Thursday, December 31, 2009
The message, of course, is that the Internet cares far more about what I have to say about cartoons than what I have to say about literature--which isn't really surprising. Too bad I'm pretty much out of thoughts on cartoons.
If anyone is interested, our most-downloaded podcast is Episode #4: God and Country. It's not one of my favorites, but that's the one people apparently were intrigued by.
Happy New Year, everyone (and new decade, whatever the naysayers say). Here's hoping 2010 is better than 2009--and that the teens are better than the aughts.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
(And yes, there were others—New York, settled by the Dutch as a fur-trading outpost and a center of American business ever since; Savannah, Georgia, originally founded as a refuge from English debtors prisons and the best laid-out city I’ve ever visited; St. Augustine, the oldest city in North America, or so the board of tourism says, founded by the Spanish while John Winthrop was just a gleam in his daddy’s eye. But it’s Massachusetts and Virginia, with Philadelphia in between but belonging mostly to the latter, that made the difference during this country’s infancy. Of the seven men labeled as the major Founding Fathers by Richard B. Morris, only two—John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, of New York City—and it wasn’t until Andrew Jackson in 1829 that we’d have a president from anywhere other than Massachusetts or Virginia.)
And yet these two Americans were not as separate as it might appear, in that the Puritan worldview—stripped, to some extent, of its religious baggage—filtered its way down to Philadelphia and Virginia. In his book The American Jeremiad, Sacvan Bercovitch notes that the two baseline principles of “Yankee” America, “multidenominational religion and the sacral view of free-enterprise economics” were natural heirs of Puritanism:
Both these developments were rooted in the heterodox tenets established a century before: the moral distinction between the Old World and the New (as between Egypt and Canaan), the chosen people whose special calling entailed special trials, and above all a mythic view of history that extended New England’s past into an apocalypse which stood “near, even at the door,” requiring one last great act, one more climactic pouring out of the spirit, in order to realize itself.Bercovitch’s analysis explains something puzzling at the heart of the political tracts put out by Deists at the time of the American Revolution. How could a group of people who didn’t believe in God’s providence still see America as, in Winthrop’s famous words, “a city on a hill”? For there can be little doubt that this is how our Founding Fathers saw their country.
Let’s take the instructive example of Thomas Paine, the Deist or atheist (the debate rages on) who coined the phrase “The United States of America” and who wrote the wildly popular anonymous tract Common Sense a mere six months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Very early on, he makes the bold statement that “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.” Leaving aside the truth or falsity of this statement for now, we can safely say that it is an early, though probably not the earliest, instance of secular American exceptionalism. Paine may use the language of the Puritans, but he’s not claiming that it will be the avenue to lead all of the elect to Christ and thus bring on the tribulation and the millennium. Rather, it is America’s secular government that will serve as the Great Example for the rest of the world.
But Paine’s very secular purpose relies on the Bible for much of its argument. A Deist, he did not believe in the accuracy of the Bible, but he nevertheless appeals to its authority, spending several pages conducting what amounts to a Puritan-style exegetical and political sermon. Problem is, his exegesis is lousy: “In the early ages of the world, according to the scripture chronology, there were no kings; the consequence of which was there were no wars; it is the pride of kings which throw mankind into confusion.” Such a statement is true only if one considers Moses, Joshua, and the Judges to be kings—war very clearly predates kingship in the Hebrew Bible.
But Paine has to use the scriptures to make his point precisely because of the remnants of the Puritan legacy in America—our New England forefathers always viewed themselves as a sort of new Israel, whose success was guaranteed because of biblical prophecies that predicted the maintenance and triumph of the faithful remnant. (This was not a metaphor for the American Puritans; they saw themselves speaking literal truth when they equated ancient Israel with seventeenth-century America.) So Paine’s use of the scriptures has a specific historical purpose, and, as Bercovitch notes, it marks a turning point when Puritan rhetoric became distinctly secular.
I am more interested in the present-day effects of Paine’s rhetoric, however. I argued in episode three of The Christian Humanist that America is not and never has been a “Christian nation” in the sense that the Christian right asserts that it was. My co-host David Grubbs quite rightly brought up the religious language of our (mostly secular) Founding Fathers, and if he agreed with me that the Christian right misreads the facts, he insisted that they have a leg to stand on.
