Feb 28, 2013

Seven Deadly Sins at the Library Book Sale

Accompanied by my wife, who is at least as great a bibliophile as I, last weekend, I ventured into the venerable, low-linteled cellar of the Kingston library, where one of the periodic book sales was in full swing.  Two full rooms, with shelves of all materials and construction laid out, and filled with books. The organization was decent enough, at least as far as categorization of the books -- to be sure, I found a bit more interesting philosophy works in the foreign language section than in the actual spot officially dedicated to that subject.  You see quite an assortment of human beings, of "interesting types," you might say euphemistically, at these sorts of events, just as you do, really, at any affair or establishment centered around the printed -- and bound -- page.  I will say this about that particular occasion: I've never been in a place -- and I've been in quite a few unusual and intense spots of this sort  -- where such a high proportion of the people seemed either oblivious to, or entirely and egoistically careless of, the space and intentions of other people.

I would suppose that for some the lack of body consciousness, the closedness to other people, except insofar as they intersected with one's desires and its objects, is actually their normal mode of being.  This was not, at least some of them, what you would call a "well-socialized" lot.  For others of them, I suspect, that is not their ordinary condition, but a state they somehow lapsed into, prompted by their desires, at the book sale.  Being a tall, wide-shouldered, fairly bulky man -- and one who doesn't hesitate long to break a stranger's concentration, whether real or feigned, to impose one of the formula of social politeness and movement -- I could get, eventually, to the books I wanted to look at.  My wife, in some corners and passages, garnered less regard, and found herself having to be more insistent with certain of the patrons.  I've been thinking off and on for quite some time about the traditional Seven Deadly Sins (a subject on which I gather material and images when they cross my paths) -- and this got me thinking about our experiences at the book sale.

 

A Bit of Experimental Play

Does this blog entry really have to do directly with Virtue Ethics?  Well, Yes. . . . and No, at least not in the same sense that many of the other entries do.  The Seven Deadly Sins, when properly understood, really do figure into the scope of many specific Virtue Ethics -- that of Thomas Aquinas or of Bonaventure, for instance. And, that shouldn't be all that surprising, since "Sins" is really a bit of a misnomer in the case of these particular bad dispositions. In a religious perspective, sure, they are "sins", i.e. some sort of transgression against the divine.  But that's not why anyone who discussed them really found them worth examining -- it's rather that they are Vices.  These are states of a person's soul, structures of desire, feeling, choice, action, thoughts, even reasonings, which are productive, consistently productive, of bad actions, bad decisions, bad justifications, bad emotional responses.  There's a good reason that they started out, with Evagrius Ponticus, then John Cassian (definitely a virtue ethicist) as Eight Principal Vices.

So, there's the definite Yes.  I do have to warn you, though, that the rest of this blog post is a bit tongue in cheek.  Perhaps I'll actually hit on something that does make good serious sense -- the sort of accomplishment that the Peter Principle (a book whose main thesis and implications turned out to have some real staying power) successfully brought off.  My idea at first -- prompted by my wife's account of one particularly repugnant and rude bookbuyer, who noxiously exuded Greed -- was to think about how the Seven Deadly Sins might be exemplified in certain characters found at book sales. Then I started thinking about the varieties of our relationships with books more broadly, and the idea, or rather seven of them, began to take on more definite shape and more than mere idle interest.

I was reminded as well, though, of Lucian of Samsota's diatribe Against the Ignorant Book-Collector.  Here's a bit of it, where he makes jibes just as relevant in our own time as in late antiquity:
What is your idea, now, in all this rolling and unrolling of scrolls? . . .  Much good your purchases have been to you; one sees that already: why, your language -- no, I am wrong there, you are as dumb as a fish -- but your life, your unmentionable vices, make every one hate the sight of you; if that is what books do, one cannot keep too clear of them. There are two ways in which a man may derive benefit from the study of the ancients: he may learn to express himself, or he may improve his morals by their example and warning; when it is clear that he has not profited in either of these respects, what are his books but a habitation for mice and vermin, and a source of castigation to negligent servants? And how very foolish you must look when any one finds you with a book in your hand (and you are never to be seen without) and asks you who is your orator, your poet, or your historian: you have seen the title, of course, and can answer that question pat: but then one word brings up another, and some criticism, favourable or the reverse, is passed upon the contents of your volume: you are dumb and helpless; you pray for the earth to open and swallow you; you stand like Bellerophon with the warrant for your own execution in your hand.
Better that someone buy a book roundly acknowledged as being only fit for "beach reading," but actually reads it, I say, than that they plop it down and page through it at the coffee chop, more for public consumption than for their own!

