Saturday, May 31, 2008

Switzerland is starting to grow on me...

You may recall that I was a little conflicted about moving to Switzerland. Well, I'm starting to think maybe I could get used to this.

I'm working as a consultant, so I end up visiting various companies in Switzerland. The above photo (like the photo below), shows the view I see when I get off the commuter train and climb up the Swiss hillside to one of the companies I'm working with.

It's the most amazing thing!! I get off the regular commuter train from Zurich, hike up a hillside (on a public path) through a vineyard, pass through a charming wooded residential neighborhood, then take a path with green pasture and cows grazing on one side, and the other side is a protected wetland full of thousands of frogs. Then I arrive at a building that looks basically like the set of a sci-fi film to work on some super-high-tech stuff.

This whole set-up completely blows my mind!! Given zoning laws, I would suspect that such a place would be not only impossible, but illegal in the U.S., and I'm starting to question whether zoning laws are such a good idea...

Anyway, since my whole family consists of amateur biologists and amphibian enthusiasts, I decided to take the family on a weekend trip to work.

Here I am with Nico, carefully making our way through the reeds to see the frogs:

Leo was less enthusiastic about that part:

And here's one of the frogs we saw:

And Nico was psyched because he'd never seen damselflies before, but had learned all about them from his David Attenborough documentaries. He even pointed out two damselflies mating:

My husband recently expressed concern that all these nature documentaries have perhaps a bit too much sex and violence for a six-year-old kid. He may be right. Not sure...

All I know is that I had a great time! I've always loved observing frogs (I know I'm different), but I'd never in my life seen so many in one place! I also got to see them puffing their little green cheeks to call, too. All in all, a great day in Switzerland!!! :D

Friday, May 30, 2008

A feminist response to the new "feminist" anti-porn theory

It's official! The anti-porn feminists (remember "Porn is the theory, rape is the practice"?) have finally realized that their "porn causes rape" theory was wrong. Dead wrong. Not even close. Unfortunately, without skipping a beat they've invented a brand new theory for why porn is still evil.

Now, I hate to call attention to this essay by Naomi Wolf (or even read it for that matter), but it's sadly been popping up around the Internet lately as a feminist theory, and I've had some requests for a feminist response to it.

So here goes:

1. If stopping rape had been their goal, then upon learning about the inverse correlation between porn and rape they'd have responded by saying "Wow, that's not what I expected. Let's analyze this to see if we can understand better what factors lead to rape." Instead they respond by saying "Damn, now we have to find a new excuse for hating porn!" They've made it quite clear which issue was their top priority.

2. In the past few decades, real sociological research has been performed regarding the effects of porn, yielding real data -- lots of it. Yet Wolf doesn't cite any of it. She hardly seems aware of its existence. Just like their earlier theory (porn causes rape), the Meese commission feminists have pulled this new and opposite theory straight out of the air with only anecdotal evidence to back it up. Why is anyone still listening to these clowns???

(Answer: Because there are a whole lot of people out there who passionately hate porn and desperately want to believe their bile is inspired by feminism.)

3. The thesis of Wolf's essay is that when men don't ever get to see naked women (in real life or pictures) they're just that much more desperate for the real thing.

My response: Probably true. Hell, it works in Iran and Afghanistan! I'm still trying to figure out what this has to do with feminism though...

For some real feminist analysis of porn, see Yes means yes, a feminist in favor of porn?, and Porn and me, and for some light related discussion, see Topless on the beach and An Immodest Proposal: sex on the first date?.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Exmormon, Part V: Polygamist begins soon!!!

It's getting to be about time for another segment of Exmormon. Part V: Polygamist begins in less than a week!!!

This segment is a short one, just two chapters long. Also -- I hope this won't be too much of a disappointment, but -- the story doesn't take place at YFZ ranch. This novel was written years ago when YFZ was probably no more than a twinkle in Warren Jeffs' eye. Actually this short story doesn't take place in a polygamist compound at all, but instead focuses on the plight of the "lost boys" as I explained in my earlier note on the polygamy subplot.

This new segment doesn't rely on (or provide spoilers for) any of the earlier segments. As you can see, it introduces a new batch of characters. So you don't have to go back and read Young Women's, Youth Conference, Saturday's Warrior, BYU, and Gratuitous Love Scene before Polygamist begins. But it doesn't hurt. ;^)

Monday, May 26, 2008

This is just to say...

