Memorial Day 2015. Three months after our wedding day, my financially recovering husband and I opted for a local getaway to Galena, IL, a small tourist town by the Mississippi River. We wanted to see the river, to which my sister responded, “Huh? Why?” She was right to question us—we were probably only inspired by some vague, romantic notion of the river from literature (Twain).
Off we went to Galena. Honestly, we’re not really small-town America type of tourists. The few times we do this type of getaway, we run out of things to do. I guess we’re not into antiques and fruity jams that much, and we also look for Chinese food by the 5th meal or so…
But there was one thing that left an impression on me, which was our visit to the National Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque, IA, across the river from Galena.
Naturally, there was an exhibit on steamboats with Mark Twain quotes sprinkled throughout the gallery walls. A well-crafted miniature of a steamboat was displayed, and I stared at it for quite a while.
Certainly, steam engines marked the dawn of technological and industrial overhaul, powering engines for various large-scale, useful work. They enabled steamboats and later on, railway locomotives, means to transport large masses of both humans and goods across the country. As the mechanical principles of their operations were understood and developed further, they became ancestors of modern turbines and internal combustion engines, from which we benefit each day.
Technologically, steamboats were a major accomplishment. But, they were more than technological artifacts; they were also human artifacts.
I paused in front of the steamboat miniature, troubled. It was blatantly obvious to me that the architecture was designed to mimic and enforce social strata. There were three levels—the lowest for the workers, who had to toil through shifts to keep the boat going; the second level for those who paid to travel and dine on the boat for business or leisure; the third mainly for the pilot. Perhaps it was just my 21st century pair of eyes, but these visible and intentionally constructed separations, sectioned by mere wooden floors, produced a discomfort.
The Haves and Have-nots were separated. The Have-nots toiled for the Haves, which on the steamboat meant constantly feeding wood to the furnace that boiled large amount of water for steam. These boilers were prone to overheating and explosions—indeed, most steamboats were destroyed by fire—and were not the most pleasant working environment, understatedly. Children worked on the boat too, and accidents did not discriminate.
Facts of life, one may say. It is just the way of the world, no different now than in the past.
Maybe. How could people be so oblivious to the things that went on, literally, under their feet? How could human worlds be so different and separated while occupying the very same vessel?
As steamboats traversed the Mississippi River, they also caused massive deforestation along the riverbank. Trees were cut down to produce wood for fuel. Environmentally, this was a disaster. Deforested riverbanks, unstable and prone to erosions, resulted in severe flooding that would occur for decades, many years after steamboats no longer graced the Mississippi.
The Appeal and Inadequacy of a Single Narrative
Steamboats were not just technological artifacts, nor societal, nor environmental artifacts. They were all of the above and more. One could slice this reality into a single narrative and tell an exclusively good or tragic story, but it would, at best, be partially true. The danger of a single narrative comes when it is accepted in pure disregard of other possible narratives, solely labeling something as good or bad without acknowledging the alternative.
The problem is, for one reason or another, we tend to respond better to single narratives. They are easy to explain and easy to remember. On paper, single narratives present a coherent and explainable reality that appeal to the public, translating into, say, book sales or political appeal. When something that we believe as good reveals a darker side, or vice versa, our minds have a hard time resolving the two. How can something good be bad?
Yet in the real reality, many human inventions are both good and bad. One aspect is rightfully celebrated, but another facet reveals something sinister in the shadow. In reality, multiple narratives can exist at the same time.
As an engineer, I could probably be forgiven for telling the story of the steamboat as a technological wonder and ignore its other aspects. But, as follows from above, there’s a great insufficiency with this practice.
How can one adamantly celebrate “progress” when humans and the environment come as an expense? How can one be spellbound by the beauty and grandeur of human inventions, and forgetting that they were built on the backs of other humans?
Don’t get me wrong, I think accomplishments should be celebrated. What I’m advocating is a kind of celebration that’s not ignorant, but one that is conscientious. It is a celebration with certain awareness (and ownership) of their possible “dark sides” and with resolve to do better in the future.
When it comes to safety and sustainability, technology learns. Though, it doesn’t usually happen until after some major catastrophes take place and government imposed regulations with severe economic penalties are enacted. My question is, Is this the only way we learn to fix mistakes and design better systems?
I can’t help asking the what-if questions. What if the engineers, designers, and all those involved in designing the steamboats were cognizant of safety both for humans and the environment? Would they have come up with a better version of the steamboat?
These hypothetical questions are impossible to answer since we only have one version of history. Plus, hindsight is 20/20.
But now that we have hindsight, can we do something about our foresight?
Can we be more mindful of the multiple narratives involved in a given situation? Can we work to integrate them somehow?
The business argument says, “It will take too long and too much money. We need to take risks; we can’t move on only when everything is perfect,” which has its legitimacy, within its economic narrative. But this is only one of the narratives at play…
These questions swim in my head and I don’t yet know how to reconcile them. All I know is that I see systems like the steamboats and I crave for something more. There has to be something better; there has to be a better way of doing things. As I live and work, I want to be that holistic engineer and human being who is not adamantly fixed on a single narrative.
My head is my address. I live there, most of the time, alone.
Sometimes there are guests, but they’re usually only a few steps inside or peeking in through the window.
Introverts Anonymous, anyone?
I recently revisited an old blog post due to a renewed realization at how private the act of thinking is to an individual. I tend to rate thinking—solitary thinking and reflection—as the most sacred activity in our existence as human beings. No one can touch that space where a fountain of insights and creativity resides.
