Didn’t Get the Memo
I am a misanthrope. I am also a linguistic snob. It stands to reason, then, that much of what comes out of the mouths of other humans drives me crazy. Seth Sonderling, my friend and fellow Scorpio, knows just how I feel. Please enjoy his deliciously angry Top 10 Banned Phrases for 2006. And be warned: If I hear any of you uttering these banalities, I’m telling Seth, and he’ll put the smack down on you.
“As if it would make a difference”: Philip Pullman on Stories
If The Once and Future King didn’t have overwhelming sentimental appeal for me, His Dark Materials would most likely be my favorite story. I love those books because they are so rich and weighty, and because they communicate a real love of the world—of nature in the grandest sense and of mortal, sublunary existence. I also love them because they are so obviously true. Philip Pullman knows how to tell a story, and he knows that fantasy can be real in ways that other ways of telling cannot.
In Laura Miller’s lovely New Yorker profile of the author, Pullman explicates his belief in fiction. He also engages in a little moral philosophy. It turns out that Pullman—an atheist, and famously so—is opposed to what we might call hegemonic readings; that is, readings that claim to be free of interpretation, without error, and beyond dissent. While I may not share his complete disdain for the Narnia books (I do think he’s right on when it comes to Tolkien, though) or his all-encompassing antipathy towards monotheism, I’m with him on that count.
Good postmodernist that I am, I don’t believe that “literal” readings are possible—to read, to understand, to explain is to interpret. Reading is an inherently subjective process. That doesn’t mean, however, that reading is meaningless. I believe that narrative and metaphor are powerful paths to truth—maybe even Truth. I spent my college years reading the New Testament as literature, and I ended up writing my senior thesis on the Gospel of Mark, a story which I believe demands personal engagement and provokes each reader towards a unique awareness. It is an engine for understanding. There is no authoritative reading; its truth is available to anyone who can read it.
Speaking not just of his own stories but of stories in general, Pullman is beautifully expressive. In an address he delivered earlier this year, he contrasts the “School of Morals”—the school of right living, which is articulated through novels and plays and all manner of good narrative—with theocracy:
In his speech, Pullman contended that the literary School of Morals is inherently ambiguous, dynamic, and democratic: a “conversation.” Opposed to this ideal is “theocracy,” which he defined as encompassing everything from Khomeini’s Iran to explicitly atheistic states such as Stalin’s Soviet Union. He listed some characteristics of such states—among them, “a scripture whose word is inerrant,” a priesthood whose authority “tends to concentrate in the hands of elderly men,” and “a secret police force with the powers of an Inquisition.” Theocracies, he said, demonstrate “the tendency of human beings to gather power to themselves in the name of something that may not be questioned.”
This impulse toward theocracy, he announced at the end of his speech, “will defeat the School of Morals in the end.” He sounded oddly cheerful making this prediction; in his books, Pullman enjoys striking a tone of melancholy resolve. He continued, “But that doesn’t mean we should give up and surrender…. I think we should act as if. I think we should read books, and tell children stories, and take them to the theatre, and learn poems, and play music, as if it would make a difference….
Those, I think, are words to live by.
Christmas in California
Given the warm weather and the sunshine, I was afraid I’d have trouble getting into the holiday spirit in California. I need not have worried. While we were in L.A., Ted and I stayed at the Hollywood Roosevelt, and The L. Ron Hubbard Winter Wonderland was just down the street from our hotel. Hollywood Boulevard is also home to Hollywood Toys & Costumes and their selection of seasonal wigs. We also paid a visit to The Grove, the lavish outdoor mall that boasts the largest Christmas tree west of the Mississippi and where fake snow blows once every hour. And a drive by the House of David made our Yuletide complete.
Books Recently Purchased at Some of the Bay Area’s Fine Independent Bookstores
A Child Again by Robert Coover
The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton
The Maharajah, and Other Stories by T.H. White
Seventy-Seven Clocks by Christopher Fowler
Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics by Jennifer Ouellette
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Richard Scarry’s Best Storybook Ever
CDs Recently Purchased at Amoeba Music (Berkeley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles stores)
Intelligent? Who can say? Unconstitutional? Definitely.
In a recent post, I argued that “intelligent design” does not belong in science classrooms because it is not science. It seems that John E. Jones III, the federal judge who issued his ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District yesterday, agrees.
The complete ruling is 139 pages long. You can read it in its entirety if you want to, but MSNBC and the New York Times offer some choice excerpts. My favorite extract can be found at Washington Monthly:
....Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.
This bit, quoted at Pandagon, is also good:
The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.
I don’t make a habit of reading legal opinions, so I don’t really know what they usually look like, but I’ve got to say that this one is pretty hot.
