Sunday, December 13, 2015

Review of Catch-22

My advice to anyone who wants to glimpse the brilliance of Heller in half the time and twice the concentration: read Vonnegut.

The irreverent and critical style of Heller is amazing in some ways, especially considering the uptight milieu in which it gained ascendance, and at times it was quite hilarious and illuminating, but unfortunately too much  of it amounts to 500 pages of low-hanging puns and cheap shots to slog through to unearth the gems. Some of his one-liners make his works worthwhile though, and while reading I stay reasonably convinced that he knows what he’s doing and I just need to lighten up. Even so, it is convoluted and laborious for the most part, and I found myself wanting it all to be over after the first hundred pages. I would be embarrassed to say how many days this went on for me, and how many books I started and finished before I put this one to rest. I only hope some of the quotable quotations I put in my back pocket get used in this lifetime, because it is my only justification for the book.

All in all, there just too much great literature that’s current and probably more impactful for someone to waste too much time on this. Hate saying it, but it’s probably past its prime and ready to take its rightful place as one of the ‘classics’ that everyone knows about, but nobody reads.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Some of the best lines from the book:

And if that wasn’t funny, there were lots of things that weren’t even funnier. (17)

He had decided to live forever, or die in the attempt. (29)

‘You mean there's a catch?'
'Sure there's a catch,' Doc Daneeka replied. 'Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy.'
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
'That's some catch, that Catch-22,' he observed.
'It's the best there is,' Doc Daneeka agreed. (46)

Like Olympic metals and tennis trophies, all [military awards] signified was that the owner had done something of no benefit to anyone more capably than everyone else. (72)

Clevenger was dead. That was the basic flaw in his philosophy. (104)

People knew a lot more about dying inside the hospital and made a much neater, more orderly job of it. They couldn’t ; dominate Death inside the hospital, but they certainly made her behave. They had taught her manners. They couldn’t keep Death out, but while she was in she had to act like a lady…People bled to death like gentlemen in an operating room, or expired without comment in an oxygen tent. (166)

“I’m cold, Snowden had whimpered. I’m cold.”
“There, there,” Yossarian had tried to comfort him. “There, there.” (166)

There were billions of conscientious body cells oxidating away day and night like dumb animals at their complicated job of keeping him alive and healthy, and every one was a potential traitor and foe. (172)

He could start screaming inside a hospital and people would at least come running to try to help; outside the hospital they would throw him in prison if he ever started screaming about all the things he felt everyone ought to start screaming about, or they would put him in the hospital. (172)

Each day he faced was another dangerous mission against mortality. (175)

General Peckem even recommends that we send our men into combat in full-dress uniform so they’ll make a good impression on the enemy when they’re shot down. (219)

You put so much stock in winning wars…The real trick lies in losing wars, in knowing which wars can be lost. (245)

There was no way of really knowing anything, he knew, not even that there was no way of really knowing anything. (The chaplain, 266)

Did it indeed seem probable…that the answers to the riddles of creation would be supplied by people too ignorant to understand the mechanics of rainfall? (285)

He wished that he could be young and cheerful, too. And it wasn’t their fault that they were courageous, confident, and carefree. He would just have to be patient with them until one or two were killed and the rest wounded, and then they would all turn out okay. (regarding Yossarian’s hardened, military cynicism beside the buoyant, courageous young recruits, 349)

He felt awkward because she was going to murder him. (394)

When you added them all up [the good people with the bad] and then subtracted, you might be left with only the children, and perhaps with Albert Einstein and an old violinist or sculpture somewhere. (413)

He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in the entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. (440)

When I look up [for ideals] , I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy. (445)

Monday, August 17, 2015

Review of Shaw's The Adventures of the Black Girl and Her Search For God

In a sentence: A strong African woman casts off the restraints of a slave’s religion, challenges whitey’s gods, and pushes through to a way of life that is more natural, productive, and happy.

It doesn’t take long for nearly every intelligent author in the course of their career to weigh in on the one topic most try to avoid until they have had at least a small amount of success under their belt. The question of religion and of God are nearly inevitable in an author’s career, and I enjoy the challenge of searching/waiting for works which reveal authors’ best kept biases and most petty/profound insights. Sometimes I am devastated by the inanity and childishness of the reveal, and other times I am deeply moved and persuaded that there is more to the author than her works generally exhibit. Either way it’s entertaining.

So I was excited to stumble upon a work of George Bernard Shaw that performed quite well on this front. Mr. Shaw has thrown his hat in the ring of authors who have spoken out quite bluntly about God and religion, and he pulled no punches. Not only did Shaw tangle with millennia of Christian tradition—a.k.a. ‘God’—in the epilogue of the book, but he also slammed his atheist brothers and sisters for presuming to banish transcendent ‘meaning’ groped for in a mythos, and castigated agnostics for not committing either way and thinking to sidestep the question altogether (“mere agnosticism leads nowhere”). This much was made explicit only in the essay at the end of the book about the failure of modern Christianity, severed as it is from its original context and embellished and contorted in order to fit two millennia of evolving sensibilities and changing environments. But the beginning and middle of the book didn’t make the final comments any easier for the faithful to swallow.

Shaw’s heroine, called ‘the Black Girl’ throughout, is a smart, strong, African woman with as healthy a glow to her spirit as to her earth-strong skin and body. She was, in Shaw’s words, “a fine creature, whose satin skin and shining muscles made the white missionary folk seem like ashen ghosts by contrast.” And with this social commentary on the rooted superiority of African blood, body, and brain compared to the ‘ashen’ feebleness of their western ‘saviors’, the author sets up a contest between his protagonist the Champion of religion—namely, God. The Black Girl had been converted to Christianity by a sad, single missionary woman who had found no satisfaction in her life, and the Black Girl decides to go travelling through her jungle to see if she could find the real God of the Bible that the missionary had depicted. She strides off into the jungle, her knobkerrie in hand (a sort of club with a knob-tip used in hunting and battle), naked and shameless as the earth who mothered her.

Throughout the story she meets with different versions of the God of the Bible, each representing a successive stage of god-progression from blood-thirsty Lord of Hosts, to the God of Job and Micah, to the ascetic and passive Jesus who speaks of a kind of love that consumes individuals for the sake of the collective and frees no one. She debates with each of these gods, and ultimately moves on in search of a more perfect deity that offers more answers.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the story is when the Black Girl discusses God with a few enlightened westerners, and is told by one of the more honest ones that it were best that the Africans—who were “stronger, cleaner, and more intelligent”—not be taught to believe in the “simple truth that the universe has occurred through Natural Selection, and that God is a fable.” Why would this behoove the Westerners to teach? In the words of one pale-thing, “It would throw them back on the doctrine of the survival of the fittest…and it is not clear that we are the fittest to survive in competition with them...I should really prefer to teach them to believe in a god who would give us a chance against them if they started a crusade against European atheism.”