I'm reminded of another work of Lucian, his True History, which he begins with an excuse:

[S]tudents, I think, after much reading of serious works may profitably relax their minds and put them in better trim for future labour. It would be appropriate recreation for them if they were to take up the sort of reading that, instead of affording just pure amusement based on wit and humour, also boasts a little food for thought that the Muses would not altogether spurn; and I think they will consider the present work something of the kind. They will find it enticing not only for the novelty of its subject, for the humour of its plan and because I tell all kinds of lies in a plausible and specious way, but also because everything in my story is a more or less comical parody. . . 
Lucian, in his pointed criticisms, his cynic satires, is often a bit serious in his joking around -- and here, I indulge myself in the converse, seasoning my normal seriousness of subject with some lapses into levity.  Can there really be Seven Sins of Bookbuyers in any genuine sense?  Perhaps, or perhaps not.  But, let me try to see if one can't make plausible cases for each of them.

The Most Troubling Sins:  Pride and Envy

In ancient and medieval discussions of the Seven Deadly Sins (after the truncation and transformation from the Eight Principal Vices, carried out by Gregory The Great -- my namesake, actually, or so my mother told me. . . -- in his Moralia On Job), Pride or Vanity holds. .  .  . well, pride of place, top billing, the highest spot on the charts.  It is, in fact, in some sense, the root of all of the sins.  And, after vainglory (in the Eight) gets absorbed into pride (swelling it yet further?), Envy makes its way one rung up the ladder, to take a higher seat right next to pride -- which presumably works out well for it, except for the fact that it still plays a jaundiced, jealous second fiddle to the number one sin.

It is not very difficult to imagine how these two vices could play themselves out in terms of a person's relationship to books -- even if we confine ourselves solely to the situation of book buying at library sales.  Are there people who purchase out of pride?   Certainly.  After all, who, after filling their arms or their cardboard box (let alone their reusable grocery bag, not to speak of their Friends of the Library tote!) , has not felt a certain sense of superiority in comparing the obvious intellectual quality of one's own intended purchases with the maudlin, rumdum, superficial schlock of another patron?  I suppose the best place to look for -- or to send -- the prideful bookbuyer would be the section clearly marked Classics, would it not?  Or perhaps, to the Foreign Language section, where they can impress others by mumbling to themselves in some other tongue as they turn the pages of some French or German (Spanish is still a bit downscale -- and Greek or Latin, who'd recognize that?)

The Book-Collector Lucian laid into really fits that type, and reveals another side to the purchase.  It's not just having the book in hand, and it's not even reading it -- though some do brag about reading things like Joyce's Ulysses, don't they, a useless book if I ever came across one! -- it's being able to connect that book to oneself, to employ it as an emblem of one's worth.  And, this reveals the side of pride that is vanity, or to use its older name, Vain Glory (kenodoxia), puffing oneself up over empty things.

What about Envy?  That seems a little less straightforward to perceive, to imagine -- at least at the start.  I thought at first about a book buyer purchasing volumes that someone else, someone with whom they felt themselves, or even just aspired, to be rivals, already had in their possession.  One might also think of the person who always seems to be after someone else's experiences, including those of reading, or those surrounding that act.  I remember from my grad school days other students, after reading Derrida's description -- or was it Barthes'? -- of the pleasure in cutting the pages of a French book, preparatory to the act of reading (a task that, again, myself, having had to do it many times, regard as a pain-in-the-ass chore), desiring that pleasure, jabbering about how enjoyable it must be. . . .  and on and on.  That could be in envy's line, I suppose.

But then I thought of something much less fanciful, something that we all know about, but for which fortunately a philosopher (in this case Rene Girard) came up with a snazzy name: mimetic desire.  Here's how it works:  I see that you desire something, an item I do not yet myself desire.  But, you do desire it, which means that it is a good in your view, and I am like you, so really, I ought to desire it as a good as well.  I was not really paying attention to it, you see.  I was missing out on all its fine features, its advantages, its qualities.  This can go for a popsicle or a promotion, a potential mate, a dialogue partner. . .  even a book.  My wife, who has a keen eye for quality, pulled a book, which then the odious bookbuyer who I'll discuss more down in Greed, then quite palpably desired.

