Friday, April 27, 2007

Epistemology is Sexy and Dangerous

In the past year I’ve read two novels that have dealt with epistemology (the study of the nature of knowledge) either directly or indirectly. I’ve had two 300 level lit. Theory classes and a 400 level so I feel, now, I am finally under-qualified enough to write a little on the subject. The first novel I read was for a class. It was Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. This novel digs deep into the nature of learning and knowledge, all within the environs of a 14th century monastery murder-mystery. The second novel was Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which is less direct about epistemology but follows the careers of academics and the effect of their occupation on their lives and friendships. Both books offer a focused view of the noble pursuit of knowledge, and, surprisingly, both books left me cynical and disillusioned about the world of academia and environments of higher learning.

My current read is not doing much to dispel my doubt. I am now reading Robertson Davies relentlessly witty The Rebel Angels. Like The Name of the Rose and Crossing to Safety, the novel offers facets of the academic microcosm with protagonists that leave you feeling like you’ve just taken a lukewarm bath. Eco’s Brother William gets the closest to being a traditional pre-postmodern hero, but by the end he is drawn into the ranks of the avaricious monks in the monastery and loses, to say the least, his benevolent momentum. With Stegner, I felt myself trying to sympathize with all of his characters, but their graceless judgments of one another left me often feeling annoyed at this otherwise beautifully written work. Stegner’s characters have left me feeling less than compelled before. It was the writing in Angle of Repose that kept me reading, not the fact that I could relate in any way to the characters. Davies offers the possibility of a likeable character in Simon Darcourt, but he is, in my view, distractingly-observant (subtly judgmental) and his charm—eating honey on toast—seems contrived. Shame on me, judging characters for being judgmental.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against judgment as long as it is based on positive foundations. Questionable judgment comes from personal ambitions, however, and all of these characters seem to damage their personal relations through this kind of sizing up. As if the judgment was related to a desire to exploit weaknesses in their peers.

All three novels offer at least one similar sub-theme, with Crossing to Safety being the most subtle, that the pursuit of intellectual property is as perilous as the pursuit of material property. It’s an easy theme to identify, that’s why I’m writing about it, but it has made me think about the role of institutional learning, and the shifting perceptions of knowledge in the 1980s. All three novels were published in the 80s, Davies first in 1982, Eco the following year, and Stegner a few years later in 1987. All this during the decade when Stanley Fish was riding around the Duke campus in a gold convertible jaguar. Grey areas, reader response, and the awkward term “othering” were making their way into scholarly articles almost as a matter of course, and the phrase “publish or parish” took on the same gravitas as “off with his head” might have in simpler times.

It is no mistake that the idea of knowledge as a perilous pursuit pervades these three works. In The Name of the Rose, Brother William’s search for the lost book of Aristotle has nothing to do with the physical book, but of its contents, and, more importantly, what the contents mean to Brother William and the future of humanity. Conversely, the book means much more to William’s antagonist, who I won’t reveal, it is a murder mystery after all, who considers the contents unspeakably dangerous. This dichotomy (God forgive me for using this word) symbolizes intellectual transitions; Medieval to Renaissance, Reformation to Enlightenment, Modernism to post-modernism, in a way that reflects the desire for “new” thinkers to reject the ways of the old. In Crossing to Safety, one of the primary characters is already rich beyond his ability to spend, yet he is broken by the lost chances at scholarly greatness that his marriage inflicts upon him. Like the book in The Name of the Rose, the material becomes immaterial, it is the pursuit of knowledge which destroys, and the dichotomy here (damn, there’s that word again) is love vs. knowing, or being recognized for knowing.

The jury is still out on The Rebel Angels, but I’m predicting similar circumstances. Already it is easy to identify a very similar theme that correlates with the old being replaced by the new. (I’m a history major, and I know that my analysis is cheap chronological observation, but I think it is relevant when looking at, now that we are moving away from the post-modern period, how we are making this transition at the present time—that past movements aren’t static blocks of time, but are always fluid periods of transition, thus the name, movement.) A common element of all these novels is the fundamental trashing of the older academic. All three of the works have an interchangeable character, an old, crusty, arrogant blowhard, just the kind of person people love to hate, who greedily pursues knowledge and demonstrates exactly how the other characters may have their flaws but aren’t as bad as the old fart (excuse the colloquialism). This rejection of past academics is one of the things I find troubling in the works of the 80s. They often seem to me bent on pounding away at the foundation in order to float on wispy half-truths, a feet worthy of a Vegas magician, especially if you popularize the belief that there is no such thing as absolute or objective truth. On the other hand let me say that I do believe that many of the ideas that came about during colonialism and industrialism are antiquated and need to be reexamined.

