Sunday, November 15, 2020

Elaine Pagels, Why Religion: A Personal Story

 Elaine Pagels, Why Religion: A Personal Story
Copyright © 2018 Elaine Pagels
Ecco/An Imprint of Harper Collins
ISBN 978-0-236854-6

Pagels is, of course, a well-known and highly successful writer on ancient religion (The Gnostic Gospels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas), ans, for anyone who knows me well. My reading this book might seem strange.  I read it as a part of a reading group which my wife participates, and which I join occasionally.  The book is, really, two stories, interwoven.  The first is an autobiography, which is a story of her personal and professional lives..  And in her personal life, it includes two episodes of immense loss and sorrow (the loss of their son to a congenital heart disease, at age 6; the death of her husband in a hiking accident).  The second is a summary of her professional life, centering on her research and writing.  And the final few pages deals with what see sees as the intersection of the two.

With respect to her personal life.  It was in many ways a charmed and privileged life;  she earned a doctorate, met and married an exceptionally talented physicist; they both had productive research and teaching careers at prestigious universities (and were well compensated for it).  Their combined income allowed them to afford a comfortable home in Manhattan and summers in the Colorado mountains or in in California.  They could also afford full-time domestic help (especially for child care) and private schooling for their children.  Charmed, that is, except for the deaths. 

Professionally, they were both highly successful (including her becoming a MacArthur Fellow).

The book’s title might seem a bit odd; I think the book was an attempt to unite the personal (including tragic) and professional aspects of their lives.  I think she meant to try to explain how religion, for her, allowed her to deal with the personal losses.  I’ll confess that I have never had to deal with such losses and have no idea how I would react.  For Pagels, as she tries to explain in the conclusion of the book, it was her understanding of religion and its importance, historically, that allowed her to experience the deaths of two people she loved, long before what one might see as a “normal” life-span.  At the same time, I think she was trying to explain her belief that religious belief is one way, perhaps the best or only way, for people to cope with what might appear to be a harsh, almost random world.

In that way, it seems to be an intensely personal book, but one that I could only approach as an outsider.  At the end, I understood her reactions and deeply sympathized with her effort to reconcile her life as it unfolded with (what seemed to be) religious belief as an emergent source of comfort and explanation.  And, perhaps, if I were to experience losses as grievous as hers, I might also find peace in a belief in a transcendent power.  That is something I have never been able to go, though, and not something that Why Religion made any more likely that I will ever be able to do. 

Monday, November 9, 2020

The same image

 The first version is straight out of the camera; the second is what I got from doing nothing but changing the lighting,  Photoshop can be amazing.  Whatcha think:?

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Rex Stout, The Silent Speaker, but mostly a discursion of World War II price controls

 Rex Stout, The Silent Speaker
© Estate of Rex Stout 1946
Bantam reprint

The Silent Speaker is one of my favorites f the Nero Wolfe novels, but I’m not really going to do a review of it.  Rather, I’m going to write about the background—the story of price regulation and rationing during and (briefly) after World War II.  The starting point is this:  

Following the mini-depression in 1938-1939, the economy continued its recovery.  But in 1941, economic growth really took off, as a rapid increase in the production of war material took hold.  Employment gains were large—8 million new jobs (about 20% of the 1939 level) in 1940-1942 combined.  And, actually, the effect was larger than that.  Not counted in the employment gains were the increases in the number of military personnel—an increase of 1.4 million between 1940 and 1941, another 2 million in 1942, and 5.2 million more in 1943.  Unsurprisingly, per capita income grew dramatically:  Per capita income was about 45% higher (adjusted for inflation) in 1943 than it had been in 1939.

But—and there’s always a “but”—a lot of that additional income came from war material.  During the war years, for example, we produced a lot more motor vehicles—but, from 1942 to 1945, almost no new cars for the domestic market.  Also no new tires.  Little new housing was built.  People’s incomes rose dramatically, but what were they going to buy?  Left to itself, businesses, faced with a dramatic increase in domestic demand and a much smaller increase in domestic output would do exactly what you would expect:  They would raise prices.  Between 1929 and 1939, the general level of prices in the US (as measured by the Consumer Price Index) actually fell by nearly 20%.  By 1943 (compared with 1939), the price level was up by 20%.  But that increase in prices was constrained by the creation of the Office of Price Administration of Price, created (by executive order) in1941.  ( 

The OPA had the power to place ceilings on all prices except agricultural commodities, and to ration scarce supplies of other items, including tires, automobiles, shoes, nylon, sugar, gasoline, fuel oil, coffee, meats and processed foods. At the peak, almost 90% of retail food prices were frozen. 

A corollary of price controls in a time of rising incomes was, inevitably, rationing.  Rationing, of course, led to the emergence of black markets.  And, unsurprisingly, business organizations began to lobby for eliminating the OPA, or drastically reducing its authority,  Those lobbying efforts were led by the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Dry Goods Association.  Stout, obviously, conflated the two, in The Silent Speaker, into the National Industrial Association.  And he renamed the Office of Price Administration, hence the Bureau of Price Regulation.

The OPA had three administrators:  Leon Henderson (1941-1942), Prentiss Brown (1943), and Chester Bowles (1943-1946).  And John Kenneth Galbraith, who became somewhat famous in the 1950s and 1960s, was the deputy administrator from 1941 to 1943 (from the wikipedia article: “…he “was forced out in May 1943, accused of ‘communistic tendencies’ ”).

Given the authority that the OPA had over much of the American economy, the possibility that someone working there might be offered a bribe, it’s perhaps remarkable that (so far as I can determine) there were no major (or perhaps even minor) corruption scandals.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of McDougal Street

Dave Van Ronk (with Elijah Ward), The Mayor of McDougal Street
© Copyright 2005 Elijah Ward and Andrea Vucola Van Ronk
DeCapo Press
ISBN 978-0-306-82216-2

Dave Van Ronk was one of the major figures in the folk revival that began in the late 1950s (although he spent time playing jazz, and then blues).  Born in New York in 1936, he was never much for formal education (and dropped out of high school), but very early fell in love with music.  He moved to Manhattan in the early ‘50s, and spent years as a nomad in the city, but developing his chops.  The focus of this memoir is the folk revival that began in the late ‘50s and its growth, development, and slow demise in the ‘60s.

He was everywhere and played with everyone, and he has much good and much not so good to say.  His depiction of the tangle of left-wing politics in the ‘50s is in itself worth the price of the book.  One aspect of his life in the ‘50s that is difficult (for someone like me) to comprehend is how easy it was for people to survive in NYC then without a real place to live and without anything that might be called even a income.  The last half of the book deals with the early ‘60s and the explosion of talent that migrated to NYC—Tom Paxton, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Peter Paul and Mary, Mark Spolestra, Phil Ochs, and many, many more.  But the second lead in this story is Bob Dylan (whom he refers to most often as Bobby).  Which is, in a way, all but inevitable.

Van Ronk died way to young (at 66, from cancer), and he never became a household word (never made it big, either), although you will see mention of him in any book written by or about the other musicians of that time.  One thing I think the book lacked:  A listing of his recordings.  Fortunately, wikipedia accommodates us (’s fairly extensive, 33 LPs between 1959 and 200, and 3 posthumously.  Unfortunately, I can’t find any suggestions about what’s best. 

I did not get through the book as rapidly as my interest and enjoyment of it might have led me too; the outside world (that is, the presidential election campaign) kept getting in the way.  But his narrative voice captivated me, and the anecdotes cracked me up often.  There’s no great moral, no “here’s what you must take away” to his story.  But if the time and the setting and, most of all, the music matter to you, you should seek it out.  It’s a winner.