Portrait of the Reader as a Young Man

September 27, 2010

I recently finished reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for class. It’s an excellent book, though I don’t claim to understand what Joyce is trying to do. One thing I do find extremely amusing about the book, though: the reaction it elicits from people who read it.

Because the strange thing about the book is, it’s main character, Stephen Dedalus, is an artist type, and the book is mostly about his ideas about life, the universe, and everything. There’s a plot, but it’s driven almost entirely by the ideas Stephen has. He’s really the only character of importance. This means that your reaction to the book is dictated almost entirely by your reaction to the character of Stephen Dedalus. And, since Stephen is a brilliant, angsty, pretentious artist type, most people have the same reaction to him: disgust mingled with a prideful sympathy.

The disgust is easy to understand. Stephen is in many ways a terrible person. The prideful sympathy might need a little drawing out. What I mean is, most people recognize something of themselves in Stephen – the questions he is grappling with, after all, are questions everyone confronts at some point in their life, and Joyce describes Stephen’s searching in such honest terms that, whatever else we think of him, we have to believe he is really struggling with these questions.

But Joyce also presents Stephen as believing that he is alone in his struggles – he is an artist who cares more about his art than about other people and believes himself uniquely capable of forging the “conscience of his race” (whatever that means). He is convinced that no one else thinks about things the way he does. So when the reader recognizes party of himself in Stephen, he is made also to assent to this prideful part  of Stephen’s personality. Joyce brings the reader to believe himself to be, like Stephen Dedalus, unique.

But in that sentence the whole absurdity of the claim makes itself apparent. Because if every reader is like Stephen Dedalus, then the way Stephen thinks is clearly not particularly unique. And so the reader is forced to admit that he, too, is not actually unique; he is so normal, in fact, that a hundred years ago a book had already been written about the type of person he is.

And it is this self-recognition, when the reader realizes how prideful his sympathy with Stephen Dedalus is, that brings about the disgust that the reader feels towards him. Becaue the reader realizes that the main character ought not to be sympathetic, and also that the portrait drawn of the main character is as much of the reader as it is of the artist.

Can Computers Think? Posters

August 31, 2010

I was going to write something up about the question of artificial intelligence and whether or not computers can think. But then I came across this set of posters. So instead of writing anything I’m just going to spend a few hours reading all of them. Sorry.

But you can read them too.

Movie Review: Inception

August 26, 2010

In 16 words: Inception is a good movie slightly worsened by its belief that it is a great movie.

It could have been a great movie. It is certainly a good movie. Well constructed, interesting premise, a good puzzle-box. It could have been a great movie, if it had used its material wisely; but that would have required wanting to communicate something beyond befuddlement. I’ll explain what I mean by that. I’m not really going to talk about the plot of the movie, but only about a few of the characters and some general themes. Thus, the rest of this post shouldn’t have any spoilers in it.

The movie has two themes. The first it did a good job with, but did not emphasize nearly enough. The second, it reduced one understanding of the issue to a thirty-second monologue, and showed the other through a twist in the final scene that was  simultaneously predictable, frustrating, and meaningless. These two themes (and it shouldn’t be a spoiler to say this) are, (1) the nature of “inception,” i.e. “inspiration, and art’s role in it, and (2) the impossibility of knowing for sure whether this world is the “real” one.

The first of these themes is meta-artistic. Basically, the movie views art as sub-creation, and explores how powerful it is, how an imaginary world can be created, and how that world can impart an idea without the audience consciously realizing it. I found this aspect of the movie quite interesting, but underdeveloped. It really only shows up in the first half, and is then dropped in favor of the second theme, when they ought to have run concurrently throughout.

The basic premise of the movie is, shared dreaming is possible, and a certain class of criminal is often hired by evil corporations to go into rivals’ dreams and steal their ideas; oneiric corporate espionage. The main character, one of these thieves, is hired for a special job – not to steal an idea, but to plant one. To do so, he assembles a team of such dream-thieves, who have positions with names like “forger,” “chemist,” and “architect.” The architect is the one who actually creates the dream-world, and she must dream it in precise detail, enough to trick the target into thinking it is real, and must tailor it to fit the intended dream-scenario that will allow the implantation of the idea.