Last night I watched a special about the Mount Airy Fiddler’s Convention. This is one of the largest Old Time music festivals in the country, and attracts thousands of fiddlers from around the world. One of the things that struck me as I watched interviews with fiddlers ranging in age from eight to eighty was the deep acknowledgement of the roots of the music. No popular musical form has experienced the transitions, coinciding with successive generations, that this form of folk tradition has. To hear a recording of a group such as Yonder Mountain String Band played next to an early recording of Bill Monroe would give a good idea of where the music comes from and where it’s going. The musicians warmly embrace this evolution, and rarely will an interview be conducted without a nod to the founders. This reverence, to me, is important when considering that the search for the nature of knowledge may not be about future intellectual reinvention but careful, respectful, reinterpretation of the past.

After all this, will I stop reading The Rebel Angels? Absolutely not. Wouldn’t it be hypocritical of me to reject these authors as they may reject authors that came before them? As with Stegner and Eco, Davies has already given me a wellspring of things to consider, and, annoyingly, drawn me into his book. That may be one of the most redeeming factors of this period of fiction; that the characters annoy and delight the reader, just as acquaintances in real life do. Not a new feature of fiction, I know, but as someone who is at the age where he is now far removed from years where he once moved freely,the 1980s,the lenses these authors provide aid greatly in self-examination.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


I was going to write a "woe is me" post because I received some not so good news today, but I came up with a better idea that I hope will cheer me up and spur me on. Before I start, I just want to say that I am writing this post from my front porch. My dog, Booker, is right next to me, and only a few moments ago he charged out into the street after a Rottweiler the size of a pony. I have an old plywood desktop that I use to rest my laptop on, and I was trapped in my chair and could only pray that the Rottweiler was good natured. Turns out he was. I gave Booker a slight slap on the top of the head. I would rather not see my dog get mauled today.

When I was a little kid I would sometimes get accused of copying my older sisters. They would be engaged in a game or activity of some sort, and for some reason the idea of me trying to invent a similar activity would arouse their resentment. I suppose they saw it as a kind of juvenile plagiarism, that in some way their originality was being compromised. Looking at it this way, I can see how it must have been pretty annoying. But at the time I had little desire to be original on my own. "Stop copying me," they would say, and the idea of doing anything else would be impossible for me to conceive. In fact, the idea that they were forbidding me caused my desire for imitation to become greater.

I realize that the previous paragraph will produce some interesting comments from my primary readers, who happen to be those three very sisters. They may not remember this as I do, and every writer runs a great risk when writing about their families because of this memory dysfunction. Let me just say that I could well be misremembering, and no such things ever occurred. If these events did occur, let me state now that they in no way damaged my reverence for my sisters, in fact my esteem for them grew due to their tireless originality. How is that for the disclaimer of all disclaimers?

Now why would I go to all that trouble to explain this little blip of my childhood? Because now I am about to do exactly the same thing I did when I was six, copy one of my sisters. This time it is Emily. Emily, you are more than welcome to send me an email with size 72 font telling me to “stop copying you!”

Emily engages in a practice called memeing. That’s not a word, but I’m predicting it will be one day. Everyone knows the premise: If you are stuck on a desert island what movies or books would you chose to have with you and why? This may not be the original meme, it may not even be a meme at all, but it gives you an idea of what other memes are getting at. It seems like a fun indulgence, and whenever Emily posts one on her blog I want to do the same meme. Two things stop me. Usually the memes are something like, “who are the best feminist writers of the year and why?” or, “name the top ten things you love about eating organic produce.” Well, unfortunately, I have very little practical experience in either one of those fields, although I don’t discount them in any way, and, Emily, please don’t take these examples literally, I’m generalizing in order to make a point. Also, although I know this would be the furthest thing from Emily’s mind, I still have a desire to avoid copying my sisters in order to make up for being a pesky little brother.