Three Middle Sins: Wrath, Sloth, Greed

These were easy enough vices to come up with examples for --  as far as Wrath goes, some people buy books, particularly political exposes, but really any sufficiently juicy tell-all will do the trick, precisely to arouse and indulge feelings of anger, rancor, resentment.  Sloth, I thought, might be diagnosed in something to which I myself am admittedly prone, purchasing books that somehow don't end up getting read.  And, if we want a figure of Greed, there really is no better one than the bookbuyers who are really booksellers in disguise, those there simply to purchase whatever they think they can profitably stock their own shelves with, or unload for the most in some electronic agora.

So, Wrath -- is this really something that motivates people in their habits of book buying and consumption?  It's telling to look at what frequently shows up in Political sections.  Measured studies of actual commonwealths and other regimes, their histories, the play of forces, the compromises worked out, the conflicts internal and eternal?  Well, you can find a few.  Political theory?  Not much of that either.  But, shoddily reasoned, often ghostwritten, inflammatory books laying nearly all the blame onto this political party or that one, onto one cabal or conspiracy or another one, onto some power-hungry, and then after election power-drunk would be dictator?  In those sorts of work, you've got your pick.  Whatever happens to be your bias, whoever it is that you despise, you'll likely find something written to fit that bill.  And such literature, I would say, does tend to provide not only a playground but also breeding and training grounds for the passion, the affect, the vice of wrath.

Of course, other forms of irascible and irritated behavior can usually be discovered at places where books are bought and sold or otherwise acquired.  Some readers really do get lost in books -- not all lack of spatial awareness, or the presence and intentions of other people, reflects a self-centered personality which places the satisfaction of its own desires above attentiveness to others -- and somehow it seems to be these fairly innocent readers, those who are actually using the books rightly, who provoke signs of anger, dirty looks, snide requests to step aside, even brusque brushing and bumping, on the parts of other patrons, particularly those who feel themselves in a hurry -- it's much less often the people who I'd say there's legitimate reason to get upset with for being oblivious and blocking the paths and stacks.

Sloth is an interesting vice, one which many people automatically (lazily?) assume to signify sustained inactivity, a reluctance to work, to act, to do things.  Surely, bookbuyers, enterprising enough to get themselves out of bed and over the library aren't sluggards, now are they?  Well, there are different sorts of slothfulness -- there's a reason why the new category of sloth ended up absorbing the older vices of Sadness and of Accedia, the latter being a kind of busyness that never gets down to business, activity as a mode of distraction.  So now, let me ask a question -- one that I put to myself as well:  It's easy to buy books or to check them out.  Actually reading them, well, that's another story, now isn't it?  Perhaps there's a sort of sloth that takes on the form of conceiving plans of study, acquiring and purchasing the means for it, but never following through on the work study requires -- and concealing from oneself both one's failures to persevere in the intention, and one's nagging feelings of guilt over not accomplishing what one set one's hand to do.

There are purchasers you see at library book sales who are very visibly motivated by a species of Greed.  And it's not greed for the riches of knowledge, or even of their vehicles, the volumes themselves -- they want the books for their resale value.  They're easy enough to spot these days -- the electronic scanners give them away.  But accompanying their possession and use of a technological device -- which after all, from a moral perspective, is more or less neutral -- goes something much more a matter of their person, a covetousness that leads them to block the scanning views, the searching hands, the very bodies of other patrons, at least until they've gone through the shelves in front of them.  My wife encountered several of these hybrid creatures, buyers-only-to-resell, and had to actually assert herself fairly forcefully with one of them just to get a look at the Philosophy section.

It's interesting that these are the people who show up well before opening -- assuring themselves first shot at the stacks -- when these are in some sense the people farthest removed (even among the vicious) from any real relation to the books as books.  There could, I suppose be a sort of greediness that does at least halfway value books as such, viewing them as a distinct sort of possession, rather than as just another convertible species of wealth.  One might conceivably desire a library as a sort of hoard.  Perhaps there is a bibliophilic analogue to miserliness?

Lesser Sins: Lust and Gluttony

The ancient and medieval theorists of the sins and vices usually placed these two -- much more oriented by the body and its desires than the others -- at the bottom in their lists.  That doesn't mean that they didn't take them seriously as moral defects, or warn their charges about the seductions and dangers that Lust and Gluttony presented for both body and soul.  But, there was a consistent awareness and valuation at work, an understanding that these were easier to oppose, to control, to head off than the other sins or vices.  So, in certain respects, they were indeed considered less grievous. 