I say “she” because the main character, while he used to be a amazing architect, can no longer build, and must hire someone who has never been an architect before, never done anything illegal before, but has the potential to be a brilliant dream-builder. He selects a young female student for the task, and this woman becomes basically the embodiment of this meta-artistic theme. She is the brilliant young artist who is slightly wary of what her mentor intends to do, who is unsure of the morality of her artistic endeavor, who is unsure of the sanity of her mentor, but who is entranced by it, and must make art; art becomes her life.

On the other end of the spectrum is the main character’s wife, who was once a dream-weaver just like the young student, but who lost herself in the dreams and ended up dead. (I won’t elaborate to avoid spoilers.) This gives us an interesting set of characters to explore: the two female characters, representing art’s possibilities and its dangers, bracketing the main character, who was also once an artist, but who is simultaneously afraid to be a true artist and willing to use his art to lie, cheat, and steal in order to support himself. So far, so good.

But – in the second half of the movie, the meta-dramatic theme goes away, and the movie shifts to being about whether or not there is an objective reality. This, I think, was a mistake. The two themes are related, in that the ability to lose oneself  in a fictional world and believe it more important than the real world is indeed one of the dangers of art. But the movie did a quite poor job of integrating them. It allowed the epistemological uncertainty to dominate, and ignored the ethical uncertainty – and by doing so, it made itself unable to say anything substantial.

The problem is, the question “how can we tell a fake world from the real world?” has, when it comes down to it, only one answer: we can’t. There’s no way to be sure. And because it has only one, simple answer, it’s not that interesting a question. The more interesting question, which the movie almost asked, was, what makes the real world more real than an imagined world? What ethical obligations do we have to the worlds we imagine? And are those obligations in conflict with our ethical obligations in the real world? This should have been the theme of the movie. But it wasn’t, and it suffered for it – not only thematically, but personally.

The thing is, Christopher Nolan doesn’t do realism. He’s like Melville in this; his movies have one or two characters struggling with some Idea, a few more characters who can represent aspects of that idea, and the rest of the characters are one-dimensional, there just to fill in the plot holes. (Think about it: this applies to Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight… basically every Nolan film I’ve seen.) But Inception has no clear plan for the Idea he wants to work with, and so his characters fail as incarnations of ideas. This forces us to notice how really unrealistic so many of his characters are, and how the movie is really just an excuse to construct an elaborate plot involving multiple levels of dream, and we start to realize that there’s no greatness here, only cleverness…

And so we are left in the end, saying that Inception is just a clever movie, when if it had tackled its themes better it could have been great. If it had been content with being just clever, it might not have been that much better as a movie, and would have been thematically less interesting (so I probably wouldn’t be talking about it here), but it would certainly have been less… awkwardly constructed.

Extra-Terrestrial AIs IN SPACE

August 22, 2010

An article popped up on my news feed today from the BBC titled “Alien hunters ‘should look for artificial intelligence.’” It basically parrots the position of a SETI scientist who claims that soon after a civilization starts using radio waves (and so becomes detectable to SETI), it will develop AI, and soon after that the AI will replace organic life. Thus, he says, there’s no reason to focus on inhabitable planets when searching for extra-terrestrial life.

My first thought was, “REPLICATORS?!”

My second was, can he really be so confident that AI is possible, and that it would in fact replace organic life rather than be subservient to it? It sounds to like he’s basically writing science fiction and calling it science. Sure, it’s plausible, but there’s no real proof for his position, so why should we listen to him rather than someone who tells a story where the opposite happens?