And there Shaw has put it about as succinctly and potently as he could. The Black Girl has felt the bottom of Christendom, and is ready to break out of the religious labyrinth that had been designed for the Third World by Western imperialists (though I don’t believe that the suppression of Third World freedom by Western religious controls is necessarily a conscious thing in all cases, but I wonder if white faithful folk would change their tune if they weren’t the saviors, and felt more in need of the saving). The Black Girl finds no theology which could deliver to her the perfected essence of the imperfect, traditional, Christian God with its heterogeneous limbs, faces, and purposes. The God she seeks doesn’t exist, and she ends up marrying a good Irishman who believes that “God can search for me if he wants me” (not bad terms to be on with God, if God is good that is). She later becomes a mother, reflects on the futility of wasting her life making assumptions about God and chasing mirages, and in the distraction of living her life and taking care of her family and children, completely loses interest in the search for a God whose absence didn’t ultimately affect her much. Later, after she had raised her children, she considers again taking up the search. But “by that time her strengthened mind had taken her far beyond the stage at which there is any fun in smashing idols with knobkerries.”

A brilliant little ending for a brilliant little book about the triumph of humanity over a few of its stubborn and isolated beliefs. It’s not that Shaw had no appreciation for Christianity—“at worst the Bible gives a child a better start in life than the gutter”—but he urged his fellow Sapiens to put behind them the cruder elements of a faith that must be outgrown, and make progress in the search for what William James called, “the More, and our union with it.” He knew the danger of a closed mind, and when one or more people are not willing to move forward and question tradition, things like Christian religion and the Bible become a little more than an impediment to growth—“[if] we cannot get rid of the Bible, it will get rid of us.”

Now all I need is to find me a knobkerrie and crack some ignorant skulls with it. And…I have learned nothing.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review of Erik and Joan Erikson's "The Life Cycle Completed--Extended Version"

Erik Erikson can drive a person mad with his florid language and abstractions, and his antediluvian sexual stages are nearly nails in his coffin (lo-rest-his-so), but the man and his wife were a force of nature. He never finished his bachelor’s degree, but he knew what it meant to be human. Who does that? The sense kept washing over me that he was jumping ahead of empirical data and taking hold of a reality-in-itself that transcended his case studies. I can’t help thinking that, even when he was wrong, he was right. I personally think he’s bigger than psychology, perhaps fitting more the philosopher-sociologist type with his wide-sweeping anthropologic and reality-unifying theories.

His 8 stages are brilliant, but I think they are basically restatements of the pulse of human ‘becomings.’ The stages represent an opportunity for each person to ‘become more’ or ‘become less’ in the world.

•             Trust (becoming more) vs. Mistrust (becoming less)
•             Autonomy (more) vs. Shame (less)
•             Initiative (more) vs. Guilt (less)

You get the picture. Apparently Joan did too when she wrote, “I am persuaded that only by doing and making do we become.” Each stage either sees a person desiring to become larger with more involvement in the universe by confirming and building on the freedom and success from an earlier stage, or the person desires to withdraw and cover their wounds, to avoid becoming an inflated target and insulate themselves against the hostile environment that is slowly (or quickly) eroding their ego and sense of capability. As an aside, I was explaining this to my 8-year old daughter, and when I asked her what she thought would happen if an infant doesn’t trust its world and begins to withdraw, she answered, “They won’t learn!” This is true, and perfectly describes the stunted growth of a psyche that fears the world and its presence in it. Sartre and the existentialists would have had a few things to say about this, as their definitions of an inauthentic and dysfunctional human being relate closely to those who are attempting to escape from their essential freedom and suffering in the world (without success).

And I have to give a shout out to Joan Erikson (sup Joanie babe!!) for being willing to go back and modify the 8th stage based upon her first-hand account of it which neither she nor Erik could have augured from their 40-year-old-or-so perspectives when they wrote Life Cycle Completed. Like a boss—at 93 years old—she scrawled out a new definition to ‘wisdom’ and ‘integrity’, representing them not merely as virtues—wispy, spiritual attributes of the distanced-from-life—but as qualities of someone who is ‘in-touch’ with life and it’s meanings in a very intimate and mystical way. She kicked ass for old people the world over, and made her voice heard above the melee of the young, proud, and heedless. Joanie babe, if you weren’t dead and rotted, I’d kiss your un-rotted face for your bravery and un-rottedness!

Quotes From the Book:
Epigenesis—step by step growth and gradual differentiation of parts. In embryology as well as psychology, each organ or trait has its time of origin—a factor as important as the locus of the origin. If the eye, said Stockard, does not arise at the appointed time, “it will never be able to express itself fully, since the moment for the rapid outgrowth of some other part will have arrived.” If the organ misses its time of ascendance, it is not only doomed as an entity, it endangers at the same time the whole hierarchy of organs. The result of normal development, however, is proper relationship of size and function among all body organs. (summary with quote)
A sense of defeat [in early childhood]…can lead to deep shame and a compulsive doubt whether one will ever be able to feel that one willed what one did—or did what one willed. (37)
[Ritualization is a way of saying] ‘this is how we do things’…[and has] adaptive the social process...that must do for human adaptation what the instinctive fit into a section of nature will do for an animal species. (42)
[Parents are the first to] help evoke and to strengthen in the infant the sense of a primal other—the I’s counterpart. (44)
The mutual recognition between mother and infant may e a model of some of the most exalted encounters throughout life. (45)
I submit that this first and dimmest affirmation of the described polarity of the ‘I’ and ‘Other’ is basic to a human being’s ritual and esthetic needs for a pervasive quality which we call the numinous: the aura of a hallowed presence. The numinous assures us, ever again, of separateness transcended and yet also of distinctiveness confirmed, and thus of the very basis of a sense of ‘I’. (45)
Play is the infantile form of the human ability to deal with experience by creating model situations and to master reality by experiment and planning. (51)
[Adults, too, play] with past experience and anticipated tasks, beginning with that activity in the autosphere called thinking. (51)
Hope connotes the most basic quality of “I”-ness, without which life could not begin or meaningfully end. (62)
In old age a retrospective mythologizing…can amount to a pseudointegration as a defense against lurking despair. (65)
An immense power of verification [in mature adulthood] pervades this meeting of bodies [sex] and temperaments after the hazardously long human preadulthood. (70)
It seems that the stage of generativity, as long as a threatening sense of stagnation is kept at bay, is pervasively characterized by a supremely sanctioned disregard of death…Youth and old age, then, are the times that dream of rebirth, while adulthood is too busy taking care of actual births and is rewarded for it with a unique sense of boisterous and timeless historical reality—a sense which can seem somewhat unreal to the young and to the old, for it denies the shadow of nonbeing. (80)
The problem is such that so basic a sense of centrality [of the ego] depends for its renewal from stage to stage on an increasing number of others: some of them close enough to be individually acknowledged as an ‘other’ in some important segment of life, but for the most part a vague number of interrelated others who seek to confirm their sense of reality by sharing… (89)