Some Books I Didn’t Finish Reading
Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley
I find—and anecdotal evidence suggests that others agree—the epistolary novel to be an inherently wearying form. The e-mail epistolary novel is not just wearying, but ugly. Whenever I see the letters “lol” committed to print—actual ink on real paper—a little piece of my soul dies. Given that Crowley’s novel is about Ada Lovelace—godmother of the computer—it makes good sense for Crowley to compose half his novel in electronic mail. I just can’t read it, though. I can’t and I won’t.
Trance by Christopher Sorrentino
My objection to this novel, like my objection Lord Byron’s Novel, is formal. It’s purely aesthetic—visual, actually.
As you may know, this is a fictionalized account of the Patty Hearst story. Hence, there are gun-toting radicals involved in such high-adrenaline activities as stealing cars and sporting goods. These are, then, people in a hurry—such a hurry that they utter sentences like “The fuck took you so long?” and “The hell happened back there?”
Now, I know that the omission of the “What” from the beginning of each of these sentences is supposed to denote that the speaker is frantic and possibly a little out-of-breath. We may also assume that these radicals employ a casual, slangy kind of English. Nevertheless, I absolutely detest the way these sentences look. The fact that they are rendered as perfectly intact, complete sentences with no indication of elision really, really bothers me. The stuffiness of it seems to counteract the sense of urgency that the words—and absence of words—is supposed to convey. If these sentences were rendered as “—the fuck took you so long?” and “—the hell happened back there?”, I would most likely still be reading this book.
Looking for Jake by China Miéville
I’d been meaning to read something by China Miéville for a long time when I saw this book at my local library. If I ever do pick up Perdido Street Station or Iron Council, it will be despite, rather than because of, this collection.
Each story I read is basically a gimmick—sometimes a very intriguing one—and little else. I found the title story to be a total snooze. Ditto for the second entry, “Foundation.” Both tales had all the depth and none of the drama of a Twilight Zone episode.
“Familiar” had a lot more promise, but Miéville’s failure to deliver on that promise was thoroughly frustrating. The eponymous entity who serves as protagonist is an original and creepily compelling creation: It belongs to a down-market witch, and it starts life not as a black cat or a raven or anything so cozy, but as an oozing lump of matter. The witch, too repulsed by this grotesque spiritual excreta to make use of its power, tries to drown it like a kitten, at which point the resourceful beast embarks on a gruesome picaresque. It acquires body parts through killing and dismantling, and it acquires knowledge in the same way. This is a great beginning, but Miéville doesn’t build an actual story around it. The creature grows, and that’s pretty much it. The story also contains clues to an odd and interesting world, but clues are all we get. The climactic scene, during which much is intimated but little explained, is nothing but vague and clichéd imagery passing as profundity.
I skipped everything else in the collection and went straight to the closing novella. I hoped that, given its length, the story might actually go somewhere. However, I was only a few paragraphs along in “The Tain” when I decided that there was just no way I was following a lone man with a gun across a post-apocalyptic landscape for 72 pages. I acknowledge that Miéville might have done something brilliant and inventive with this hoary sci-fi trope, but the fact that the book I picked up from my bedside table when I put Looking for Jake down was a study of Neolithic bog bodies in Northern Europe should give you some idea of just how dreary I found the prospect of reading this story.
Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
I really, really want to like Kelly Link, and I do, based solely on the strength of the absolutely perfect “Stone Animals.” I have been sadly and consistently underwhelmed by the rest of her oeuvre, however. I found “The Faery Handbag” to be entirely too precious, and the author clearly found her quirkily breathless teen narrator much more charming than I did. I was more irritated, though, by the fact that the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s all concept, with oddity substituted for absorbing narrative.
I found this to be the case with most of the stories in this collection. Consider “The Hortlak”: It’s about a convenience store that has succeeded from the chain. It’s also a convenience store where the clerks have taken up residence. One of the clerks wears nothing but pajamas, pajamas covered with impossible prints. And, finally, this convenience store is on the edge of a zombie-filled chasm. After reading the whole story, I was left thinking, “Yes, but so what?”
I will admit that I like for my magic to be the uncanny kind. That is, I enjoy stories in which the weird encroaches upon the mundane. I suppose that’s why I love “Stone Animals” so much: It’s essentially a haunted-house story, and nothing is more uncanny than a haunted house. When a story is nothing but strangeness, unmoored from reality’s gravitational pull, I just don’t care.
I skipped a few entries, and I gave up reading early in the title story, another tale peopled with adorably precocious kids who got on my nerves fast. Indeed, the effect of reading this story—as much of it as I read, anyway—was not unlike spending an evening with kids who do nothing but quote Monty Python.