Fair enough, and now we understand why. You’d have to flash forward 225 years from Tom Paine to Karl Rove to find a nonbeliever so cynically willing to use religious language to persuade religious believers to adopt a political viewpoint, and, as with Rove, it worked for Paine. The Revolution was conducted, if not on religious grounds, at least using religious language, even though Paine, Jefferson, Madison, et al, had no real intention of making the United States a “Christian nation.”
And yet it backfired. Every time a Christian conservative appeals to the mythic past of those religious founding fathers (you simply must watch this video, for example, which must have required more time and effort to upload to YouTube than to research and write), they are seizing on an intentional ambiguity in the writings of men like Thomas Paine. Use religious language when you don’t wish to adopt that religion, and you end up with generations of people who can’t tell your real views.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
- More on science fiction and fantasy
- Book recommendations for Sam Mulberry
Christmas in the Medieval Era
- David reiterates the complexity of Medieval Europe
- Christmas and kings
- An Arthurian Christmas
- Where have all the jousters gone?
Washington Irving’s Rediscovery of Christmas
- The Puritan and American Wars on Christmas
- Geoffrey Crayon goes to England
- Mix of secular and religious traditions
- The weird bachelor uncle
- Irving misses tradition
- Santa Claus
A Christmas Carol
- Why are we so afraid of Scrooge?
- David questions his cynicism
- Warning: Don’t let your children listen to this section!!!!
- Scrooge’s rational skepticism and misanthropy
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
- Michial prepares for the flame emails
- Scrooge removed from motivation
- Physical disability
Merry X-Mas, Everyone
- “JESUS IS NOT AN X!!!!!!”
- Michial defends X-Mas objectors
- In which Nathan Gilmour looks like a total bumpkin
- Dreaming of a White Christmas with the KKK
The 21st-Century “War on Christmas”
- Not an attempt to destroy Christmas
- Born of inclusivity
- Protests against public display of religious paraphernalia
- Economic impetus for Christmas
- Ties to the 24-hour news cycle
- Ham-fisted inclusivism
- Why is this only in America?
Is There a Conspiracy?
- Are there supernatural forces at play here?
- A question of data interpretation
- Are we dealing with a broader intellectual or cultural trend?
How Shall We Then Live?
- Secular and religious Christmas festivals
- Advent carols
- David Grubbs tells us the real story of St. Nicholas
- You can’t go home again
Abbott, Edwin Abbott. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007.
Irving, Washington. Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Complete. Teddington: Echo Library, 2007.
---. The Sketch-Book. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Morte Darthur. Ed. Stephen H.A. Shepherd. New York: Norton, 2003.
Moore, Clement. The Night Before Christmas: Heirloom Edition. Philadelphia: Running Press Kids, 2001.
Powers, Tim. Declare. New York: HarperTorch, 2002.
---. On Stranger Tides. Northridge, Cal.: Babbage, 2006.
Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. New York: Penguin, 1998.
Seuss, Dr. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! New York: Random House, 1957.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Marie Borroff. New York: Norton, 2009.
Updike, John. Rabbit, Run. New York: Fawcett, 1996.
Monday, December 7, 2009
My committee added a few women writers of the early days of the republic to my comprehensives list, however, and it was with a certain amount of dread that I looked forward to Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple and Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie. How wrong I was. These two books are by far the most enjoyable and interesting pieces I’ve read thus far from the days before the American Renaissance—and the fact that I’d not heard of them until this year suggests a tragic and gaping hole in my education.
Charles Brockden Brown is justly called the father of American literature, but just as often he’s rather unjustly called the first American novelist of note. I am, let me be clear, a fan of the Canon and think that every student of literature, no matter what his or her specific area of study, should have to read the “classics” (preferably in a multiple-semester and interdisciplinary core curriculum required of all university students, but that’s a topic for another post).
I am therefore generally unsympathetic toward arguments that call the Canon racist or sexist or otherwise exclusionary—I am certain that women writers from the Elizabethan era would be added to the Canon were there enough of them of the same quality as Shakespeare, Marlowe, etc., and it is not Shakespeare’s fault that there is no female Hamlet, Aphra Behn notwithstanding. (Another topic for another time: I do accept Paul Lauter’s suggestion that the Academy should have multiple canons, but even so, I wish to maintain the large one in the center, even though it’s composed of Dead White Men. Oronooko is simply not as important as Dr. Faustus, not as influential or as important to Western culture. I have not read it, but I suspect it is also not as good. Please no comments calling the Canon into question.)