I am persuaded that only by doing and making do we become. (Joan Erikson, 127)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Review of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Nothing I’ve read to date on the the subject of diversity in human perspective comes near to being as eye-opening as this work has been for me. It is probably still one of the brightest lights on the subject, and continues to cause waves in our time as it did in the 60’s when it was severely controversial. It danced on the graves and sacred places of logical positivism (the idea that we can approach absolute reality by pure reason), surpassed post-positivist epistemologies like Karl Popper’s theory of falsification which posited that human ideas only change when we find something wrong with them, and caused bedlam among those who opposed Nietzschean relativism and postmodernism in general. In fact, this work and its ideas are still wreaking havoc among those who attempt to brace the door against the tsunami of an already entrenched postmodernism. The judgment for those who don’t adapt and/or capitulate to a more virile paradigm is severe in any system, but in Kuhn’s it is phrased as an inevitable path towards isolation, imitation, and parasitism. Even if late-adopters finally acquiesce to the novelty of a new paradigm, it may be too late to ‘go native’ with it. An unwilling imitator “may use the new [paradigm] nonetheless, but he will do so as a foreigner in a foreign environment, an alternative available to him only because there are natives already there. His work is parasitic on theirs, for he lacks the constellation of mental sets which future members of the community will acquire through education.” Of course, I’m thinking of latest wave of materialistic scientists, who I love and revere for their genius in their own fields, but who refuse to acknowledge the debt they owe to great thinkers like Wittgenstein and Sartre whom they imitate but don’t thank.  

Regardless of who is who in season 5 of “Paradigm Wars”, the work concerned with in this review—The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—explicates the reality of paradigm competition, paradigm incommensurability, and the process of paradigm succession. As I said, no one comes close to Kuhn in explaining why different people commit to different ideas, and why they seldom change without life-altering circumstances or crises, and sometimes, not even then.

This may be nicely illustrated by a conversation I had with my daughter recently. We were driving along, talking about the belief system I was raised with, and I was explaining how my worldview changed drastically. I felt strangely honored when she said, “Dad, I’m proud of you.” I asked why. She said, “Because you made it out of a religion. Most people grow old with what they believe, and sometimes never make it out.” Wow. Now, to be honest—and my wife made me admit this—I most certainly planted that idea in her head since this wasn’t an isolated conversation; but for her to put those words together for that moment tells me she understands what powerful things worldviews and paradigms are! The chance of coming to terms with the power of paradigms makes this book is so important for people who can understand it, and for those who can help translate the message to the many who will never read it.


To begin, Kuhn begins by defining what a paradigm is, and how it works. A paradigm is a word rescued by Kuhn from the Greek word paradeigma meaning ‘pattern’ or ‘example’. The contemporary use of the word along with the phrase ‘paradigm shift’ owes the shirt off its back to Kuhn. In Kuhn’s usage, a paradigm is essentially a communal worldview that saves people the task of reinventing the ideological wheel. Paradigms are full of rules, definitions, expectations, values, feelings, and views of the world that are heavily inculcated and therefore deeply ingrained in the mind of each member. Paradigm-imprinting is often unconscious, with implicit thinking patters which are ultimately accepted by the member as ‘the way the world is.’ Kuhn brought to the world’s attention how even academic textbooks are assiduously designed to give the impression that they are unbiased and have arrived at a final convergence of all past paths of knowledge and discovery. But even textbooks are subject to paradigmatic bias. Kuhn points out that there is no cumulative ‘one right way’ to think about the world (a point which he revisits later), but rather there are many different simultaneous paradigms that compete with each other and offer different benefits to members of their community.

Normal Science

Are paradigms, then, merely symptoms of human bias and communal narrow-mindedness? Yes and no. Paradigms offer what Kuhn dubs ‘normal science’—the foundation and compliment for all ‘revolutionary science’ which ushers in new, contending paradigms—and it is this normal science which assists paradigms in functioning unimpaired by every stray doubt or question that plagues the human mind. Within an accepted paradigm an individual can rest on certain principles that they believe are true, and science can begin to test those principles in all their nuances and further articulate the theories present in the paradigm without fear of being rushed or waylaid at every corner.

“The restrictions [of normal science’s range of research], born from confidence in a paradigm, turn out to be essential to the development of science. By focusing attention upon a small range of relatively esoteric problems, the paradigm forces scientists to investigate some part of nature in a detail and depth that would otherwise be unimaginable…[and solve] problems that its members could scarcely have imagined and would never have undertaken without commitment to the paradigm.”

Kuhn cites three things that normal science provides which would be untenable in revolutionary science:
1) Theory fact-finding that is undisturbed, unimpeded, and supported by consensus and advanced technology.
2) Theory fact-matching that is a concentrated and sophisticated form of puzzle-solving within a given paradigm.
3) Theory articulation of the paradigm that provides refined language, rules, tools, and minor revision of paradigmatic theories to keep the paradigm afloat.

Normal science is not designed to produce paradigmatic changes, novelties, or facts that aren’t ultimately assimilable into the paradigm. All findings of normal science are either forced into categories to support a paradigm, or they are dismissed as the errors or as limits of the scientist. The reason for this is that the puzzle-solving urge of scientists, and human beings in general, is irresistible and provides rewards in the form of solution-gratification and recognition. This puzzle-solving urge is enough in itself to busy most people for most of their lives, because in it answers are predictable and achievable. This is in direct contrast to the work of revolutionary science in which problems are reconstituted with no ready formulas for attaining solutions or even a guarantee that a solution will be attainable or recognizable in one’s lifetime. In some sense, normal science is much more productive in research and articulation, but it folds in on itself and stymies the process of actual discovery that so many mistake to be its central purpose.

“The scientific enterprise as a whole does from time to time prove useful, open up new territory, display order, and test long-accepted belief. Nevertheless, the individual engaged on a normal research problem is almost never doing any one of these things. Once engaged, his motivation is of a rather different sort. What then challenges him is the conviction that, if only he is skilful enough, he will succeed in solving a puzzle that no one before has solved or solved so well. Many of the greatest scientific minds have devoted all of their professional attention to demanding puzzles of this sort. On most occasions any particular field of specialization offers nothing else to do, a fact that makes it no less fascinating to the proper sort of addict.”

