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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

“What does God need with a starship?” – James T. Kirk

“I refuse to believe that the afterlife is run by you. The universe is not so badly designed.” – Jean Luc Picard (speaking to the omnipotent alien Q)

I’d intended to write about Othello and Paradise Lost together, but after the stunning character of Iago, quite frankly Satan was a disappointment. I read the two works together based on Harold Bloom’s claim that Milton borrowed much from Shakespeare’s Iago in creating his own anti-hero. While I see some general resemblance, in all honesty Satan stands out only because every other character in the poem (God, Christ, Eve, Adam, the various angels) is so ponderous.

Perhaps Milton would have done better if he’d had better material with which to work.

Harold Bloom and others have called Paradise Lost an early work of science fiction. True or not, let’s examine it from just such a standpoint. I started this post with three quotes which I think will help frame the discussion about the subject matter of Paradise Lost.

First, let’s do away with the notion of the supernatural. Why? Because I don’t understand it. I don’t know the rules; I don’t know how to make moral judgments about things which don’t obey the laws of our universe. As Clarke points out, though, if the technology is advanced enough, it looks just like magic.

So let’s consider God, Christ, Satan, and all the other angels (fallen or not) as incredibly advanced aliens living in the universe. These aliens are not quite immortal, but might as well be, as their technology gives them the power to heal, regenerate, even back up their own personalities and reboot in case of trauma. God isn’t quite omniscient, but has a huge supply of information with which to predict future events. Worlds are created, not through magic, but through the application of enormously powerful technology, including the ability to create artificial intelligences (angels and, finally, humans)

Given this framework the story of Paradise Lost becomes this: A powerful leader named God rules over other powerful entities – the angels. Satan/Lucifer is one of these entities. One day God decides he needs a right-hand man, so raises up another entity, Christ, to rule at his side. Lucifer is disappointed that Christ has been given this promotion and not him, so he gathers his followers and rebels against God.

Unfortunately for Lucifer, Christ proves to be far more powerful than he, and Lucifer (now Satan) and his minions are cast out of heaven. Satan rallies his troops and convinces them that all is not lost.

Around this same time, God creates a new world containing two adorable little morons known as Adam and Eve, living in a paradise known as Eden. Feeling the sting of the angels’ rebellion, God needs something new to occupy himself with. He wants Adam and Eve to adore and worship him, but he knows that such adoration would be meaningless without an alternative. So he proposes a little test. Into Eden God places a tree, which he cleverly names the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He puts only one proscription on Adam and Eve. They may not eat the fruit of that tree, or else they will die.

This is where things start to get weird (!). God, with his enormous information supply, deduces that of course Adam and Eve will fail his test. He seems rather melancholy about this, so Christ steps in and offers himself as a sacrifice to atone for Adam and Eve’s misbehavior.

This of course makes no sense at all, but more on the morality of it later.

Poor Satan, lacking apparently God’s near-omniscient knowledge, tempts Eve quite easily and causes her to do the one thing forbidden her. God, feigning anger (since, of course, he knew this was coming), reveals that when he said Adam and Eve would die from eating the fruit, what he actually meant was he would kill them by removing them from Eden and preventing them from eating of the Tree of Life – apparently the only thing protecting the two fragile humans from the cold, cold world.

When seen as a science fiction story, there’s so much wrong with this. First, why did God not create Adam and Eve with knowledge of Good and Evil? It can’t be because such knowledge would make them imperfect; apparently God himself, and Christ, too, possess such knowledge. If Adam and Eve had possessed such knowledge, maybe they could have resisted Satan’s tricks. Second, why, once Adam and Eve had obtained such knowledge, did God withdraw the Tree of Life? Third, what’s this crazy Christ story? Why would Christ’s death somehow nullify Adam and Eve’s misbehavior? It makes no sense, but hearkens back to the idea of scapegoating, literally blaming a goat or some other animal for your troubles and killing it. Again, what’s the mechanism? It makes no sense.

And what does it mean for Christ to die and then come back to life? Didn’t we establish that these entities are essentially immortal? If he’s got a regeneration card in his deck, then what did the death even mean?

But the biggest problem isn’t with the plot. The gaping chasm in the whole story is the morality of it. So God created Adam and Eve. Big deal. That doesn’t give God the right to rule them, any more than parents have the right to rule their children (and make no mistake, created artificial intelligences, which is what we have to consider Adam and Eve in the story, are exactly like created children). A parent who wants forever to shield his children from knowedge of the world, knowledge that the parent apparently already possesses, is abusive. In this view, Satan did us a favor by helping us to break free of this eternal prison.