So it means something when I say that Brown is unjustly called the first American novelist of note. One of the first things one learns about Charlotte Temple is that it was the first American bestseller, and among the next things one learns is that more than two hundred editions of the novel were printed between its first appearance in 1791 and its virtual disappearance from study in the early twentieth century. It sold far more copies than Wieland or Edgar Huntly, inspired far greater devotion, and was much more of a cultural touchstone. It seems obvious that Rowson is both the mother of American literature and our true first novelist of note.
But its cultural impact wouldn’t matter if it were a mere eighteenth-century version of Twilight, a weepy melodrama for young women that had nothing to say to the larger world. (God help my academic descendents who will have to fight against Stephanie Meyer’s inclusion in the Canon.) No, Charlotte is incredibly rich for its genre (sentimental romance) and length (just over one hundred pages in my edition); its message is complex and not easily stated, and its actors move beyond the stock characters who generally populate such novels.
Rowson sets Charlotte Temple up as a moralistic tale of a fallen woman, taking breaks throughout the narrative to reassure readers (constantly assumed to be either impressionable young women or their censoring matrons) that the moral is forthcoming. But it never really does—Charlotte falls, but she does so even after doing her very best to live uprightly, and unlike many other novels of this type, her seducer genuinely loves her and provides for her even after external circumstances move him to leave her.
You can find the criticism in your local university’s database that will tease out the implications of the plot-moral dualism in Charlotte Temple to much more effect than I am willing or able to in this space. I bring it up only to note that it’s far more complicated and intellectually engaging than the canonical novels of Charles Brockden Brown—who set out to raise moral questions, best I can tell.
As good as Charlotte Temple is, however, it pales in comparison to Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, first published several decades later as Early Times in Massachusetts. When Sedgwick is discussed at all—apparently a relatively and tragically rare occasion—it is as either a domestic novelist amongst domestic novelists, i.e., an American Jane Austen; or else it is as a female counterpart to James Fenimore Cooper’s frontier romances.
I must take this opportunity to express my absolute loathing of James Fenimore Cooper. I don’t hate him as much as Mark Twain famously did, but I’ve read both The Last of the Mohicans and The Pioneers, and if the former is bearable for the interest of its implications about race, the latter is among the most boring books I’ve ever read. Cooper has a lot of characters in these novels—characters who never, with a very few exceptions, rise above their status as characters to become human beings (especially not Natty Bumppo). The plots are interesting enough in places, but Cooper can’t write a battle scene to save his life. These are, simply put, bad books.
Not so with Hope Leslie, which covers the Pequod uprisings of the seventeenth century with far more grace than that with which Cooper handles the French and Indian War in The Last of the Mohicans. The characters ring true—the titular protagonist has more depth in the course of her three hundred pages than Cooper grants to Bumppo in more than a thousand, and her ideas (which, big surprise, is what I really read for) are far richer and more complex than anything Cooper can come up with.
Critics read the novel particularly for Sedgwick’s remarkably progressive views on race and gender. Her most likeable character is Magawisca, an Indian woman who does her very best to function as an emissary between Pequod and white society and ends up torn to pieces for her efforts. (She doesn’t die, but in one particularly gory scene, she has her arm chopped off by a tomahawk while trying to re-enact Pocahontas’ defense of John Smith.) She is tragic but never melodramatic, never approaching the “tragic mulatto” portrayal of race that would prove so popular later in the century. Magawisca is the route by which Sedgwick can express her views on racial reconciliation and female empowerment, but the incredible thing, to say it again, is that her use as a symbol does not detract from the verisimilitude of her portrayal. She is one of the most memorable characters in American literature.
I am ready, in fact, to name Hope Leslie the single greatest American novel before The Scarlet Letter, and to pronounce ex cathedra that no American literature class should ever teach The Last of the Mohicans without teaching it alongside Sedgwick’s far superior novel—unless, of course, the class is called “Novels Called Classics That Aren’t That Good.” It is leaps and bounds above Brown, Cooper, Poe, and all but the best sketches of Washington Irving; it stands with the best of our literature from any era.
I have joked before that I don’t read women authors. Susanna Rowson and Catharine Maria Sedgwick are going a long way in convincing me to change that habit.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Her first problem is that our discussion of science fiction is “too general,” a fact that I admitted to during the podcast itself and will reiterate here: I’ve not read a lot of science fiction, especially the hard genre stuff, and so what I know about the genre is going to be based heavily on the literature that has been picked up by the Academy as transcending its genre.