Augmenting the apparent triviality of puzzle-solving that normal science is obsessed with, basic educational models are designed to condition students to learn ideas by plugging theorems and formulas into applied science—learning by rote and practice—which further solidifies the puzzle-solving mentality. This distances the eventual specialist from any contact with problems or values not originally defined by their community’s paradigm, which definitions are often accepted at face value and remain largely unquestioned.  “Though many scientists talk easily and well about the particular individual hypotheses that underlie a concrete piece of current research, they are little better than laymen at characterizing the established bases of their field, its legitimate problems and methods.”

It is a frightening notion that so-called ‘detached’ scientists aren’t so detached after-all—even the tools and rules used to approach problems are only after all a ‘strong network of commitments’—but we have to remember that this is in accordance with the very nature of humanity which is, ipso facto, anything but detached to its desires and goals. We are irremediably invested in goals and aims, many of which we aren’t even completely aware of, and yet what little awareness of our prejudice we can develop will help us to switch our allegiances in as intelligent ways as we can manage when it comes time.


Kuhn, points out again and again that the discovery of new facts which inform new paradigms is not a simple process of accumulating knowledge. Discovery is not merely something that happens when people experience something new. Indeed, discovery happens far later than a first new experience. With new experiences, people are only conscious of a phenomenon which defies established categories as ‘something that has gone wrong’, or an anomaly. Kuhn gives the example of the discovery X-rays. In a normal investigation of cathode rays by the physicist Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895, a piece of lab equipment seemed to arbitrarily glow on the other side of the room. Further investigation of the phenomena, and many experiments later, Rontgen was able to isolate, duplicate, and describe the effect which was caused by X-rays. This discovery was piecemeal, and could not be properly called a ‘discovery’ at those early stages when Rontgen had no idea what had caused the anomaly. With enough research, anomaly gives way to novelty—or repeated anomaly—and novelty gives way to expectation, completing the process of discovery.

The point here is extremely significant: there is no authentic discovery in normal science, because there is no room for anomaly or novelty! “Discoveries [which are] predicted in advance are parts of normal science and result in no new sort of fact [no authentic discovery]… Normal science does not aim at novelties of fact or theory and, when successful, finds none.” Normal science supports, puzzle-solves, and articulates theories within a paradigm, but it doesn’t go off hunting for new paradigms; therefore data that doesn’t fit into an existing paradigm is anomalous until it is either mashed into the paradigm, or it becomes a crisis to usher in a competing paradigm in which to assimilate. Therefore, paradigms—ways of thinking about the world that are bolstered by normal science—are designed to resist discovery! Welcome to the glories of the human brain. This is right-brain, left-brain wars if I’ve ever seen them! Read Ramachandran’s Phantoms In the Brain for a neurological explanation of why and how the brain creates fiction (confabulates) to compose a consistent picture of reality. You can’t make this stuff up! Wait. Yes. Yes you can.

But the pitfalls of paradigms are worth the trouble.

“In the development of any science, the first received paradigm is usually felt to account quite successfully for most of the observations and experiments easily accessible to that science’s practitioners. Further development, therefore, ordinarily calls for the construction of elaborate equipment, the development of an esoteric vocabulary and skills, and a refinement of concepts that increasingly lessens their resemblance to their usual common-sense prototypes. That professionalization leads, on the one hand, to an immense restriction of the scientist’s vision and to a considerable resistance to paradigm change. The science has become increasingly rigid. On the other hand, within those areas to which the paradigm directs the attention of the group, normal science leads to a detail of information and to a precision of the observation-theory match that could be achieved in no other way.”

What Kuhn is pointing out here is that we would not be aware of the need for new constructs if we didn’t have some construct in place, however limited or inadequate, to start sorting through the profusion of data that is present to our senses. How would we know that something has gone wrong, or that we need a new or more accurate metric if we had no standard by which to measure and notice something is awry in the first place? Paradigms are grids of the cosmos which allow scientists to concentrate on specific sections to study at close-range without being bothered about the rest of the universe. By doing this, novelty and anomaly take on real texture and appear in stark contrast against a background of a very well-studied context.

“And even when the apparatus exists, novelty ordinarily emerges only for the man who, knowing with precision what he should expect, is able to recognize that something has gone wrong. Anomaly appears only against the background provided by the paradigm.”

Paradigms, then, are temporary structures—rigid, limited, and ultimately abortive—but without them, humanity could not advance ideologically or scientifically. Every successive generation leaves the old ones behind, but also creates new ones which will, in their turn, be left behind some day. It is the circle of paradigm-life:

The mobs of birth
Avoid our stale perfections, seeking out
Their own, waiting until we go
To picnic in the ruins that we leave. –Wallace Stevens

Crises and Competition

The specific way in which old paradigms gives way to new paradigms is fascinating. Even in the case of complete discoveries—from anomaly, to novelty, to expectation—new data is merely contorted to fit old categories unless a competing paradigm is offered which reframes all data, old and new, to form a new map of the world. Crisis is the harbinger of change. Without crises, no new idea would ever take root because there would be no perceived need for it, and therefore no motivation to do all the hard work required to establish it. Humanity has a strong tradition of staying in bed until the sheets are soiled. For all people, including scientists, “retooling is an extravagance to be reserved for the occasion that demands it,” i.e., ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ And when one considers how deeply paradigms are woven into the fabric of society and scientific methodology, one can understand why ‘retooling’—or completely reimagining the wheel—is so costly.

But crises do finally come in their dark robes and scythes for every paradigm’s soul, in one of many ways. The first symptom of a crisis is often a general sense of inefficiency in areas that once demonstrated the paradigm’s superiority. Here scientific paradigms show their consanguinity with political paradigms in exhibiting breakdown when they have “ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created.” Beyond an intuition that something is awry, there are other more obvious signals. “The proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals, all these are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research [which research works to inaugurate a new paradigm].” What’s further, taste and aesthetic preference can cause people to look up and out. Sometimes the subjective impression that an existing paradigm has become somehow become clunky and unattractively complicated might signal the need for another paradigm that is nice, neat, and simple.

