The Fringe

February 25, 2010

I’ve taken an interest recently in what might be called pseudo-science. What I find fascinating about them isn’t the theories they propound, though (those are usually just kind of absurd), but their use of language. It often seems like they have to invent their own language in order to communicate their non-orthodox ideas.

For example, look at the advertisement here (link goes to language log, a blog well worth reading). Half of those words don’t actually mean anything to 99% of the population.

Or the quotation from here (link goes to strange maps, another good blog); “zetetic” is a real word, but no one ever uses it, so to give themselves an air of scientific precision these people have adopted it.

Then there’s things like this, which does not invent its own words but makes quite unique use of certain phrases; “educated stupid” is a great phrase, for example. Actually, that page sounds almost like poetry – doing dramatic readings of it is really fun.

Finally, check out this guy’s Wikipedia page. His whole schtick revolves around his own personal language which he says is meant to achieve “the stopping-claims of the theft, cheating, fraud, slavery and war.” Uh, yeah.

What are we to make of all of this? It seems like all of these people have invented their own language with which to talk to themselves and their few followers, and in doing so they have lost the ability to communicate with the outside world. Effectively, they speak a different language – and thus cannot be convinced by arguments against their position propounded in English.

This has obvious implications for philosophic thought in general, I think; trying to give precise definitions to words is useful, but if the definitions given or the words used become too separated from every-day speech, they can become a crutch, a means of retaining a believe in one’s own correctness by making argument against one’s position impossible.

Satirical Mythology

February 23, 2010

We read Gulliver’s Travels in my Early Modern Literature class a few weeks ago; it’s somewhat enjoyable, but marred throughout, I think, by overly specific satire and unfunny attempts at humor. The following I wrote specifically in response to Part I, but applies to the rest of it as well, I think:

Political satire does not age well.

The first part of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels had such a promising premise. There is a reason the word “lilliputian” has entered our vocabulary: the concept of an entire race of minuscule men captures the imagination in the same way as do the ancient myths. When children are taught about Greek mythology, they always read (and sometimes only read) the relatively short passage from the Odyssey detailing Odysseus’s encounter with the Cyclops. No one forgets the use of “no man” as a name, and no one forgets the idea itself of a giant, one-eyed man-monster. The Lilliputians are the same. Children often read the first part of Gulliver’s Travels, and after doing so, the six-inch-tall man remains in their imagination long after they forget the other details of the story.

What surprises me, in fact, is that it took until the eighteenth century for the Lilliputians to be invented. There were occasionally folk heroes like Tom Thumb, but until Swift, was there an entire race of them? Not fairy-folk, not magical in any way, with exactly the same sort of society as ours, only smaller? The idea may have as a prerequisite the kind of scientific objectivity associated with Newtonian mechanics. Before, to be tiny was to be magic, but once scientific laws are fixed, they apply to a six-inch-tall man the same as to a six-foot-tall one, and the magic is no longer necessary. Six-inch-tall men can be just that, men six inches tall, not demons or faeries.

There may be another requirement for Lilliputians to emerge: the cosmopolitan nature of an age with relatively fast and reliable travel. Ancient histories emphasize the foreignness of even nearby countries, Gulliver’s Travels the sameness of places far away. A key aspect of the Lilliputian myth is how, though they are smaller than us, they have basically the same concerns. They have emperors, farm the land, and fight over differences of dogma. To be compelling, we must be able to see ourselves as primarily human, and only secondarily of any specific nationality, for the Lilliputians are primarily a satire of humanity: men, but smaller, they show us how small we ourselves are.

But in Swift’s rendering, the satirical nature of the story is its downfall. Everyone knows “Lilliput,” but far fewer remember “Blefescu,” that the war between the two is a satire of religious wars in England, or for that matter that there is a war between the two at all. The problem is that, while the nature of the Lilliputian myth demands that the Lilliputians be a satire of humanity, Swift decided to make them a satire of seventeenth and eighteenth century England; Lilliput and Blefescu are England and France, Big- and Little-Endianism are Catholicism and Protestantism. In doing so, Swift makes the myth fallible. The comparison is one reasonable readers may disagree with; were the religious wars in England really a result of something as trivial as how to crack open an egg?

Worse (though it may boil down to the same thing), Swift makes the myth specifically historical. In doing so, he reduces himself to a three-hundred-year-old Englishman complaining about four-hundred-year-old Englishmen. It is not that specificity is in itself bad, but that Swift becomes so specific as to lose a sense of the general. “Lilliputian” lasts in a way “Blefescu” and “Endianism” do not, I believe, because “lilliputian” conveys a satirical myth, a timeless satire, while “Blefescu” and “Endianism” are political satires. Political satires are not timeless, and so political satires cannot last.

I could see it argued that this is a measure of Swift’s achievement: we are no longer moved by his argument because his side won. But that would be to say that literature is in the service of politics, that because Swift could use Gulliver’s Travels to win a political debate, even though that debate would be irrelevant within a few decades, it excuses him from having to write literature that is truly timeless. I cannot agree with that; literature’s task is to teach us about human nature, not about the nature of the Tories and Whigs, and failing at this is a real failure. The Lilliputians are a great addition to our modern mythology, but Gulliver’s Travels itself I must consider as only of historical interest.

Ashes to Ashes

February 17, 2010

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. For Catholics, it marks the beginning of a period of penance, ashes being a Biblical symbol of mourning and repentance.