My entire knowledge of literary science fiction thus boils down to four novels by Robert A. Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land, I Will Fear No Evil, Time Enough for Love, and The Number of the Beast), Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (I’ve not seen Blade Runner, however), and a larger number of novels in the related “dystopian” genre, particularly Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, both of which I have taught in classroom settings. So any statement I make about science fiction is going to be rather limited, a fact which I will freely admit and perhaps should have stressed further on the podcast. I am not qualified to make broad statements about science fiction as a genre.
Beth’s bigger caveat with our discussion revolves around my final mini-lecture on the podcast, in which I talked about some points Percy makes in his excellent self-help parody Lost in the Cosmos. (It’s absolutely the best starting point for Percy, in my opinion—don’t just pick up The Moviegoer; it’ll bore you to tears.) We were running short on time, and since the podcast wasn’t on Percy, I didn’t go into a whole lot of detail about what else he says in that book. Since I have as much space as I want here and since his argument is important to Beth’s objections, I’ll do so now.
One thing Percy does in this book—the main thing for what we’re talking about—is to expand Kierkegaard’s ethical sphere, really to move it into the modern world. Kierkegaard, as you may know, says there are three “stages on life’s way”: the aesthetic, in which a person lives for himself and the moment; the ethical, in which he lives for an idea; and the religious, in which he lives for God. (It’s much more complicated than that, and Kierkegaard wrote at least three books elucidating the spheres.)
So Percy goes about trying to find out who in the modern world best represents the ethical sphere, and his conclusion is that it’s represented by two groups: artists and scientists. The former, however, collapses back into aestheticism too easily, whereas the latter remain firmly convicted of their ethical beliefs “Because science works better, this is the age of science, scientists are the princes of the age.” So scientists are the modern embodiment of the ethical sphere and thus feel most at home in the world.
So when Percy brings up Carl Sagan and asks why he’s so lonely, he’s looking for chinks in that armor. Beth claims that she is “sort of depressed by the assertion that scientists are any more particularly lonely and depressed than anyone else.” The addition of the word depressed changes the meaning of the assertion. If I used it in the podcast, I certainly did not mean to. Percy never claims Sagan is depressed—only that he is lonely, a different kettle of fish. He has a worldview that seems to explain everything, an ethos by which he can live his life—and yet he’s looking for more, against what he knows is all reason. David was right to mark this as a “religious itch”—from my own Christian existentialist perspective, the desire for aliens to come down and increase our knowledge, or fulfill us, or whatever else, is a misdirected version of the first section of Augustine’s Confessions, i.e., “our hearts are restless until they find rest in You.”
(Our introductory music this week was very nearly Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien” incidentally, which is a great musical version of this same notion. The poor narrator of the song is lost in a world where everything is tied up and longs for something outside the circuit to come in and break it.)
Beth points out quite rightly that “just because something is well-understood and categorized doesn't mean it's not still freaking cool” and that scientists often have a sense of wonder about the universe. This is very true. But I didn’t accuse scientific materialism of not having a sense of wonder about the universe (at least I don’t think I did—I have not gone back and listened to the podcast). I accused them of having a worldview that does not allow for mystery as the word is typically understood. It’s true that mystery and wonder are related things, and I could have this wrong, but I see no place for mystery in Enlightenment scientism and the materialism that has followed in its wake and floats around scientific discourse to this day.
She also says that “there's a lot more to science than classifying things, and also, it would be a strange categorization indeed that left out humans,” responding to my reference to Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel, that he designed a system that explained everything, then stepped back and saw that he didn’t fit into it. Obviously science does more than classification, but it begins at classification, or at least classification takes place near the beginning of things—and when scientists can’t classify something (the unclassifiable is coterminous with the mysterious, of course), they are forced to leave it out, to leave it untouched.
(An example: in this Salon.com interview, a journalist asked Richard Dawkins what science can do about the why questions that science cannot answer. Dawkins, somewhat incredibly, actually claimed that such questions are just not worth asking. In other words, there’s no point in asking if there’s a meaning to life. Obviously not every scientist—not even every materialist scientist—is Richard Dawkins, but his attitude is instructive here.)
And while scientific systems may have a place for “humans,” I would argue that materialist science (a distinction which I am sure to make) has no place for the Self as understood by everything from Christian theology to Sartrean existentialism to 18th-century political thought. In my encounters with scientists (popular scientists, of course) who wish to deal with the concept of the Self, they either ignore it altogether (leave it out of their systems as something not worth talking about) or attempt to force it into a narrowly materialist worldview, as I heard Michael Shermer do just last week when he was talking about neuro-biology. The Self is a set of chemical reactions. Under such a schema, the scientist as a Self is left out of his own system in any meaningful way.
