Tag Archives: honor

Serious Conversations, 2

Nora [after a short silence]. Isn’t there one thing that strikes you as strange in our sitting here like this?
Helmer. What is that?
Nora. We have been married now eight years. Does it not occur to you that this is the first time we two, you and I, husband and wife, have had a serious conversation?
Helmer. What do you mean by ‘serious’?
Nora. In all these eight years–longer than that–from the very beginning of our acquaintance, we have never exchanged a word on any serious subject.
Helmer. Was it likely that I would be continually and forever telling you about worries that you could not help me to bear?
Nora. I am not speaking about business matters. I say that we have never sat down in earnest together to try and get at the bottom of anything.
-Ibsen, A Doll’s House, Act 3

Preoccupations may be harder to escape than promises. I went to see a performance of A Doll’s House last night at the Harvey Theater, and this exchange between Nora and Torvald in the final act of Ibsen’s play reminded me of my pledge to say something more about serious conversations. (My first effort to make good on this pledge is here.).

There’s an important point here that I don’t want to overlook. A serious conversation requires something more than a serious subject to discuss. It may not have anything to do with the things we take seriously: business matters, for example. Well before we consider things, or the topic at hand, we have to sit down “seriously together” — alvor sammen, as Nora puts it to her husband Torvald in Ibsen’s Norwegian.

Of course, Torvald Helmer’s “honor” will not survive the serious conversation he and his wife have. The respect Nora ultimately demands —  the claim she makes on Torvald and on herself — will destroy their marriage and upset the bourgeois respectability of the Helmer household, or show it for the sham that it is. Torvald should have known: to sit down seriously together is always more about honoring the other than safeguarding personal honor. Or at least it’s a matter of honoring the joint commitment to have a serious conversation.

dolls-house

Torvald (Dominic Rowan) and Nora (Hattie Morahan) are about to have their first serious conversation in the BAM Harvey Theater production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

I’m using “joint commitment” here in Margaret Gilbert’s sense — a commitment by two or more people as a body or plural subject, a we, to some act or activity: a walk or a conversation, for instance. For Gilbert, these joint commitments are commonplace associations by which we make up “the social world, the world of conversations, friendships, marriages, sports teams, discussion groups, religious orders, partisans, citizens and so on.”

In entering and living up to joint commitments, we share agency with others, and all parties are obligated — have a duty — to act in accordance with the commitment. “If our acting together, our conventions, and other central aspects of our lives together involve our jointly committing ourselves in one way or another, then our lives together are run through with obligations to one another and rights against each other, with the correlative standing to insist on various actions and rebuke for non-performance.”

To read the essays collected in Gilbert’s Joint Commitment (Oxford, 2013) is to appreciate above all how often and how effortlessly we enter into these joint commitments, just as a matter of course, and to be reminded that assumptions of trust, respect and mutual accountability infuse our everyday social experience.

These are all the issues that come to the surface when Torvald and Nora sit down seriously together, for the first time, to have their serious conversation. Whether we commit jointly to take a walk together (to use Gilbert’s favorite example) or have a conversation about work or a stifling marriage, what makes the activity serious is that we are on equal footing and mutually obligated to one another. Acknowledge that, honor it, and we have started to take one another seriously; deny it, or cover it up with patronizing gestures or power grabs, and we are probably heading for crisis or failure.

Thucydides on Catastrophe and Lawlessness

On the plague of Athens in 430 BC. History of the Peloponnesian War (2.52): “the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.” Thucydides continues (2.53, Warner trans.):

In other respects also Athens owed to the plague the beginnings of a state of unprecedented lawlessness (ἀνομίας). Seeing how quick and abrupt were the changes of fortune which came to the rich who suddenly died and to those who had previously been penniless but now inherited their wealth, people now began openly to venture on acts of self-indulgence which before then they had used to keep dark. Thus they resolved to spend their money quickly and to spend it on pleasure, since money and life alike seemed equally ephemeral. As for what is called honour, no one showed himself willing to abide by its laws, so doubtful was it whether one would survive to enjoy the name for it. It was generally agreed that what was both honourable and valuable was the pleasure of the moment and everything that might conceivably contribute to that pleasure. No fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence. As for the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshipped them or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately. As for offenses against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished: instead everyone felt that already a far heavier sentence had been passed on him and was hanging over him, and that before the time for its execution arrived it was only natural to get some pleasure out of life.

Ancient Honor Is Not Dead

A old friend — we were best friends in high school, but since then we’ve drifted apart — emailed me last night to tell me he’d been laid off. He’d worked for the same company for twenty-three years.

