Like the subject of my previous essay (The Uncollected Edmond Wilson), Arthur Miller’s Echoes Down The Corridor is a collection of essays from a prolific American literary figure. Miller is probably best known as the playwright behind The Death of A Salesman and The Crucible but, like Wilson, he contributed essays to a variety of newspapers and magazines, and advocated for the global literary community. Also like Wilson, he seemed particularly empathetic to ethnic writers in the Soviet Union, whose government suppressed not only their writing, but their language and culture.
While the two were born 20 years apart (Wilson in 1895, Miller in 1915), I see considerable overlap in the topics they chose to write about. (That, or their editors share market research. Nah, I’m kidding.) Most seem like “no-brainers”; no essayist who lived through these events would not write about them. For example, consider the Depression, socialism and its mutations in the thirties, the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and McCarthyism.
I enjoyed both texts, but Miller’s voice appeals to me more than Wilson’s. Even though both authors prepared these essays for publication in newspapers and magazines, Miller’s read less like “reportage” than Wilson’s. No wonder, Wilson’s acted as editor of publications like Vanity Fair and The Atlantic at various times, which suggests a level of traditional professionalism, while Miller contributed in more of an “op-ed” capacity: more freely, less- or un-fettered by the publication’s tone and conventions; more like correspondence from a (naturally eloquent) friend: thoughtfully composed, yes, yet simultaneously somewhat extemporaneous and, as a whole, earnest and unaffected.
Essays seem to be arranged in more or less chronological order, by topic if not when Miller put pen to paper, beginning with an amusing sketch of Brooklyn in the twenties. At various times throughout the decade, while Miller worked as a delivery boy for a baker, his father pulled off at least one amazing prank on his brother (Arthur’s uncle) (pg 2-3) and his grandfather nearly died of “general discouragement” (but went on to live another 10 years as if the scare had never happened) (pg 11).
In the same essay, Miller relates the story of Nick, a amusing and even uplifting Depression-era story. In summary, Miller’s aunt took pity on a vagrant, Nick, who asked if he could wash her windows in exchange for a meal. She also let him sleep in the cellar. The next morning, to her and her husband’s surprise, Nick had set the table and cooked them breakfast. It turns out, he worked in culinary on cruise ships for years. They all hit it off- he lived with them for the next 20 years (pg 11) 🙂
Miller’s humanity is contagious. I smiled while reading about his childhood in A Boy Grew In Brooklyn, and I felt contrite while reading Guilt and Incident at Vichy, an essay about Miller’s impetus for writing the play Incident at Vichy. While it ostensibly concerns Nazism, Miller explains the theme is really “individual relationships with injustice and violence” (pg 70). His take on the theme is an interesting one: ultimately, he wants to explore “those who side with justice and their implication in the evils they oppose” (pg 71), and poses this provocative question:
Is it too much to say that those who do not suffer injustice have a vested interest in injustice?
The implication is: if, while there is injustice in the world, some individual does not suffer from it, what is that individual’s relationship to it?
For example, when we entrust thousands of our dollars in investment products managed by [who knows], might that money finance injustice of some kind? For example, consider Wells Fargo’s 2016 scam (which, in the scheme of things, isn’t the strongest example): in sum, over a period of five years, thousands of employees created millions of (new) accounts for existing customers. Customers did not ask for new accounts, and Wells Fargo (intentionally) did not tell customers they created those accounts. Ergo, fees!
Obviously, the employees who created those accounts are immediately responsible, although many would say they were “just following orders.” As such, responsibility also lies with management, right? (Yes, of course, even though the CEO resigned amidst the fallout with NINE FIGURE severance package.) But even furthermore, management makes decisions to please shareholders, so responsibility must also lie with shareholders.
Now, let’s consider it even more broadly: what about customers? Do the customers of businesses which commit wrongs (even destruction, violence) share the responsibility?
I’m not insinuating something simplistic like “its a scam victim’s own fault he or she was scammed,” but customers who invest their money in a bank expect it to “make” money and to pay interest, and people who borrow (obviously) need the bank to keep soluble (“make” money). In some sense, the role of customers mirrors shareholders, no? They expect the bank to make money- somehow.