Of course the story (both the original in Genesis and Milton’s poem) is metaphor. Let’s instead look at what really happened in the history of humanity. Slowly evolving from forest apes, our early ancestors experienced a life of constant fear, pain, and death. Natural selection had equipped us only poorly for a harsh environment, giving us few natural assets. But we did have a brain.

Using our brains, we slowly gathered information, and learned to pass it on to our children. Soon humans were living outside of our genes; unlike animals that could survive only in those environments for which they’d been adapted, humans could take their environment with them. We learned to make clothes to keep us warm. We learned to build tools to act as the sharp teeth and claws our bodies lacked. We learned to tame fire. Far from causing our fall, knowledge of the world is the only thing that saved us.

Many cultures have believed in a fall from grace and have longed to return us to that nearly-forgotten golden age. In fact, there was no Eden, there was no perfect, trouble-free time. We are our only hope, and it is only through gathering knowledge, via every tree we can find, that we have any hope of surviving.

Now that would be a poem worth reading.

We’re better now.

Yes, we’re far from perfect.

And in some parts of the world we’re even worse.

But the progress we’ve made since the Enlightenment is remarkable.

In my effort to broaden myself beyond just science and Shakespeare, I read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a book that drives home for me just how far we’ve come, how far we still have to go, and how writers like Hardy, in fits and starts, and maybe despite what they think they’re doing, help us get there.

Briefly, Tess Durbeyfield is a young peasant girl in late 19th century England. Her parents are poor, as are her prospects. Through some convoluted storytelling Tess finds herself involved with one Alec d’Urberville, who proceeds to harrass, bully, and finally rape our heroine.

OK, there’s some controversy, purposely engendered by Hardy, about whether Tess was truly raped. Hardy’s Victorian prose is so fastidiously non-sexual that you’re never quite sure what happened between Tess and her assailant – only that Tess got away from Alec as quickly as she could afterwards, and that their time together resulted in a pregnancy.

Tess never communicates her news to Alec, and soon after the baby is born he dies. Yet that isn’t close to the most tragic event of the book.

All the later tragedy spews forth from one Angel Clare, a non-believing son of a minister. Angel falls in love with Tess and, despite her protestations that she’s not good enough for him, essentially browbeats her into finally marrying him. Then, on their wedding night (after Angel divulges his own checkered sexual past) in a fit of conscience Tess reveals all. Angel is repulsed, declaring that Tess isn’t who he thought she was, and immediately runs off to Brazil. Really.

The rest of the story doesn’t bear repeating, though I have to say the final chapters surprised me as much as if our protagonists had been abducted by space aliens and whisked across the Milky Way (that’s not what happens, but almost as crazy).

0tess015m

Here’s Tess, with that pathetic excuse for an athiest Angel behind her. And yes, that’s Stonehenge. You have to read to find out. (Actually that’s Gemma Arterton in the BBC miniseries. Another gift of the Enlightment – the BBC!

Here’s my point. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a book about an immoral society. I’m not talking about a society that allows rape. In fact, for my argument it doesn’t even matter if Tess was actually raped or not (by the way, she was. So stop arguing).

No, I’m talking about a society that condemns Tess for losing her virginity and giving birth to a baby out of wedlock. Of course, many people through history, and sadly even some today, remain confused about what morality is. They think morality is all about controlling behavior based on some ancient book or set of norms. That’s not morality. As Steven Pinker points out in The Better Angels of Our Nature:

The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality. If I appeal to you to do something that affects me . . . I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special because I’m me and you’re not.

Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives . . .

If all this sounds banal and obvious, then you are a child of the Enlightenment and have absorbed its humanist philosophy. As a matter of historical fact, there is nothing banal or obvious about it.

TBAoON, pp 230-231

Through the skill of the storyteller, we can all see ourselves as Tess. We can see how we can be thrust by circumstances into unhappy situations, how we can struggle with conflicting pressures, emotions, loyalties, and desires. We can develop empathy. And we can, via this empathy and via our own ability to reason, see that a society that punishes young women so harshly and so unfairly is by its very nature immoral.

Well, any lunkhead can see that. (Though, as Pinker points out, plenty of lunkheads in the past didn’t see it. And as my links above show, plenty of lunkheads who are not children of the Enlightenment still don’t see it today.)

What I find more interesting are the contradictions we see in Hardy’s book – contradictions that bring us closer to the question I’m most interested in – how did we get better?

First, let’s consider Angel Clare. It’s saying something that most readers of Tess of the d’Urbervilles hate Angel, mild-mannered and (mostly) peaceful suitor of Tess, at least as much as they hate the rapist Alec. Angel, the child of a preacher and his devout and devoted wife, is probably about as close to an atheist as Hardy could get away with writing in late 19th century Victorian England. While it’s never clear that Angel’s lack of belief is the cause of his immoral treatment of Tess, Hardy makes the point that Angel’s parents, because of their faith-based willingness to forgive sinners, would have advocated for Tess if only they’d known the truth.