He tells me the news in the passive voice: he was notified; his job was eliminated. This is perfectly appropriate, I suppose. A turn of events like this makes one feel deprived of all agency, a patient, not an agent, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, caught in the undertow, run aground or cast adrift as a huge economic wave breaks. Those twenty-three years, arguably the best years of a man’s life, don’t count for much these days; loyalty affords no blind, break or refuge.

My friend writes that he’s been soul searching; we’ve all been soul searching. The nation as whole is suffering from what one wag calls “free-floating economic anxiety.” It sounds very clever, but you have to wonder why anyone would want to be clever about all that’s happening around us. I suppose being witty is one way to keep your wits about you, especially if the alernative is to plug into the round the clock economic hysteria.

I was never a very good sleeper – maybe I’ve spent too much time searching the darker corners of my own soul to ever find my ease – and I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about that email from my friend, and what this layoff could mean for him and for his family, and what it might mean for me: the decisions I may have to face if things get worse, the decisions we all may have to face. I am not sure we are ready, or equipped, or willing to face them together. At four o’clock this morning, I was looking at news from the Nikkei.

Clarence Thomas in his remarks yesterday said we have grown self-indulgent and soft, ignorant of the constitution and used to feeling entitled to things our ancestors would have considered privileges. He’s probably right. Now I am all for asking what I can do for my country, but I am pretty sure I’m not ready for the prescription Justice Thomas wants to write to cure our social ills or strengthen our political will. Besides, our forebears were not necessarily cut from better cloth, as if the very genetic material from which Americans are made has degenerated and declined over the past fifty years of post-war prosperity. But it seems like bad form to argue the point.

Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew hardships — all their lives — we have never known. They didn’t feel entitled. And they didn’t hope for as much out of life. But loyalty counted more in those days, and – we’ve been told — a company man was a company man, until the day he got his gold watch and pension. Unless, of course, you weren’t a company man: in which case you just worked hard all your life and took what few pleasures came your way.

So the story goes. But I’m not sure how exactly that story illuminates our current situation. I am not even sure that we are very close to knowing the truth about our current situation. John Stewart excoriates Jim Cramer on national television and America chalks one up for the good guys; but Cramer and company were just along for the ride, singing for their supper, flattering the princes who hired them for jest. (And I couldn’t help but feel that Stewart came off as a scold playing for easy applause.)

It may be fun to hate the big, fat greedy cigar-chomping AIG executives who took the bonuses; but cartoons are not reality, and most of us would demand compensation we’d been promised and contracted for. No, it wasn’t right; no, it didn’t look right: but considering AIG currently still has 1.6 trillion in outstanding derivatives exposure, we need to clean up that mess and do that in an orderly fashion. Litigation over bonuses won’t help accomplish that. So maybe Ron Shelp’s piece in today’s Wall Street Journal has it right: “the bonuses stick in my craw,” writes Shelp, but the bonuses may be “justifiable… because the executives in the financial unit are trying to undo and wind down very difficult agreements. It is in everybody’s interest, AIG’s and the government’s, to get them cleaned up and to close down the unit.”

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is taking issue with that view now. But when Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa suggests the executives at AIG should all commit Seppuku, he’s not taking a stand for ancient honor; he’s just feeding populist rage, and he’s not helping anyone figure out the trouble we are in, the trouble we need to face.

Indeed, I wonder if all the theatrics around AIG and the catastrophic failures of the past six months or so aren’t doing more to obscure the problem we have than to illuminate it. There’s good reason to believe, isn’t there, that the “systemic” and structural problems we are facing now are not exactly new, but new and dreadful manifestations of problems kept from view by the housing bubble from 2003-2006 and by the Internet or dot.com bubble that burst in 2000.

In those days, we used to celebrate systemic and catastrophic structural change as “creative destruction”; the more mild-mannered among us would talk about the the emergence of a “new economy,” the shift from manufacturing to information services. Whole industries and supply chains would be “disintermediated”; once American industry had given up the ghost, or just moved offshore, the military industrial complex would evolve, yes, evolve into a new information economy.

Evolution, though, is brutal sport. I’ve noticed that it’s a word business-people like to use when they want to avoid the word revolution. But you don’t need Naomi Klein to know that capitalists are revolutionaries, and revel in catastrophe and the overturning of old orders. Some will emerge from the ashes triumphant. Others will not survive. It’s not really a question of who is made of better stuff. It’s a question of whether we can master the forces we ourselves have unleashed on the world, and turn them to our good.