Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Much Obliged

The Careful Use of Compliments* - the latest installment in the Isabel Dalhousie series by prolific author Alexander McCall Smith - is a study in contradictions. It is a slow-paced mystery novel, a deep-thinking beach novel, and a deliberately old-fashioned tome that features meditations on the value of the traditional family while also telling the story of a single mother who - with the author's full approval - turns down a marriage proposal from her baby's father. Recalling a conversation about Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Isabel observes that "Like Madame Bovary, she had fallen for a younger man, although in her case she had no husband and there was no Flaubert to punish her. Women who fell desperately in love in defiance of convention were punished by their authors - Anna had been punished too; Isabel smiled at the thought, and wondered whether she would be punished for loving Jamie. She had no author, though. Isabel was real."

Not real, perhaps - but Isabel has a more genial author than either Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary. McCall Smith does not punish Isabel, though he does ask us to notice, from time to time, the gap between her theory and her practice. Isabel is a philosopher, editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, and she is conscientious to a fault, scrupulous in her efforts to define her duty and carry it out. None of that prevents her, however, from stealing her niece's ex-boyfriend, bearing a child out of wedlock, using her inheritance to buy out her editorial opponents, and weaning her baby to a bottle after only four days of "discomfort." She is not a simple character, but she is a likable one.

I wasn't a big fan of the first Isabel Dalhousie novel, The Sunday Philosophy Club. It presented itself, far more overtly than its sequels, as a species of detective fiction. There was a mysterious death, an amateur investigation, and even some fear that the heroine herself might be imperilled. Worst of all, there was no resolution - Isabel felt confident that she had solved case, but I found the evidence on which she based her conclusions to be shockingly thin.

With the sequels, however, from Friends, Lovers, Chocolate to this most recent offering, McCall Smith seems to have found his footing. There is still a thread of mystery - a case of suspected art forgery, in this novel - but the tug of suspense is only sufficient to maintain the reader's interest. The true stuff of which this novel is made is reflection - tiny, everyday incidents which become the basis for elaborate flights of fancy or intricate moral analysis. In short, this is a novel made of pure blog fodder.

Early on, Isabel acknowledges that "of all her manifold failings, thinking too much about things was one of the most egregious." I enjoy a novel that can work in the word "egregious" like that, and I enjoy a character whose thoughtfulness is so debilitating that it slows her conversations to a snail's pace, allowing time for Isabel to dive down each rabbit hole her agile mind encounters. The paying of a casual, not-wholly-sincere compliment requires her to weigh honesty with civility; the making of a lunch date prompts a reflection on the difference between Scotland and New Zealand (in the former country, the words "Let's do lunch" are a mere courtesy; in the latter, they constitute a formal invitation).

Isabel's many ethical dilemmas seem pleasantly random and meandering, but the idea that exerts the most gravitational force in this novel is the question of obligation. To what extent are we obligated to one another as human beings? The liberal individualist seeks to limit those obligations in order to secure the greatest degree of freedom. ("Don't go swimming with a liberal individualist," Isabel warns - "he might not save you if you started to drown.") A moral impartialist, on the other hand, believes that moral obligations apply universally: if my son is trapped in a burning building with a total stranger, I would be obliged to decide whom to rescue based on a toss of the coin: to rescue my son first would be to deny the equal value of all human beings.

Even before picking up the book, I had been thinking about the relationship between community and obligation due to a few recent posts around the blogosphere. The debate about redshirting, for instance, has raised the issue of how we balance our children's welfare against that of society as a whole. (For those who haven't been following the debate: "redshirting" refers to the practice of delaying kindergarten for a year so that one's child will be among the oldest kids in the class rather than the youngest.) At BlogRhet, Misc Mum has asked about the nature of obligation in the blogosphere. What do we owe to our readers, and to the bloggers whom we read? And Lawyer Mama posted a fascinating ethics dilemma last weekend that raised questions about our obligations to those who ask our help. Under what circumstances are we obliged to set our own plans - whatever they may be - aside in order to help someone else?

Isabel Dalhousie responds to such questions with a consistent desire to recognize the deep mutual obligations that bind people together. When her niece takes it upon herself to make a dentist appointment for a dental-hygiene-challenged employee, Isabel demurs initially but then admits that she would do the same: "The loss of one tooth diminishes me," she quips, paraphrasing John Donne, "For I am involved in mankind." Her stance is attractive and laudable, even if it occasionally leads to accusations of interfering (indeed, her work as an amateur detective usually stems from her inability to mind her own business).