I don’t know much about Hardy’s views on religion, though his references to pagan and natural spirituality throughout Tess are suggestive. But I think here Hardy is falling back on old fear and superstition. As religion gradually fell out of favor (a fall that continues to this day), many feared the consequences. I think Hardy is writing Angel’s character as a cautionary tale – without our religious mercy, we are in danger of becoming cold to the messiness of real life. Angel’s lack of belief doesn’t free him – rather, it traps him in a worldview devoid of forgiveness.

(Not that Tess needed forgiven; she was raped! Also, even if she wasn’t, Angel, you just admitted his own infidelity, you hypocrite – so get over yourself! OK, rant over.)

This is hogwash. One of the primary tenets of Enlightenment humanism is that people are fallible. No knowledge is absolute, and therefore no person’s actions are perfect. We all need to forgive one another because we’re all capable of error (again, not that Tess made an error!) If Angel didn’t absorb this lesson, it’s in spite of Enlightenment values, not because of them.

Second, consider the world Tess inhabited. It’s pretty clear that Hardy has strong views about the “old” ways and the “new” ones. Reading about Tess’s experience as a humble milkmaid on a simple dairy farm, one hears the word “bucolic” echoing around as if a thesaurus threw up all over the page. It’s ideal. It’s simple. It’s non-mechanistic. It’s human.

On the other hand, when Tess is forced by Angel’s rejection to take work on a mechanized farm, the images Hardy paints are straight from Hell – fiery furnaces, dangerous, dehumanizing, and exhausting tasks that seem never to end, a heartless supervisor who cares only for profits.

Well, fine. While I suspect that pre-industrial farm life was hardly a walk in the park (the word bucolic always makes me think of catching horrible diseases from animal poop, so maybe I’m biased), there’s no doubt that modernization pressed many workers into harsh and dangerous employment. But what else did it bring?

Pinker again:

One technology that did show a precocious increase in productivity before the Industrial Revolution was book production.

-TBAoON, page 219

Pinker then goes on to describe how increased availability of books, due to mechanical and industrial methods of production, let to greater literacy, which in turn led to greater demand for books, which led to more and more reading. And what were we reading? Novels! Novels that put us in the minds of people different from us. Aristocrats read about the lives of the peasants they’d never known. Whites read about the experiences of black slaves. And men found out what it might be like to be a teenage girl in a society that would shame her for being raped and condemn her for bearing the child of her rapist.

Hardy seems to be saying that our modern world, dehumanizing and merciless, is making us less and less moral. I say he’s got it exactly backwards. We were always immoral – judgmental, short on empathy, more interested in codes and obedience than in rights and freedom. It was the values of the Enlightenment, and the advances in wealth and prosperity that it brought, that allowed us our first tentative escapes from the immoral world of our ancestors. No, that world is not perfect. Yes, modernization can feel dehumanizing. But we can make that better. We can reason with our bosses, and with the government, that better working conditions make for more efficient workers. We can argue that, because you = me, we all deserve safe factories, safe food, better health care, universal education, and free public libraries full of books that expand our reason and our empathy. We are getting better, and it’s because of the Enlightenment and the values it engendered, not in spite of them.

I also say that Tess of the d’Urbervilles would have been better with some space aliens.

Next I’ll be reading Shakespeare’s Othello, another tale about the complications of female purity. That will lead me on to a re-visiting of Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem I faked my way through some 30 years ago. This time, for real.

OK, this is supposed to be a blog about science and wonder. I find myself more and more interested in other subjects, and so I write about them, too. But this time I do have a connection, of sorts.

What an amazing time we live in! I decided to take up another Shakespeare play, The Tempest. I was able to download not just The Tempest but the entire collected works of Shakespeare to my e-reader in a matter of seconds for the great sum of 99 cents. After reading through the play once (and, frankly, missing a lot of the intended action), I found a performance of The Tempest on YouTube by the St. Louis Shakespeare Company. While following along with the text on my Nook, I watched the entire 2+ hour performance on my laptop, pausing, rewinding, and replaying at my leisure. Has their ever been a better time than this?

Miranda

Miranda

So on to the play. The Tempest is a  troublesome play for a modern reader, mostly due to the play’s most interesting character, the man-monster Caliban. It is so tempting, as a modern reader, to see Caliban with modern eyes – as the misunderstood, abused slave who can and will be redeemed. But Shakespeare’s treatment of the character just won’t allow it. The Tempest is filled with bewitching magic, lovely poetry, burning sexual desire, and some truly funny scenes. But it is not, and cannot be transformed into, a treatise on the evils of slavery. Shakespeare portrays Caliban as an ungrateful slave who turns on his master with an ill-conceived and immediately doomed plan, then has Caliban beg for forgiveness and gratefully re-enter the master-slave relationship. One simply cannot escape the plain meaning of the text.

