Sunday, July 30, 2006

Upon Finding Oneself in a Friend's Novel: One Approach

Anthony Powell, the Welsh author of the 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time, appeared in a his friend John Heygate's novel, Talking Picture, thinly disguised as a Welsh writer named "Rightlaw." Here's an excerpt from Powell's review of the book as quoted in Michael Barber's Anthony Powell: a Life (2004):

There will be few readers who do not succumb to Rightlaw's charm, even though he appears for a few pages only. His considered, brusque remarks about himself, followed up by equally brusque questions about other people, make us feel at once that we have been privileged to meet a really delightful person, intelligent, sensitive and reserved. If there were more Rightlaws about, the world would be a pleasant place to live in; if there were more characters like Rightlaw in literature, novels would be a joy to read.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Aslan: the Un-Cola - Er, I mean Un-Christian

Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, puts his finger on the very thing that no doubt troubles every fifth-grader reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for the first time: "Aslan the lion, the Christ symbol ... is, after all, a very weird symbol for that famous carpenter's son -- not just an un-Christian but in many ways an anti-Christian figure."

He goes on:

"[A] central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God, while his other symbolic animal is, specifically, the lowly and bedraggled donkey. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side. If we had, say, a donkey, a seemingly uninspiring animal from an obscure corner of Narnia, raised as an uncouth and low-caste beast of burden, rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean animals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible -- a donkey who reemerges, to the shock even of his disciplies and devotees, as the king of all creation -- now, that would be a Christian allegory. A powerful lion, starting life a the top of the food chain, adored by all his subjects and filled with temporal power, killed by a despised evil witch for his power and then reborn to rule, is a Mithraic, not a Christian, myth."

--From "Prisoner of Narnia: How C.S. Lewis Escaped," by Adam Gopnik, from The New Yorker, November 21, 2005, p. 92.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Friday, July 14, 2006

Travels in Absurdistan

Now that the summer issue of The King's English is out, I've been trying to catch up with all the submissions that have come in -- not a job, by the way, that I do alone. (Thanks Bill, Mark -- and of course to the Czarina.) One thing I never see enough of is submissions from outside the United States. We get a decent number from India, and we've certainly received one or two from many other countries, but nothing like the volume we need in order to have a reasonable chance of getting top-notch work.

Fortunately, you don't have to look far to satisfy my desire for writing from elsewhere. Check out Christopher Hitchens' review of an anthology of recent writing from Iran. If you're not quite ready to embrace other cultures, maybe you'd prefer this cranky (as in, crank alert) review examining a legitimate question: why do we romanticize "primitive" people as peaceful, living in harmony with the land, etc., when in fact they were and are just as contentious, warlike, and rapacious as contemporary western culture?

Meanwhile, in completely unrelated news, the world's biggest fusion reactor -- that's right, fusion, not fission -- is being built right now in France. Check out what one of the physicists says about it: "We think it's going to work. We have to, or the politicians wouldn't give us the money."

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Armageddon: the Flowchart

Just in case you were wondering how Armageddon would play out in Britain, here's the flowchart.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Gauss Again

Remember that story about Gauss, the brilliant 18th-century mathematician? As a schoolboy, he showed up his teacher when he tried to give the class a make-work problem involving adding up all the numbers from 1 to 100, and Gauss solved it in just a few moments? I do. I first heard it somewhere in elementary school, and it made me feel incredibly inadequate. (I knew I'd never make it to junior high school.)

Turns out, however,that the story's a very old urban legend. Brian Hayes, writing in American Scientist Online, has collected over 100 examples of the story in eight languages. According to Hayes, the earliest account of the story, though able to claim Gauss himself as its source, was written long after the fact and does not specify what arithmetic problem was assigned to the class. In other words, the anecdote simply says Gauss solved an unnamed problem very quickly. It was later authors who inserted the detail about the problem being to add up a series of numbers from 1 - 100. Hayes' account of what he's learned about the history of the story and its evolution is worth reading; more interesting still is his point that the other students -- the putative dunces who couldn't see a shortcut to adding up a series of integers -- would have found lesser shortcuts of their own if they actually tried adding up all those numbers, because they would've seen obvious patterns. As he writes,

Let me invite you to take a sheet of paper and actually try adding the numbers from 1 to 100.

Finished? Already?

All right, all right, no need to show it to me. So you've guessed the next part of what Hayes says:

On a small slate or a sheet of paper, it's difficult to write 100 numbers in a column, and so students would likely break the task down into subproblems. Suppose you start by adding the numbers from 1 to 10, for a sum of 55. Then the sum of 11 through 20 is 155, and 21 through 30 yields 255. Again, how far would you continue before spotting the trend?
Which brings us to Hayes' real point:

On first hearing this fable, most students surely want to imagine themselves in the role of Gauss. Sooner or later, however, most of us discover we are one of the less-distinguished classmates; if we eventually get the right answer, it's by hard work rather than native genius. I would hope that the story could be told in a way that encourages those students to keep going. And perhaps it can be balanced by other stories showing there's a place in mathematics for more than one kind of mind.
... and in many other fields as well.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Got it in One, I'd Say

From an obituary for Dr. Philip Rieff:

"Dr. Rieff argued that traditionally the primary function of culture was to integrate individuals into a larger corporate body. He showed how art and literature weren't just aesthetic pursuits but tools to teach people morality. To see Hamlet was as much an object lesson about duty as a leisure activity.