So I decided to create my own meme. I want to come up with some questions I can really get my head around and that have to do with my interests, something that will indicate exactly who I am. It may run longer than ten questions, it may only be one really big question, who knows, I intend to totally make it up as I go along, symbolic of my approach to life.

1) If you fell through the rotten boards on your front porch and got stuck and became parched with thirst, what would you rather have to drink, chilled dirty sock water or warm flat Sierra Mist?
Chilled dirty sock water because Sierra Mist has too much sugar.

2) What would you rather do, make love in an outhouse or win free tickets to see the Eagles?
Do I even need to indicate the answer to this one? It’s kind of the same thing really.

3) When you were a child, what would you rather do, climb a tree or copy your sisters?
I would climb ten trees just for the opportunity to copy my sisters. Besides, where do you think I got the idea of climbing trees?

4) If you were stuck on a desert island would you rather have a TV/ DVD player that doesn’t work because there is no electricity on a desert island, or ten of your favorite books that are unreadable because they were drenched by the monsoons?
The DVD player because I could bust out the screen and create my own soap operas using shells and driftwood.

5) Of all of your neighbors, who is your favorite?
The one that used to own a rooster who would crow into our upstairs windows from 2am until 8am. The rooster, not the neighbor.

6) How many knats do you think have bitten you while you have been out on the porch writing this post?
Don’t know, 758?

7) How far are you willing to go for a cheap laugh?
I would write a nonsensical meme in the hopes that it would produce a laugh in someone far away that I will never hear.

8) How far would you go to get more people to read your blog?
I’m thinking about standing in the middle of a busy intersection in only cowboy boots, boxer shorts and a sign with my blog address on it. Either that, or have some cards made up.

9) Why do you blog?
To get messages out to my fan base, which, at this time, includes only one person, although he is enduring. He also happens to be me.

10) If you get to heaven and you can find out how many times you did something throughout your lifetime, what would it be?
Used the Lord’s name in vain.

11) If you were making up a fake meme and you ran out of ideas for questions, what would you do?
See question eleven.

12) If you were sitting in a hard wooden chair with the knats biting you would you be: a) uncomfortable, b) ready to end this post, c) hungry and very itchy, d) torn between your desire to get attention through humor and your desire not to be consumed by little flying ants?
How about giving a guy an all of the above?

13) If you are secretly superstitious and have a fear of the number 13, how many lame questions would you add to your fake meme in order for it not to end on the number 13?
At least one.

14) If you had the opportunity to drop Dick Cheney in the middle of an extremist Sunni militia encampment in only his briefs, would you take it?
No, but I would want to really, really, really badly.

There, once again I’ve copied one of my sisters activities, but I believe I’ve added my own little nuances to the exercise. Remember Emily, imitation is the greatest form of flattery. Or something like that.

Blog Quote #5

In a modern university if you ask for knowledge they will provide it in almost any form--though if you ask for out-of-fashion things they may say, like the people in shops, "Sorry, there's no call for it." But if you ask for Wisdom--God save us all! What a show of modesty, what disclaimers from the men and women from whose eyes intelligence shines forth like a lighthouse. Intelligence, yes, but of Wisdom not so much the gleam of a single candle.
Robertson Davies

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Gettin' Religion

With all that is terrible going on in the world it is difficult to get back to writing for this blog, especially with any humor or optimism. The non-stop coverage of the Virginia Tech tragedy has left me feeling a little blue and strangely uncertain, but I want to continue with thoughts of deep sympathy for those involved. The death of Romanian holocaust survivor, engineering professor Liviu Librescu, who sacrificed his life for his students, is an example of how senseless and deeply tragic the whole thing is. I don’t necessarily think that it is time for debate, humans need time to heal. I am finding this subject extremely difficult to write about.