Prospero

Prospero

Shakespeare’s problem is that he’s just too good. Just as with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, just as with Iago and Macbeth and Edmund and probably other villains that I’ve yet to encounter, in Caliban Shakespeare has created a character who at times elicits our sympathy. Here is Caliban’s most memorable quote (from Act 3, Scene 2)

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

Caliban

Caliban

 

If the man-monster can have thoughts like these, then are we really meant to dispise him? Why does Prospero hate Caliban so? Well, Shakespeare gives the reason – Caliban’s attempted rape of Prospero’s daughter Miranda, and his boasting of it later:

“O ho, O ho! Would’st had been done!/Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else/This isle of Calibans.”

I’m beginning to believe more and more that Shakespeare is interesting not so much in what he gives us from the 1600s but in how we interpret Shakespeare today. I’ve written already about the wholly modern, and un-Shakespearean, twist that Patrick Steward gives Macbeth in delivering the Scot’s last line. I love that ending, because it twists Shakespeare’s meaning in a way that is, somehow, still true to the struggle about which Shakespeare was writing, the struggle between the old world of revenge and violence and the new world of ideas and justice. This is the very struggle that Steven Pinker writes about in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and both here and in The Tempest I think we see a glimpse into the very struggle about which Pinker writes.

According to Harold Bloom in Invention of the Human, Caliban has become the politically-driven focus of many modern versions of The Tempest, and it is unfortunate.

“(Caliban) has become an African-Caribbean heroic Freedom Fighter. This is not even a weak misreading; anyone who arrives at this view is simply not interested in reading the play at all.”

I understand what Bloom is saying here, but I take a different meaning from this need to actually follow Shakespeare’s words. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare creates a deeply interesting character in Shylock, but any reading that papers over the blatant antisemitism of the play misses something crucial.  In the same way, the interesting character of Caliban cannot cover up the fact that Shakespeare, a man of his time, had an unfortunate view of race, station, class, and slavery. To try to cover that up that error in Shakespeare’s morality misses something crucial.

Shakespeare was an amazing writer, but his morals were in many ways the morals of late 16th-early 17th century England. Just as we have made scientific and technological progress since those times, as Pinker points out in The Better Angels of Our Nature, we’ve made moral progress. as well. Just as Newton stood on the shoulders of giants to see further into the natural world, we stand on the shoulders of those who made slavery, racism, antisemitism, sexism, and homophobia the moral wrongs we recognize them as today.

We know the forced conversion of Shylock is a great evil; we know that the continued enslavement of Caliban is a great evil. We can look back now and see that even a writer as talented and sophisticated as Shakespeare didn’t know, yet we do. We’re getting better, one small step at a time. And that, maybe more than anything else, is the positive message to take from the troublesome play The Tempest.

I love Shakespeare.

I’ve been having a great time reading and watching plays, reading and listening to Yale professor Harold Bloom’s book Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human, and reading Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare.

Reading Asimov’s chapter on Hamlet last night, I came across the passage in which Hamlet compares Polonius, father of Ophelia, to Jephthah, a character in the Old Testament Book of Judges. How had I missed this story before?

If you’ve followed my writing, you know how I feel about the much more famous story of Abraham and Isaac. The story of Jephthah is in many ways even more horrible, and sheds new, horrible light on Abraham. Jephthah goes off to war, promising that if God grants him victory he will sacrifice to God the first thing he sees upon returning home. Any fan of Greek tragedy knows what will happen next; Jephthah indeed is victorious, and who should greet him upon his return but his only child, a daughter who remains unnamed. I’ll call her Pam.

Pam dances out the door to greet her father, but remembering his vow to God Jephthah instantly rips his clothes in agony. Seriously, whom did he expect would greet him at his door? A goat? The neighbor’s kid?

Jepthahs Daughter-640px

Pam, being the dutiful daughter, quickly learns of her father’s rash vow, and tells him he must keep it. She asks for two months to go off into the mountains to “mourn her virginity.”

Um, OK. I’d be using that two months to find myself a new place to live. But that’s not the O.T. way. Pam returns and Jephthah does what he promised to do. So long Pam.

Upon reading this story I instantly went to the apologists’ web sites. Surely there must be some other explanation. Why would God have made such a big deal about outlawing child sacrifice only to have it practiced here? Sure enough, the apologists were on the job. Parsing language and finding double meanings in words (and really means or and so on), they’ve decided that Jephthah didn’t sacrifice Pam. Instead, he simply forced her into a convent for the rest of her life – hence the “mourning her virginity” bit.