Then I got to this paragraph:

Dr Shostak says that artificially intelligent alien life would be likely to migrate to places where both matter and energy – the only things he says would be of interest to the machines – would be in plentiful supply. That means the Seti hunt may need to focus its attentions near hot, young stars or even near the centres of galaxies.

My central interest, as it were, is with the phrase, “the only things [that] would be of interest to the machines.” I’m wondering, what claim about the personhood of these AIs does the use of the word “interest” implicitly make?

My first reaction was to say that it assumes that AIs are not persons. After all, it reduces them to one core instinct – REPLICATE! – and says that it is only that which is of “interest” to them.

But, then again, don’t people often say the same thing about humans – that we’re only interested in sex and death? The primary difference between humans and animals isn’t that we have interests other than sex and death, it’s that we’re aware of our interest in sex and death, that we worry about that interest, that we try to attribute significance to it and to them. An AI might well be the same, aware of his drive to REPLICATE and struggling to assign meaning to it.

This struggle would be made harder by his own knowledge that the drive was placed there by a biological creator, and so cannot have any higher significance. A central aspect of Christian theology, as I understand it, is those central interests of ours – death and sex, sex and death – may be a result of our physical, animal nature, but they reflect a higher reality, and this reflection allows us to find meaning in lives that remain governed by those interests of ours. But the AI – would he become a gnostic? An atheist? I find it hard to believe that a true AI – a truly self-aware artificial intelligence – would not consider the question of God. But I find it equally difficult to see one becoming Christian, unless Christ became incarnate as a machine.

I doubt, of course, that the SETI scientist was thinking about these issues when he said that. He probably doesn’t put much stock in the concept of personhood, and so the question of whether AIs are people, and whether they could have any “interests” beyond replication, are of little interest to him. But for those of us who do think “person” is a good word, his words provoke some interesting questions.

(What I just said about sex, death, and God is probably poorly phrased and perhaps completely wrong from a Christian point of view. This is mainly because I’ve always had a hard time answering the question of what we’re supposed to do with our lives, given that we’re physical beings and can only take action in a physical way – by eating, breathing, procreating, dying – but Christianity says that the most important action we can take is a non-physical love of God. The concept of the Incarnation tries to reconcile the physical and spiritual, but it’s still doesn’t answer the question of what we ought to do with ourselves while waiting to die. But this is a post for another day.)

Huck Finn, or, What Makes for a Great Book?

July 20, 2010

I’m currently re-reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and am trying to understand what leads some people to call it “the great American novel.” It is a good book, certainly; entertaining, a witty satire, and not entirely devoid of morality. But I don’t see what would lead one to call it great.

My main argument against it, I suppose, that it’s not particularly complex. A book like Moby-Dick can provoke endless hours of discussion, but there doesn’t seem to be that much to discuss about Huck Finn. The central conflict (regarding whether Jim ought to be freed) is fairly simple, and it’s quite clear which side of it Twain’s on. And that’s about the only thing there is to talk about. The satire is funny, and he makes some valid points about antebellum Southern society and about how gullible people are in general, but once you say “so he’s satirizing antebellum Southern society and point out how gullible people are in general,” what more is there to say?

Does this mean that for a novel to be great it must be ambivalent, undecided, like Moby-Dick is so much of the time? I don’t think so. I think writers who are certain in their beliefs are often just as good, if not better, than writers who are eternally questioning. But confident writers still must acknowledge the other side of the argument, not just preach their own view as obviously right and anyone who disagrees with it as obviously wrong. I find that works that do this sort of glossing over usually do it because they don’t want to address the complications in their worldview. Mark Twain said the moral of Huck Finn was intended to be, “a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,” and indeed, anyone coming away from the book probably has arrived at that conclusion. The problem is, insofar as its true, it’s obviously true (that statement is un-disagreeable-with), but it ignores the question, “what makes for a sound heart?” In doing so, it doesn’t make itself a bad book, but it makes itself not a great book.

