An Unmerciful Consideration of Anne Lamott's Book on Mercy

The profession of teaching has taught me that Lamott’s view of merciful action is impractical and improper.

Hallelujah Anyway

Publisher: Riverhead
Length: 192 pages
Author: Anne Lamott
Price: $20.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-04
Instead of failing and then trying harder, we should simply resist less?
Anne Lamott has written a book about mercy, which I am now going to mercilessly review. Consider yourself warned.

Lamott is classified by some as writing in the genre of literary particularism. The idea is that the details inside each book should matter more than whatever connections can be made to other books, that each situation can be taken independently and in isolation as, um, situational. It’s not a very well defined genre, but the gist is that it has allowed Lamott to write another book on single motherhood or alcoholism or religion or whatever other broad idea strikes her through the insights uniquely afforded by her own experience and its particulars. To appreciate the author’s particulars requires some degree of empathy on the part of the reader, who may not be parenting alone or going to AA meetings or showing up at church.

The minute that reader cross-applies some understandings from another work of art or channels Lamott’s words into their own life’s parallels, the particularism fuzzes and fades away, perhaps of necessity. A universally appreciated book is a bestselling book, after all.

Moral philosophy has a much more emphatic and clear cut notion of particularism. Ethical concepts such as “love” or “mercy” are thick with particularity. In short, there's no universal way to determine how to act upon these concepts. Particularity is different from relativism to the extent that it is more moderate; it suggests that by examining the details of a given situation we can accommodate a variety of values for a generic principle, like mercy. We could even go so far as to begin grouping these situations into appropriate categories of response.

Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway contends that mercy ought to be applied in 100 percent of the cases where it is possible to do so. Situationally, she is happy to admit that it may not always be possible to apply mercy as an ethical principle (because each and every one of us is simply an awful, morally ugly person sometimes).

This willingness to concede the essential impossibility of perfect mercy is one of Lamott’s best assets for two reasons. Most obviously, it enacts the very virtue she prescribes by letting us all off the hook a little bit for our inability to follow through with her suggestion of continually being merciful. It performatively makes her case because we are glad that her suggested diet of ethical principles is not too strict.

Secondarily, it harbors an ideological permissiveness that is a trademark of her tone. Lamott lives in the San Francisco Bay area (and I hope you will unpack all the ugliness sliding around under my reportage of that fact and the place where I chose to insert it in this review). Or, let me be clear: Lamott writes in that relatively privileged mode of white women trying to better themselves, trying to work past the valid struggles they have encountered in their often invalidly smallish bubble.

She is a poet whose flow of language is operating under the aegis of narrative nonfiction, with the result that her work’s primary effect is to suck readers into her sense of pathos. She appeals to our finest feelings. Particularism is a style that ultimately succeeds in putting sentimentality within easy reach. One cannot argue with emotional truths; when Lamott describes how she felt joy at someone else’s misery, a reader has no choice but to accept her feelings at face value.

The beauty of arguments based on pathos is that there's really no counter-factual available to refute them. But the author’s reliance on the particularities of her pathos -- though charming and reassuring and noble and fun -- also hobble her anecdotal considerations and prevent them from rising to the level of a coherent moral position.

Let’s first define “mercy” as the essential term of art in this debate. The author is correct to begin here. She cites the Old Testament prophet Micah, who said, “What doth God require of thee but to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (4), in order to set forth the basis for a purposeful life. From a rhetorical perspective, we can say that these three virtues correspond to the three forms of appeal -- mercy is pathos (argument by feeling), humility is ethos (argument by character), and justice is logos (argument by reasoning). Although we access mercy as a kind of pathos, Lamott’s definition further breaks mercy into three categories, “kindness, compassion, forgiveness” (5).

Kindness is a generosity of service toward others; often it is born on the wings of compassion, a feeling of sympathy or empathy toward the plight of another. Still, kindness travels the road of ethos perhaps more readily than the road of pathos. Because kindness is an act rather than a feeling, it feeds other people’s perceptions of us and results in a sense of our character. Forgiveness may also be born of compassion, but I would argue that forgiveness falls conceptually under logos because it is neither an act nor a feeling. To forgive is to judge -- or even if it is a letting go of judgment, that is still a matter for logos.

Most people would agree that justice is a situational enterprise. In passing judgment, we always consider the circumstances. This would seem to be in line with Lamott’s affinity for literary particularism, but her reliance on poetic sentiment too frequently glosses the empirical dimension of moral particularism. After an initial foray into the definition of mercy, she waves away the distinctions between kindness, compassion, and forgiveness in order to continually err on the more vague side of her own encounters with mercy. Her tendency to smooth experiences into parables and allegories, the mythic treatment of her self-improvements and predictable lapses, the strings of shiny adjectives that point to picturesque nouns, all serve to hide sets of situations that her merciful intention is not prepared to adequately address.