I admire Isabel's ethical commitments - but I'm not sure I share them. I would never have pegged myself a liberal individualist, but I find myself increasingly resistant to the language of obligation. I just can't help thinking that although it's very nice to help a desperate stranger to get across alligator-infested waters so she can see her boyfriend, it's not an ethical or moral requirement. And when reading OTJ's post on redshirting a couple of week ago, I found myself nodding most vigorously in response to this comment from Ewe are Here:

I believe that you have an obligation to do what you believe is what's best for your own kids in terms of when/when not to start school. How the needs of your own children affect those around them can't be your primary concern. It just can't. Those concerns need to be addressed by society as a whole.

The same goes for blogging. In the various meta-blogging discussions that arise I always find myself fiercely resistant to the language of obligation. Blogging, like so many other things, seems healthiest to me when it's free from the bonds of guilt and compulsion. Read the posts that interest you, comment when you have something to say (and time to say it), offer support when you can. But keep the bar of expectations low for yourself and others. That's my Gospel of Selfishness in Blogging (and Life). Take it with a grain of salt.

*Review copy provided by Random House.

33 comments:

Oh, The Joys said...

I ... I might have to e-mail you on this one. Going there now...

WONDERWOMAN said...

Interesting post, I often think about this issue, even though I don't have kids. There's a scene in the movie The War, were the father gives cotton candy that he had bought for his wife and daughter, to the local bully's (who are really poor with an alcoholic dad) right in front of his son. His son got really mad at him, and the father said "do you think those kids ever get anything." The father didn't feel obligated but was moved by mercy and knew that it would be good example for his son as well.
That example might have been a little off the topic of red shirting, but it's what your post made me think of.

Christine said...

good post. i go back and forth with the commenting reciprocity thing. i think, though, i am finally at the point where i read who i like and hope there are some who like me, enough to come by, too. and there are several bloggers who i feel a real connection and i miss them when they aren't present. but missing them is different that being upset or resentful.

food for thought: someone once told me "never sacrifice your child for the greater good." that quote resonates in my head over and over these days.

Mad Hatter said...

Wow. I envy this. I'm not sure I know how to step back from my overwhelming feelings of obligation in all areas of my life.

And now, having seen a handful of references to OTJ's Redshirting post I am off to read it. Damn her! I explicitly told the blogosphere NOT to write anything interesting while I was on vacation.

Omaha Mama said...

I agree. With the whole obligation blogging thing. I blog to journal. I like the commenting, reading, support thing. But when it becomes a "because I have to" thing, well - what's the point? I do it because it's enjoyable and a pasttime. Not to please others or make myself look good. I like how you put it. And wish OTJ would've put her thoughts right out here! :0) Because although I don't like to feel obligated in blogging, I do enjoy making demands in my commenting.

Great post.

slouching mom said...

Thanks for saying this. There is truth and honesty in it, and tonight I needed to hear that.

Major Bedhead said...

I don't often comment on your blog because it's intimidating. I don't mean that in a bad way, it's just that your posts are so often so well-written that I can't really say anything at all - I sit in front of my computer and nod and agree.

So, y'know, this is me, nodding and agreeing and adding a thanks for the book review. I'd read the first book McCall Smith wrote and wasn't that impressed. This sounds much better.

jen said...

i've been wrestling with this lately, how to find the love in the obligation, not in blogging per se, but in a thousand different ways.

it's the balance of the obligation and the example i want to set for my child and i know there is a groove somewhere in there if i can only dig deep enough and look.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I have never felt obligations toward the blogosphere, which is probably apparent from my blog.

But it's funny -- the older I get, and the older my kids get, the more I DO feel obliged to help others. I don't know about crossing alligator-infested waters; but I sure have spent a lot of time looking after other people's kids. I think that's because I'm more aware of how incredibly much help I need (and have accepted) myself, as regards parenting.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Oh and also. There's helping strangers; and then there's allowing yourself to become entangled in other people's lives, so that you begin to feel responsible for them. It's the entanglements that have got me now, now that I'm older.

bubandpie said...