This isn’t to detract from what is great about Huck Finn. It’s brilliantly executed; great characterization, great representation of dialects, funny when it ought to be funny, serious when it ought to be serious. Good for it. But that doesn’t make it a great work, in my mind. Certainly not “the great American novel.”

(Note: I argued a few weeks ago that this is what is wrong with To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t want to say the same thing about Huck Finn; I’m not saying it’s a bad book, or even not a good book. I think it deserves most of the acclaim it gets. I just don’t see why it’s considered among the greatest.)

Three Items of Note

July 7, 2010

I don’t often post links to articles rather than writing my own essays, but over the last few weeks I haven’t had a chance to write up anything and I’ve ran into two articles I find interesting, so I think I’ll make an exception.

First,  a critique of To Kill a Mockingbird. Apparently the book’s 50th anniversary is July 11th. I’ve never liked the book, and this article does a decent, though incomplete, job of explaining why. I like what Flannery O’Connor has to say about TKAM: “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.”

Second, an explanation of the problems with veganism. This article is written, from what I can tell, from a liberal, atheist, perspective – the guy likes Peter Singer – but it still recognizes the inherent problem with believing it morally wrong to use animal products: “Behind their beliefs is the hopeless longing for innocence. Except that there is no innocence. However delicate our moral sensibilities, it still remains that to be alive is to be a murderer.” I don’t mind people being vegans, but I do find it rather silly for them to think I am acting immorally by not adopting their eating habits.

Finally, while on vacation I had a strange dream about the nature of speculative fiction and wrote a poem about it. It’s intended to be humorous, and I certainly don’t pretend it’s great poetry. Enjoy.

    Yeat’s The Tower, Auden’s Another Time

    May 27, 2010

    The next two books we’ve read for my 20th century poetry-by-the-book class are W.B. Yeats’ The Tower and W.H. Auden’s Another Time. These are, to say the least, very different works, but I like both of them.

    Yeats’ main strength is his prosody and use of imagery. He’s one of the few poets for whom metrical variation actually means something most of the time. Just read “Leda and the Swan” out loud to see what I’m talking about. Then there’s his philosophical and spiritual beliefs, which, though bizarre and confusing, are occasionally fascinating. His idea of “gyres” is, as far as I can tell, your standard cyclicism, but cyclicism is a powerful concept; that’s what gives the annunciatory poems in the center of the book (“Two Songs from a Play” through “Among School Children,” roughly) their strength. I don’t agree with his interpretation of Greek or Christian history, but he makes an interesting argument. What I like most about Yeats, though, is just the feel of certain lines; he has a certain enchanting quality. He’s a very mythical poet.

    Auden, on the other hand, is extremely analytical, cerebral, even sarcastic at times. He reminds me in a lot of ways of T.H. White (what’s with all these initials?), who wrote The Once and Future King. Both gay liberal but ethically minded Englishmen who worried about the dangers of tyranny and democracy and thought love was the way to unite… yep, it fits. Unfortunately, a lot of the good qualities of Auden’s poetry make him uninteresting to talk about literarily; conversations about his poetry tend to turn into conversations about the nature of ethics. Which is, of course, kind of the point, but it’s not what I’m trying to do here. Anyway, the most well-known and probably best poem from the book is “Musee de Beaux Arts,” but other good ones are “Law like Love” and “As I walked out one evening.” I personally was interested by “Herman Melville” (for obvious reasons – for the record, I’m not sure I buy Auden’s reading of “Billy Budd,” though I’d like to) and “Roman Wall Blues,” which isn’t a complex poem, but a quite fun one.

    What I find strange about all this is that though Yeats is the imagistic one and Auden the cerebral one, Auden is the one to focus on love and community and Yeats is the more egotistical one focused on his own poetic genius. I guess it isn’t that incongruous, but it seems somehow backwards.

    Next up for the class (actually, started today): T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Of course, I’ve already read them (it? I’m always unsure about how to refer to plural titles like this), and it’s too long to do justice to in a reasonably-sized post, so I’ll just say now: it’s excellent, read it.

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