This is just to say
I poured the last of the Prosecco
into my glass
from the bottle which
you probably would have liked
to finish yourself
Forgive me
Do you still
want to cuddle?

And now a bonus verse for BiV:

This is just to say
I wrote about booze
for your meme
about church
to capture the spirit of it
in my own terms
Forgive me
So naughty
and so fun!

Now, I haven't been tagging people for memes lately, but this is kind of an unusual one, so I think I'll pass out some tags. First, I'd like to tag all of the Nonbelieving Literati, because one little poem parody should be simplicity itself for these brilliant lit types. Then, I'd like to tag everyone involved in the Carnival of Elitist Bastards, for the same reason. Also, I'd like to tag Greta Christina and Trey -- as my wedding present. ;^)

Finally, I'll tag MathMom because I think she'd get a kick out of this game.

FYI, here's the poem (by William Carlos Williams) you're supposed to spoof:

This is Just to Say
I have eaten the plums
that were in the icebox
and which
you were probably saving
for breakfast
Forgive me
They were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fidelity, Autonomy: Where does your body end and your spouse's begin?

When you agree to be monogamous, you promise your S.O. that you won't have sex with other people. This amounts to signing over some control over your body.

But how much?

This is a very tricky question for Mormons because the LDS church has taught that masturbation is a sin. So it's common for Mormons to think that marriage only makes it OK to have sex with your spouse, and any deliberate solo sex is cheating.

I think that attitude isn't conducive to a healthy marriage. It's not realistic to expect your rhythm and schedule to match up with your spouse's throughout your life, and whenever they don't match up, the result isn't fair to either spouse: the one shouldn't have to feel pressured to be available 24/7, and the other shouldn't be made to feel like his/her needs are irrelevant or that any impatience in getting them fulfilled is just selfishness.

On the other hand, I don't want to dismiss worries about masturbation as completely stupid. If your rhythms never seem to match up, it can be a symptom of a problem in your relationship. Additionally, I think there's a very real gray area on the question of cheating. Of course it makes sense to grant your spouse bodily autonomy (allowing him/her control over his/her own bodily functions), yet granting your spouse 100% bodily autonomy (saying anything goes) means allowing your spouse to be with other people. Some people are OK with non-monogamy, others aren't. If you don't believe me that there's a gray area, I've put up another new post at The Visitors' Center gleefully exploring the whole region. But if you've ever been monogamous and either you or your S.O. has ever been aroused by someone else, you know what I'm talking about. Precisely where do you draw the line?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Those perverted vampires!!!

The first time I heard of Stephenie Meyer was way back when I first discovered blogs. She'd done an interview in which she explained that she wouldn't include premarital sex in her books because it was against her (LDS) principles. I followed up with an article in which I argued that (in my totally biased opinion) it is completely psycho to think you're taking the moral high road by refusing to include consensual sex while writing a book that eroticizes killing people.

An insightful Mormon reader commented that it makes sense because people might actually be aroused (hence tempted) by depictions of sexuality, whereas there's essentially zero chance of being tempted to take up sucking people's blood. (I'm paraphrasing -- the actual comment was on the original Utah Valley Monitor edition of the article, now lost to the ages...). I contend that it's still psycho, and if you'd like to see why, just have a look at my brand new post for The Visitor's Center called The Carnal Bite.

On the other hand, the Mormons aren't the only ones to use this sort of reasoning. Take the very popular Belgian/French comic book hero for kids: Lucky Luke. He's a wild west gunslinger always shooting it out with the bad guys. I'm not sure how often he actually kills anyone in the pages of his books, but as I recall, a recent album featured a noose on the cover (some sort of adventures in Wild West justice, I suppose...). A few decades ago, the writers were concerned about Lucky Luke's influence on the kiddies, so they decided they needed to make some changes. Can you guess what change they made?

They had him quit smoking.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Who's an elitist??

It looks like some of my blog friends have decided to gather together and form a Carnival of Elitist Bastards: see here and here.

I completely agree with some of the basic goals of this carnival: Ignorance shouldn't be praised as a virtue. It is a virtue to say "I don't know, but I'm willing to listen and learn," but it isn't a virtue to say "I don't know and I don't care to waste my time learning things I don't already know."

