Educating a Wizard

September 25, 2009

More stuff about Harry Potter.

So, I agree with that article in almost every aspect, and I thik it makes mary good points. But the entire argument relies on the following:

I like to hope that if most of us were handed a magic wand (literally) that removed a lot of the drudgery of modern life, we’d use that extra time in cultural pursuits. We’d read more, write more, take a dance class, go backpack around Europe, etc. We’d produce magical three-dimensional movies, and paintings conjured out of our dreams. Magic would be a tool for knowledge and truth and beauty. And yes, I know that most of us would just watch more TV. But still: magic would (theoretically) give us the opportunity to devote ourselves to the liberal arts, or at least explore them more than our non-magical lives currently allow.

But for the wizards of Harry Potter, magic is an end unto itself.

So the question becomes – why? Why are all of those “cultural” things worth doing, if there is absolutely no drudgery to modern life? What point is there in leisure, if our entire lives are leisure? This is the question Harry Potter accidentally raises but refuses to answer, getting around it by having wizards spend all of their time working in cubicles. Essentially, Rowling turns their lives into drudgery even though there is no need to do so within the logic of the world. She does it anyway.

So what should we take away from this? That Rowling is a bad writer? (Perhaps. In certain respects, she certainly is.) But the other possible interpretation is, that human life cannot be made sense of if there are not certain things we must do in order to survive. If we have no duties, this interpretation says, our lives cease to have meaning.

This interpretation makes a certain amount of sense in a Christian light, actually. God cursed Adam and said he would have to work for his food. This is not just a change to the how easy man’s life is – it was easy, now it’s hard – it is also a change to how human life is correctly structured. In the postlapsarian world, we ought to do work; it is unnatural not to have to struggle to survive.

Any world in which no such struggle is necessary, then, will feel hollow – because that aspect of Adam’s curse has been lifted, but not the part that made it necessary. It’s just like how immortality, it is often said, would be tortuous – because, while in man’s unfallen state he is immortal, fallen man is not capable a good immortality.

In this interpretation, the world of the wizards in J.K. Rowling is somewhat hellish; the wizards have nothing to do, and so they have to occupy themselves with pointless work to distract themselves from how meaningless their lives are.

It would have been fascinating if the books had actually explored this question.

Alice and Bob is Married

September 20, 2009

Several friends of mine are taking Symbolic Logic this semester, and one of them has brought to my attention something somewhat bizarre. His textbook, it seems, treats “and” as if it is never equivocal. Just intuitively, this seems wrong.

Take these two examples: firstly, “The lines A and B are parallel,” secondly, “Alice and Bob are Moroccan.” In normal English, the first example almost always means that the lines A and B are parallel to each other; re-phrased unambiguously, one would say “The lines A and B are parallel to each other.” But in normal English, the second example almost never intends any connection between Alice and Bob, except for their both being Moroccan; it could be re-phrased “Alice is Moroccan and Bob is Moroccan.”

Even worse, though, there are some words that can be taken either way by a reasonable person. Take the sentence “Alice and Bob are married.” Usually this means “Alice and Bob are married (to each other).” But I could imagine a situation where it meant “Alice and Bob are married (to Charlie and Deborah, respectively).” The word “and”, it seems, can be ambiguous even knowing the definitions of all the words in the sentence – while the textbook writer for this Symbolic Logic class wants to claim it is never ambiguous, ever!

It took a few minutes of thinking for me to figure out exactly how to phrase the ambiguity formally, but here it is. “A and B are C” can mean one of two things. Either “A and B are C” = “A&B are C” = “(A is C)&(B is C)”, or “A and B are C” = “{A,B} is C” – the collection of objects {A,B} possesses a quality, namely C. This is what we mean when we say “line A and line B are parallel,” or “Alice and Bob are married (to each other).”

In other words, we use “and” to do two different things – to apply attributes to multiple things at a time (what we do when we mean “A&B are C”), and to associate things into groups, and then talk about the groups (what we do when we mean “{A,B} is C”). And there’s no way to distinguish between the two without context.

There’s an easy way to fix this, of course. Change the grammar so that when we mean “{A,B} is C”, we don’t say “Alice and Bob are married” – we say “Alice and Bob is married.” It makes sense; after all, we don’t mean “Alice is married and Bob is married,” we mean they can be considered as a unit – “Alice and Bob” – and that unit is married. Is. Not are, because it’s one thing. It’s a set containing two elements, but it’s still a single set.

of course, we’ll never actually talk like this. It sounds stupid. “Alice and Bob is married”? But it does eliminate considerable ambiguity. It’s worth thinking about.


September 17, 2009

We recently read the Battle of Maldon in my Medieval Literature class. It’s essentially a narrative of a battle between heathen Viking invaders and the Christian Englishmen, resulting in the defeat of the English and tribute – “danegeld” – being paid to the Norsemen.

