Showing posts with label economics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label economics. Show all posts

30 July 2020

Man's [Dubious] Search for Meaning


Right before the 2008 election, I was present when a Southern father told his sons to go out and buy guns, right now, because if Obama got elected, there would be black people (my terminology, not his) banging down their doors to "get them". It didn't happen. Then or in 2012. I'm sure it's been a great disappointment to him ever since. And I'm sure he continues to hope.

I thought of him the other day when I read a comment on a conservative web site - and I quote:
"Whites, Traditionalists, Conservatives and small o Orthodox Christian's are being treated by the mob the same way the Nazis treated the jews in Nazi Germany, it only a matter of time they throw us in gas chambers."
And I almost felt sorry for the guy. Really. Because I could tell that deep down the commentator wants - no, NEEDS this to happen. Well, probably not to him: but to somebody, to prove how evil the other side is, and how important and righteous he and his must be, to be so savagely persecuted.

As Fred Clark, one of my favorite bloggers, wrote "You probably don’t hope that millions of your neighbors are secretly cannibalistic pedophiles who worship Satan. Because that would be bad. But some people really want that to be true."

In case you're wondering, the existence of a large number of cannibalistic pedophiles who worship Satan is one of the central tenets of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and this came up because it's being professed by a number of GOP candidates for public office. (See NPR)

Lauren Boebert, owner of Shooters Grill, Rifle, Colorado
Lauren Boebert, owner of the Shooters Grill, in Rifle, CO, QAnon supporter, and
Republican nominee, Colorado's 3rd District. © Lauren Boebert campaign web site

Anyway, back to Fred as to why people believe this stuff:
"If it’s not real, after all, then where will the true believers find anything else so exciting to provide meaning for their lives? If there isn’t a massive secret global network of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles, then what’s even the point of anything? They hope that it is real. They want it to be real. They desperately need it to be real...

"But there’s the problem. Once you’ve given yourself over to a pack of lies like QAnon or any other variation of the ancient Satanic baby-killers libel, you belong to those lies. You become those lies. And having become a lie, sincerity and genuineness are no longer available to you. To be a true believer in such outrageous lies makes you incapable of truly believing. So do even the “true believers” really believe this stuff? Not quite, because they can no longer “really” anything.

"I think this also captures what it is that those Second Amendment cultists Boebert feeds at her restaurant “really believe” about all of their delirious fantasies about persecution and confiscation and imminent tyranny precariously kept at bay only by their sidearms pew-pew-pew! You can’t “really believe” such fantasies when you’re sitting there at Shooter’s Grill, eating your Swiss & Wesson burger imperturbed by the evil forces of gubmint tyranny. But you can hope that it is real, because that would be exciting and thrilling and it would mean that you mean something no matter how much you’ve begun to suspect that you don’t." (Slacktivist: "I hope that this is real") (my emphasis)
To put it more simply, as Toby Keith wrote, "Let's Get Drunk and Be Somebody."

This, my friends, is why people join cults and/or believe in conspiracy theories (although all cults are founded on conspiracy theories, imho), and why it's so damned hard to get them out of them. They let people, who believe deep down that they're nothing, be somebody important enough to be wanted. Even if it is only by the law.

One of the many reasons I love Spike Lee's BlacKKKlansman is the KKK guys. Felix, Walter, and Ivanhoe are true believers in the "Lost Cause", "whites are more persecuted than anyone else", "they're comin' after us!" fantasy that apparently started right after Lee's surrender at Appomattox. In between drinks, they blab, shoot pool, whine, shoot guns, and plan to blow up a dorm of black women for being mouthy and black. They think they're mysterious and powerful and deeply important, but in reality, like Sally Bowles, they're about "as fatale as an after dinner mint." (Or, in their case, a Tic Tac.) But they are, also like Sally, dangerous to themselves and to others.