I was going to let the above simile stand, but I feel compelled to explicate a bit. I do, of my own free will, spend time with people who make Star Wars jokes that 1 out of, I don’t know, 10,000 Americans would get. I have also been known to hang out with folks who could make prodigiously arcane jokes about Tolkien, except that I don’t know any Tolkien fans who joke about Tolkien. This is to say that I have nothing against geek culture—in fact, I often enjoy the Star Wars jokes once they’re explained to me. But the fan boys and girls (OK, mostly boys) I know are clever and inventive in their referencing, and they can talk about a variety of other topics, whereas quoting Monty Python is just tiresome. It’s speaking in a secret language but not actually saying anything, and I feel both Link and Miéville often engage in a similar—and similarly alienating—practice.
A Theocracy of the Mind
I had to take an oral exam for my Spanish class recently. One of the questions—designed to test my knowledge of the superlative—was “¿Cuál es la mejor revista de los Estados Unidos?” My answer was, “El New Yorker.”
I really do think it’s the best magazine in America—better than The Atlantic, better even than Us Weekly. Margaret Talbot’s piece on Kitzmiller v. Dover in the December 5 issue was just the kind of writing I have learned to expect from this fine periodical. For one thing, it was gorgeously written. Talbot is a great storyteller with a good eye for compelling characters. More importantly, though, she makes it very clear that the movement to teach intelligent design alongside or instead of evolution in schools is about more than teaching “both sides of the issue.”
One thing Talbot points out in her article is that, regardless of what some proponents of intelligent design might actually believe—and regardless of what they want the rest of us to believe they believe—intelligent design and creationism were fundamentally interchangeable for leading members of the Dover school board. Their objections to Darwin were religious, rather than scientific, and they regarded intelligent design as a way to get God—their own particular Christian God—into public schools. Talbot describes the situation in Talbot, and the birth of intelligent design, in this Q&A.
This underscores the basic problem with teaching intelligent design in science classes: Intelligent design is not science. This is not my judgment; this is a simple fact. Science is a naturalistic system, one fueled by observation and experimentation and guided by empirical reasoning. Intelligent design isn’t science because there’s no way to test its hypotheses. As Talbot reports, the defenders of intelligent design admit as much.
To teach intelligent design in a biology classroom requires a paradigm shift; basically, it requires the substitution of a system of belief for a system of knowledge. Many of the supporters of intelligent design know this, and they approve. Talbot’s story includes an anecdote about a Dover civics teacher who wrote to the school board asking, facetiously, if they had any advice for someone preparing to teach students about the Supreme Court. The head of the school board replied that they were planning to update the social studies curriculum next.
Obviously, the fight for intelligent design is about more than evolution. It’s about more than biology or the sciences in general. The New York Times recently ran a couple of articles about Christian high schools and their struggles to get their courses recognized by state universities. Basically, the universities are arguing that Christ-centered pedagogy might be good catechism, but it’s seldom good American history or English lit. One of these articles includes excerpts from some disputed textbooks, and it’s not too hard to see that the universities have a point. Consider, for example, this excerpt from Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, published by Bob Jones University:
Dickinson's year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary further shaped her "religious" views. During her stay at the school, she learned of Christ but wrote of her inability to make a decision for Him. She could not settle "the one thing needful." A thorough study of Dickinson's works indicates that she never did make that needful decision. Several of her poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life.
This critique of Emily Dickinson looks a lot like the critique of Mark Twain included in the same text, and they both resemble criticism of Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives found in United States History for Christian Schools, also from Bob Jones University.
The educational worldview presented by these textbooks is one in which God is the right answer—the only right answer—to every possible question. There is nothing here to foster real critical thinking or problem-solving. There’s no room for creativity or indepent ideas. Faith, in the form of received wisdom, takes the place of actual thought. It’s chilling to imagine public schools in which this might be the educational norm, and it’s heartening to know that all the Dover school board members who voted for the anti-evolution speech were voted out of office in the last election.
I Don’t Think I’ll Be Buying a Subscription
I suppose you could say that, as a woman who quit her pretty good job when she got married, I’m part of the “opt out revolution”. I do still work as a freelance writer, but I spend most of my time at home, where I cook and garden and occasionally clean something. Nevertheless, having read Rebecca Traister’s review and interview, I’m pretty sure that the new magazine Total 180! does not speak to my experience. In fact, it sounds quite terrifying.
Baby Jesus Federline
Reprinted from UK-Flava.com:
Britney Spear’s new son, Sean Preston, is to play the baby Jesus in his very own nativity scene this Christmas.
The pop princess, and husband Kevin Federline, have transformed his bedroom into the nativity setting in celebration of his first festive holiday. The beautiful singer has splashed out on the lavish decorations—which include six waxwork models and several life-size toy donkeys and cattle. The 23-year-old singer is so excited about her first Christmas as a mum she has even bought a cherrywood style manger for her baby.
A source close to the star is quoted by Britain’s Daily Star newspaper as saying: “It cost an absolute fortune. But at least she didn't have to buy a baby Jesus—because Sean is playing the part.”
[THANKS TO TED FOR THE LINK.]