On the other hand, I'm a little leery of accepting the media-and-politicians' newspeaky use of the word "elitism" (even in jest) to mean favoring knowledge-based opinions over ignorant opinions. I think that favoring rich over poor can reasonably be called "elitism" as I've discussed with respect to G. W. Bush in this post. But spreading knowledge and attacking ignorance should be viewed as populism, not elitism. Sure not every single person has access to the Internet or to a public library or has the time to go there. But living in the "Information Age" as we do, tons of information is freely accessible to a greater proportion of the population than ever. Education is the key to making democracy work, it's what helps the little guy to avoid getting stepped on and taken advantage of. It's the "black is white and war is peace" dictionary that allows powerful people to call educators "elitists."

For myself -- as you can see from my post Question Mah Authoritah! I have a strong sentiment of anti-pretentiousness, or at least anti-taking-yourself-too-seriously. This goes hand-in-hand with being willing to seek out informed opinions.

Some people are better than others at various intellectual pursuits or at solving various types of problems. Some people have vastly more knowledge than others on various subjects. Such skills and talents are to be celebrated, praised, and honored. Yet I strongly reject the idea that the pursuit of knowledge it an elitist pursuit. Being open to learning often requires humility.

As I discussed in think for yourself, the Internet helps ordinary people grow in critical thinking skills. I think the people who enjoy the two-way communication of the Internet are probably smarter than the average bear and should be proud of it, but that doesn't mean this is a competition and only the very cleverest commenters are welcome to join in the fun. No one is too dumb to benefit from being exposed to new ideas and new viewpoints. And no one is too smart to benefit from being encouraged to look at familiar questions from new angles, either. This is why I resist embracing elitism. I don't want to dismiss anyone's perspective as irrelevant; I don't want to write off and exclude people -- even those who seem ignorant and closed-minded have potential. And I don't want encourage the smartest people to limit themselves by thinking that they're already right about everything.

Of course maybe this is just some sort of super-elitism: I think I'm superior to ordinary elitists. Or maybe it's sour grapes about the various elite groups I've been excluded from. Or maybe I'm just contrary. Or all of the above. ;^)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

An unflattering portrait for Mothers' Day...

My little Léo -- who's turning five this week -- isn't as confident or prolific as his brother when it comes to drawing (see Nico's drawings here, here, and here). So of course I was thrilled when Léo came home all excited about a picture he'd drawn!

me: So what's it a picture of?
Léo: It's you, Mommy!
me: Oh, that's so sweet!!!
Léo: And look! You're on the potty, and you're peeing and pooping!
me: .... *grumble*, oh, great...

It's a faint pencil drawing, so it's a little hard to see -- click on it for the larger image.

I'm not sure precisely how to react. Léo is a huge fan of bathroom humor (see potty mouth: caca boudin pipi !), so I'm not sure whether to be pleased that he's including me in his interests, or whether I should gently suggest that this sort of portrait is kind of frowned upon by polite society....


Monday, May 12, 2008

Today's Links...

Eugene Woodbury has responded here to some of the points in my review of Path of Dreams. He was a very good sport about taking the teasing bits in the friendly manner they were intended. And apparently he's got a new novel coming out, which we'll probably be hearing about soon.

One point I found noteworthy (the reason I'm writing a new top-level post about this) is that he mentioned my Questioning Objectification post, calling it "about the most rational thing I've read on the subject ever". This is atypical since that whole "women need to be protected from sexuality" thing is the main point where religious people usually agree with secular feminist theory. But I suppose there are dissenters all over, and -- as I said in my review of his book -- his outlook on sexuality is quite positive. By crazy coincidence, the same post about objectification got another strong recommendation from Black Regalia here, calling it a "really brilliant argument" and thanking her roommate for giving her the link. Thanks!!! I'm always pleased to see more attention for this article since it's one of my main contributions to feminist theory. :D

And if you're done reading The Humanist Symposium, don't forget that this past weekend was the weekend where THS shares the spotlight with that other fun atheist carnival the Carnival of the Godless.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Humanist Symposium #19

Some truly fantastic Humanist thought has gathered in my inbox over the past few weeks!!! These articles cover Humanist Philosophy and practice and everything in between! So let's get started.