Well, OK. Though the Jewish interpretation is the straightforward one – Jephthah killed his daughter – and the Christian interpretation was the same for over a thousand years, sometime in the Middle Ages someone decided to start whitewashing the event. OK, fine. I’ll give it to you. If you really, really insist, Jephthah didn’t kill his daughter. Instead, he forced her to give up any sort of life she might have wanted. Later in the chapter, it is stated that the women of the area mourn for Pam’s lost liberty four times a year. That doesn’t sound like someone who lived a happy, well-adjusted life. What’s lost in the whitewashing of this story is that even the sanitized, sacrifice-free version is a terrible, terrible story of someone who, through no fault of her own, had her life destroyed by someone who was supposed to love and protect her. Way to go, God.

Once again, we see two contrasting views of life. In one, we are free agents. We make our own choices. We find our own truth. In another, we’re playthings of a capricious and bloodthirsty deity who cares more for rules and regulations than individuals. The story is one of obedience over free expression. Isn’t Pam wonderful to give up all Earthly pleasures just for the sake of fulfilling her father’s poorly thought-out vow? Isn’t it great of Jephthah, who later would be celebrated as a man of integrity, to live up to his promise to God, no matter the cost to anyone else? In the same way that Abraham passed his God test by proving his own spinelessness, Jephthah passed by demonstrating that nothing and no one matters in the face of a meaningless promise to an invisible sky-daddy.

We humans can do better than this.

Shakespeare, of course, turned the story on its head, showing Ophelia utterly destroyed by the three men in her life who mattered to her – her father Polonius, her brother Laertes, and of course Hamlet himself. While in the O.T. the story is some sort of triumph of servile obedience, in Hamlet the story is the saddest of tragedies, in which the only decent character in the play is reduced to a lifeless corpse over which a dumber-than-rocks brother and a self-absorbed ex-lover can shout at one another.

ophelia's funeral

I love Shakespeare.

On my recent flight to Florida I took a break from reading Moby-Dick and switched to my favorite Hemingway book, The Old Man and the Sea. Maybe it was because I was on my way to the warm, sunny Gulf of Mexico, but after Melville’s overblown descriptions of the deep, dark sea and the deep, dark creatures that dwell within it, Hemingway’s terse yet elegant description of the waters of the Gulf stream were a joy, flowing through my mind like those very waters I approached. I read non-stop during the flight and finished the book (ok, it’s pretty short) just before we landed.

I think there’s a lot to be learned in comparing these two books – not an accident, I think, as Hemingway wrote to a publisher that Melville was one author he was still trying to beat. Did he? Hmmm . . .

Santiago is the eponymous Old Man (I’ve always wanted to use the word eponymous), an aging fisherman who has struck a run of bad luck – 84 days without a fish. His luck has been so bad that he’s lost his helper and his student, a boy named Manolin. Manolin’s father insists the boy join another boat, and so he does so, though he still takes care of the old man each morning and each evening. Once the boats sail, there is nothing Manolin can do to help the old man. For over a month Santiago has gone out alone, with only his oars, his sail, his meager fishing gear – and a lifetime of experience.

Today, a lovely day on a lovely warm ocean in the month of September (“The month when the great fish come – anyone can be a fisherman in May”), Santiago’s luck changes. He hooks a great fish – not just any fish, but the largest marlin the old man has ever seen. If only he had the boy, Santiago could bring this great fish in and change everything. But Santiago doesn’t have the boy. He has only himself.

old man and the sea

Santiago is a romantic:

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

But he’s also a realist:

“He is a great fish and I must convince him, he thought. I must never let him learn his strength nor what he could do if he made his run. If I were him I would put in everything now and go until something broke. But, thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able.”

To me this passage carries all the weight and all the difference between The Old Man and the Sea, which I love, and Moby-Dick, which still haunts me. Santiago does what he does out of love of life, love of the sea and his part in it, love of the act of living. He realizes that the fish is neither good nor evil – the fish merely is. The fish’s strength comes with no malice, no evil intelligence, no conspiracy with the fates. The fish simply is. Nature simply is. Nature is indifferent to our suffering – and in the end, that in some sense makes nature even scarier, and makes our struggle that much sweeter. We bring meaning into this world. We depend on ourselves, our will, our intelligence, our ability to think through our pain, to overcome our adversity, to remain resolute in the face of defeat. We willingly take on the struggle that the indifferent universe poses. We choose.