When a crisis is acknowledged in a community, new paradigms are proposed by brave souls who aim to create a system that better incorporates and explains new and old information. This paradigm-rush sees a proliferation of multiple, un-tested versions of traditional paradigms, rules, and all-new iterations altogether,  introduced which might initially seem to complicate things, but actually help to free people from the fear that the rigors of an old paradigm is their only option. “All crises begin with the blurring of a paradigm and the consequent loosening of the rules for normal research.” And the bearers of these gospels of change? Young people with fresh eyes. This works partly because new eyes see clearly the problems that communities become inured to over time, but it also works because new people have not sunk resources, time, and energy so deeply into the old paradigm, nor have they staked a political reputation on defending and reinforcing the old views. And although introducing a new paradigm is difficult and meets with much opposition, it is often still worth the risk because the sense of loss isn’t as poignant if things don’t work out. Loss aversion, a very real behavioral phenomenon which refers to the tendency of people to strongly prefer avoiding losses than acquiring gains, may be a large part of the underlying tenacity of old paradigms, especially when afflicted by crises and faced by alternative paradigms.

Incommensurability of Paradigms

History has illustrated again and again that the introduction of a new paradigm doesn’t bring world peace. The problem is that all new paradigms are only accepted by those who recognize failures within old paradigms. If a failure is not recognized by those who adhere to a paradigm, then it will continue to be bolstered and perpetuated until its adherents have moved on, or are dead. And as long as communities hold together within a paradigm, failures of a view will be compensated for and speciously ‘solved’ by the puzzle-solvers and articulators who find benefit in solidarity itself. It quickly becomes obvious that paradigms are ways of life, and not solely ways to think about life. It is here we see how closely scientific paradigms resemble paradigms within other human studies and endeavors.

“Like the choice between competing political institutions, that between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes of community life.”

A paradigm ultimately reveals itself to be glued together by personal taste and interest, and not merely by claims to ‘truer truths’. This is why Kuhn states that all groups argue in circularities when coming to the defense of why they chose their paradigms. Proofs don’t convince, because proofs are a posteriori explanations of what works and what doesn’t. The best a proof can do is demonstrate that a paradigm works, or provide “a clear exhibit of what scientific practice will be like for those who adopt the new view of nature,” and may not win much merit for logical explanations which every paradigm ultimately develops. Mostly those who find that a paradigm community works or is compelling on some level are those who ‘step inside the circle’ and ‘go native’ with a paradigm. They are those who understand the values, terms, and rules, and who value similar goals and processes. Within every paradigm are defined problems, and proposed solutions, but what happens when people differ with each other about what the real problems are and what a solution would look like? Problems and solutions are essentially human in nature. Nature in itself has no problems or solutions. Problems and solutions depend on the significance human beings place on them, and there never has been nor ever will never be problems or solutions that nature defines for us. And if paradigms, as Kuhn maintains, function to define and solve problems, then it is evident that world views are strictly human constructions and depend as much on our frame of mind as anything empirical and external to us. Normal science, therefore, is about human interest, and not mere detached observation and reportage.

This most personal value and interest that gives a paradigm its existence and imbues it with significance is what makes paradigms ultimately incommensurable with each other. They fundamentally aim at different goals, define success and failure in different ways, and structure their communities to follow specific rules to achieve specific goals. Especially important is how language is customized and everyday terms are defined by a community’s nuanced goals, rules, understandings and expectations. Paradigms are different worlds! This is why Kuhn says that members of different scientific schools “will inevitably talk through each other when debating the relative merits of their respective paradigms.”

And because every paradigm necessarily involves incomplete and therefore partially inaccurate explanations of the universe, the incommensurability only increases. “Since no paradigm ever solves all the problems it defines and since no two paradigms leave all the same problems unsolved, paradigm debates always involve the question: Which problems is it more significant to have solved?” I can’t imagine a question more important or more divisive than that one, and yet hardly a person recognizes that this exact question is even at stake.

Kuhn believed that people of different paradigms essentially inhabit different worlds. Often people’s views of the world are so completely at odds with each other that it’s hard not to believe that they are viewing the same thing at all. It is as if a gestalt switch has been flipped, and where before one saw ducks, now they see rabbits; or where before the one “saw the exterior of the box from above,” they now see “the interior of the box from below.” For example, in very simple, literal terms, a contour map may at first look to a student like mere lines on a paper, but to a cartographer, it’s a picture of terrain. Kuhn uses the history of incommensurable views in Copernicus’ time to further illustrate gestalt.

“Consider, for another example, the men who called Copernicus mad because he proclaimed that the earth moved. They were not either just wrong or quite wrong. Part of what they meant by ‘earth’ was fixed position. Their earth, at least, could not be moved. Correspondingly, Copernicus’ innovation was not simply to move the earth. Rather, it was a whole new way of regarding the problems of physics and astronomy, one that necessarily changed the meaning of both ‘earth’ and ‘motion’. Without those changes the concept of a moving earth was mad.”

New information and different frameworks ‘create’ different vision to view different worlds. “What a man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conceptual experience has taught him to see.” This goes so far as to affect not only the ideological framework for data, but the supposedly straightforward data itself. Even “the operations and measurements that a scientist undertakes in the laboratory are not ‘the given’ of experience but rather ‘the collected with difficulty’,” which means that facts don’t fall into anyone’s laps, they are sought after and only recognized when they are squeezed into the mold of a prefabricated pattern or idea.

The force of polarization in paradigms naturally increases and reinforces the incommensurability of paradigms, almost irrevocably. Is it any wonder it seems nearly impossible for some people to change their mind on any given subject? The secret about facts is that no fact stands alone. Each is inextricably woven into a vast web of meanings, implications, underpinnings, and cover-ups; and the knots cannot be untied without leaving the whole in tatters. This is why the webs of paradigms are simply abandoned when they fail to work, and quickly replaced by a paradigm that promises better solutions.


So how can people change their minds and switch paradigms if their self-reinforcing psychology and genetic protocol to propagate one’s own ideas at the expense of reality keeps confirming the paradigms that they accepted at an early age? What happens when a paradigm is taking water, and it’s time to bail? Well, it’s either adaptation or extinction, and most would rather die before their dreams do. Scientists of the ilk of Copernicus, Newton, Darwin and many others never witnessed a conversion of the masses to their ideology immediately, and countless others were murdered before later generations pardoned them, sainted them, and adopted their discoveries. Quantum theorist Max Planck summed up this tragic truth best in his Scientific Autobiography,

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Cynics would dismiss the whole mess as a modality of one of the useless extremes of either relativism or bigotry, but a closer look reveals the value of the hard-to-kill nature of human paradigms. Commitment to paradigms, along with the obstinate delusions about their absolute nature, is exactly what makes normal science—puzzle-solving—possible! Without this resolve to stick to the paradigm, no work would ever get done, and the meticulous scrutiny and recording of experimental findings—brute data—that makes the scientific process what it is would be abandoned at the first sign of discrepancy. Imagine a world of fickle, bohemian, flip-flop scientists! Pun most definitely intended!

Science help us. Science help us all.