Humanist Ethics

Where do human ethics come from? In Questions of Morality, Lori talks about how the fundamental moral precepts -- love and compassion, caring for the sick and weak, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, don't kill, lie or steal etc. -- are common to all humans, including those with no religion.

So let's talk about what ethics and practices we should adopt:

In Humanity's Responsibilities, Phil for Humanity talks about the importance of adopting a mature outlook, and taking responsibility for our planet rather than hoping for diety to take care of it. Christian discusses (in Is dignity a useful concept?) how rights are a more useful concept that dignity when deciding how to treat others. In A Question to the Carnivorous…, Jeffrey Stingerstein talks about the ethics of eating meat from a Humanist perspective. In Vengeful Paths to Truth, the Mystic Atheist discusses the tension between revenge and forgiveness. And Paul tackles the importance (and difficulties) of growing in wisdom in What Would You Tell Her?.


I've received just one article on this subject, but it's a beauty. Lynet thanks her atheist mother for how she was raised. This post is a real inspiration for all of us who are currently in the parenting trenches!! (On a related note, this episode of The Humanist Symposium was illustrated by my 6-year-old son Nicolas.)


Now, let's look over the shoulder of the religious and talk about what we see. Greta Christina attended church, and even though it was lefty, groovy, gay-friendly church, she still found that the God-focus did the opposite of striking a chord. The Exterminator had a similar reaction to the effects of Jesus prattle on the tableau of a wedding on the shore. And in Life by Proxy we get a critique of helping people by praying for them.

So where does religion come from anyway?

According to VJack in The Nobility of Atheism, religion seems to be part of the human condition, even though it's not totally inevitable. Dale discusses whether religion is perhaps a spandrel in Spandrels and Gods. (This reminded me of an earlier series by Todd O., where he talks about this question here, here, and here.)

Religious people do us the opposite favor by trying to explain away atheism as "just another Fundamentalism." The idea that atheism is a real alternative to religion is far more threatening, so religious people feel compelled to call atheism a religion. The fact that this is meant to degrade and insult atheism says a whole lot about how trustworthy religious people really think religion is (compared to reason). So atheists have to talk about this charge that is constantly thrown at us, as Natasha does in I Don’t Believe in People Who Don’t Believe in Me.


And let's close with a few words from the arts. Paul explains the poem Throw Your Rockets Far (read the poem first before going straight to the spoiler ;^) ). And for those who aren't yet caught up on the latest segment of Exmormon, we have the tales of BYU (including the atheist love scene), with the next segment (Polygamist) beginning on June 3.

So that's it for this installment of The Humanist Symposium!!! Be sure to join us in three weeks at Jyunri Kankei, and submit your Humanist thoughts here!!!

Nicolas ! C'est le film avec le fromage qui parle !

That's an actual quote overheard at my house this morning. :D

Léo turned on the television and was delighted to find one of his new favorite programs: Sponge Bob dubbed into German (which Léo doesn't understand). So of course Léo wanted to tell his brother about it.

Translation: Nicolas! It's the movie with the talking cheese!

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Perfect Mormon Romance: Eugene Woodbury's The Path of Dreams

I've never read a novel that more perfectly captures the Mormon view of the perfect love story than Eugene Woodbury's novel The Path of Dreams. I'm almost tempted to call it canonical in the mathematical sense. If the stars were to align for a pair of Mormons to make their love and marriage ideal in every way, the result would be exactly the tale you find here in this book.

The author would probably protest that Mormons aren't supposed to get married after less than a month of knowing one another (as the characters repeatedly protest when other Mormons hold them up as role models), but that's not quite true. By Mormon standards you're supposed to pay lip service to the principle of getting to know your spouse for a few months before marriage, but if your love is truly destiny, then it is above such petty, temporal rules. It will be clear that there is no other choice than marriage, hence no reason to postpone it. Then the girl's aunt will just happen to have the perfect dress waiting in a box, and the guy will happen to be living in an apartment where there's no problem for the girl to move in right away, then the girl's old missionary companion will show up needing a place to live immediately so she can take over the girl's current apartment contract, then the girl's grandpa will happen to be a General Authority living nearby who can perform the service on short notice, etc., etc., right up to the perfect ending (which I'll discuss below after the spoiler bar).

