The Atlantic speaks up, though too late: Was man [sic] ever "the rational animal," as we've long been told?
In recent months, The Atlantic has bravely begin to challenge the ancient dogma. In our view, attention ought to be paid.
First, the journal published a strikingly strange discussion involving its own David Sims and the well-known Aaron Sorkin. The discussion concerned Sorkin's Broadway "adaptation" of Harper Lee's well-known novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.
Strangely, Sorkin and Sims excitedly claimed that the famous novel ends with a murder—the murder of Bob Ewell. Since you'll assume that we're making that up, we'll again post the passage in question.
This is what the fellows said. The bracketed material is all found in the original:
SIMS (12/17/19): I had forgotten that To Kill a Mockingbird also ends with a crime—the [murder] of Bob Ewell [by Boo Radley, trying to protect Scout]—being covered up!According to Sorkin, Lee's novel ends with Atticus Finch covering up a murder with a judge and a sheriff. Excitedly, Sims agrees with this extremely peculiar reading.
SORKIN: Isn’t it amazing? I had forgotten about it too, and I couldn’t believe it!
SIMS: It’s a story about the greatest lawyer of all time—Atticus—and he’s complicit in this crime!
SORKIN: This novel ends with, as Scout said, “the most honest and decent person in Maycomb” covering up murder with a judge and a sheriff. Why didn’t that ever come up in my eighth-grade class? I saw that and thought, Well, I can tell this exact same story...
You have to be on the crazy juice to read Lee's novel that way. To its credit, The Atlantic was willing to print that instructive exchange.
And then, just two weeks later, the magazine did it again! The Atlantic published an essay by Professor Matteson in which the Pulitzer-winning Alcott biographer inexplicably told readers this:
MATTESON (1/1/20): ...A considerable source of pain in Alcott’s world is the disapproving masculine gaze, so often clad in the guise of moral judgment, that can bruise a woman’s self-esteem and steal her self-expression.According to Matteson, Alcott's novel includes a "powerful" episode in which Professor Bhaer "arraigns Jo" for "publishing lurid stories." (In the language of the era, these lurid tales are referred to in the book as "sensation stories.")
Alcott’s novel presents two powerful instances of such criticism. Laurie chides Meg for her attire at a party, which she considers beautiful and he deems immodest; and Professor Bhaer arraigns Jo for publishing lurid stories that he regards as a waste of her talent and that he fears will subvert her readers’ morals. In the novel, these scenes occur far apart, with no obvious linkage. Gerwig has heard the similarities between them; her film makes the two moments rhyme thematically and lingers on the hurt and indignation that the two men heedlessly cause.
What makes Gerwig’s take so notable is that she sees both sides of the situation with equal conviction. Laurie and Bhaer speak in good faith, yet are largely oblivious to the depth of the pain they are causing...
According to Matteson, Professor Bhaer "heedlessly causes" "hurt and indignation" by subjecting Jo to the "disapproving masculine gaze" in this way. According to Matteson, Professor Bhaer is "largely oblivious to the depth of the pain" he has caused. He seems to have bruised Jo's self-esteem and stolen her self-expression by his heedless behavior.
So Professor Matteson wrote in this sequel to the peculiar Sorkin-Sims exchange. In fact, nothing dimly like that actually occurs in the relevant chapter in Alcott's book, Chapter 34.
There is no indignation on Jo's part. It's clear that Jo agrees with the professor's assessments. It's clear that she already held the views in question before the professor spoke—and no, the professor has never read any of Jo's stories.
In truth, Matteson's account of Alcott's text may be even nuttier than the Sorkin/Sims account of Lee's widely-read novel. What has become of the "rational animal" we were long rumored to be?
We salute The Atlantic for raising this important question, even if the magazine's intercession comes many years too late. According to experts, these peculiar accounts of these famous novels illustrate the truth about our flailing, war-inclined species:
We humans were never "the rational animal" at all, these highly credentialed scholars despondently insist. Instead, we were always the tribal animal, these future anthropologists say—the creature that ran on standard group "fictions" (Professor Harari), on novelized tribal tales.
According to these future scholars, this wiring has always provided the type of fuel which powered the recent strange accounts published by The Atlantic. To see how deep this wiring runs, let's set the popularizer Sorkin aside and focus instead on Matteson.
By any normal standard, Matteson is a fully credentialed thought leader. The leading authority on his life provides this overview:
John Matteson (born March 3, 1961) is an American professor of English and legal writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography for his first book, Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father.Full disclosure! We were an eighth-grader in San Mateo on the very day the professor was born. On that basis, we find ourselves recalling the words of noble Nestor, the seasoned charioteer, as he addresses the headstrong Diomedes not far from the walls of Troy. Homer jotted them down:
Born in San Mateo, California, Matteson is the son of Thomas D. Matteson (1920–2011), an airline executive jointly responsible for developing the theory of reliability-centered maintenance, and Rosemary H. Matteson (1920–2010), who worked as a commercial artist before becoming a homemaker.
...[Matteson] earned an A.B. in history from Princeton University in 1983, a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1986, and a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University in 1999...He has written articles for a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New England Quarterly, Streams of William James, and Leviathan...His annotated edition of Little Women was published in November 2015.
Matteson is a former treasurer of the Melville Society and is a member of the Louisa May Alcott Society's advisory board.
THE ILIAD: Few can match your power in battle, Diomedes,Except for the part about being right, that's what we thought when we read Professor Matteson's recent peculiar account.
and in council you excel all men your age
But you don't press on and reach a useful end.
How young you are—why, you could be my son,
my youngest-born at that, though you urge our kings
with cool clear sense: what you've said is right.
But it's my turn now, Diomedes.
I think I can claim to have some years on you.
So I must speak up and drive the matter home.
According to the acknowledge experts with whom we now routinely consult in the early morning hours, Matteson's account of Alcott's text is a perfect example of the power of tribal script.
He's telling the story in such a way as to conform to prevailing mandated tribal narrative. In fairness, he's also telling the story as it unfolds in Greta Gerwig's widely-praised "adaptation" of Alcott's extremely old novel—an adaptation which changes all kinds of events to make a commercially viable novel conform to modern tribal tastes.
No, Cassandra, daughter of Hecuba and Priam! There is no "indignation" on Jo's part in the relevant part of Alcott's novel. In the actual novel, Professor Bhaer doesn't "arraign" Jo in the oddly blunt way we see in Gerwig's film.
Jo doesn't indignantly tell the professor off, as Gerwig has her pleasingly do. And the pair don't part on bad terms. As they part, Jo is hoping that he will be her friend for the rest of her life.
Matteson is describing events which occur in Gerwig's film. Plainly, he isn't describing what happens in Alcott's actual novel. Beyond that, you'd pretty much have to be out of your head to think that Harper Lee's famous novel ends in the ridiculous way Sorkin and Sims excitedly describe.
Why in the world are these ranking figures offering such peculiar accounts? We'll try to finish our story tomorrow, though we're willing to say this today:
Ridiculous conduct of this type has rarely ended well. At long last, The Atlantic has started to sound an alarm. Experts say the magazine's efforts are coming much too late.
Tomorrow: A remarkable, chastening episode of the past several months