But for those who do recognize crises in a paradigm and are still young and supple enough to convert to a new paradigm that can solve the old crises, ‘there is a mansion prepared for them, so that where the Solution is, there they may be also.’ But we have to keep in mind that a more accurate and helpful paradigm may introduce new problems, and may not solve enough problems satisfactorily, at least immediately, for all people. In fact, some historical revolutions with proposed solutions initially “created many more problems than they solved…Copernicus’ theory was not more accurate than Ptolemy’s and did not lead directly to any improvement in the calendar.” It is often true that a person who wakes from a worldview must do so “in defiance of the evidence provided by the problem-solving” all around her, and this is done by “faith” in a new way that as of yet hasn’t been established. She then become the pioneer that everyone else watches to see how she fairs, and to witness how her new paradigm serves her. If things go well, they may have a new winner.

Textbook Paradigms and Invisible Revolutions

As a very practical example of the failure to understand competing paradigms, Kuhn strings up textbooks. The best of our science—for all of the scientific community’s claims of detachment, objectivity, and systematic process—is just as subject to paradigmatic provincialism and confirmation bias as any other human pursuit. Kuhn deals very candidly and directly with the fact that school textbooks—which stand as a tool purely intended to convey information and not feelings—are just as prone to prejudice and manipulation of the facts as any other human instrument.

“For reasons that are both obvious and highly functional, science textbooks…refer only to that part of the work of past scientists that can easily be viewed as contributions to the statement and solution of the texts’ paradigm problems…[this] depreciation of historical fact is deeply, and probably functionally, ingrained in the ideology of the scientific profession, the same profession that places the highest of all values upon factual details of other sorts.”

Kuhn spends a lot of time with the textbook problem because it is largely overlooked by many, and perhaps least acknowledged by scientists and the academy. The result is that scholars and laymen alike are wrongly persuaded that humanity’s knowledge of the world is steadily increasing, as opposed to the more likely scenario that science, like everything else, is a constant flux of paradigms slugging it out to the death in a battle royal where the strong, not necessarily the ‘more right’, survive. Essentially, these historical, textbook “misconstructions render [scientific] revolutions invisible” by pretending each revolutionary idea was finally saluted and crowned king upon its arrival by its epoch, rather than viciously attacked for being antithetical to the established. Kuhn argues that this isn’t honest, effective, or healthy. Science and history ought to give a more forthright account of itself, lest, in the words of William James, it “lose[s] truth by this pretension to possess it already wholly.” Not only that, but the creative and pioneering spirit of discoverers are substituted with an idea of gentle inevitability which downplay the role of courage and imagination which subverts and contends with the powers of paradigm. “Until the very last stages in the education of the scientist, textbooks are systematically substituted for the creative scientific literature that made them possible…it is a narrow and rigid education, probably more so than any other except perhaps in orthodox theology.”

But again, the reason for this is that textbooks teach by inculcation, by setting up problems and solutions which students learn formulas to apply, facts to remember, and patterns to recognize. In this way, an existing paradigm is passed on, and a gestalt is reinforced which causes members of the same group to see the same picture. These are the ‘examplars’ that Kuhn refers to, the faux problems that condition students to recognize and reproduce paradigms, and it is completely natural and universal. “One of the techniques by which members of a group…learn to see the same things when confronted with the same stimuli is by being shown examples of situations that their predecessors in the group have already learned to see as like each other and as different from other sorts of situations.” If it weren’t for crises, or, I would add, boredom, which catalyzes a revolution, perhaps nothing would break the cycle of a paradigm’s reiterations and redundancies.

Summary and Conclusions

So what did Kuhn really contribute to science and philosophy? Kuhn successfully contended with and soared above other popular ideas in his day about how to verify the accuracy of a theory or idea. Karl Popper’s “falsification” epistemology was still in vogue, and Kuhn’s competitive paradigms made it clear that an idea need not be perfect, or perfectly validated, for it to work. It was a much simpler test of accuracy than had ever been devised before, but it wasn’t without its consequences. If a paradigm wasn’t ‘right’ because it won in the contest, what’s to say an incorrect paradigm couldn’t pull out in front of the rest and be wrongly celebrated for its veracity simply because it received the largest number of votes? Kuhn saw where this was going, and beat it to the punch: Science and history has no goal, no higher truth towards which it is progressing. He admits that this is not a conventional view, and it can be very disturbing within many paradigms (especially in his day). Yet William James, among others, said as much in his Varieties of Religious Experience, “Nature has no one distinguishable ultimate tendency with which it is possible to feel a sympathy. In the vast rhythm of her processes, as the scientific mind now follows them, she appears to cancel herself.” Kuhn points out that this was the essential findings of Darwin, “The Origin of Species recognized no goal set either by God or nature” (Kuhn). But the idea that the evolution of paradigms is moving away from “primitive beginnings,” revealing a pattern of an “increasingly detailed and refined understanding of nature,” and not necessarily towards anything doesn’t have to be disappointing. It’s all in the way you look at it (go figure). “If we can learn to substitute evolution-from-what-we-do-know for evolution-toward-what-we-wish-to-know, a number of vexing problems may vanish in the process.” In other words, one could say that we are progressing towards knowing more of what we want to know, and as tautological as it sounds, it certainly doesn’t interrupt our rhythms of getting everything we possibly can out of science and intellectual endeavors. If it works, who cares if it doesn’t work the way we thought it should, or it doesn’t reveal what we thought it would reveal? We find it meaningful and productive, and in the end, that may be enough.

But this work goes beyond science by elucidating the ways in which human beings think in art, politics, sociology, philosophy, and religion.  As a matter of fact, although Kuhn states in the Postscript that paradigms in science often operate in some ‘strikingly different’ ways than in fields like art and literature, he admits that he derived the concept of paradigm successions from other fields for the reason that he believed the sciences operated in many similar ways, if in different degrees. This is enough for any thoughtful reader to apply the concept of competing paradigms to all areas of human cognition and action, since it is impossible for humans to work and think—to live!—outside of paradigm or outside a community of other minds. This is precisely what The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is all about, and it is how the Postscript of the second ends.

“Scientific knowledge, like language, is intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all. To understand it we shall need to know the special characteristics of the groups that create and use it.”

It was Kuhn’s way of saying that no idea exists outside of human community—that paradigms ARE human community— and it was his hope that future generations would use this to better understand themselves and each other.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Review of In the Beginning: Creation Stories From Around the World by Virginia Hamilton

I read this book of creation stories and cosmogonies from around the world out-loud to my 8-year-old daughter to try and balance out the Christian stories that she is deluged by in American culture. Many children have no idea that predominant western religions did not develop in a vacuum, but are threads in a tapestry of world mythology and religion that is as varied as it is valued by so many different people in different times and climates. We really enjoyed the stories, although some of them were as strange on first read as the stories of the Bible and western myths must feel to children from other cultures. Going through all the stories was actually an excellent experiment in exchanged perspective, and the disorientation caused by the change lasted long enough for us to go back to our own stories and sense afresh the “vagueness, monstrosity, and incoherent variety” (H.G. Wells) of the western gods. I thought it was especially beneficial to have the Bible story of Eden placed at the end of the book as a way to say, “And now, doesn’t this story seem to have much more in common with the stories of antiquity and early thought than you had realized?” Brilliant.