While the catastrophic news of the world seems to define every moment these days, I’ve been feeling bitter-sweet, having won awards at my college for this academic year. This makes me happy, but the troubles for others around the globe, and this ongoing Iraq debacle, is causing uneasiness and a deep urge to do something, anything, involving effecting positive change. I don’t know how yet, but it seems the time has come to search for ways that I can put my degrees to positive use to at least join the effort to stem the flood of deep hatred that is festering in far corners and backyards. Some may say, “its useless, how conceited to think that you could change anything, this is all part of the human condition, war, conflict, violence, this time is no different than any other time in history, in fact, there is less violence now than, say, ninety years ago.” I would have to do research to get into a debate like that, but I don’t think we should chalk this up to the “truth” that humans are inherently violent. I believe that some societies have an inherent tendency to foster violence and that it is this societal trend that has to be examined in order to be corrected. With all of the broad steps taken in understanding the human mind, we should find some way to come to reconciliation between individual psyches and the collective psyche. That is, what is the group telling the individual about what is acceptable, what is possible even, and how is that individual turning it into anti-social and violent behavior? With my declaration about no debates in the introductory paragraph, it seems I’ve already broken that edict—good to see I still have the capacity to be hypocritical.

I went to church with my mom on Sunday. We went to a little church that my sister attends (she sings in the choir) and I’ve asked her permission to write about the experience and she said yes, but I will change (or just omit) the names to protect the innocent. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be about being saved, it had just been a long time since I had darkened the door of a church and I’m somewhat surprised that I wasn’t struck by lightening on the way in. The experience was fun, funny even, which is an odd and vaguely blasphemous thing to say about church but I left feeling good, and isn’t that part of what church is for? That, and doing unto others.

The church has a small sanctuary, painted bright white, which was welcome on a day like last Sunday, when the rain fell steadily and the chilly weather persisted. We sat about midway down the pews, and instead of the hinged kneeling stool that many churches have (the ones that run the length of the pew—I still think that word is funny “Confucius say, man who fart in church, sit in own pew.”) this church has cushions like small ottomans really. I like this system, but I was a little out of practice and had trouble positioning the cushion just under my knees and had to squirm a little to keep my balance. Also, the man in front of me didn’t feel the need to kneel, so I had to lean back from the rail of his pew which gave me little anchor to attach myself to the kneeling position. So I kind of flailed around during the kneeling parts, precariously balancing on the tiny ottoman and trying to look like it had been less than two Easters ago since I had been to church. There must be all kinds of symbolism in just this predicament alone.

Before the service got under way, I was thinking to myself how nice it was going to be to be involved in a community activity where all you had to do was follow cues, listen, stand, kneel, sit, listen some more, eat the body, drink the blood, say howdy to your neighbor and sing. At the college I go to, general spontaneous discussion is encouraged at every level from physics class to keg parties, and the idea of letting the traditions and rituals of my family’s faith dictate my actions, with little effort on my part, for the next hour seemed relaxing. I know you don’t go to church to “take a load off” and kick back, but the structure of the service was appealing to me strongly at that time.

The service started with announcements. The minister announced that after some consideration she had decided to allow some members of the congregation to preach sermons in the upcoming months. A general murmur of approval seemed to generate from the congregation. After this had sunk in, the minister also announced that she would be accepting submissions for hymn choices, but here she had to make some things clear. “No Baptist hymns.” She declared. I wondered if this preacher had something against the Baptists. “…or Methodist, or Presbyterian, or any other,” she continued. Wow, this is kind of exclusive, I was thinking. But the explanation was simple, the church only had the Episcopal hymn book, and hymns not included in that would be difficult to sing without the corresponding hymn book. “Also, no Christmas hymns, or Thanksgiving.” She went on to say. The reason for this was more obvious; it was not the season for these hymns.

All this was related in a kindly tone which made for more comfort on my part. Then she opened the floor to more announcements and things got a little confusing. There was a rally of some sort going on in the near future and many feminine voices from around the church spent several moments trying to clarify when the rally would be and who was speaking when, and there was a general aside from one of the choir members about how her memory isn’t what it once was, and then a gentle calling in from the minister and the service resumed. It was looking more and more like how things are done at my little college, and I was worried for a moment that I might be asked to stand, identify myself, and tell a few interesting things about myself, being a visitor of the church. Luckily this didn’t come about and things started to go as I remembered them, with the standing and the sitting and all.

What is interesting, and I mean this with no disrespect whatsoever, is that while we were singing one of the prayers I couldn’t help noticing how the melody resembled a TV theme song from a 1950s western. I thought this was monumentally cool. I mean, every evening during my junior and senior year of high school, I had to endure evensong whose music sounded like it was written by a choir masters in strong need of anti-depressants, and here I was listening to the same prayer where you could almost hear a whip cracking in the background. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Rawhide---heeyaw!” Please don’t let my dad read this, he might disown me.

