18th century not only were there low barriers to obtaining the latest and greatest in any field at all, but few enough barriers on someone who had actually taught it to himself instead of having a degree to certify it. I suppose part of it was that the system of academic disciplines we take for granted today hadn't formed yet. Men of the Enlightenment weren't studying economics; they were (or thought they were) simply observing trade and drawing conclusions. Anyone who could, could play along. Hamilton had quite worldly reasons for pursuing his advancement this way; he seems like the ideal type of the Enlightenment scholar but maybe with a little more unapologetically practical ambition.

Confession time: here's what I got. I didn't actually make it through Chapter Fourteen yet, which I'm kicking myself over because flipping ahead it looks pretty good. If it is, maybe I'll include it next week. And on that note, adieu until next week!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Your obedient servant

Just now noticing that the N in "Readalong" is retained from the original cover. Nice work.

It's the Hamilton Readalong with Alice! This week we're through chapter nine, and if I'm scandalized by the revelation that Baron von Steuben was a fake baron, I'm also delighted that Peggy Scuyler was way cooler than the musical lets on.

We get a fairly important thesis statement on page 158: "Hamilton's life was to be all of a piece... His views did not change greatly over time so much as expand in richness, depth, and scope." If you feel at all like Chernow is reading opinions or interpretations backward or forward in his subject's life this here would be why. I have to say, I am not used to reading biographies or history books written for the popular press, and I keep stopping to remind myself that this isn't an academic monograph. It still feels strange to have statements like this just thrown in, with all the argument to support it made implicit.

Chernow's research is deep but not wide, which frankly I think is the privilege of someone whose job it is to write giant award-winning bestsellers for the popular press. There are a lot of points in this book where I suspect something Chernow flags as unusual is actually rather common. For instance, on page 85, where he describes the newspaper boilerplate of "may hear something to his advantage" as a "cryptic sentence". Even stranger is page 129 where he breathlessly comments that "Hamilton must have been struck by the coincidence that his paternal grandfather, Alexander Hamilton, had also married an Elizabeth who was the daughter of a rich, illustrious man." Or... those are pretty common names? And again, page 170, this confusing little thing where Hamilton writes some essays and then, we are told, must have "lost or misplaced" them based on the fact that when they were published they were described as "lately recovered". Setting aside the fact that I do not understand what we are talking about here or why this is important, is there some reason to think this is a trustworthy publishing history? It's a strange detail.

A more extended example of this is the discussion of dueling on page 117 where it becomes clear that Chernow can't get past the idea that the practice was "anachronistic" and "a barbaric relic of a feudal age". It had been my understanding -- and five minutes of quick searching around has not turned up what I read that I'm thinking of -- that duelling enjoyed a resurgence in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Enlightenment's print culture brought with it a new codification of the procedure. In other words, it might have been "ancient" but it was also trendy. Like mason jars. Is there some reason why Hamilton would have thought of dueling in those negative terms? That to me is the question that really needs answering.

The big place where I find myself wanting more breadth is in Chernow's readings of personal letters. It might just be that I'm more skeptical than he is, but I read things like "Alexander's sincere entreaties that [James Hamilton] come to America" (148) or "in a poetic conceit that he often played with but never acted upon, he toyed with abandoning worldly pursuits to luxuriate in her company" (160), and I think: come on, man, exercise those critical faculties. Now, Chernow's readings deserve respect: reading a person's entire body of writing can give you an intuitive insight into what is unusual in someone's writing. It's probably the only way to be able to reliably draw evidence out of something like the appearance of someone's handwriting (not that I've seen Chernow make those kind of points so far, I don't think). And look -- all of us who have exchanged emails with a crush know the difficulties of interpreting the intentions behind a letter. But, even though it's not my specialty, I feel morally certain there must be a significant literature about 18th/19th century epistolary conventions and the interpretation of "flowery" language. Right? And yet the letters are so often taken at face value -- well, except for John Laurens. Chernow knows how to soft-pedal there.

I'm not "trashing" the book or questioning his conclusions; I'm just trying to identify what he's doing and not doing. Just to issue a disclaimer before you hit the comment box, it is after all almost literally my job to find the edges of what other people have done in order to find where questions can be fruitfully asked; in short, it's my job to criticize. People often approach popular histories in particular with a kind of good/bad attitude: is it good? is it trustworthy? What I'm seeing here is a book which gives us an extremely detailed view of one man's career and writings, but which is pretty thinly connected to anyone else's work on the time period more broadly which might provide us with context to interpret that life. In the bigger conversation, Chernow provides a characterization and a set of conclusions which can be debated using more specialist knowledge; especially since in this case he doesn't seem to have taken much notice of that specialist knowledge at all. That's scholarship: everyone putting their little specializations together.