One uniquely Mormon ideal portrayed in this book is the idea of marrying someone from the culture where you served your mission. An LDS mission to a foreign country is typically a two-way cultural exchange. The theory is to learn the language in order to preach the gospel, but this leads to learning the culture, and -- especially for young people -- loving the culture and internalizing it. In Path of Dreams, Connor McKenzie meets a woman (Elaine) who not only served a mission in the same country where he served (Japan) but is also half-Japanese herself, with all of the Japanese family and cultural heritage that implies.

Woodbury does a very good job of presenting bi-culturalism in a natural way. His novel is full of Japanese words and Japanese cultural references, but these elements arise at points where they're relevant in the story. Even for someone like me who knows little about Japan, the Japanese details weren't overwhelming or confusing. Instead I felt like I learned a bit about Japanese culture, and especially how it contrasts with Mormon BYU culture.

The most unusual aspect of this novel is the fact that it has no conflict. The couple has to deal with the standard getting-to-know you phase as they merge their lives, plus they have to tell their respective families about their marriage. Connor has a bit of commitment-phobia, or at least he toys with the idea briefly before deciding to just go ahead and propose right away. Of course the reader doesn't get the impression that he's even remotely commitment-phobic -- he's obviously an introverted homebody who would like nothing more than to have a loving relationship with his soul-mate. (Otherwise he wouldn't be writing this novel, see my edit your life post. ;^) ) The few obstacles they encounter are swept away like bits of dandelion fluff against powerful whirlwind of their passion.

Conventional wisdom would say that the lack of conflict is a weakness in the story, but it actually provides an original burst of realism compared a lot of romantic comedies which rely on some of the most absurd situations in order to keep the lovers apart or to keep them (for a time) from realizing they're made for each other. The one point of the story that's clearly a flaw, however, is the development of the female characters.

Both of Elaine's former missionary companions are bland and uninteresting. Melanie is characterized by being exceptionally beautiful, and hence leading a charmed life at BYU, with no worries aside from minor jealousy over her roommate getting engaged first. While being beautiful certainly makes BYU life a lot easier, it doesn't simplify it down to nothing, and some of the things Melanie reports about her situation don't sound like what a beautiful woman's life is like so much as they sound like what it might look like to a guy. In the story, Melanie's beauty serves to place Elaine modestly in the shadow of her friend (even though Elaine herself is also very beautiful). This would be accomplished far more effectively by placing Elaine beside a companion with a fascinating personality rather than fascinating boobs.

Elaine herself has some similarly questionable aspects, especially her behavior the first few times she speaks to Connor. They'd both been (supernaturally) interacting with one another in dreams, and the first time they speak in person, Elaine confronts Connor -- out of the blue -- with a cryptic complaint about his behavior in dreamland, as though she assumed that it was obvious to both of them that they were both dreaming of one another and the dreams were connected. The author grants Connor a perfectly reasonable human reaction (he wonders what she means and what's going on), but Elaine's behavior makes no sense whatsoever. Even the corresponding scene from Saturday's Warrior makes more sense than this ("I've seen that smile somewhere before..."). The scene only makes sense once you realize that it is constructed entirely to frame Connor's reaction when he's first confronted with The Unfathomable Woman. Some aspects of Elaine's character are believable and well-developed (her headstrong decisiveness, inherited from her mother), some far less so (she's a "dragon lady" which apparently means she behaves unpredictably in the heat of passion).

The one piece of advice I'd give to young male writers is not to set out to write a woman. Instead, set out to write a person and then make that person female. The one recent example I can think of where a male writer wrote an intimate relationship effectively from a female perspective is Christopher Bigelow's Kindred Spirits, and in that case I think the key was (as he explained on his blog) that he was writing about his own feelings and just transposed them into a female framework. Guys, don't give female characters irrational behavior just because they're female -- make sure their behavior at least makes sense based on their own point of view. If this is hard, try thinking of an amusing male character and change the superficial trappings so it works as a female character, but keep the basic personality and outlook the same. Seriously, try it. In this story, since the two main characters are both so very earnest, I'm willing to believe that they're made for one another, but they'd be set off better if the two blah companions (and maybe also Connor's boring aunt) were replaced with characters who are more laid-back, light-hearted, and funny. (Interestingly, Woodbury seems more capable of granting personality to Japanese women than to American women...)