Thinking of the deepest kind is, by nature, lonely. And it is not a bad thing to be lonely in this sense. In fact, it is a necessity for the birth of individuality.
“Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do. The men in whom this power is developed are the men who bear responsibilities, who are leaders in enterprise, and who influence character. It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought.” Ellen G. White in Education, p 17.
I sometimes go overboard with cherishing moments of contemplation. When an issue or situation perplexes me, I could ruminate silently for days. But out of this silence and solitude comes the most profound ideas that last a lifetime. Personal truths, as it were. The deeper the solitude, the stronger it is anchored to the soul.
Being a thinker and not a mere reflector of others’ thoughts is a lofty goal that requires utmost diligence. It involves iterations of asking, Whose voice is it that I’m hearing? Who are influencing my thoughts? Add knowledge, refine the mental model, reshape, reshape.
This, by definition, must be done alone. If anyone else does the work, then it ceases to be independent thinking. And if the power to think is foregone, identity will follow not far behind.
I love Go Set A Watchman (GSAW). I enjoy GSAW as a book, but I love it ever more as a phenomenon. From the story of how the manuscript was discovered, the speculation on whether or not Harper Lee was forced to publish it, the debate on whether it should or shouldn’t be published, to the discussions surrounding racial tensions dealt in the book, everything surrounding GSAW is unprecedented.
The reverse chronological timeline of the writing of GSAW and To Kill A Mockingbird (TKAM) versus their publications is the trickiest, because it colors the interpretation of the story and its characters. Consequently, it generates so many conversations and fascinating, enjoyable articles.
Before Go Set A Watchman
I had long neglected the skill of reviewing literary fiction. I can say, however, that I read GSAW with fresh perspective because I did not have much attachment to TKAM or its beloved character, Atticus Finch.
When I read TKAM in middle or high school in Indonesia, I had vague concepts of the cultural background from which the story emerged. My English was in early development, so the language, culture, and the world that the novel described were entirely foreign to me. I had no idea what Maycomb, Alabama represented nor was I aware of the cultural differences that existed in America.
My shallow view was essentially this: people said it was a good book and Atticus Finch was a good guy. He said something about picturing ourselves in another person’s shoes.
With a phenomenon like GSAW—a ‘sequel’ after 55 years of its ‘original’—it’s hard not to engage in comparisons. To me, however, the comparison between TKAM and GSAW both makes and doesn’t make sense. In the literary sense, the comparison means little since GSAW was not intended to be published as TKAM was. It was unfinished, in a way, so of course the result is less compelling and less polished than TKAM.
Moreover, after TKAM, anything that Harper Lee would have published would most likely be less compelling because of this reason. A spectacular performance, by regression to the mean, is likely to be followed by a comparatively ‘worse’ performance, even though the subsequent may still be good work.
What makes sense, though, is the comparison between the characterization of Atticus Finch and Jean Louise (Scout), the two prominent characters, in both books. But since I don’t remember TKAM, I can’t make any comparison, escaping this discussion altogether after writing three paragraphs on it…
What I like the most about GSAW is the complexity of Atticus Finch as a character. While Atticus is largely heralded as the hero of TKAM, GSAW does not have staple heroes or villains. Jean Louise, as the vehicle of the narrative, is naturally a sympathetic character, yet her reactions to discovering her father’s attitudes toward blacks are a mix of righteous indignation and immaturity. Atticus, all the while subscribing to the superiority of his race, still exudes some wisdom in the handling of his daughter’s outrage. In the words of Uncle Jack (Atticus’ brother), “[Atticus] was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being.”
The heart of the novel is the weaning of Jean Louise’s conscience—and perhaps also the readers’—off Atticus’. To this weaning process, both parental figures are proud of Jean Louise’s clash with them, even though they differ in opinions.
All taken from the words of Uncle Jack,
“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”
“. . . now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings— I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ’em like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.”
“When you happened along and saw him doing something that seemed to you to be the very antithesis of his conscience— your conscience—you literally could not stand it.” Go Set A Watchman, Chapter 18.
What is the message of GSAW? Is it about freedom in opinions? Is it about the handling of familial relationships? Is it arguing a balance between idealism and realism?
I’m not sure what the novel’s intents are. Then again, the question of the author’s intent regarding GSAW is a tricky one—we may never know what Harper Lee thought when she wrote this manuscript. Plus, GSAW is too short of a story to handle the questions that arise post-confrontation between Atticus and Jean Louise.
What matters, though, is us, the readers, having these discussions now in 2015 vis-à-vis racism and discrimination. While GSAW does not provide resolutions to the coexistence between the two attitudes that Jean Louise and Atticus represent, we must. What are we to do with the Jean Louises and Atticuses in our society? How are we to live with differing and conflicting consciences?
Having a hero such as Atticus Finch being brought down to “the status of a human being” is disorienting to many, but it is a powerful device to disrupt the mind of a society. Do we now tolerate, sympathize, or discard him? Can we, should we, in his TKAM words, “consider things from his point of view,” “climb into his skin and walk around in it.” As a society, we see Atticus’ views in GSAW as objectionable. But what do we do with the human being?
Harper Lee does not answer these questions for us and she’s not obligated to do so. We, individually and collectively, must discover them for ourselves. Thanks to GSAW, we’re talking about it.