In modernity, Dr. Rieff wrote, this has been supplanted by the idea that culture is there merely for our gratification. This, he said, teaches that we have no ultimate goals or a higher good, except an obsession to maximize individual advantage and pleasure."

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Monday, July 03, 2006

The War on Everything

Notice how we seem lately besieged -- at least in popular discourse -- with large, global-scale threats to our well-being? Terrorism, global warming, overpopulation, bird flu, vanishing oil and natural resources ... each can lead to massive loss of human life, destabilization of our society, and the end of life as we know it. Without disputing that each of these has the potential to be every bit as bad as we can imagine, if not worse, it's an interesting phenomenon, sociologically speaking. Why, at this juncture in our history, are we fixated on large, almost insoluble threats? (And for the literal-minded among you, yes, I've heard all about Al Gore's new movie on global warming, and I think I remember hearing something about 9/11, too.)

Frank Furedi at Spiked points out that when we talk about these threats and what to do about them, we now use, almost exclusively, rhetoric about our "security" to do so. Everything -- overpopulation, bird flu, and so on -- is made to fit under the security rubric, implying that these problems require military or security solutions, rather than technical or political solutions, or adaptive changes. That our discourse has become so warped by "security" is to some degree a reflection of the current administration's insistence on its importance, and the diversion of funding to "homeland" security (does no one else feel any authoritarian chill when they hear that phrase?). But it's also a fascinating case study in how dominated our society is, right now, by fear -- and, I suspect, by fear of massive social change brought on by globalization and the speed at which technology is changing our lives. This is not to say that the threats being waved in our faces aren't real, but the narrow way in which we conceive of them -- strictly through the lens of security -- reveals how limited our ability to deal with them really is.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Who Wants a Retired Harry Potter?

Rumors that J.K. Rowling may kill off Harry Potter in the last book of her series have stirred up, so I gather, some indignation and disbelief among her fans. Charles McGrath, writing in The New York Times, has a good point to make about this:

Would we even remember Little Nell if she hadn't died in such spectacularly mawkish fashion? Would we prefer that Emma Bovary didn't swallow the poison and instead became a clochard, cadging francs at the agricultural fair? And do we really want to contemplate Harry, now bald and grizzled, the lightning-shaped scar faded into an age spot, retired from magic and, pint in hand, prattling on about old quidditch matches? Surely it makes more sense to employ the other kind of magic, and go back to Volume 1 and start over.
This is, of course, the sort of heartlessly clinical thing that only a critic could seriously propose. If Dickens or Flaubert were writing today, they would've found a way to revive their characters. ---No, scratch that. Dickens wouldn't have bothered with writing novels if he were alive today; he'd have gone straight to scripts, and even now be hard at work on An Even Bleaker House. Flaubert, well ... he'd probably be unpublished.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Svidrigailov Circa 1977

Philip K. Dick must've been thinking about Dostoyevsky when he wrote this exquisite image:

"Her heart, Bob Arctor reflected, was an empty kitchen: floor tile and water pipes and a drainboard with pale scrubbed surfaces, and one abandoned glass on the edge of the sink that nobody cared about."
It comes from his 1977 book, A Scanner Darkly -- the entire text of which, incidentally, you can find online (no doubt illegally), though I ran across the quote on page 94 of the 1991 Vintage edition.

Now compare it to Svidrigailov's chilling vision of the afterlife in Crime in Punishment:
"Eternity [says Svidrigailov to Raskolnikov] is always presented to us as an idea which it is impossible to grasp, something enormous, enormous! But why should it necessarily be enormous? Imagine, instead, that it will be one little room, something like a bath-house in the country, black with soot, with spiders in every corner, and that that is the whole of eternity. I sometimes imagine it like that, you know."

--Feodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. Jessie Coulson, (W. W. Norton & Co., (c) 1975), pp. 244-245. (Compare to the Constance Garnett translation.)

True, Dostoevsky and Dick are talking about different things -- the fate of the soul in the afterlife vs. the state of a particular person's soul in this one. But one has to allow for this, I think, since their different concerns exemplify the historical trajectory of literature's concerns in miniature. What both images have in common is an absolute terror of the mundane; the echo is remarkable. (I always thought Svidrigailov had it about right -- another instance, as in Milton, where the bad guy [Satan, the nihilist Svidrigailov] is so pungent and interesting that the good guys can't compete.)

Don't bother with reading Scanner, by the way. It's flabby and meandering, much like conversation with an addict, Dick announcing his insights into drug culture and the blurred roles of dopers and cops solemnly, without the surprising veer of his usual narratives. I much prefer Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Man in the High Castle, and Dr. Bloodmoney (which really has nothing at all to do with Dr. Strangelove, except the title). Even his slighter novels usually have an element of surprise, a spark missing from Scanner's leaden, misogynistic narrative. I've just shared with you its brightest moment; now go and read something else.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Why We Read Fiction & the Nietzche Diet

Who's more generous, women or men? Regardless, they certainly have different tastes in reading, according to a piece in Reason, which summarizes a recent British survey of each sex's favorite novels ever. (Where women's tastes are varied, men's choices, interestingly, tend to center around only four books by Camus, Vonnegut, Salinger, and Marquez.) Apparently, there's also an interesting theory (supposedly new) about why people read fiction, based on cognitive theory: essentially, it gives us practice doing something we like to do anyway, which is figure out what other people are thinking and why they do what they do. Does this mean that women spend more time thinking about others than men do?

Bonus reading tip: Friedrich Nietzche's new diet book.

Stumble Upon Toolbar