Later, my confusion returned when we stopped the service to greet and bless our fellow worshipers. The standard phrase always changes between the times I go to church, and I needed to wait for someone to greet me to find out what I was supposed to say, and then I just echoed their words. I think it was something like “peace in the Lord,” but I didn’t quite get the “in the Lord” part and I just shook everybody’s hand saying “peace,” like I was at an Arlo Guthrie concert or something. It was the warmest greeting break I had witnessed, and everyone moved around the church until each member had greeted all the others. I saw everyone move toward the back of the church and for I moment I thought the service had ended—the minister was almost out the door—but soon everyone returned to their seats and we pressed on in our worship. I became a little distracted when someone who knew my father wanted to tell me a funny story about him right in the middle of all this, something about him starting one of his classes by declaring, “I was born in the shadow of Monticello.” I did my dutiful best to laugh and appreciate the story, and declared that it sounded just like him.

After communion (I neither choked on the wafer or slurped the wine) the service ended in short order. After the hymn, the minister had the congregation turn to the back of the church and told us the reason the minister says the final blessing at the back of the church was to send the congregation forth, out of the sanctuary, to spread the word around. I like explanations like that.

I got trapped in the church (more symbolism) when my mother got to talking to the minister, who was greeting people at the door, and the two ladies in front of me began talking about a trip to Vienna. Three older sisters got me used to these types of conversational quagmires, and I looked interestedly around the church while they took their time wrapping things up. There is only so much décor in a church that one can consider, however, and soon I was trying not to convey a blank expression while the women chatted on.

In the social hall—don’t they call them fellowship halls now?—there was more conversation going on, and I was greeted by the husband of the woman who had told me the story about my father. He proceeded to tell me the exact same story, and I reacted in the exact same way. Then he found out what college I attend and found a congregation member who had graduated from the same college. It was good to talk to an alum. Another member of the church was born in Cape Town, and I congratulated her for this impressive feat. The coffee and conversation ended with topics inherent to little churches and places of worship world wide, small town gossip.

When we moved to England in 1979, my sister became enamored with the small town we lived in. The village offered something more than the subdivision existence that we were part of in our middle-American upbringing. She went on to get both her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Britain, and developed lifelong friendships in all of these places. Now, living in a small town in Virginia, I believe she has found some things that remind her of those other places, and it’s neat to see her thrive there.

As for me, I didn’t explode by going to church. In Travels with Charlie, Steinbeck writes about going to a little church in Vermont. He speaks of a preacher from a “John Knox” church who was all fire-and-brimstone. Here’s how Steinbeck describes him:
The minister, a man of iron with tool-steel eyes and a delivery like a pneumonic drill, opened up with prayer and reassured us that we were a pretty sorry lot. And he was right. We didn’t amount to much to start with, and due to our own tawdry efforts we had been slipping ever since.”

I’m tempted to write out the entire passage because it is so damn beautiful, but this gives you the idea. After the service Steinbeck declares that he is revived in spirit and places five dollars in the collection plate. The experience, Steinbeck claims, made him feel so gloriously sinful that he didn’t begin to lose the feeling until the following Tuesday.

My experience, although it didn’t involve a fire-and-brimstone preacher, has stayed with me as well. It is good to have this fresh memory to return to while so much suffering is being experienced. Community may be what causes the problems, but it is in community where we find the greatest solace as well.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Blog Quote #4

True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.

Kurt Vonnegut

Monday, April 09, 2007

Blog Quote #3

Doctor, what should I rid myself of, tell me, the hatred...or the love? Because I haven't even begun to mention everything I remember with pleasure--I mean with a rapturous, biting sense of loss! All those memories that seem somehow to be bound up with the weather and the time of day, and that flash into mind with such poignancy, that momentarily I am not down in the subway, or at my office, or at dinner with a pretty girl, but back in my childhood, with them.

Philip Roth

Sunday, April 08, 2007

My sister Lindsay has been working with water colors lately. This is a sketch she did after Paul Klee. I liked it so much that she gave it to me.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Blog Quote #2

To a historian libraries are food, shelter, and even muse.

Barbara Tuchman