There really was a time when people didn't seem to need to find meaning in cults and conspiracy theories or much of anything because they were engaged in an existential struggle to stay alive for another year. Or month. Or day. Some of it was that a 95% preindustrial agricultural society has too much work to do to stay up late at night wondering if the Illuminati are real. And they knew they were important - they had families to take care of, crops to raise, clothing to make, food to cook, etc. For that matter, Ma and Pa Ingalls weren't sitting around DeSmet, South Dakota, discussing how many people in President Grover Cleveland's cabinet were Reptilians.

So why did things change? Maybe it's because we have more time. Maybe it's because in industrial societies humans have to work according to machines instead of seasons. Maybe it's because we're a celebrity consumer culture nowadays, and there's too many of us for everyone to be a celebrity, and we're drowning in stuff, and we have no idea what's going on.

Anyway, cults / conspiracy theories provide temporary Meaning:

  • The Inner Knowledge: There is a secret cabal of entities who are manipulating everything around us because they're evil and want to. Which means, of course, that all the bad stuff happening around us and to us? None of it is our fault. (Otherwise known as "magical thinking", very addictive, and the center of most racist ideologies.) Anyway, the Inner Knowledge gives us
  • The Inner Certainty: By knowing this we are in the "inner circle", a specially chosen person to know the truth which everyone else has distorted or denied. (At last! At last!)
  • The Inner Excitement: By knowing it we've you have made an enemy of evil powers - mighty, earth shaking / earth gobbling powers. And the stranger, weirder, more perverted, more horrific, more completely impossibly evil the enemy/enemies is/are the better. You know: Satan-worshipping cannibal pedophiles. Or the Reptilians. Or… Cthulhu.
BTW - the puzzling thing about Jim Jones, Cthulhu, and other death cults is that in the long run all they offer their cult-members is a quicker death than the rest of the world, and that apparently is enough. (Head shaking emoji.)
But most cults offer a constant frisson of fear, anxiety, apprehension, but with
  • The Inner Assurance: We will survive and trumph! We will go into spiritual and physical warfare against these demonic alien powers and get to do an awful lot of slaughtering. And probably not suffer at all, because we've all seen the movies, and only the extras get killed. And we're no longer extras, we're among the chosen. One of us might even be the lead! Like me! No, me! No, me!
(And this is how the Pisgah Church becomes the Reformed Pisgah Church becomes the First Reformed Pisgah Church becomes the First United Reformed Pisgah Church becomes the Redeemed First United Reformed Pisgah Church...)

Another aspect of cults / conspiracy theories, etc., is, of course, that they aren't always religious. They can be political, dietary, economic - whatever takes you away from the present and wafts you to an often earthly paradise, like the Marxist "dictatorship of the proletariat." (Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao should have put the kibosh on that dream.)
Or the idea that if you just cut your calorie intake low enough, you will live hundreds of years. (But who wants to live hungry forever?)
Or high colonics (if you haven't seen it, go out and rent, right now, The Road to Wellville, and find out how much of a crackpot John Harvey Kellogg really was). (Oh, and bicycle smiles, everyone!)

Road to wellville ver1.jpg
Here in America the primary economic cult is a combination of
  • Unfettered Capitalism (as opposed to capitalism with checks and balances, i.e., regulations) and
  • Grover Norquist's "drown government in the bathtub" and
  • Trickle-down economics (which started way before Reagan**)
  • The American Work Ethic: 1 week sick leave, 1 week vacation, and a bonus for those who don't use either, and why do you need a weekend off anyway?
Which is why, in the middle of battling a pandemic with no cure, treatment, or vaccine, and statistics like these staring us in the face:

COVID-19 cases in America
It took 97 days to reach 1,000,000 cases
                 (January 21-April 27)
41 days to reach 2,000,000 cases
                 (April 28-June 7)
29 days to reach 3,000,000 cases
                 (June 8-July 6)
14 days to reach 4,000,000 cases
                (July 7-July 21)

the current message from many politicians and pundits is "We must save The Economy at all costs!"

Back to work, back to school, and rewrite the CDC guidelines to match the need to get everyone back to work. And if it costs some lives (the old, weak, disabled, and now children), well, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, and they were probably gonna die anyway, but now they'll have died in a good cause. For the good of The Economy.
  • The Economy needs us.
  • The Economy will save us.
  • The Economy lives forever.
And the survivors are going to live in a booming economic paradise! It'll all be worth it! You'll see.

