When Nothing Changes

Zola Paradise

In case my tendency to allude to the classroom might strike anyone as tedious or repetitive, I offer an apology in advance and invite the uninterested to skip the following.  The classroom is nevertheless a consistently renewed sample of the contemporary cohorts as they advance up the ladder of what remains of actual social initiation hoping to join the ranks of the accredited when testing the job market for the first time as prospective adults.  In my classroom, a mid-tier state-college classroom, I therefore have the opportunity (and I take it) to observe the diminishing returns of the near-criminal enterprise of North America’s public primary and secondary instruction, especially where it concerns the inculcation of literacy of both the strict and cultural varieties.

In the just-completed semester, my department chair had asked me, as she regularly does, to supervise the graduate-level “Business in Literature” course that English teaches at the behest of and as a favor to the School of Business’s five-year accountancy program.  I like teaching this course because over the years the five-year accountancy students have demonstrated themselves to be cooperative and disciplined in degree sufficient to distinguish them from the general run of students.  In any given semester, I ask the students to read a short anthropological study – The Gift  (1925) by Marcel Mauss – and three or four novels that take as their setting a recognizably “business” milieu.  This semester’s syllabus obliged the enrollment to read the two “Vinland” sagas, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) by William Dean Howells, Tono-Bungay (1909) by H. G. Wells, and The Paradise of Women (1883) by Emile Zola, the last the basis of two recent television serials and a forgotten French sound-film from 1932.  As a means of putting moral pressure on students to complete the reading, I require them to turn in reading-notes, documenting in detail their progress through the chapters, on a regular basis.  I am fairly certain that most of the accountancy enrollment in the just-completed semester did ninety percent of the reading.  (By contrast, in most of my classes, I would estimate that only sixty per cent of students do as much as sixty per cent of the reading.)

Doing the reading, however, while admirable, is not the same as understanding what one reads.  As we worked our way through the book-list, I gradually became aware of a new peculiarity of college-cohort cognition – or miscognition, as it might be.  With a few exceptions, students seemed unable to track changes in character or in conscience or point of view, in the personae of the three novels, as Howells, Wells, and Zola develop their plotlines chapter by chapter.  The most pronounced instance of this obtuseness involved The Paradise of Women, Zola’s surprisingly positive novel about the first modern department-store in Paris.  The entrepreneur of “The Ladies’ Paradise,” Monsieur Mouret, first appears as selfish, not a little greedy for investment capital, free with women including his female employees, and lacking in any humane sense of his enterprise.  A country-girl, Denise, who comes to work in the grand establishment and gradually works her way up the ranks, uniquely refuses Mouret’s erotic overtures, but gains influence over him even so, inducing him gradually to alter his attitudes and practices.  Denise is an astute and tactful moral reformer.  The great shop under her gentle but insistent will becomes a model workplace, with Mouret acknowledging and embracing the betterment.  In the last chapter, Mouret offers to marry Denise – and she accepts.

Like most interesting narratives, The Paradise of Women is a conversion story: The main conversion is Mouret’s, who must humanize himself; but there are numerous other conversions in the story, not least that Denise must learn to see past Mouret’s character-armor and find some nucleus of good in him on which she may exercise her hope.  When I asked for an essay on Mouret’s character, in comparison with the character of George Ponderevo in Tono-Bungay, the result was as uniform as it was startling: The readers could only see Mouret as he first appears; they were unable to assimilate his pilgrim’s progress of moral alteration under the benign influence of the steady young woman.  Neither could they see that Wells’ protagonist, like Zola’s, repents of his youthful cynicism to become, at story’s end, a remarkably different person.  Based on the experience in the “Business in Literature” course, I began looking for signs of similar incomprehension in work submitted by students in other classes and ended up wondering why I had not seen it before.

To describe this miscognition in other words, students cannot track the signs of conscience: A character in a narrative is to them as that character first appears and afterwards they remain oblivious to the details of internal transformation.  When asked, based on the final chapters of The Paradise of Women, what kind of person is Zola’s entrepreneurial leading man, they answer not that he is a Type-A personality who gradually repents of his obsession to make of himself a decent and generous human being – but merely that he is a Type-A personality, without redeeming traits.  Ditto concerning Wells’ Ponderevo: For whom ruthless economy and a bad marriage make unavoidable his business-collaboration with his flim-flam artist of an uncle, but who recoils from being a partner in a snake-oil scheme and gradually extracts himself, in order to do honest work.  Ponderevo is only, for the students, the morally suspect  co-proprietor, with his founder-uncle, of the morally bankrupt “Tono-Bungay” enterprise.

The same perceptual bluntness expresses itself in the students’ reaction to the films that I screen in order to give us some breaks in the reading.  In Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999), Misters Gilbert and Sullivan are only the two signatories of a contract with Mr. D’Oyly-Carte, who, getting into a famous contretemps, violate their contract; the details of how they settle their imbroglio, and reconcile with their contract, with which details the film is mainly concerned, make little or no impression.  In David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011), sushi-chef supreme Jiro Ono is only a severe taskmaster who forced his sons into his business.  That the sons themselves disown their youthful resentment and praise their father’s insight – explicitly, while facing the camera – simply passes over student attention; students cannot integrate the additional information.