In addition to being understandable by old and young alike, the stories were very well spaced temporally and geographically, and mixed together an excellently artful and balanced pastiche of creative human narrative. At the end of each story, updated with modern language but loaded still with rich and incomprehensible imagery, there was a nice little paragraph about the story and its cultural setting and significance that helped explain elements of tale would have passed us by. My daughter and I read this together at bedtime every night, and we made it more fun by taking an atlas and a globe and looking up the country of origin for each story. It was very educational, and we learned more about mythology, religion, history, anthropology, geography, globes and atlases (cartography) than we ever imagined we would. It even inspired an idea in me to help other families guide their kids along a similar tour of origin stories from around the world, and I have already taken it to the interfaith group in our city which has granted me a hearing.

I am reminded of the words of George MacDonald who believed in the value of understanding the worlds that exist in other people’s minds, “If you understood any world besides your own, you would understand your own much better.” I want my children to understand their world, and the people that make up their world. I want them to develop a profound appreciation for the survival and bravery of other peoples, and the indestructible spirit and hope that have caused other cultures to endure. I want them to believe in the power of the creative instinct that lies deep within us, to learn to harness the power of imagination to solve problems and simulate alternatives, and to understand the significance of narrative identity in human minds which weaves together the happenings of our lives into a cohesive whole which gives us a sense of direction. We miss so much when we close ourselves off from the rest of universe and the complex beings who inhabit it. I recommend this book, and books like it, to everyone who has grown accustomed to the same stories, with the same morals, preaching the same fear of the unknown. Sapere aude!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Review of Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Can intelligence solve all human problems? Is more knowledge the answer to human suffering? Sadly, most people would answer yes to both, and that’s partly what this story responds to. Leftovers of the Enlightenment still permeate society at all levels, and are preponderant in our public educational process. Voices in the scientific community are more vociferous than ever in hailing the supremacy of intelligence and objective knowledge in achieving a meaningful life. And yet, not a single datum has saved anyone yet, or brought one bit of good into the world. Information about the empirical world has been here since the beginning of time, sitting on its fat ass. But information in the right hands can revolutionize human existence. The difference isn’t the information. Information is everywhere…we ARE information, life is information! We inhabit it. But the proper use of information to gain very specific ends is a different thing altogether. The meaning is in chosen ends, in the passion and will to achieve those ends, and not solely in the instruments utilized. Our significance is found in wanting good things, and working towards good things. When people don’t want good things, they don’t use knowledge and information for good ends, and they ultimately hurt themselves and others. This ‘bad living’ isn’t always necessarily unintelligent—unless you characterize abortive ends, ineffective methods, and harmful relationships with others, yourself and the world as unintelligent…which I sometimes use as a definition depending on the context—rather this is a bad use of information and intelligence in that it is ultimately abortive and contradictory. Our goal as human beings is to be as happy as possible, and to increase our happiness in the context of community; but when tools like information and procedures are used for anything other than the happiness of the individual and the community, then it is not the fault of mathematical intelligence or empirical knowledge, but it is a symptom of destructive and individualistic intentions that appropriate the instrument of reason to sabotage an individual’s happiness or the happiness of the community with which an individual is interdependent.

In our post-information age—what some have deemed the ‘inventive age’ for the desire to put all of our information to some new use—the most common criticism of ineffective people is that they are ignorant, uneducated, or just ‘stupid’. Even astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson sees some meaning in including other types of cognizance and human functioning to broaden our notion of intelligence.

“Humans aren't as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were 'reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.'”

Here is a story that demonstrates the absolute failure and futility of mere intelligence in both the protagonist and in those around him that parade themselves as knowledgeable. The narrative captures the arc of one person as he rapidly travels from mental disability, ascends to the heights of genius, but plummets back to mental disability again. The story is really about what is gained along the way, what is lost, and what is essentially a wash.

Charlie starts off wishing to be intelligent, and others around him wanting that for him too. He is warned, however, that “the more intelligent you are, the more problems you’ll have”, but the meaning was lost upon him as it is most who don’t understand that the instrument of knowledge and genius, like any other instrument, only amplifies the intentions of the user.

Charlie’s awakening did not come without its delights. His intelligence brings with it the possibility of romance, friendship, power, and mastery. He grows very curious about life in general, and more specifically, about his past, “like a man who’s been half asleep all his life, trying to find out what he was like before he woke up.” He is now fully conscious of things that escaped his notice before, and his memories are much more clear. As his intelligence continues to soar far above the average person, he realizes that his prior ignorance may protected him on more than one occasion, and insulated him from the full gravity of how lowly he was estimated in others’ opinions. At times he had been treated like an inanimate object. His discoveries hurt him now, but he much preferred his freedom and awakening, with its concomitant pain, to his life of groping in the dark.

The loss of friendship was probably the harshest reality check for Charlie, especially the estrangement that occurred because he now surpassed his acquaintances in comprehension and capability. Watching people withdraw hurt him.  He quickly saw through the shams of people he thought were intellectual giants—afraid that the rest of the world will find out they’re full of bull*hit.  Everyone began to fear and resent Charlie, because his “growth diminished them.”

Charlie quickly learned that his genius wasn’t alone. The former innocent, illiterate Charlie had never left. He discovered with bleak clarity that “nothing in our minds is ever really gone. The operation had covered him over with a veneer of education and culture, but emotionally he was there—watching and waiting.” The veneer didn’t run as deep as he had hoped, nor does it for anyone one of us. Here the author takes a moment to pontificate on the destitution of reason without affection:

“Intelligence and education that hasn’t been tempered by human affection isn’t worth a damn…don’t misunderstand me…Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love…Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis…the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain.”

The authorities are passed over one by one as they manifest themselves as flawed humans who are searching and desperate like the rest of us. Charlie starts looking for answers in himself, not trusting to purebred truths passed down inviolate through the ages immune to the contaminating egos of people trying to survive. He learns that he can not entirely capitulate to external authorities. As the poet Al Shapiro wrote, Sentio Ergo Sum—we must feel our way. We must trust ourselves.