What people find interesting about the poem is the description of the main character. It portrays Beorhtnoth, the English thane, as a courageous, pious man, who is ‘tricked’ by the Danes into letting them cross a bridge, essentially giving up a defensible position and making it inevitable the Danes would win. By ‘tricked’, I mean the Danes asked him if they could cross and he said yes.

The poem is ambiguous as to whether this was a wrong action or not – the word used to describe his character at that point is “ofermod”. There are no other examples of “ofermod” in Old English, so we just don’t know what it means. It is literally “over-courage”, “over-heart”; but does this mean he has too much courage, i.e. is foolhardy, or that he has an impressive amount of courage, a good thing? No one knows. People read it different ways. (Incidentally, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a play, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son”, about the aftermath of this battle, that addresses the ambiguity in question. It’s good, go read it.)

There’s a similar disagreement about the poem “The Windhover”, by Gerard Manley Hopkins (whom I’m studying for Junior Poet). The word is “buckle”. Does it mean that the thing buckling is collapsing? That it is being bound together, as in buckling a belt? Does it mean “buckle” as in “buckler”, a type of shield? No one knows, and which it is makes a huge difference in how the poem is read.

I’m not sure what to think of ambiguities like that. They are certainly interesting, and make possible multiple interpretations. To that extent, I like them.

But this might be just because I don’t like having a work of literature be too “preachy”, and having ambiguity makes it less preachy – but really, ambiguity only makes it seem less preachy, it doesn’t change the actual meaning of the poem, assuming there is one. After all, it seems like the poet himself knew what the poem ought to have meant, but that we cannot, which is immeasurably frustrating, and implies the poet failed somehow. Especially when which it is doesn’t determine just some nuance of meaning, but how to read the entire poem.

Which is it? Is ambiguity in literature desirable? If so, to what extent? This is a question I haven’t been thinking about for as long as I probably should have been, and I don’t really have an answer formulated yet. I have a gut reaction against books that try to preach a certain moral, and try to avoid doing so in my own stories, but then again most of my favorite books do have messages they’re trying to convey, and I don’t fault them for it. What’s going on here?

What Makes a Good Poem

September 10, 2009

I’m taking “Junior Poet” right now, and we’re starting off the semester reading a lot of more modern poetry. Particularly, we spent an entire day of class analyzing the poem “Persimmons”, by Li-Young Lee. There was much conversation about how great a poem it was, mostly based on the fact that he uses the poem to talk about the nature of poetry and sexuality in an interesting manner, and tells a somewhat interesting story.

I pretty much disagree with everything the professor had to say about the poem’s worth.

It’s not that I don’t think the poem is about the nature of poetry (it is), or that it doesn’t narrate a somewhat interesting story. It’s that all of those things are irrelevant if the music of the words themselves – the simple cadence of the phrases, regardless of the meaning – aren’t beautiful while still conveying meaning not through words, but just through the sound of the words, and if the inages used aren’t unusually evocative and memorable. If it doesn’t do those things, it seems to me, it’s really just a prose passage with funny line breaks.

But instead, the JPo class seems to go in assuming its a great poem, not looking at the form of the poem much at all. Because there’s really not much there – there’s a few tricky ornaments added, but that’s like having statues and stained-glass-windows propped up in midair without the cathedral holding them up. They fall down.

It’s not that I hate modern and contemporary poetry or don’t understand free verse. T.S. Eliot is an amazing poet who succeeds at what poets have to succeed at, as I outlined a few paragraphs up – Prufrock is actually the poem I was primarily thinking of when writing that. But many poets today seem to have forgotten what poetry is actually about.

Moving In (September)

September 2, 2009

So I’ve spent the last four days moving into my new apartment, buying books for the next semester, etc. The week before that I spent procuring furniture for said apartment. Hence my recent lack of postage. (It seems like a lot of the bloggers I subscribe to have been moving in the last few weeks – makes reading my RSS feed much less fun. Guess I’m doing the same to however few people subscribe to me.)

Anyway, this new semester has another interesting feature, aside from what I’ve talked about several times before, with it being the third year I’ve been at the same school, something that hasn’t happened since 5th grade. Namely, for the last year the class of 2011 has been divided in three – the Fall Romers, the Spring Romers, and the people who didn’t go. Now basically everyone is back. It will be fascinating to see how the different social circles meld and break up. If I make any good observations about social behavior I’ll post about it.

And for those interested, my list of classes: Junior Poet (I’m doing Gerard Manley Hopkins), Medieval Literature, Linear Algebra, Analysis I, Intermediate German I. I’ll also probably sign up to audit The Russian Novel.

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