Or not.


**From WJB and Will Rogers:
"There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it." - William Jennings Bryan, "Cross of Gold" speech, 1896
"This election was lost four and six years ago, not this year. They didn’t start thinking of the old common fellow till just as they started out on the election tour. The money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes that it would trickle down to the needy. Mr. Hoover was an engineer. He knew that water trickles down. Put it uphill and let it go and it will reach the driest little spot. But he didn’t know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night, anyhow. But it will at least have passed through the poor fellow's hands. They saved the big banks, but the little ones went up the flue." - Will Rogers, 1932
MY NOTE: Now this is an idea that really should be drowned in a bathtub. Hasn't worked almost 100 years, and it's still being proclaimed as if it's the magic cure to everything.

29 January 2015

Is Time Money, or is Money Time?


by Eve Fisher

James Wallman
You may or may not know that this last week has been wild, because on January 23rd, a gentleman named James Wallman had an article on the BBC Magazine based on his book, Stuffocation, and mentioned me. (I'm also cited in the book.) The citation was for one of my history lessons, "The $3,500 Shirt", which I gave regularly in my Western Civ and World History classes when it came time for the Industrial Revolution talk. I also shared it with several people, including Mr. Wallman, and here on SleuthSayers on June 6, 2013.

After the citation in BBC Magazine, the article got a few hits. (!!!) It also got a few comments. Some people simply could not (perhaps would not?) believe that clothing could be that expensive. Most of time their quarrel was with my multiplying the time spent making the shirt by current minimum wage, saying that didn't show how little people were paid back then, and so the shirt would be much cheaper. Which, in terms of cash paid out, is absolutely true. BUT not when it comes to the amount of time: time-wise, it was infinitely more expensive. Because for most of history, labor (time) was what counted, more than money:
Father took out a round, big silver half-dollar. He asked, "Almanzo, do you know what this is?" "Half a dollar," Almanzo answered. "Yes. But do you know what half a dollar is? It's work, son… You know how to raise potatoes, Almanzo?… Say you have a seed potato in the spring, what do you do with it?" "You cut it up. … Then you harrow - first you manure the field, and plow it. Then you harrow, and mark the ground. And plant the potatoes and plow them, and hoe them. You plow and hoe them twice… Then you dig them and put them down cellar." "Yes, and then you pick them over all winter, you throw out the little ones and the rotten ones. Come spring, you load them up and haul them here to Malone, and you sell them. And if you get a good price son, how much do you get to show for all that work? How much do you get for a bushel of potatoes?" "Half a dollar," Almanzo said. "Yes," said Father. "That's what's in this half-dollar, Almanzo. The work that raised half a bushel of potatoes is in it." Almanzo looked at the round piece of money that Father held up. It looked small, compared to all that work.
— Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy, pp. 182-184.
Work is important. Work is time. How much a penny or a dollar is worth changes over time; but the number of hours in a day don't. And you don't get the whole 24 hours to do anything you want: you have to sleep, eat., etc. So if you subtract 8-10 hours a day for all those other things (sleep, eating, bathroom, washing, travel to and from work, etc.), what you have left is 14-16 hours a day to work, play, live. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, most of us (at least in the Western world) don't have to spend 12+ hours a day at hard physical labor, so we have a tendency to think in terms of money (how much did it cost?) rather than time (how long did it take?), but, as I say, that wasn't the way people used to think about things.

Here are a couple of ways to look at things:

First, the Shirt, and then I want to move on to such fun things as criminals and celebrities. First off, some weavers and spinners gave me some more exact figures (I under-figured for spinning; over-figured for weaving), so here goes:
Note how long the shirt is.