Jennifer - Mmm, entanglements is a good word. Because we WANT to be "entangled" with others, but entanglement can easily become stifling too.

I think what I was reacting to in the novel was the assumption that a high sense of mutual obligation is automatically good for community-building. For some people, perhaps, it works that way, but for most, a sense of obligation either chases them away OR induces them to assume a heavier load than they can carry. I've seen churches where the burden of keeping the community going is draining more from people than it's giving back.

The blogosphere is one example of a community that works best to the extent that we can maintain a sense that everything we do here is wholly voluntary. Do real-life communities work that way too? Are we better able to love our neighbours if we can feel confident that no one's judging us when we don't?

Swistle said...

Oh, man, I TOTALLY AGREE WITH YOU about blogbligations! I go all knotty when I read people saying that "etiquette" requires a reader to comment, or requires a blogger to link to someone who links to them, or requires a blogger to reply to every single comment, or WHATEVER. I think all that stuff is silly, and completely made up--out of selfish urges to have more comments, or to have more links to one's own blog.

Gwen said...

Hmmm. Hmmm. Is there something between liberal individualist and moral impartialist? I'd like to be that person. You already know that I feel an obligation to the greater good, even where my own children are concerned. I don't know that I feel obligated to sacrifice them for it, but I do know that I feel obliged to take the workings and needs of a larger community into account. What's interesting about the difference in our perspectives is the way you see too much obligation (at least I hope that's what you're kind of sort of saying) in relationships among people and I don't see enough.

I picked up one of the Isabel Dalhousie books the other day at Costco, tangentially, and then put it back down because I felt "obliged" (:)) to start at the beginning, and it wasn't the first in the series.

And about obligation in the blogosphere, I say that the only expectations I have are of myself, and they are growing ever lower: a bare minimum of kindness is all I really ask from me.

Susanne said...

"Gospel of Selfishness in Blogging (and Life)" Yay.

Mrs. Chicken said...

Blogging without guilt ... a lovely concept. If only I could manage it.

While I'm at it, I'd like to add blogging without competition, blogging without self-doubt, blogging without compulsion ...

As always, interesting discussion.

Can you read the sequel w/o reading the first book? 'Cuz the first book sounds not so good.

nomotherearth said...

I have always maintained that, above all, blogging should be fun. It shouldn't seem like work. I can, however, see how one can get embroiled in obligations. It makes me a little sad when people who used to visit and comment don't come around much anymore - I start to feel like I have nothing interesting to say. (Maybe I don't.) So, I often find myself trying very hard not to do that to others. It's a tangled web.

bubandpie said...

Gwen - I'm having an unusual amount of difficulty figuring out what I think about this issue (or even what "this issue" is) - it's all gut reactions so far.

Part of what's going on here is that my reactions to some of these discussions are creating a bit of cognitive dissonance. I don't THINK of myself as an individualist. Politically, I will always vote for the party that promises to do the most caring - I'm a happy taxpayer, and I'm in favour of universal health care, day care, high-quality education ... all of it.

So why do I keep getting my back up when I see people holding others to a high standard of civic-mindedness? I'm still trying to figure it out.

bubandpie said...

Mrs. Chicken - Start with Friends, Lovers, Chocolate. There are some threads of plot and character development that run through the series, but you don't need to read the first book to pick up on them.

Lawyer Mama said...

I love your Gospel of Blogging and strive to adopt it myself.

I have to admit I'm so torn about obligation. Part of me rebels against individual obligation as well, particularly when it comes to other people's children versus my own. (Or a passive friend refusing to help out a lady with a serious dilemma and no boat.) But the war within me cries out that I do have individual obligations to society. Yes, society as a whole has to address problems but that also requires individual sacrifice. A sacrifice I honestly admit I am reluctant to make in some cases.

I haven't read any of the books in this series, but it sounds like something I'd enjoy. Thanks!

Veronica Mitchell said...

I agree with you as far as blogging goes. When I started blogging, I had a strict rule for myself that I would not allow any part of it to become an obligation, one more thing to feel guilty about. I still feel mildly impatient when people apologize for not posting - why apologize?

But blogging is a purely voluntary world. I'm not sure the rules there transfer easily elsewhere or vice versa.

Magpie said...

I like your gospel.

nowheymama said...

I completely agree with your gospel.