What is the source of this insensitivity to moral growth, change of view – or conversion?  Here I am speculating, but I am also asking for help.  Possibly the students have never themselves experienced noticeable moral growth, change of view – or conversion.  This would not surprise me given the facts that few, if any of them, have grown up with any significant contact with religion, and that for almost all of them the main social influence has been public education, which patently omits to encourage anything like moral introspection.  Public education is indoctrination.  Indoctrination inhibits conversion.  The content of that public-school indoctrination consists of simple stories in which the characters are, not actual people, but static entities: The racist, the sexist, the what-have-you – none of whom ever changes even when ritually shamed and humiliated.  Popular entertainments ape public-school indoctrination: The characters are as they first appear, whether good guys or bad guys; and, aside from the carnage, the events of the story alter nothing.

So much, tentatively, for probable causes…  What about the effects?  A person who cannot register moral change in other people probably cannot perceive it, or initiate it, or yield to the providence of it, even if the occasion were to arise, where it concerns himself.  He has locked himself into the role of a static entity, a condition perhaps indicated by his perpetual absorption in his devices, including the MP3 player with earbuds through which he listens repetitively to the same three-minute digital track that, in its many repetitions, never changes.  Being locked into the role of a static entity might also be reflected in the pervasive uptightness of my students.  Uptightness might seem to belong to the vocabulary of the 1960s anti-establishment, but I believe that Traditionalists should appropriate it.  Liberal culture, despite having been founded by people who complained about the uptightness of the establishment, is extraordinarily uptight.  That uptightness deserves to be mockingly denounced.  It is a sign of ultra-conformity to a puritanical expectation on the one hand and neurotic false-sensitivity to violations of the uptight code – otherwise known as political correctness – on the other.

Of course, the mantra of the liberal regime is “change, change, change,” but like the MP3 track, this is an iterative entity that repeats but never changes.

Political correctness – this is where my thoughts have led me – is an ethos of static entity. in which, as on a chessboard, nothing really changes except the configuration of the pieces.  One might move the knight this way and that, but he is never anything but the knight.  Ditto the pawn or the knave.  Once a knave, always a pawn.  Perhaps then what I am seeing in the moral obtuseness of overcooperative accountancy majors is merely another index of creeping liberal dehumanization of what remains of Western Civilization.

16 thoughts on “When Nothing Changes

  1. Pingback: When Nothing Changes – CHRIST THE MORNING STAR

  2. Pingback: When Nothing Changes | Reaction Times

    • Psychopathy is a defective moral condition, as I understand it, associated with manipulative, coercive, and criminal personalities. I have used the word “cognition” – and the coinage “miscognition” – to describe the failure of my students to track the alteration of character essential to plausible storytelling and to the actual discipline of moral atonement and conversion, but I might also call it an epistemological limitation. Now I am reasonably sure that the students completed the reading, for reasons I have stated. In the case of Zola, then, the students must have gleaned the picture of Mouret in chapter the first and the much altered picture of Mouret in chapter the last; but they could not mentally meld those two pictures nor offer an explanation of how the first picture morphed into the second picture. Their way of dealing with the difference was to suppress or ignore one of the pictures and consistently they suppressed or ignored the second picture. I conclude tentatively that the phenomenon of conversion is so baffling, or so intimidating, to them that they react against assimilating it. The result is a radically deficient mentality, to be sure, but it is different from psychotic malice. Being unable to assess moral qualities in others, it is probably unusually vulnerable to the depredations of psychotic malice.

  3. It seems that the students have taken to heart, as a matter of common sense, that in today’s academy you can never really go wrong with an indictment, but *can* go horribly wrong with a defense or justification. This belief agrees with the facts of an institutional setting in which everybody has a moral, and, in some cases, actually a legal, obligation to take accusations of wrongdoing at face value, and where this a priori guilt, once assigned, is indelible, no matter how many times the impugned person repents and apologizes and attempts to make restitution.

    The good news is that the liberal religion-surrogate is self-defeating in this respect. The theme of the reformed sinner looms large in Christian tradition for very good sociological reason, namely that a successful new religion has to have a mechanism whereby the sinner and the pagan can repent and convert. Imagine where the faith would have wound up had Christ or Paul taught that, since we’re all sinners, we’re therefore *all* reprobate and irredeemable. But that is exactly what the liberal religion-surrogate is doing right now. This fake religion, just like real religions such as Christianity, holds that everybody is already guilty of *something*, but unlike the real thing won’t forgive its brother seventy times seven times, or even once, at least in principle. The reason that students aren’t familiar with conversion experiences is that. strictly speaking, it isn’t possible to convert to the religion-surrogate into which they’ve been indoctrinated.

  4. It would be interesting to see how they respond to a story of corruption rather than redemption. Do they always take the first picture given or the more negative one? Devotees of political correctness would have an idea of hidden racism–someone apparently good but really bad. I don’t think they would imagine the reverse of someone who acts like a racist in public but isn’t one deep down. Absent the idea of change, when confronted with two contradictory pictures, they might still have the idea of viciousness sometimes hidden.