By contrast, Ahab wants vengeance – vengeance on an animal that was only trying to defend itself. I’m still torn on the issue of how Melville characterizes Moby Dick. I believe, I think this is true, that Moby Dick is made a monster in the secondhand tales and hearsay, but in the actual flesh (remember we don’t meet the whale in person until the final three chapters of this long and complex book), Moby Dick seems like an animal – clever, yes, but hardly malicious, and graceful, like Santiago’s fish – until finally (out of, I believe, desperation to end the persecution) Moby Dick crushes himself against the Pequod, both sinking the boat and almost certainly killing himself.

If this is really Melville’s opinion of the whale, then Ahab is sadly deranged, and in an interesting way the mirror opposite of Santiago. Ahab sees evil intent where only indifference lies. Ahab, who comes so close to self-realization, self-actualization, self-choice, falls back on the ideas of fate and destiny, God and prophesy, and we as mere pawns in a game whose outcome is already decided. Melville refuses to choose. I simply can’t come to grips with this failure. It haunts me.

Santiago seems at first glance to fail nearly as completely as Ahab. Yes, Santiago does finally kill his fish (hope I didn’t give anything away there), but then the fish is devoured by sharks on the way back home. Santiago ends his journey with nothing but a skeleton, a boatful of ruined gear, and an old and devastated body. But Santiago has won. The boy, Manolin, upon spotting the great skeleton, upon seeing Santiago’s wrecked boat, upon finding the old man exhausted and starved, makes a choice. He will stay with the old man. He will fish with the old man. The old man will teach Manolin all he knows: about fishing; about life; about the struggle against indifferent nature, the struggle to know and test and experience our own selves. And what more could any of us ask for?

Santiago, a great fan of “the baseball” asks Manolin to “think of the great DiMaggio”. I say, think of the great Santiago.

A few days ago I wrote about Ophelia, the tragic heroine of Hamlet. Tonight the ladies and I returned to Schiller to catch the entire play, rather than just the first half. It was wonderful.

I watched Ophelia closely, particularly in the second half of the play that we’d missed in the previous performance due to the stage malfunction. Throughout Ophelia’s madness, a thought occurred to me.

What if Ophelia is pregnant?

I couldn’t shake this idea, though I had no real evidence for it. A little research showed that I was far from the first to make this guess. There are many allusions to pregnancy, particularly unwanted pregnancy, in the play. I’ll mention two scenes here.

In the cruel scene in which Hamlet destroys Ophelia while both Polonius and Claudius listen, he tells her to “Get thee to a nunnery!” Maybe Hamlet really means a brothel, the common interpretation. But what if he really is referring to a place for unwed women to go when they’ve become pregnant? More cruelly, though, Hamlet complains that “it were better that my mother had not borne me.” A rotten thing to say to the woman you’ve just knocked up – but then, Hamlet’s pretty rotten here. Then there’s this line:

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough;

God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another:

I first read this as being all about makeup and looking pretty. But could “another” face mean the face of a newborn? Certainly a trick men can’t pull off.

you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nickname God’s creatures,

Again, I’d interpreted this as youth and exuberance as an enticement to men, but could it also be an allusion to young motherhood, full of baby talk and nicknames for the child?

Not the strongest of evidence, I admit. At the least, though, this reading makes me think about Hamlet wanting to avoid fatherhood along with all the other adult things he wants to avoid. He sees, now, growth and life as “rank”, overgrown, festering, and death as preferable to all of it, if only he did not have bad dreams (dreams of Hell for killing himself).

More telling, I think, are Ophelia’s handing out of flowers. The flowers are not random; they’re incredibly significant. In particular, Ophelia gives to the queen and to herself a flower called rue. Rue means what you think it might mean from the name: regret. But it also has another meaning. Rue is a contraceptive; also it causes abortions.

Ophelia gives some to the queen. Imagine what would happen if the queen gave birth to a son by Claudius. Who would be the next in line for the throne, Hamlet or the new baby? Had he a son by Gertrude, Claudius would have great reason to have Hamlet killed. Ophelia, to the very end here, is trying to protect the man she loves.

But Ophelia also keeps some rue for herself. She tells the queen to “wear your rue with a difference.” (as a contraceptive). For Ophelia, perhaps the rue has a different purpose.

ophelia flowers

Did Ophelia drown herself to avoid giving birth to a child the world would not accept? A child the evil Claudius would fear and despise? A child Hamlet himself has (knowingly or unknowingly) already rejected with his words? I don’t think Shakespeare makes it clear that this is the case – and he certainly could have in the text. Maybe it was just too shocking. However, there’s enough here about conception, about pregnancy, about childbirth, to elicit some thought, and build yet another layer into an amazingly deep and complex play.

Saturday night the ladies and I went to see Hamlet in Schiller Park. Both girls were enraptured. Sadly, the stage was not as riveted, and fell apart during the first half of the play. After intermission they decided to cancel the second half. We’re planning on going back Friday night.