Beth helpfully gives me a list of science fiction that is life-affirming, which I appreciate and which I will try to read if I ever finish my comprehensive exams and dissertation (a dodge, yes, but at least I’m admitting it’s a dodge), but I do want to stress that I did not claim science fiction was depressing or nihilistic. In fact, when I brought up Carl Sagan’s loneliness, I said specifically that I was talking about sci-fi in its more optimistic strains. So the relative sadness of T.S. Eliot and Nathaniel Hawthorne vs. Neil Gaiman or Ursula LeGuin is not really relevant here. If anything, I’d argue that the realism I read is far more depressing than the sci-fi I’ve read—and of course there are materialists and non-materialists writing in both genres.
I do have to say one thing about depressing literature, however. Beth specifically calls out Hawthorne for his depressing approach to sin in The Scarlet Letter. (I respectfully disagree.) But she praises an R.A. Lafferty novel that I am not familiar with. Here is her description:
Sin in Lafferty's novels exists to be ridiculous. In The Annals of Klepsis, there is a woman who was exiled for committing the Unspeakable Sin, and she is badgered throughout the novel to reveal the nature of her sin, not so that she can be judged, but just because everyone is really curious about what it was. The most frustrating thing about the novel for the reader is not that this woman sinned and what this says about the treatment of women and society's lack of compassion, but that we never figure out what the Unspeakable Sin was either and we would really like to know, because it sounds fascinating.I have two points here: (a) From my Christian point of view, making sin “ridiculous” rather than something very serious indeed is a grave misstep, and I’d much prefer a depressing novel that treated it seriously than an upbeat one that treated it as a joke; (b) the plot Beth describes parallels Hawthorne’s short story “Ethan Brand” to such a degree that I can only assume it’s an homage to him. So it’s a good thing, I suppose, that not everyone hates Hawthorne. [Insert smiley-faced emoticon.]
At any rate, I hope that clears up any misconceptions I may have given Beth or other listeners about my feelings on science and science fiction. I must again reiterate that I’ve got nothing against science. I just don’t trust materialism; I think it’s bankrupt as a worldview and is a complete failure at explaining the peculiar mystery of what it means to be a human being. Echoing Percy’s question about Carl Sagan’s loneliness was my way of suggesting that something deep inside the materialist is afraid of the same thing.
Thanks to Beth for writing such a long and thoughtful email. She clearly knows much more about science fiction than I do and has thought a lot about it. If you want to respond to anything you hear on The Christian Humanist Podcast, send us an email at email@example.com.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
- Things were busy while David was gone.
- Brief feedback notices.
A Moment of Confession; or, It’s All Geek to Me
- Nathan Gilmour, dungeon-master extraordinaire
- Michial’s Back to the Future obsession
- Has David ever read anything without dwarves in it?
- “Oh, not another [expletive] elf!”
How does speculative fiction relate to mundane reality?
- Questions at the borders of our knowledge
- Humanity as an aesthetic category
- Science fiction and the novel of ideas
- Sex and science
- Realities of human experience
- How black-and-white is the world of fantasy literature?
Speculative fiction and literary realism
- Metaphor and literality
- Madeleine L’Engle’s probable vs. possible
- Separate spheres or cross-pollination?
- Fantasy novel as novel
Ideas in Fantasy Literature
- Interiority interacting with fantastic elements
- Proliferation of Tolkeinian beings
- The nonhuman face of humanity
- To be human means to have potential
Ideas in Science Fiction
- Walker Percy’s ontological lapsometer and the Cartesian split
- Disembodied heads galore!
- How death leads to life
- Man and technology
Christians and Speculative Fiction
- Should Christians read about witchcraft?
- Why witchcraft doesn’t mean today what it used to mean
- The shift from romance to realism
- The materialism of science fiction
- Why is Carl Sagan so lonely?
- The evolution of the vampire
Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Norton, 2001.
Card, Orson Scott. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. New York: Writer’s Digest, 2001.
Chesterton, G.K. Tremendous Trifles: Humorous Sketches. New York: WLC, 2009.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.
Gilgamesh: A New English Version. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Free Press, 2006.
Gibson, William. Count Zero. New York: Ace, 2006.
L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. New York: North Point Press, 2000.
Percy, Walker. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. New York: Picador, 2000.
---. Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. New York: Picador, 1999.
Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. New York: Penguin, 1979.
Tolkein, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: One Volume Edition. New York: Mariner, 2005.