Interestingly, when the priest places the ashes on your forehead, he intones, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” What is the connection between dust and ashes? Dust is  a reference to earth, to our being made from clay with life breathed into us by God, while ashes are what is left over from a burnt-out fire. There’s interesting things going on here with the elements; earth, air, water, fire.

All of this is symbolic of human mortality, but also suggests that we also transcend our morality. I am reminded of a song by Dream Theater called “Wait for Sleep”. It’s about a girl lying in bed thinking about God and faith. Near the end of the song, the question is asked, “In with the ashes / Or up with the smoke from the fire?” I think this question can be taken different ways, but I interpret it as asking, is the fire of life destructive or purgative?


February 11, 2010

It snowed today in Dallas. I haven’t looked at any numbers, but there’s snow 5 or 6 inches deep in some places. And thus my 7-10 class tonight was canceled, and we might not have class tomorrow.

The snow is awesome. There was much throwing of snowballs, building of snowmen, and general frolicking among the students here. The one downside is that my shoes were completely soaked, and then dried out, and then soaked again even worse… I probably won’t be able to wear them tomorrow.

Anyway, that is all. Back to our regularly scheduled programming sometime in the near future.

Book Review: The Unvanquished

February 6, 2010

The first book we read this semester in my class on William Faulkner was The Unvanquished. I’d read it before, in 11th grade, but that was before I had any real idea of who Faulkner was, or where the excellences of this book lie; thus I got a lot more out of it the second time.

The first thing worth noting is that The Unvanquished is among the most accessible of Faulkner’s works. It’s written in a first-person voice, but it’s not stream-of-consciousness, for the most part. It’s an old Bayard Sartoris telling the story of his youth. Thus it doesn’t have anything nearly as incomprehensible as, say, The Sound and the Fury. Also, it takes the form of a Bildungsroman, beginning with Bayard as a 13-year-old boy during the Civil War and ending when he is 24 years old, a man, living in the reconstructed South. This gives it a clear direction and thematic unity; the book is about Bayard growning up and learning to deal with the new order of things.

I don’t want to imply that I prefer The Unvanquished to Faulkner’s other works. It is more comprehensible; but in being more comprehensible, I think, it loses something of what I consider one of Faulkner’s greatest strengths, the ability to convey the mystery and often seeming randomness of life, and yet draw a kind of inexpressible unity out of it. That’s what I love about The Sound and the Fury, or Absalom, Absalom, or the Snopes trilogy. I don’t think The Unvanquished succeeds at it to the same extent; but that’s because it doesn’t really attempt to. It’s a more traditional novel.

But still a quite excellent one. It focuses on the conflict between ideals and the harsh realities of life – justice versus order – and how Bayard comes to understand this dichotomy as he matures. Why are justice and order opposed? Because often doing what is just, according to strict standards of morality, results in chaos, and thus may not be the correct action. In the first section of the novel, Granny Millard lies in order to protect Bayard and Ringo, 13-year-old boys who have accidentally angered the Union army. She feels bad about this, but does not repent, exactly; she would do it again in a heartbeat. This theme recurs throughout the novel; our heroes must lie for the sake of order, then steal for the sake of order, and finally even kill for the sake of order.

Faulkner does not condemn them for this. I think he sees their actions as necessary, because the Sartorises are the aristocrats, responsible for keeping order in society, and the war has caused chaos – the Confederate government no longer rules, but neither has the Union re-established order. So the Sartorises must establish order themselves. Thus, in a way, it isn’t wrong for them to lie, and steal, and kill.

This can be slightly disconcerting for those of us who would like to have a strict proscriptive morality. But, after all, such a thing is impossible; that’s why we can’t kill abortionists even though what they’re doing is a heinous evil. I don’t really like this solution – it seems to make “order” into an intrinsic good – but neither do I see any other solution.

The novel ends with Bayard refusing to kill a man in order to avenge his father, a turn which could be seen as a rejection of his earlier behavior during the war. But I don’t think it is. During the war, Bayard had to kill the outlaw because he was a threat to society; after the war, when government has been re-established, Bayard cannot be allowed to exact revenge, for that would be no more than murder.

Until this point, Faulkner seems to reject all ideals in favor of living life, but he ends with Bayard standing up for an ideal – why? The point, I think, is that we need our moral ideals, but we cannot stand up for them until law and order are established. Order comes first, and once we have order we can try to purify and sanctify it. It would be wrong to reject all moral values in favor of a merely pragmatic enforcement of order by the government, but likewise it would be wrong to attempt to create an ideal society from scratch.

In a way, then, Faulkner is making the same argument as Thomas More seems to be making in Utopia, who says that statemen perhaps cannot succeed in making government good, but they should try to make it less bad. The similarities are perhaps fitting; both are inspired by Roman pragmatism as opposed to Greek idealism.


February 5, 2010

I haven’t made a post in over a week? I’m not sure how that happened. I haven’t been that busy; in fact, I’ve done less homework than most weeks and haven’t had a particularly active social life. Well, I guess I was sick for a few days (still am, really – I probably shouldn’t be up at 3 AM) and thus didn’t notice time slipping away.

Ah well. Hopefully I’ll have a post up soon about The Unvanquished, which we just finished in my “Faulkner’s Vision” class. Also perhaps something about what I decided today to call the “cosmic aesthetic.” But for now, sleep.

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