Alyssa and I agreed to read the play together in preparation for seeing it Friday. I finished this morning, and can’t get one image out of my mind. It is the image of a drowned Ophelia. Her death is for me the true tragedy of the play, the most poignant moment in the manuscript; all the rest feels pointless.

Photography by Janine Joffe

Ophelia – Photography by Janine Joffe

The play begins with the king, Hamlet’s father, already dead two months or more, and Hamlet in the throes of depression over it. We learn by and by that Hamlet and Ophelia had been canoodling (at the very least) well before the king’s death. It’s quite clear to me that their activities involved more than just a few love letters passed under the table in study hall.

Whether or not Hamlet’s depression has had an effect on his relationship with Ophelia isn’t clear. What is clear, however, is that once Hamlet sees his father’s ghost, and is commanded by that ghost to seek revenge for his father’s murder, Hamlet throws Ophelia away like last week’s Frikadeller (I looked it up). Later, Hamlet plays with Ophelia, as much to say that she’s fine for a little hanky-panky, but will never again get to him as she once had in his pre-woman-hating days. Ophelia, who knows she’s given awaythe one thing her society values in a woman to a man now incapable of returning her intimacy, is destroyed.

Later we see Ophelia unhinged. Whether it was Hamlet’s rejection, his later accidental killing of Ophelia’s overbearing father, or a combination of these is never clear, though I have my suspicions. The death of the father (Polonius) is inconsequential. It is the death of Hamlet’s love for her, or what Ophelia took for love, that has ruined the girl. At any rate, in short order Ophelia plays no small part in her own drowning.

Why did Hamlet do this horrible thing to a girl who’d done nothing to him? Two reasons, I think. One, once he knows the truth about his father’s murder at his uncle’s hands, Hamlet recognizes that his life will never be the same. No matter what action he takes (he believes), the simple joy he felt with Ophelia is gone forever. Hamlet, being a child, takes this out on Ophelia out of sheer immaturity. Two, his father’s ghost commanded Hamlet not to visit any harm upon Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet clearly blames his mother for much of what has happened, yet since Hamlet won’t disobey his dead father, he redirects this anger and frustration on the only other female character in sight, Ophelia.

These actions are inexcusable. After this, I didn’t really care what happened to Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, or Rosencrantz and Gildenstern (or is it Gildenstern and Rosencrantz?) It is Ophelia’s death that is the tragedy here, a death brought on by a society that valued women for only one thing, and barely for that.

Our own society is far from perfect, but I’m happy in the knowledge that we live in a time when my own daughters have choices that Ophelia could likely never have imagined.

Get thee to a nunnery, indeed. There is something rotten in the state of Denmark, and his name be Hamlet.

 

This year my family and I are visiting Sanibel Island on the Gulf Coast of Florida. As usual on these ocean pilgrimages, I plan on taking my daily early-morning walk on the beach to see what I will see.

Our trip is still a few weeks away, and will fall in the heart of sea turtle nesting season. Already, there are thousands of baby turtles safe and snug in the sands of Sanibel. Will this be another near-record year for loggerheads in Florida? Check out this website to watch the daily egg count tick ever upward.

http://www.seaturtle.org/nestdb/?view_beach=337.

In other ocean news, I’ve joined an online reading of Moby Dick.

http://roofbeamreader.com/2014/05/18/moby-dick-a-whale-of-a-read-along-sign-up-post/

I’m looking forward to perhaps gaining some insight into why this book is still haunting me nearly two years after I read it the first time.

I recently finished a book called Melville’s Quarrel with God. The author, Lawrance Thompson, makes the argument that Melville was even more anti-religious than I’d intimated in my own review of Moby-Dick, that Melville’s whole point in writing his “wicked book” was to explore a world with a malevolent, bullying god in charge.

Thompson makes a strong argument, but I think it falls down when we see how Melville’s hero Ahab ultimately fails as a person once he rejects God. I agree with Thompson when he says Melville quarreled with God throughout the book. What Thompson doesn’t quite touch, where both he and Melville swing at nothing but air, is this: once God is rejected, then what?

I also recently finished, once again, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, just because I wanted to. And I found myself forced to consider this same question with Mark Twain’s (and my own) hero Huck. Huck rejects God just as surely as Ahab does, when he says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” And now I see that Huck fails, too, just as surely as Ahab fails.

Huck’s failure comes from his primary character trait: he will not rise above. As a result, Huck goes along with all of Tom Sawyer’s ridiculous and dangerous plans. This makes me reconsider the Boggs-Sherburn incident earlier in the book, where Sherburn expresses his belief that people are cowards. Is Huck, despite his resolution on the raft, also a coward? Is that what Twain was getting at with his “Tom Sawyer” chapters?