This book is giving me a great refresher (*cough*) on the history of revolutionary America, which I don't think I've studied since high school. And even then, I sort of skipped that founding fathers bit because my American history class in Virginia glossed over it on the grounds that you'd get it all in your Virginia history and civics class the following year, which in my case was taught by a very young woman constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. So I am learning a lot here.

And I did draw one heart in the margins in this section: "Hamilton could also be quite waspish about his chosen profession, telling Lafayette that he was busy 'rocking the cradle and studying the art of fleecing my neighbors'" (168). D'awwww.

Friday, January 8, 2016

I don't write like I'm running out of time, unfortunately.


Hosted by Alice, this is where we all permit our love of what must be the most incredible piece of American art of the 21st century so far lead us into reading an absolute doorstopper of a book.

Unfortunately for me, in this first week we've pretty much covered the part of this story I was most curious about. Having special professional interest in the British empire, I was hoping for a juicy exploration of Hamilton's childhood in the Caribbean. Chernow's done good work with not much to go on -- the acknowledgments (at the end, but as every historian knows, worth skimming at the beginning) are an adventure in their own right, with a fleet of research assistants and helpful archivists on the various islands and at Kew (and in Denmark!), and hooray for that. Listening to the musical, I could hear exciting echoes of the live-fast-die-young planter mentality, and I was gratified to find the biography describing this environment as a key influence.

I did frown a bit at: "Appropriately enough, this boy destined to be America's foremost Anglophile entered the world as a British subject, born on a British isle, in the reign of George II" (17). Uh?? Is this not true of all the founding fathers?? I mean, I know the American colonies are Special and Touched by Destiny and all?? Granted that I could have dwelt on this part of Hamilton's life for twice as many pages; but nevertheless I thought the weakest aspect of this part was the lack of consideration given to the question of British Atlantic identity. This is an open question among scholars, as far as I know; that is, the extent to which any given white colonist from Virginia or New York might have regarded a white colonist from Jamaica or Barbados as a foreigner; but while those differences were clearly acknowledged, I would hesitate to assume that they were a big deal to any particular person at the time. It's evident even from these chapters the degree to which people were circulating. I guess I would have liked to see a little more engagement with the issue of imperial identities here although one always hesitates to make such criticisms of EIGHT HUNDRED PAGE BOOKS.

One point of characterization I struggled with a bit was Chernow's description of Hamilton as fearing anarchy; "he would always be an uneasy and reluctant revolutionary," says Chernow (46). Indeed, "Hamilton would have preferred a stately revolution, enacted decorously in courtrooms and parliamentary chambers by gifted orators in powdered wigs" (65). Really? This sat a little awkwardly with the all-out, slash-and-burn rhetoric for me. This guy did not seem worried about disturbing the peace, and he certainly jumps into the war with gusto. However, I was struck by the account Hamilton wrote of the attack on Rivington's print shop for the St Croix newspaper, particularly this: that the mob "put an entire stop to his business, and reduced him at upwards of 50 years of age to the sad necessity of starting the world again" (qtd 69). Chernow describes this as "horror at such mob disorder" and that it is, but I might put a little finer point on it and say that this was a man intimately familiar with how precarious life could be, and what it meant to lose your livelihood. When you're swept up with anger, it's easy to cheer when someone who "deserves it" loses their job or has their business shut down. I wonder if Hamilton was the person who couldn't help but be aware of the long-term suffering that would follow. Would he have preferred a talking revolution? I find that hard to believe, but it seems like an entirely likely outcome of his background in the West Indies that he would be preternaturally conscious of what could be lost, and the need to preserve one's income (or the nation's income). Most people in the 18th century lived fairly precarious lives -- thus the importance of observing conventions and maintaining social networks -- but the West Indies always had a reputation for being particularly brutal for life's losers. Gentlemen with large estates could trust that land would always have value, and rest on a hazy confidence in their own self-sufficiency. Anyone from the West Indies would know that utter ruin and destitution was a real thing and it could happen to you.

So that's the first hundred pages down, and mainly what I've learned is that the musical is delightfully true to Chernow's research. So 700 more pages OR just listen to the musical another fifty times.


Oh fine, I'll keep reading.