To make a shirt entirely by hand - and we're going to go with 25 gauge for a decent, but coarse shirt - we start with the spinning. 25 ÷ threads per inch × 36 inches wide × 8 yards (shirts were longer then) = 7200 warp yards, plus about the same for weft = 14,400 yards of thread; divided by 30 yards per hour = 480 hours. The weaving (which I admit I over-estimated in the original) requires about 20 hours including 10 hours minimum for set up – stretching the warp, setting up and threading the loom – and then another 8-10 for weaving. And the sewing, which I still say would take 7 hours, including finishing all the seams. So the new figures are:
Spinning - 480 hours
Weaving - 20 hours
Sewing - 8 hours
Total: 508 hours of labor to make a shirt.
This still doesn't include things like buttons, or the needle and thread to sew the shirt, nor the labor that went into raising/processing the linen, cotton, or wool.

Imagine spending 480 hours to make enough thread to weave a shirt. No wonder Ellen Rollins said "The moaning of the big [spinning] wheel was the saddest sound of my childhood. It was like a low wail from out of the lengthened monotony of the spinner's life." (Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, p. 26) And that would be 480 hours "fitted in", because almost no woman (luckily!) could spend an entire working week (72 hours in pre-Industrial times) doing nothing but weaving. She had chores to do, like cooking, cleaning, dairying, weeding, minding children, etc. No matter what price she got for that yarn, she would undoubtedly have felt like Almanzo - a pretty small sum for that much work.

480 hours: that's 7 weeks' work in pre-Industrial times; 12 weeks' work in today's Western working world. What do you have around your house that costs that much? That costs three months' worth of your time, of your year? A shirt? How many shirts, at that rate, could you actually afford, considering you also have to pay for rent and food? And could get no credit?

Now you have some idea of what most people were up against before the Industrial Revolution. (And why the first thing the industrial revolution produced was cloth, and why the first inventions were spinning machines.)
St-aethelthryth.jpg NOTE: one thing about medieval objects, they were, for the most part extremely well-made. Things lasted. I have read of a hand woven linen sheet lasting 100 years. (Of course, well-cared for linen only gets better – more supple and soft – with successive washings and bleachings.) And they didn't waste anything. Everything was darned, mended, cut down, reused, repurposed, recycled, you name it. (Most of the Victorian poor bought or received their clothing second hand.) But there was cheap stuff, too: the ribbons and gee-gaws that were sold at the annual St. Audrey's Fair in medieval England got cheaper and cheaper until, by the 17th century, "tawdry" had become a synonym for "cheap, gaudy and showy".
Back to hours and time. Today we calculate almost everything in terms of money, how to get it, how to increase it, how to spend it, save it, bank on it… But money is only a symbolic representation of labor, of time. (There isn't any currency, at least in the Western world, that has any intrinsic value.) Perhaps our obsession with money is that it buys us time - or does it?

Not always. Exhibit 1: Criminals.

Quite simply, most criminals don't understand why people work. Why exchange all those hours of hard labor when you can get money so much easier by stealing, conning, forging, robbing, or even killing for it? Much less time, much less effort. Of course criminals ignore the endless mental planning and rehearsing - the obsession - that is their life. They ignore the fact that the $20,000,000 heist is literally one in 20,000,000, and is probably not going to be theirs. They ignore the immense effort and hardship that a life of crime requires. And they most definitely ignore the fact that, if caught (as so, so, so many are), they will give ALL their time for the crime, spending years, if not their entire life, on 24/7 watch with no privacy at all.

Of course no one reading this would give up all their time for something as stupid as crime. So I give you Exhibit 2: Celebrities.

Celebrities - including royalty, athletes, movie stars, rock stars, CEOs, and some politicians - live a lifestyle of fabulous wealth and almost unlimited access to anything the celebrity wants. But, they pay for that with ALL their time. A celebrity is never off-stage. Paparazzi are omnipresent. Phones are tapped. (Ask Rupert Murdoch.) National Enquirer has their hairdressers and stylists on speed-dial. So the exchange is everything for everything. What's left of the person underneath the celebrity? If everything is public, is there any private person there? People have been wondering for centuries if there was anyone under the mask of Louis XIV. What was under Norma Desmond's mask but the hunger for more?

The hunger for more: for more time, more money, more fame, more stuff, more, more, more… Well, we've got the machines, and we've got the stuff, but now everyone complains how they don't have enough time. So what are you willing to spend your time on? What can you afford to spend your time on? What is worth your time?