When I wrote about the book a while ago, I was undecided on whether or not those final chapters, the ones taking place on the Phelps’ farm, were just Mark Twain giving in to the temptation to be funny, or were instead something deeper. Now that I see these chapters as an intentional failure, much like Ahab’s intentional failure, I think I like them even less. Are these failures necessary? Is it necessary for every hero to fail, just as Hamlet, Macbeth, Achilles, and all the rest fail? In this case Twain inserts a pat ending on Huck’s failure, showing that it was all OK in the end, a deus ex machina provided by Sawyer himself. I think here Twain is expressing his ultimate pessimism about humanity. While rejecting God, I think Twain is rejecting man, too. After all, as Twain knew all too well (though Melville either would not or could not face this ultimate horror), man created God in his own image. If God is a bully, it is only because man needed one.

That’s too depressing for me. Next I’ll write about a much more positive book, The Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark. Tegmark has some wild ideas, but also much in common with David Deutsch. Now I’m beginning a new book, Infinitesimal by Amir Alexander. Too early to tell, but it seems to be about a time when man refused to fail. I’ll let you know.

 

As I’ve written before, I hate fiction.

Lord of the Flies is a book  by William Golding. I read it in high school, and found it both intriguing and terrifying. But now I’ve read Pinker, and I’ve read Deutsch, and that has changed everything.

I just finished Lord of the Flies again. It isn’t hard to sum up the message of the book. “What evil lies in the heart of men (er, um, boys)?” The first time I read the book the message resonated with me. I was deeply interested in the question of evil. Are we basically good, but trapped in a society that drives us to evil acts? Or are we basically evil, with the veneer of society (barely) keeping us from one another’s throats?

It was clear to me then. I was of the former persuasion; this book was of the latter. It was a challenge to me, and I remember convincing myself (rather unconvincingly) that the boys who turned to savagery had been trained by the society in which they were raised. After all, I said to myself, they are only on this island because they themselves were escaping war. War was pounded into their good little hearts from the beginning. How could they have become anything other than what they were? Society made them evil.

Golding, I believe, had just the opposite opinion, and would respond by saying that we had created that society, we had created that war. Even after all the years of bloodshed, we still hadn’t learned our lesson. Here we were, bombing and killing even now as we try to teach our children better.

What a pair of simple souls. Now I know better. The choice  is a false one. All evil results from a lack of knowledge. And there was plenty of missing knowledge on that island.

This is not a condemnation of the boys. They were faced with the task of creating a new society. That the society they finally formed was an immoral, irrational, awful mess is no surprise. Almost every society in the history of humankind has been an immoral, irrational, awful mess.

These boys, however, came from the West. They tried to emulate what they’d learned of the grownup world. Ralph found the conch, the symbol of civilization, lawful rule, and reasoned discussion. The boys tried to create knowledge. They used Piggy’s glasses to create fire. They made smoke to send a signal to the outside world. They tried to encourage creative thought and rational criticism. And they almost succeeded.

In the end, they failed. The beast became their god. The conch was destroyed, along with Piggy, the voice of reason on the island. Anti-rational memes are powerful things, and humans are imperfect, prone to error, bound to make mistakes. The biggest mistake of all, the one that proved literally fatal, was the suppression of criticism, the use of violence rather than discussion, the slavish devotion to ritual and superstition instead of creative thought and critical analysis.

pig-head5

But why the beast? Why the failure? What is it about humans that makes us so bad at government? This is what Golding was trying to get at, and where in the end I think he failed, falling back on the evil in men’s hearts business. I don’t know any better than Golding did, but I do know this. It’s easy to be wrong, and hard to be right. All our knowledge is fallible. The West, the Enlightenment, civilization, are far from perfect. But they’re our only hope.

My hope comes from a human trait that Golding little explored, but that I believe is deep and ingrained. When you have a sore in your mouth, you have to touch it with your tongue, even though you know it will hurt. When you hear a bump in the night, you have to go see what it is, even though you may be frightened. When God told Eve not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, what did she do? Crunch!

The beast was only a dead parachutist. Golding made one enormous error in having only Simon ever try to find this out. We all wanted to know. That’s why Golding told us. The boys would have wanted to know, too. They would have gone. They would have investigated, despite their fear. They would have poked the beast with a stick, ran, slunk back, poked again. Finally, they would have learned the truth.

That same trait, of course, led to the “atom bomb” war that Golding was so convinced was our destiny. The keys to heaven and hell are identical. But we cannot ignore them.

If the beast is in us, as Simon tells learns via the terrifying pig’s head, then our only chance is to go face the beast, journey to the mountain, stare the creature down with the only tools we have, our rational selves.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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