10 October 2009

Books that changed my life: Biodegradable Man: Selected Essays, by Milton Mayer

When folks ask - and sometimes they do - I describe myself, vocationally and ideologically, as an "ex-newspaperman." My history, my context, my weapon of choice, is the long narrative, the nonfiction essay. The biting phrase, lemon-peppered with political bent and righteous indignation, is my mother-tongue. Mencken, Lardner, Trilling - these are my kin. Hell, even ol' Uncle Karl, the salty Marx himself, was a foreign correspondent before the long years of the British Museum and Das Kapital. In my mind's eye, I sweat ink. Young men, as the old Latin teacher once hissed, standing atop the writing desk, throaty and Brooklyn-born, I love woids!

But of all those many woids I love, by far the woids I love the most are those of Milton Mayer.

At the end of 1990, I was in my second year of college. War (the first one of ours in the Persian Gulf) was either well underway or heating up, depending upon how you mark the particulars. I was working at the campus bookstore for my work study.

One of my weekly tasks was shelving books after they came in from deliveries and were processed. The week we started back to school after Christmas break was in mid-January. It also happened to be the week of my birthday, and I made a spur of the moment decision: I was going to pick one of the books I was shelving and buy it for myself as a birthday present.

When I came across Biodegradable Man in the bin, I am not sure what first drew me to take a second look. Perhaps it was the title. More likely it was the "Selected Essays" bit. In any case, something about the book prompted me, as I was carrying it to the shelf, to flip it over and read the back. There I found the following (quoted from one of Mayer's essays inside):
If we reject Karl Marx, it has got to be because Marx too man first and last for an economic animal, moved to every other end by his economic considerations. A Calvin Coolidge who says, "The business of thei country is business," has no quarrel with Marx except on the technical nicety of the management of the enterprise. The business of this country, and every country, is liberation, liberation from political and economic servitude and from the subtler but more devastating servitudes of ignorance, bigotry and boredom. Man is a thinking as well as a feeling animal whose self-realization, unlike that of the barnyard critters, requires the life-long activity of a persistently inquiring intellect and a persistently discriminating taste. These are the objectives that the liberal arts serve, and liberal education is nothing but the beginning of their habituation. It is a platitude (but none the less valid for that) that the masterpieces of the liberal arts do not teach us what to think and feel, but how. There abides the great Latin pun - Facio liberos ex liberis libras libraque - "I make free men out of boys by means of books and balances."
If Mayer didn't have me in rallying common cause with me against ignorance, bigotry and boredom (though he did), I would not have been able to resist the grand gesture toward the benefits of the liberal arts (a muse with which I was just then becoming smitten) and the Latin. On the strength of the back cover alone, I bought the book.

It is important to let you know a bit of where my mind was at this point in my life. I had been raised, by my Mom, mostly, on conspiracy-theory laden skepticism and hyper-conservative Libertarianism. Mid-way through high school, however, the former went to work on the latter in my psyche, right around the time I was introduced to the writings of Karl Marx. What emerged from that brackish bouillabaisse of competing claims was a new me; a nascent leftist with a strong pacifist streak and a healthy wariness of what passes for both conservatism and liberalism in our current political sphere. I was angry and over-educated - precociously and verbosely ferocious - and Mayer, God bless him, seemed to be speaking my language.

Evenings for the next few weeks I spent reading from essay to essay, in sequence. I was please to no end with my purchase. The first section, America the Beautiful, was a series of six essays of cultural commentary, where Mayer examined (and skewered) and America both present and vanishing, whether the demise of hitch-hiking culture and the commuter train, or the rise of bourgeois refuges like the gated community and the country club. The middle essay, "In the Tomb," is an extended meditation on the limited comfort the art of interior design can offer to the owner of a backyard fallout shelter whom Mayer, with measured cudgels of sympathy and irony, interviews.

I loved the language, the style, and the wit of this man from the outset. His voice was a voice I both esteemed and envied. I, too, saw things in my community that I thought were absurd, and I, too, had a desire to write of them with this practiced ire.

It turns out, however, that this first section - enjoyable though it was - simply was an appetizer for all that followed. As good as Mayer was at social commentary (and he was very, very good), his real talent lay in political commentary. His was the engaged discourse of the populists of a long-lost generation, and he walked the talk.