06 June 2013

The $3500 Shirt - A History Lesson in Economics


One of the great advantages of being a historian is that you don't get your knickers in as much of a twist over how bad things are today. If you think this year is bad, try 1347, when the Black Death covered most of Europe, one-third of the world had died, and (to add insult to injury) there was also (in Europe) the little matter of the Hundred Years' War and the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (where the pope had moved to Avignon, France, and basically the Church was being transformed into a subsidiary of the French regime). Things are looking up already, aren't they?

Another thing is economics. Everyone complains about taxes, prices, and how expensive it is to live any more. I'm not going to go into taxes - that way lies madness. But I can tell you that living has never been cheaper. We live in a country awash in stuff - food, clothing, appliances, machines, cheap crap from China - but it's never enough. $4 t-shirts? Please. We want five for $10, and even then, can we get them on sale? And yet, compared to a world where everything is made by hand - we're talking barely 200 years ago - everything is cheap and plentiful, and we are appallingly ungrateful.

Let's talk clothing. When the Industrial Revolution began, it started with factories making cloth. Why? Because clothing used to be frighteningly expensive. Back in my teaching days I gave a standard lecture, which is about to follow, on the $3,500 shirt, or why peasants owned so little clothing. Here's the way it worked:

NOTE:  As of 4/6/16 I have updated the mathematics of this here at this blog post.  It's still astounding.

See this guy below, lying asleep under the tree? And the guys still working in the field?  They're all wearing a standard medieval shirt. It has a yoke, a bit of smocking and gathering around the neck, armholes, and the wrists would be banded, so they could tie or button them close.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder- The Harvesters - Google Art Project.jpg


Oh, and in the middle ages, it would be expected that all of the inside sleeves would be finished. This was all done by hand. A practiced seamstress could probably sew it in 7 hours. But that's not all that would go into the making. There's the cloth. A shirt like this would take about 5 yards of cloth, and it would be a fine weave: the Knoxville Museum of Art estimates two inches an hour. So 4(yards)*36(inches)/2 = 72 hours. (I'm a weaver - or at least I used to be - so this sounds accurate to me.) Okay, so hand weaving and hand sewing would take 79 hours. Now the estimate for spinning has always been complex, so stick with me for a minute: Yardage of thread for 4 yards of cloth, one yard wide (although old looms often only wove about 24" wide cloth), and requires 25 threads per inch, so:

25 threads * 36" wide = 900 threads, which each needs to be (4 yards + 1 yards for tie-up = 5 yards long), so 900 * 5 = 4,500 yards of thread for the warp. And you'd need about the same for a weft, or a total of about 9,000 yards of thread for one shirt.

9,000 yards would take a while to spin. At a Dark Ages recreation site, they figured out a good spinner could do 4 yards in an hour, so that would be 2,250 hours to make the thread for the weaving.  Now, A lot of modern spinners disagree with this figure, saying they can spin much faster than that.  So let's say they're right.  And we'll say that the spinner is in a hurry to make this thread because the shirt's for her or someone she knows (all spinners were female in medieval times), so we'll say she worked her tail off and did it in 500 hours.

So, 7 hours for sewing, 72 for weaving, 500 for spinning, or 579 hours total to make one shirt. At minimum wage - $7.25 an hour - that shirt would cost $4,197.25.
And that's just a standard shirt.
And that's not counting the work that goes into raising sheep or growing cotton and then making the fiber fit for weaving. Or making the thread for the sewing.
And you'd still need pants (tights or breeches) or a skirt, a bodice or vest, a jacket or cloak, stockings, and, if at all possible, but a rare luxury, shoes.

NOTE (1/30/15) - Please see a further commentary on this piece at:  Is Time Money or is Money Time?