Many of her anecdotes are strawperson fallacies, presenting one-off situations that do not translate into the practical everyday merciful living that the book asks us to cultivate. There’s the story of the Senegalese women stuck in a desert without water, who had visions of a massive underground lake that eventually was revealed by aid workers to actually exist. Mercy here belongs to the men who finally stopped dismissing the women’s visions, and perhaps to the aid workers who dug the lake.

There’s the congregation who forgave the shooter in their Charleston church or survivors of war crimes testifying before tribunals in front of their oppressors. I think human beings can easily find their way to mercy in the face of massive tragedy. We call these triumphs of the human spirit; they strike us singularly at our core.

But these moments of profundity do not translate into the banality of daily evils we inflict upon each other.

“Polite inclusion is the gateway drug to mercy,” Lamott offers (82). I suppose I’ll just be grateful to my conservative family for finally agreeing to allow my wife to show up at holiday dinners so that we can suffer severe awkwardness for a few hours together. Or we can go bigger, more impersonal on the merits of incrementalism: the now-defunct Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy from the President Clinton era, Jim Crow’s separate but equal policies. Were these polite inclusions on the right road to salvation? How long ought we to wait to arrive at genuine mercy? She argues that instead of failing and then trying harder, we should simply resist less. Sorry, but that’s too close to the complicity of the good German for my comfort.

Here’s another daily question hanging over the globe lately, and particularly over our collective American consciousness: ought we to forgive Donald Trump? Ought we to treat him mercifully as impeachment increasingly becomes actionable? Can we show him compassion and still seek justice? Or, if you’re one of those, go ahead and make the question more hypothetically about Hillary Clinton. Let’s leave that question to hang -- pun intended. As Lamott concedes, “God doesn’t give us answers. God gives us grace and mercy. […] Left to my own devices, I would prefer answers” (104). To fill the gap she offers up the wisdom of Krishnamurti, the famed Indian spiritual teacher who said his secret was that, “I don’t care what happens.” Lamott retorts, “I desperately want to stop minding so much about other people, life, and myself,” but it is so very hard (126-7).

I have no positive feelings attached to the prospect of “resist less” or “stop minding”. I’m an opinion writer, after all. It's my calling to care deeply about things that I suppose are technically none of my business. Again, Lamott concedes, “I hate this, but in judgment’s defense, it’s also an indication that I have a brain” (129). I’m paid to pass judgment not only as a journalist, but also as a teacher. There are an uncountable number of anecdotes I can give -- at least one for each kid that has passed through my classroom during more than a decade of teaching high school English -- regarding the variety of ways I’ve considered to what extent it is appropriate to be merciful.

Here’s a relatively easy one: do I round up that 69.4 percent to a passing grade at the end of the semester, or not? More complex: do I round it up for both the wealthy lacrosse team captain who will be an alumni legacy admit at an Ivy League school, as well as the student who speaks a foreign language at home while his mother works two jobs to pay for the summer school classes he needs to attend to keep from from falling behind? Still more complex: the rich kid’s parents just told him two weeks ago that they are getting a divorce, and the immigrant kid makes a good living dealing drugs during study hall.

The profession of teaching has taught me that Lamott’s view of merciful action is impractical and improper. She thinks that “over and over, in spite of our awfulness and having squandered our funds, the ticket-taker at the venue waves us on through” (138). I tend to err on the side of believing there is no such thing as a free lunch. What is merciful is not always just. What is just is not always compassionate. Justice can be very unkind.

Lamott glosses logical contradictions by seeming to embrace the inevitability of hypocrisy. She is even charmed by it. It’s so cute how humanity struggles to do the right thing so often. And yet, we must “hallelujah anyway”. We must keeping working on being better people -- more just, more merciful, more humble -- anyway. I agree completely with the action suggested by her conclusion, but I disagree with these modes and means by which she argues it.

Considering these particulars, would the most merciful thing simply have been to write a glowing review tightly focused on the point on which we agree? Or is it more merciful to push Lamott to do better in her forms of argument, seeing as how there’s a strong probability that Hallelujah Anyway is unlikely to garner any widely read negative reviews? Or it is more merciful to just not have written a review at all?

Not that I expect her to read this, but if she does, perhaps I’m just giving Lamott an opportunity to work on her own instincts toward mercy. How she processes her feelings about this criticism may offer a chance for personal growth. In describing a personal rivalry she quietly built up inside herself with regard to another unnamed writer, she says she understood well how “a blend of damage, obsessiveness, envy, and empathy was an occupational requirement for writers. Live by the sword, die by the sword” (137). Of my sword I shall make mercy? Ugh.

Probably I’m not cut out to give opinions on contemporary spiritual teachers like Lamott. Good for her for feeling the feels and trying to get them on paper. I lack the pathos for it, or at least pathos lacks the credibility for it with me. Pathos may be a reason to act, but it never builds a strong argument because at a minimum it defies intellectual rigor and sometimes even basic fairness. It rarely transfers easily from situation to situation. Mercy must be more than what your heart tells you to do. Though I am happy to agree that the perfect is the enemy of the good, pathos is not necessarily its most natural ally. But I can hallelujah anyway.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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