This brings me to the next big topic: intimacy. Woodbury does an impressive job of writing a story that is at once passionate and chaste. I'd even call it erotic even though it's tame enough for a faithful Mormon to be okay with giving it to a teenager. The treatment of sexuality is surprisingly positive for a story set in a culture where it's a grave sin for an engaged couple to even fantasize about having sex with one another. Under normal (LDS) circumstances, either the couple is tortured by desire during the weeks leading up to the wedding date (a problem) or they're not tortured by it, which is an even worse problem because it portends major bedroom problems for the marriage to come. Woodbury gets around this eternal conundrum by using the only two outs faithful Mormons are allowed: a ridiculously precipitous wedding and (leading up to it) involuntary erotic dreams. The wedding night is of course perfectly satisfying -- almost transcendental -- for both of them. With no awkwardness. On the first try. Not terribly likely for an ordinary couple, but in this story it's par for the course...

Now I'd like to talk about the treatment of apostates, but that involves discussing the ending, so if you're one of those people who doesn't like spoilers, please stop reading now.

As the story unfolds, the two lovers learn about each other partially through learning about their respective families and ancestors. In Elaine's case, Woodbridge is (somewhat) candid about dealing with the fact that Elaine's (white Mormon) grandfather would have had a racist reaction to her parents' interracial marriage, but overall her Mormon pedigree is impeccable: a BYU prof for an uncle, a Mission President for a dad, a General Authority for a grandpa. This affects her value and status in Mormon terms, especially compared to Connor's apostate ancestors. Connor's great-grandfather had been put out of business and ruined by a church-owned business, and he ended up leaving the church over it. In my own personal family lore there's an ancestor who left the church under similar circumstances, supposedly sparked by a dispute with his bishop over irrigation rights. This sort of problem is a natural consequence of mixing religion and economics (a church with for-profit companies), so I was disappointed by Connor's dismissive treatment of his great-grandfather's perspective. The reported "happy ending" was when the church forgave the great-grandpa and was kind enough to allow him to be re-baptized after his death.

As bad as that sounds, the story of Connor's grandfather is even more questionable. Grandpa McKenzie lived his entire life in Utah, surrounded by Mormonism, married to a Mormon, and refused to join the church for his entire life. Then he specifically stipulated in his will that temple work should not be performed for him after his death, much to the dismay of his Mormon family. But (and this is the surprise ending, sorry...) it turns out that there was a sealed portion of his will that was to be opened only after Connor was grown and married. The sealed portion indicated that, in fact, Grandpa McKenzie did want his temple work to be done -- by Connor and his wife.

Now, anyone outside of Mormonism reading this would be going "What the...? So he never converted to Mormonism all his life, but he put that in his will??? I don't get it..." But in the logic of the story it makes perfect sense. The Mormon temple wedding is ultimately about sealing together an (extended) eternal family. Woodbury was developing the Mormon theme of "the hearts of the children turn to the fathers" as Woodbury had Connor reconcile with his grandfather posthumously. And the reason this is the perfect ending was because it provided Connor and Elaine with a reason to have a second temple wedding for the whole family once they had time to make the plans to gather everyone up (since the original ceremony had to be dispensed with as quickly and simply as possible for *ahem* reasons). So the second wedding was as much a proxy/replacement for Connor and Elaine's own rushed wedding as it was a proxy for Connor's grandparents.

Overall, I'd say this story would be enjoyable for faithful Mormons interested in a sweet and totally Mormon fairy-tale romance. But I'd recommend the book even more strongly for cultural anthropologists hoping to understand Mormon culture, values, and mindset. If you get this story, you get a whole lot of what makes Mormons tick.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Question mah authoritah!

Isn't it maddening when people think their pastors or other theologians are more qualified than actual biologists to pronounce on questions of biology? Or dismiss the opinions of geologists on the age of the Earth? On the other hand, we atheists tell everyone to question authority, and aren't they doing just that? After all, who do these scientists think they are? They have some nerve thinking their fancy-pantsy "Ph.D."s and research papers make their opinions better than your pastor's!