NOTE: Back in the pre-industrial days, the making of thread, cloth, and clothing ate up all the time that a woman wasn't spending cooking and cleaning and raising the children. That's why single women were called "spinsters" - spinning thread was their primary job. "I somehow or somewhere got the idea," wrote Lucy Larcom in the 18th century, "when I was a small child, that the chief end of woman was to make clothing for mankind." Ellen Rollins: "The moaning of the big [spinning] wheel was the saddest sound of my childhood. It was like a low wail from out of the lengthened monotony of the spinner's life." (Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, p. 26)

Anyway, with clothing that expensive and hard to make, every item was something you wore until it literally disintegrated. Even in 1800, a farm woman would be lucky to own three dresses - one for best and the other two for daily living. Heck, my mother, in 1930, went to college with that exact number of dresses to her name... This is why old clothing is rare: even the wealthy passed their old clothes on to the next generation or the poorer classes. The poor wore theirs until it could be worn no more, and then it was cut down for their children, and then used for rags of all kinds, and then, finally, sold to the rag and bone man who would transport it off to be made into (among other things) paper.
File:KellsFol032vChristEnthroned.jpg
And speaking of paper, that was another thing that had to be invented for our society to exist: cheap paper. Good rag paper (made literally with expensive cloth rag) was always pricey, just not as pricey as parchment which was goat, sheep, or calf skin. (This is why medieval manuscripts were so few and why they were often kept chained up for fear of theft. It took at least a whole herd of animals to make the Book of Kells, for example. On the other hand, well-kept parchment can last thousands of years.) In fact, paper remained expensive long after clothing got cheaper, because it took a long time to figure out how to make paper out of nothing but wood pulp, without all that expensive rag content. It wasn't until the production of wood pulp paper was perfected in the mid-1800's that books (schoolbooks, fiction, non-fiction), magazines, and newspapers became available to the general public. Including pulp fiction - the first was Argosy Magazine in 1896 - a genre that was named for the cheapest of cheap fiber paper that it was published on. And without that pulp paper, where would our entire genre be?
File:Argosy 1906 04.jpg        

21 September 2012

To Weave a Tangled Web


E.B. White
by Dixon Hill

When is a children's book not just a children's book?

When it was written by E B White.

My youngest son and I are reading Charlotte's Web. And, to be frank with you, I probably hadn't looked at the thing since I was in the 4th Grade myself.  Maybe even the 3rd Grade; I'm not sure when we read it in class.

Why address a children's book on a mystery blog?

Because I wish, now, that I'd re-read it several years ago.  There's so much to learn about writing, inside.  And, so much the book keeps reminding me about.

A Bit of a Shock

"Well, pull the book out of your backpack, little buddy, and let's take a look at it."  That's what I told my son, when he said he had to read Charlotte's Web for a school book report.

A moment later, the book was in my hands -- and I was floored!

I'd read the book as a kid.  But, it was only as an adult that the author's name lept off the cover at me.  "E B White?" I cried.  "Son!  This is written by E B White!"

As if that would mean anything to him.

My wife stared at me, too.

I stared back, mouth open, no sound coming out, except a very thin: "But . . .  It's E B White."  How could I explain? How could I make them understand about those three or four copies of Elements of Style that I'd murdered over the years -- not through book burnings or neglect, but through long, hard, rough use.  Those little white paperbacks had been literally "dog-eared to death."

I felt a bit as if I'd just learned that God, himself, had taken pen in hand to write the Mother Goose Stories.

It was a much more powerful surprise, even, than the time I bought Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang! at a garage sale, only to discover it had been written by Ian Flemming.  That's right.  In case you didn't know,: the same Ian Flemming who wrote the original James Bond novels wrote  Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang!Which makes sense in the context of the book, because -- when you think about it -- Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang! (the car in the book) is really a kids' version of a James Bond spy car.  And, the novel (obviously quite different from the movie) reads (IMHO) as a children's spy or mystery/suspense story.

Further: For those who think only "little old ladies" write mysteries with recipes inside, I think it might be interesting to note that my copy of the book came with a recipe for brownies on the back page. And, clearly, Ian Flemming put it there, because, when the kids eat brownies, in the novel, there is a little aside explaining where to find the recipe, so the reader can try them him/herself.

But, what gets me about Charlotte's Web has nothing to do with flying cars or brownies.