Charlie’s descent back into the mental vortex of cognitive disability is fascinating and tragic. It makes us appreciate our grasp—however feeble it is—of information that can be accumulated and constructed into ideas which help us interpret the world. Without some hold of discrete facts and memories, there is no sense of a past or future, and this yields a very hazy sense of identity. Watching the margins of Charlie’s world shrink into a limited, purely temporal consciousness with only shadows of further horizons was almost claustrophobic for me. As Simone DeBeauvoir has pointed out, in order for us to be fulfilled our concept of human freedom “requires that it emerge into an open future” (Ethics Of Ambiguity).  I’m sure there are times when we all live moment to moment, our minds centered on evanescent experiences of our world—and this can be a good thing, as mindful, meditative ideologies like Taoism and Zen Buddhism have demonstrated—but imagine the depths of experience that would be lost if each day was an eternity to itself without consideration of the past or the future. A balance, however tenuous, of temporal living with chronological thinking is the goal; not slipping into the error of believing we can evade the ennui or terrors of existence by “escaping from the sensible world or by being engulfed in it, by yielding to eternity or enclosing oneself in the pure moment” (DeBeauvoir).

Although something tells me that this book that once began as a short story should have stayed a short story (just a extremely biased, personal opinion founded only on my sense of boredom around the middle of the book), still the story is a fantastic idea: take a mentally disabled adult, perform an operation that rectifies his brain-break, and watch the slow dawn of his genius rise to its meridian, before it sinks back down to its former disability. Win-effing-win. I’m sure it made great strides in promoting awareness and compassion for those who are mentally delayed or disabled, making it clear that they are people of worth no matter their IQ. And it’s mockery of so-called geniuses “devoting their lives to studying more and more about less and less—filling volumes and libraries with the subtle linguistic analysis of the grunt” deserves uproarious guffaws at the colossal waste of a life spent navel-gazing and not loving fellow human beings. Where my Dickens at?

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,'' faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
``Business!'' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ``Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!''

If you can’t understand that, then Keyes’ message may not reach you.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Review of The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes

I always loved the film The Iron Giant (which is a distant adaptation of the story written by Ted Hughes), so when I started reading Ted Hughes poems, which I also love, and learned that he had written The Iron Man which was later renamed The Iron Giant, I knew I had to read it.

It’s a great story. My 8 year old read it in one sitting, and she said it was really fun and imaginative. I agree. The storyline is a bit more eccentric and discursive than the film adaptation, but I expected that from a poet. I wouldn’t have wanted to read it if it was the same as the film anyway.

The allegory implicit in the story was fairly evident, the iron man being the threat of machinery and industrialism to agrarian culture, and the space-bat-angel-dragon-thingamabob was something like the personification of war and humanity’s self-destruction, though I think some would make it represent more specifically the threat of a nuclear holocaust. When asked why it came to earth to consume it, it replied, “It just came over me, listening to the battling shouts and the war cries of the earth—I got excited, I wanted to join in.”

The creature is defeated by the self-sacrificial cleverness of the Iron Giant that has now become a friend to men and women. In its defeat, the creature is condemned to use its powers of song to sing the enchanting ‘music of the spheres’ over the earth as it flies around it at night. It is a beautiful image of hate turned to love, destruction to beauty, and death to life. Humanity has used a machine in an unprecedented way to intellectually and gracefully preserve itself and ensure the welfare of its members. The monster of war and destruction is enslaved, and its more native voice is unleashed to raise peace in place of conflict and hate. Its voice was “like millions of voices singing together”, resonant of the unified song of people living in harmony.

The Iron Giant too is now fully synchronized and peacefully integrated with human beings. It becomes a tool that places demands on the world, requiring responsible handling and feeding, but it is now a servant and no longer a master, “humm[ing] in harmony to the singing of his tremendous slave in heaven.”

“And the space-bat-angel’s singing had the most unexpected effect. Suddenly the world became wonderfully peaceful. The singing got inside everybody and made them as peaceful as starry spae, and blissfully above all their earlier little squabbles. The strange, soft, eerie space-music began to alter all the people of the world. They stopped making weapons. The countries began to think how they could live pleasantly alongside each other, rather than how to get rid of each other. All they wanted to do was to have peace to enjoy this strange, wild, blissful music from the giant singer in space.”

I think we could all use a space-bat-angel-dragon in our world now. Or maybe not. Maybe just the singing?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Review of Poems of Wallace Stevens

Another wonderful, mostly opaque, poet. But I thoroughly enjoyed what I could understand. Stevens has a very strong philosophical bent, and his overtly humanistic stance celebrates in such bold and beautiful language the gift that every moment of life is with or without an eternal assurance. He wrote in his book Opus Posthumous, “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption." Many people with religious sensibilities may wonder how one can appreciate life at all, or have any hope or peace, after the idea of God’s existence is no longer a plausible credence. This is a fair question, because it is really a question of how another person thinks and feels, which we should all be curious about. Poetry is the perfect medium with which to answer, and Stevens is a great poet for it. His poem Sunday Morning is a great start. The subject is a woman who chooses to skip a Sunday morning church service:

…Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun…
…Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
…There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
…that has endured
As April’s green endures… (excerpts from Sunday Morning)

Surely, to some, this might be as unsatisfying an answer as the response given by astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson to an inquirer who asked about his belief regarding an afterlife: “I would request that my body in death be buried not cremated, so that the energy content contained within it gets returned to the earth, so that flora and fauna can dine upon it, just as I have dined upon flora and fauna during my lifetime.” That won’t communicate well to some who don’t have the same emotional responses, backgrounds moods, understandings, and associations that Neil has invested in such a sentiment. So, one gets a poet to translate. A good poet—with their skills of language-bending, image-amplification, and feeling-conduction—communicates emotional content beyond mere factuality in a way that can send frequencies of information and sensation across worlds and epochs to reach a person otherwise isolated from another’s view and feeling, and who may not share similar constitutions or lifestyles.

There is an undercurrent of heavy-sighed romanticism in many of the poems, which to me comes across as far too maudlin and melodramatic; but the way he wrestles with philosophical ideas like the tension between appearance and reality, and description versus impression, piqued my interest the most. He looks a matter in the eyeballs, and calls back to the rest of us convention-lubbers what we might see if we were brave enough to look directly at death, suffering, boredom, danger, beauty, and existence as it is. I truly wish I could understand more of Stevens’ poems than I did. Sometimes a line would emerge like a piece of clear sky from out a hole in a complex and clouded poem, and a message would be delivered. There are secrets there.

My favorite poems, and great ones for newbs to start with, are:

Sunday Morning (“Death is the mother of beauty.”)
Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Blackbird
Evening Without Angels
A Postcard From the Volcano
The Poems of Our Climate
Dutch Graves In Bucks County
Anecdote of the Jar