The answer is, of course, that you can question scientific conclusions -- science invites you to do so. Scientific works typically explain (perhaps in general terms) how the evidence works and what kind of experiments were done as well as what conclusions were drawn. The reader is naturally encouraged to think about whether the evidence is convincing for any given point, and to come up with other possible experiments and research directions that could potentially refine or challenge current ideas. But that's not the same thing as choosing whichever "authority" is saying what you want to hear and "questioning" all the others. You're using your own brain when you asses which authority is most likely to have the correct answer to a given question.

But what if we're talking about an authority with a Ph.D. in Art or Literature? Or a work that has stood the test of time? To what degree does it make sense for a lay person to question?

I think part of the confusion for Americans lies in a tendency to see value in terms of popularity, and especially in dollars. The grand classics aren't taken for granted as grand. They have to prove themselves over and over. People scoff at the hallowed halls of academia, thinking "Silly eggheads -- if you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" I've joked that an American is someone who goes to an art museum, heads straight for the abstract expressionism, finds the weirdest-looking painting and says "Ha! My dog can paint better than that!" Then goes home and settles into the layzee-boy with a contented sigh to watch some American Idol.

I know that sounds horribly negative, but the truth is that I'm including myself in this portrait. Just take a look at my post on art museums and The Da Vinci Code. Of course, in my case, I'm more likely to go home and relax with a copy of The New Yorker than American Idol or other television (which makes the above story that much more ironic, or perhaps just more pathetic). Still, while I don't think that a given work which is popular (or made money) is necessarily better than a given obscure work (it's a good indicator, but it's not 100%), I also don't think that the top few thousand most influential works that make up the canon of western literature are the best few thousand works produced by western culture over the same time period.

I hesitate to admit to this opinion because I'm coming dangerously close to wearing ignorance as a badge of honor, and we all know where that leads (exhibit A: Mr. President). So allow me to explain my reasoning a bit:

First of all, there's the fickle hand of fate. How many poems over the centuries have been composed by people who didn't have the paper to write them down, hence were forgotten after a few generations? How many notebooks of manuscripts have been thrown away without ever getting near a publisher? How many have had small print runs but never fell into influential enough hands to find a wide audience? How many works have been written and published in obscure dialects so that very few people could grasp the beauty of the text? I would be willing to bet that among these lost works there were many that the human race is far poorer for having never known. But, in the immortal words of Virginia Woolf: "accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them." The world won't find and diffuse every work that could potentially broaden the human spirit. It can't; it's not possible.

(Now I know you're going "Chanson, didn't you say you didn't like Virginia Woolf? Isn't that the whole point of this essay -- making excuses for that earlier fiasco?" Au contraire, I like her ideas. Of course I totally cribbed that quote from another student's essay.)

Similarly, since people can only read so many books in a lifetime, the right recommendation at the right time can start the snowball rolling which will grant immortality and superstar status to a work that's not necessarily that much better than its fellows. The more people read it, the more people talk about it, the more people read it, the more people talk about it, ad infinitum. And once a work attains a certain stature, it becomes hard to criticize it because if you say "Guys, this one really isn't that great because of X-Y-Z," you'll be branded as "the dummy who just doesn't get it." And to get this ball rolling, a work can be lucky enough to be created in the right place at the right time. For example, I have a sneaking suspicion that some works in the canon of American Literature have gotten a bit of a leg up in this game, riding on a highly influential culture that wants to have a proud literary tradition to hold up. Sure, a work chosen at random from the literary canon has a lot higher probability of being great than a randomly chosen obscure work. But no work should be a sacred cow that you have no business analyzing with your own brain.

And that brings me to my second point: the human factor. One can argue that a scientific or mathematical principle would be true whether humans discover it or not. But with literature, half of the equation is the reader's reaction. Literary quality -- the effectiveness of a work -- is highly subjective. Even simple questions like "What are the strengths and weaknesses of this piece? Is it great? Or okay? Or crap?" don't necessarily have a canonical right answer.

And this leads us to the deadliest question of all: When a classic work doesn't work for you, is it the work? Or just you? How to decide???

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Humanist Symposium Reminder

Okay ladies and germs, in less than one week -- on May 11 -- I'll be hosting The Humanist Symposium right here. And in order to make this next one the best Humanist Symposium, ever, I need you to post your pearls of wisdom and/or tales of the sunny side of a God-free lifestyle and then submit them here.

Don't make me come to your blog and find your best Humanist post. Because I will... >8^D