It's the Subtext

Several SS writers (myself included) have touched-on or examined differences between "literary works" and what are often referred to as "genre" works.  But, one element I don't recall seeing explored in enough depth is that of subtext, or multi-layered meaning.  This concept is very near-and-dear (let me know what you guys think of the hyphenation there) to those who love so-called "literary works", and it's one of the hallmarks critics point to, in order to determine if a work has literary merit.

I'm not talking about "Theme" here.  I'm talking about the ability of a written passage, or passages, to be understood in an entirely different way, depending on the reader's viewpoint and experiences.  On the most superficial level, the passage is an integral part of the work, and reads and functions that way: it moves the plot forward, and characters continue to grow or change.  Perhaps the reader gets a better feel for important setting details, or clues. Yet, at the same time, the passage is also open to interpretation, as a metaphor for one or more other ideas; ideas quite different from the surface action or meaning.

My son and I have only made it to Chapter 4 or 5, so far.  Wilbur the pig just recently met Charlotte the spider.  And, this is a children's book; it's simple.  Or, at least, appears to be simple.  Yet, I was surprised to find several elements that veritably screamed at me with different meanings, all in such a short span of pages.  Leave it to E B White to sew this incredibly rich subtext in such a small plot of fertile words.

  But, a person may well ask, did E B White intend us to see this subtext?  Or did he write a simple children's story and I'm loading it down with ideas that were never planted by the author?  According to the literary critics:  It doesn't matter.  The fact that a reader can view subtext -- even if that reader had to bring his own baggage along, to do so -- is what counts.  Subtext is different for each reader, the idea goes, because everyone brings his/her own experience to the table, and this is how readers interact with literature.  It's an important part of what makes Literature literary.

So, please permit me to examine a little of Charlotte's Web in these terms.

Lassie?  Or something darker?

When Wilbur temporarily escapes from the barn, for instance, the farmer lures him back into his pen with a bucket of slop while the goose screams words to the effect: "Don't fall for it!  It's the old Slop Bucket Trick!  You'll be sorry."

My son, who looks at the book through the lens of an innocent nine-year-old, sees the farmer as acting in Wilbur's best interest.  The farmer cares about the pig, and worries about him -- for Wilbur's sake. He helps Wilbur by returning him to the safety and security of the barn, and by feeding him warm food.  My son equates the farmer with the way he would see a police officer or collie dog that helped him get back to the warmth of family and home, were my son to get lost.

As a nearly-fifty-year-old, who once had the dubious honor of slaughtering a cow with a sledge hammer, and has interacted in the sometimes (though not nearly as often as Hollywood would have us believe) duplicitous world of Military Intelligence and Special Operations, I understand that the farmer's caring has less to do with helping Wilbur, than it does with not letting Christmas dinner get away on the hoof.  The farmer only cares about Wilbur, at this point, in the context of the pig's usefulness. The return to warmth and security is important because these elements are necessary if the farmer is to get the ham he plans to harvest near the holiday season. And, the slop bucket that Wilbur is lured back by, is an important part of that plan.  Thus, Wilbur is lured back to a false security by his very love for the thing that will increase the value -- in the farmer's eyes -- of Wilbur's eventual slaughter.

So, my son views this passage in terms of Lassie Come Home while I view it as something more akin to Orwell's Animal Farm, in which (if I recall correctly) the leader-pigs sell the old draft horse to the glue factory.

Is Charlotte a Capitalist  . . .  Or just industrious?

Cavatica or "Barn Spider"
Shortly after Wilbur's return to captivity, he hears a disembodied voice that promises to be his friend.  The next morning, he discovers that this voice belongs to Charlotte, the spider who built her web overhead, in the eaves of the barn.  Her full name is Charlotte A. Cavatica.

Now, I'm constantly fascinated by the thought process behind naming fictional characters, and may explore the field more fully in a later post.  In this case, however, a quick online search yielded a photo of a Cavatica spider -- otherwise known as a Barn Spider.  Thus, Charlotte's name tells the reader (and the pig, if he has internet access or a good encyclopedia at hoof) what Charlotte is.  At least on the surface.