In any case, the point is not to level blame, it’s to think about our relationships to unjust systems. I mentioned the Wells Fargo scam isn’t the greatest example- sorry, lazy decision*- but it shouldn’t take too much imagination to apply the theme to other cases.
Here’s a more provocative example posed by Miller:
How much of <a white person’s> sense of personal value, how much of his pride in himself is there by virtue of his not being black? (pg 71)
The question has an underlying framework, which I can easily re-purpose. For example, consider this question: How much of a relatively affluent person’s pride derives feeling of separateness from relatively poor person’s?
The premise is primordial: Are two comparates in a dichotomy co-dependent, or “semantically symbiotic”? For example, does the contrast between “richness” and “poorness”- itself- determines the meanings of those words, and the consequences of the meanings of those words? To what extent does richness benefit from poorness? To what extent does a rich person benefit from a poor person?
Needless to say- gosh, please tell me this is needless to say– I do not suggest a relatively affluent person does not, on average, exercise empathy, charity, or philanthropy for the relatively poor person. Rather, I suggest whether or not one behaves so commendably, they are still the beneficiary of the relationship between richness and poorness.
If pop culture is any indicator, Americans worship billionaires. The subject of the majority of television we (my household) watch is, ultimately, about making money (e.g. Shark Tank, The Profit)- and making money, or spending money (which is contingent on first making money) is a subtext of much of the remainder (HGTV flipping shows).
Whereas, poverty is taboo, and relative poverty is proportionally taboo. Still, taboo fascinates us. We think about it, and extrapolate personal meaning from it, for better or for worse. In Guilt and Incident at Vichy, Miller- and I, in turn, in this essay- only mean to suggest thinking about injustice in this broader way, and the consequences of it.
I’ll pivot here to recall (my memory of) a lesson I learned in synagogue: Maimomedes “Levels of tzedakah (charity).” If I remember correctly*, anonymously giving to anonymous persons constitutes the highest of the the “level.” In such cases- that is, when the benefactor doesn’t know the beneficiary, and vice versa- Maimomedes said the charity is “for the sake of heaven,” as opposed to the benefactor or beneficiary.
In his model, the relationship between “level of charity” and quality of anonymity is inversely proportional. In “lower-level” cases, the charity is not primarily for the sake of heaven- it’s primarily for the sake of the benefactor or beneficiary.
Straying even further from Guilt and Incident at Vichy, and acknowledging Maimomedes does not weight on this, as far as I know, I’ll mention I think supporting social welfare programs with progressive income tax system meets the “spirit” of anonymous giving, and in such a way which aims to redistribute wealth in a minimally disruptive way.
In the next few weeks, I expect the US legislature will attempt to revise the US tax code, if only to reduce income tax rates for persons with incomes greater than $400,000 dollars. In the previous few weeks, the US legislature tried to implement a new healthcare plan. Models suggested it would have led to upwards of twenty million people losing healthcare coverage in the next 10 years, if passed.
(It didn’t pass.)
The subject- providing healthcare to hundreds of millions of people- is complicated. The current (hundred-of-payers) model sucks. High premiums AND deductibles render many coverages practically unusable. Something needs to change- but by most accounts the rejected plan was, if not abjectly terrible, then no improvement whatsoever.
Apparently, certain congressmen pushed it so stubbornly, despite its flaws, because of obvious advantages to “the rich.” In general, it planned to cut Medicaid (a program for “the poor”) in order to fund planned tax cuts (which disproportionately benefit “the rich”). In specific, it promoted use of Health Savings Accounts, a model which disproportionately benefits “the rich,” who can afford to siphon more of their income into such accounts.
Do you have a sense of which dots I want to connect?
I think we can (should!) apply theme of Guilt and Incident at Vichy to the fiscal conservatism, libertarianism and the like. At certain scales, or applied to certain domains, those economic principles are sound and even just, but applied at other scales, to different topics, the principles seem to lack (or even eschew) humanity and promote injustice.
If our legislatures enact such policies, then certainly the electorate bears responsibility, and it constituent parts- individual voters, no matter how they vote- have some relationship to the consequences. Ultimately, it’s that relationship which Miller or I, as the case may be, concern ourselves with in take play Incident at Vichy, and in the essay Guilt and Incident at Vichy, and in this essay.