Also, the redshirting discussion gives me the same squicky feeling that all the other parenting "debates" do. I agree with Ewe are Here.

NotSoSage said...

Ooh, I have to say that that just doesn't fly with me. In the blogging world, yes (though putting it into practice, for me, is another story). I feel very different, though, in the context of the world outside. I probably don't have the brain or the time to flesh this out, but I will say now that I don't believe that looking out only for number One (or Two or Three, in the case of children) works.

When people say that it is "society's" obligation, I get flustered because I want them to point out to me where exactly this "society" is and how it is expected to make any changes without the support of people who are not just looking out for themselves or their children. I don't think it's about denying your children the necessities of life, but rather making choices that will ensure that those necessities are more readily available to others. I, personally, take no to little pleasure in things if I know that they are denied to others...

Terri B. said...

I appreciate your description of the first book in this series. I too was a bit disappointed (didn't reflect too long on why, but you pretty much summed up what I didn't know I thought about it!). I'm glad I stuck with the series though as the author surely has found his voice and direction for this series.

Julie Pippert said...

Hmm hmm hmm. In addition to your thought-provoking points, Gwen and Ponderosa Jennifer put down a few of the initial things I reacti-thought (call Webster's).

I'm evolving on this issue, now, I think, and that must be why i keep straddling the fence.

I have always felt deep obligation, due to the Golden Rule and super personal sensitivity (in different ways in different times, largely now callused over).

I don't want to feel obligated to respond, but I do. I can't, though. But I know how it feels when I am on the other side.

So I ask: does my sense of lesser obligation fulfill my convenience morals? Am I rewriting the rules to serve my purpose?

Or am I better understanding that the rules are not so carved in stone?

Chicken? or egg?

Not sure yet.

Julie
Using My Words

wordgirl said...

My sister has read some of McCall-Smith's books and likes them quite a lot. I haven't even read one. Your post gives me much to think about.

Lisa b said...

I'm with Gwen and Sage in that I do think of the greater good even where my kids are concerned. A lot of what I experienced in the medical system wrt this recently does not sit well with me.

Mimi said...

Hm. Dunno. I've been thinking about Ewe's comment: is not 'society' comprised of individual moms and dads? Are not all our decisions about what's best for our kids also setting trends across society at large? I tend to err (ack, like my mother!) on the side of the greater good rather than Munchkin's ... not *good*, but preference or advantage? Dunno.

Beck said...

After thinking about this all day, I have to say - and you know, I think, how much I like you, in my not-all-that-effusive-sort-of-way - that I disagree with this post, to some extent, although I have trouble pinning down WHAT exactly I disagree with. Is blogging utterly voluntary? Of course. Are there real people on the other sides of the monitors? That, too, and I shy away from the idea that my doings online are somehow removed from the standards that I hold myself to the rest of the time.
Which doesn't mean that I feel obligated to comment on everything. I'm not quite sure WHAT my point was here.

Julie said...

Hello. Found you through Christina's blog (A Mommy Story) and am enjoying your blog. Cheers for a well-written and thoughtful book review.

Jenifer said...

I saved your posts for last to catch up on because I knew I would need my wits about me. So much to comment on and some funny, funny stuff too. I loved your "quality vs quantity" post.

I have mixed feelings about this post in terms of where my feelings are, like it seems many others. I don't wholly disagree, but I don't fully agree either. On a micro level I will always put my kids needs first, making sure they go to bed on time or making sure they are eating well. Even if it means skipping an invitation out or even most recently a party.

Do I do this at the expense of others though? Of course not, but I do see how our individual decisions make a collective stand. By putting yourself and children first you are not trying to punish those around you, but in the case of redshirting, it might harm others if you say held your child back a year. Whether you were doing it for your own gain or for the welfare of the child - the outcome is the same.

I do feel a sense of obligation to other bloggers in the sense that I care about what is happening to them. My expectations started and remain low, but to my utter delight they are often raised quite high on the shoulders of friends.

Christina said...

And the people said: Amen.

I like your gospel, and I think I'm a follower.

Her Bad Mother said...

This is my very favourite meta-post on blogging. EVER. Seriously. SERIOUSLY. SO much food for thought.

Maybe, could we, cross-post/re-post it on BlogRhet sometime? I knwo that there's a lot of cross-readership between here and there, but I'd love to see what discussion would emerge there.