But, what is she really?

Almost immediately after meeting Charlotte, Wilbur is horrified to watch as she sews-up a fly that got stuck in her web.  And, he's further shocked and disgusted when she tells him that she plans to suck the fly's blood.  When the little pig expresses his feelings, however, Charlotte basically tells him:  "Well you may talk.  You have your food brought to you.  But, I suffer a much more precarious existence than you do, and have to work for my food.  It may seem mean and vicious, but it's what I have to do to survive."

On the surface, a main character is introduced and we learn about her.  We also see the beginnings of Wilbur's horrified loss of innocence.  And, a key theme -- the seeming necessity to kill for nourishment -- is introduced.

Just beneath that surface, however, the two passages -- which comprise two back-to-back chapters -- can be read as a metaphor similar to The Ant and the Grasshopper.  Here, Wilbur is an ignorant version of the lazy grasshopper, in pig-form ("swine-a-morphised" perhaps??), while Charlotte is cast in the industrious ant's role (aracnimorphised? ;-). And, Charlotte is trying to explain these facts of life to a lazy (or simply ignorant) little pig.

On a third level, however, (And perhaps my earlier comparison to Animal Farm, which sprang during the reading from I know not where, contributed to this interpretation.) the two chapters can be seen as an allegory for political, social or even economic ideas.   Charlotte and Wilbur, who live in such close proximity, yet experience life in vastly different terms, may perhaps be considered to represent citizens of Capitalist nations (Charlotte), who have to fend for themselves and face the reality of quite possibly starving if they don't work hard and effectively to secure food and shelter, and citizens of Communist or Socialist nations (Wilbur), in which people tend to be more state-reliant for their sustenance

That Charlotte has to build and maintain her own web (which might, therefor, be seen as belonging to her), while Wilbur is housed and fed by an authority figure (the farmer, who clearly owns the barn and food, which  keep Wilbur alive and well), lends further credence to this view.

A right-wing reactionary might even view Wilbur's state of false-security (He's warm and happy now, but the farmer will kill him when the time is right) as being illustrative of the "evils of communism."  Wilbur has been "tricked," in this viewpoint, into surrendering his freedom for what seems like security.  Meanwhile, Charlotte is the rugged individualist who stands on her own eight legs.

A left-wing radical, on the other hand, while still viewing the selection as a comment on Capitalism vs. Communism, might note how it stresses the innocence and trusting nature of the (socialist) pig, versus the greed and callousness of the (capitalist) spider.

Two chapters in a simple children's book.  But, at least three or four different ways of looking at it.  Such a tangled web of meaning, in so few words.  Now that, to me, is Subtext.

Deconstructing a children's book may seem ludicrous on a blog that's about writing for adults. . .

But Charlotte's Web has reminded me that my favorite books are those loaded with subtext.  Books and stories that have several layers of meaning; layers I can sit back and consider, weigh and examine, long after I've finished reading.

If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that my writing suffers from a certain lack of subtext.  And, putting it in there is a tricky business -- to say the least!  I'm reminded now, however, of the importance of trying to get it in there, of trying to push the boundaries of the meaning behind the words on the paper.

We often speak of the necessity of making words carry as much work as they can -- particularly in short stories, where the space is so limited.  But, are we succeeding to the best of our abilities if we don't try to make the work of those words include creation of subtext?  I can only answer -- with a guilty "No" -- for myself.

Meanwhile, my son and I will continue to read Charlotte's Web, and we'll continue to discuss the surface context, while I gently try to get him to consider subtext as we go along.

He wants to keep reading because the little girl who rescued Wilbur from being slaughtered as a runt hasn't visited Wilbur in quite some time.  My son and I both think she'll return for a visit before the book is over.  He wants to see this happen, so he can learn why she disappeared for so long, leaving the little pig lonely and sad.

I'm nearly fifty, and I've known a lot of little girls.  I'm not surprised by her disappearance. Yet, I too, await her return -- with great anticipation. Because I want to see how both the pig and the girl have changed in the interim.

See you in two weeks!

--Dixon