    • In Tono-Bungay, Uncle Edward (the flim-flam man) begins as a slightly dishonest eccentric who nevertheless marshals his meager resources to help his nephew, but he becomes ever greedier and ever more prone to ignore morality and what remains of his conscience. Outwardly he appears successful, enjoying wealth and status although these turn out to be founded on sand and after one speculation too many the house of Tono-Bungay ignominiously collapses. The students avoid moral commentary. The failure of the enterprise is, for them, simply a matter of Uncle Edward having “made some mistakes.” They can’t see that the mistakes were greed-driven. A subplot in Tono-Bungay involves an aristocratic girl who is George Ponderevo’s first love, and who returns briefly in the final chapters, at which time she has become a drug-addict and a high-class prostitute who is about to set herself up with a wealthy sugar-daddy. The students mostly could not comprehend Beatrice’s descent. They think that her proposed liaison with the sugar-daddy shows that she is “successful” because she knows how “to get what she wants.”

      • That seems a simple matter of students acceptance of our culture’s messsage of wealth trumping all, no?

  5. There are some open questions, I believe. For example, you do not say if what you observed is a change. Or, another issue, do the ninety percent result from willingness or merely discipline? It really does seem like the latter, which would explain a lot.

    Otherwise, it is precisely as you say, static. After all, if you do not have some absolute to rely on, then you simply have to make everything around you freeze.

  6. I wrote (third paragraph): “As we worked our way through the book-list, I gradually became aware of a new peculiarity of college-cohort cognition – or miscognition, as it might be.” I also remarked that, concerning this particular group, which is typically much more disciplined than other groups, I had fairly high confidence that most of them had completed the reading. Otherwise I would not have heeded the phenomenon, which strikes me as significant. Indeed, what is the phenomenology of a subject who cannot register moral development either in himself or in another? Such a person must live in the equivalent of a cartoon world. This result, incidentally, conforms with another social phenomenon that many people have observed: Namely that college and university regimes have, for a long time, been working to make matriculation as undemanding – and therefore as uneventful – as possible. The regime regards students as mere ciphers, whose only utility is to be programmed.

  7. In my experience dealing with Cultural Marxists and Progressive Leftists, I’ve found that (in spite of their moral relativism), they all believe in some concept of Original Sin, but what they all deny is Redemption. They live in a gloomy world where there are only varying degrees of Evil. That explains much of their obsession with so-called ‘Social Justice’ and their fanatical hatred towards anyone who opposes it (as well as their jealousy towards people of faith). To them, life is short and meaningless and the highest social goal is to reduce personal suffering and maximize personal comfort as much as possible.

    • The five-year accountancy students taking my BizLit course offered by the English Department are probably the least politically correct students on the campus; so in describing or dealing with them I am not directly describing the local, campus-specific Cultural-Marxist administration or dealing with its regime. I am dealing with students who are the product of an education machine shaped and dominated by the universal Western Cultural-Marxist regime over the last decades. Many of those students self-identify as “conservatives” and “libertarians” and among them you would likely find numerous Trump-supporters. Of course, they are as damaged as their Sanders-supporting SJW counterparts.

      • As a recovered nihilist, I agree with the above comment from The Night Wind. For the nihilist everything is meaningless. It is impossible to see any value in a spiritual or inner conversion/redemption. There is simply no point to it. I would assume these students see life and people in only a materialist sense. There is no difficult to discern depth to life and so everything is viewed in a reflexively superficial way, including people, both fictional and real.

        BTW, I really appreciate your posts documenting the intellectual and social lives of your college students.

  8. Tony: I suspect that modern accountancy encourages a materialist-utilitarian view of life, the world, and everything. Thus even though many of the accountancy students see themselves as “conservatives” or “libertarians,” rather than as liberals, they are perhaps even more vulnerable to liberal (i.e., materialist-utilitarian) indoctrination than some others. To link this thread with a recent thread in response to a posting by Kristor, modernity perversely indisciplines itself so as never to perceive the depth, but only the superficiality, of everything.

  9. Shocking, and difficult to believe. Moral transformations are common in pop culture, after all — look at the Fall of Anakin Skywalker and earlier/later the redemption of Darth Vader : not exactly profound, and not necessarily well-executed, but completely incomprehensible without a notion of moral change.

    What about undeceptions, characters who look like one sort of person at the beginning and turn out to be something else entirely? Do you ever teach Jane Austen?

    • None of my courses encompasses Jane Austen, regrettably. Undeceptions are precisely what my student fail to “get.” You could say that Zola practices deception, concerning Mouret, in the first half of The Ladies’ Paradise, and then undeceives his readers in the second half. William Dean Howells likewise (but to a lesser degree) deceives his readers about any number of characters in The Rise of Silas Lapham, and then undeceives them. In sum: My students can only be deceived; they cannot be undeceived. Is that not the goal of propaganda, first to deceive and then to circumvent in advance any undeception? We should never suppose that the regime knows not what it does, or that the results that we see are accidental, not intentional.


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