It's very interesting that, after setting our box of newly bought books in the back seat, and settling in for the ride to other Saturday errands -- as I mused about the Seven Deadly Sins and bookbuying behavior -- ideas about, examples of, all of the other five sins rapidly suggested themselves, while in the cases of Lust and Gluttony it was harder to generate genuinely satisfying notions of what these would look like, translated into the republic of letters, or at least the marketplace of secondhand books.  The ideas I did have felt more like schematizing and shoehorning behavior and desires into a pregiven seven categories, rather than working out any sort of intrinsic connections.

There are of course books which arguably recommend themselves to the lustful or the gluttonous.  And there are, correspondingly, purchasers and perusers who provide a market, a raison d'etre, a grateful, appreciative, libidinous clientele for such literature.  At least in the sphere of Lust, this would seem to be the case.  I thought at first of erotica, of pornography, of the recent runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey.  I remembered my own reading Anais Nin's Delta of Venus back as an undergraduate -- admittedly less for her artistry, or psychological insight (Nin eventually became a practicing psychoanalyst) than for the stimulating smuttiness. 

It would be rather surprising, however, in our age of the ever-expanding internet, when pornography, whether of text or image, has become readily accessible -- and in which eReaders offer such a buffer of anonymity that Kindle sales of the aforementioned Fifty Shades rapidly outstripped sales of physical copies -- for there to be lustful people flocking to library book sales to buy up what books of erotica might happen to be found.  And then. . .  I remembered the entire genre of romance novels.

I suppose there could also be some kind of lust involved, some sort of voluptuousness awakened, enjoyed, satisfied in certain books on account of their other properties -- and unless this is interpreted as some fetishist displacement of sexual desire, a la Freud, this would involve a heightened, or rather over-indulged and -stimulated, attentiveness to the physical features of books.  But, perhaps this is really a stretch of imagination about desire and its plays on my own part -- it's not something I myself experience, a level of physical pleasure in objects that could attain the motivating strength of obsession.

Gluttony is harder to place when it comes to books.  It's not as if we want to eat them up, or drink them down.  True, our gustatory desires might be provoked by pictures, even verbal descriptions -- and that then suggests one at first plausible kind of literature that could perhaps be connected with gluttony:  Cookbooks.  This really seems like quite a stretch to me, though.  While I suppose a glutton might frequent book stores, libraries, sales, in order to seek out new recipes, would they really need to purchase entire books?  And, that of course assumes that such a person will actually cook for themselves or for others, which already places them in somewhat of a minority.

No, I have to admit that I've not really found a satisfactory fit for the vice or the sin of gluttony at the library book sale.  Granted, there are always some over-indulgent eaters and drinkers present -- but there's no intrinsic connection with their habits of reading, book buying, or what else they do with books, as far as I can see.

Some Last Remarks About Sins, Vices, and Books

As I remarked earlier, these seven "sins" are really, when it comes down to it "vices," i.e. bad dispositions, disorders within the character, the emotions, the thoughts, and the will of the person who has the vice.  There's a number of different features of vices that we could discuss here, specifically in terms of one's orientation to books, towards oneself and others, but I just want to very briefly highlight three of them.

First, a person who is vicious suffers from a sort of moral blindness, and one feature of this is that their own self-assessment becomes skewed, sometimes so much that they can believe and feel themselves to actually be in the opposite condition from vice -- to be the virtuous ones, those entirely in the right, the people one ought to look up to and praise.

Second, another common aspect of viciousness, and another dimension to this moral blindness, is seeing other people largely in terms of how they fit into the structure and satisfaction of ones' own desires.  I've remarked several times about how oblivious quite a few of the people at the book sale were, when it comes to perception and reaction to public space, to the bodies and movements of others, let alone to discerning and accommodating the intentions and desires of other human beings.  I'd say this was because in large part, for those who were vicious and acting out their vices, other people constitute obstacles to, or at best mere props for, their desires.

Lastly, in the case of each of these determinate and distinct vices, there's also a sort of misrecognition of books as books -- there is a determinate set of goods that a normal, and all the more a virtuous, reader associates with books, the act of reading, understanding, engaging an author, characters, a subject -- goods of knowledge, as the older virtue ethicists like Aristotle would summarize them.  In the case of each "sin" the book stands for -- and stands in for -- something else, it meets up with some other desire.  In the case of pride, the book is valued because it is a means to vaunt oneself.  In the case of envy, a good of another.  In wrath, an opportunity for anger.  Sloth, a symbol for what one imagines and plans to achieve, but fails to.  Greed, the cash-value (and not of its ideas).  Lust, the locus for libido.  Gluttony. . . with this one I'm unsure.  But, in each case, the book is valued and desired, not as a book but as and for some other object.

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