Indeed, I quickly came to learn, Milton Mayer was that Mayer, the Mayer of Mayer vs. Rusk, a Supreme Court case I had been taught in my high school American History and Government class during my overeducated youth. Mayer had taken on the McCarthy-tinged torpor of his times, challenging the American government to a battle of quills when he was denied a passport for refusing to sign an anti-communist loyalty oath (or, indeed, any oath, Quaker that he was - but I am getting ahead of myself). He took on the government and he won, and what's more, he wrote about it, in a remarkable essay, "A Man with a Country":
It would be much more useful if a senator of a congressman - or a President who vetoes it - would resist a bad law like the Internal Securities Act [under which Mayer first went to court] or a bad regulation like the State Department's; but they will not. They will say, "It's the law. We may not like it, but it's the law." But we hanged the Nazi leaders at Nurnberg for saying that, and properly; a man who will obey the law, whatever the law, wants a form of government in which man exists for the state and not the state for man.
In this day and age, with language like that, you might mistake Mayer's rhetorical cant for those of cultural commentators on the right, those of a much less intelligent stripe - those who would resist government encroachment for more partisan, less principled reasons. But Mayer - God bless him - would have stood his ground as well against our current bumper-crop of pinheads. The Glenn Becks and the Ann Coulters of Mayer's day were eviscerated (and rightly so) in the wake of his mighty pen. "Veepings," he called the lot of 'em, naming them for the toadies they were (and remain).

So after a couple sessions of reading, I was pretty pleased with my purchase, to say the least. The best, however, was yet to come.

A little over half-way through the book is a quiet little essay, an essay entitled "Sit Down and Shut Up." This essay was a description of Mayer's first encounter with the Religious Society of Friends - the Quakers, as they are more popularly known. This little essay, to say the least, has had a profound effect on my life.

You see, up to that point, I had little truck with organized religion. I had been raised an atheist, as I mentioned. In high school I had dabbled with some eastern mysticism, reading the Tao te Ching and the Bhagavad Gita and the like. I had been to an Episcopal church a few times with my friend Robert, and Sewanee was an Episcopal school, but in 1991 I would have told you I was a long, long way from Western religion, let alone Christianity.

But God is not without a sense of humor, and moreover is patient (and kind). Mayer's little essay is no more than four pages long. Midway between the third and the fourth pages I read this:
What do I know about the Quakers? I know that they were persecuted, not merely as dissenters, but for many of their positive tenets, such as their denial of special priesthood; their indifference to sacrament, including their refusal to take oaths; their complete democracy of organization, down to the point of determining action on any issue by the "sense" of the Meeting and not by vote; their historic opposition to war, though in this, as in all temporal issues, they refuse to bind individual conscience; and their recognition, as original as their opposition to slavery, of the complete equality of women with men.

Having read that for the first time, I went back and read the essay again. And then a third time. At that point I think I must have said, "If there were still Christians like that, I shouldn't so much mind being a Christian."

Thanks to Mayer, I idealized the Quakers. I idealize them still, having spent twelve years of my life being one, starting that next fall, in 1991. I idealize them even though contemporary Quakers are, by and large, a long way from the enemy-less pacifism of which Mayer wrote (most of them, myself included, discovered over time that when they weren't being partisanly aggressive, they were still itchingly passive aggressive). I idealize them even though most Southern Quakers, reacting to the fundamentalisms of the Bible belt, are a long way from Jesus as well. No matter what they are, I love and always will love the Quakers of that page, the page Mayer wrote. That page gave me a hope, a direction, a fervor, and - God help me - a religion, for the first time in my life.

How can I estimate the effect that essay had upon me? The effect is incalculable. My career, such as it is, and all my schooling, from bachelor to master and beyond, has been shaped by the glimpse of the Kingdom that paragraph held for me. That essay helped me get right with Jesus, though it took a long, long time for me to realize that truth.

Those who knew me in my twenties are better equipped than I to decide whether I was too bad, or too good, a Quaker to remain one. Like Mayer, I love the Society of Friends despite the problems and shortcomings I see in them. Unlike Mayer, who remained a fellow traveler of the Friends throughout his adult life, I eventually made my break with them. Though I admit I delayed the formal severance until long, long after I had stopped attending Meetings for Worship with the Friends. I delayed, in fact, until the last, the absolute last, possible moment.

My journey continues, the journey begun in that essay, in this book. Though I am now, and shall remain, a Catholic (and I leave it to those who know me now to decide whether too bad or too good of one), I am deeply thankful for that mystic stillness I learned as a Friend. I am terrified by many things in this world, but not by silence. Silence, the Living Silence, is a friend to me.

I carry that silence in a special place within my heart, a place right next to my ire and my righteous indignation. As my heart pumps the ink I let pass for my blood, the cadence of the beat, to the words that I write, to the joy of a well-turned phrase landing pie-like on the face of yet another Veepings - all of that is thanks to old Milton Mayer, and for that, for so much more, I salute him.

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