The Evolution of a Joke Over 70 Years

From The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, 1920:

“It was one of the great liverystableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans wants to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.”

From Speed the Play, by David Ives, 1989:

“David Mamet knows that Americans don’t like to pay for parking. So he keeps his plays short.”

A Course on Kafka’s “The Trial”

I just completed Professor Richard T. Stock’s online course about Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” and if you’re a fan of podcasts and literature, I highly recommend it. Professor Stock takes you through the book chapter by chapter, with a plot summary and analysis of each. It’s an enriching reading experience (and a great reread).

I won’t spoil the course, but I was surprised that Professor Stock does not read the story the way I do at all. To me, “The Trial” is an allegory for life. As Woody Allen quipped in “Love and Death,” all people are ultimately sentenced to death for crimes they never committed. Like Jospeh K., we are all subjects to a capital punishment heariing where the best we can hope is to push back the inevitable sentence. Or, as Allen put it:

“Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to go at five o’clock, but I have a smart lawyer. Got leniency.”

“Wheat. I’m dead and they’re talking about wheat.”

Joseph K.’s last thoughts are that he’s executed “like a dog.” This seems to be the condition of life. We are all sentenced for execution and the best we can hope, as Joseph K. is urged over and over, is to fight to prolong the trial, not to seek its end.

Vonnegut Invented Google

Taking a dip back into Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos, which I haven’t looked at in the internet era. It’s the tale of a stranded voyage to the Galapagos islands during a global financial crisis and a pandemic that sterilizes the rest of humanity. In isolation, the people on the trip spark an evolution of mankind towards better swimming, fish eating and smaller brains. It’s a million-year long return to Eden journey and a deconstruction of the idea that evolution blessed mankind with larger brains, as Vonnegut envisions a human race better off without so much emotional and intellectual volatility.

Along the way, Vonnegut introduces us to the Mandarax, a supercomputer invented by a genius that contains the sum of human skills and knowledge, accessible in a device that resembles a contemporary smart phone. Galapagos was published in 1985 and set in 1986. Funny that the name “Manadarax” was even taken up by a piece of Java code in 2000.

Artist and prophet, who’d be annoyed at being called a prophet.

The ubiquity of smart phones with easy and constant access to Google’s search engine has wildly changed the way we communicate (tall tales told in bar can be fact-checked in real time) and has somewhat devalued an individual’s memory as you only need to know enough know what to look up, from mathematical formula to recipes to quotations from movies.

Summarizes one of Vonnegut’s castaways: “That wonderful Mandarax you’re scratching your ear with now: what is that but an excuse for a mean ego-maniac never to pay or even thank any human being with a knowledge of languages or mathematics or history or medicine or ikebana or anything?”

A lot of writers exporing the future caught on to the growth of computing power combined with miniaturization, but Vonnegut seems to have most presciently grasped its social significance, including the trivialization of an individual’s knowledge.

Molly Ivins on Donald Trump

This is a literary, rather than political place (so it’s a supeior place) but Molly Ivins was a literary journalist with great wit, so it’s fair to ask what she might have said about Donald Trump, had she not died in 2007.

In her papers at the University of Texas, there’s tantalizing mention of some of her notes about Trump in 2007. It’d be lovely if somebody from the university would put those online, as I’m sure they’d be of interest.

The internet mostly has articles where other writers fantasize about what Ivins might have said and while that’s fun, it’s not quite what I was looking for. It looks like, though Trump was a public figure throughout Ivins’ career, that she didn’t care much about him, which is just more evidence of her judgment and taste. I did find this but from The Texas Observer, where Ivins bemoans the lack of tough questions being posed to either Al Gore or George W. Bush leading up to what turned out to be a historically important election in 2000:

“Early in November, we had the grave matter of whether Al Gore is an alpha male thoroughly parsed for us — one newsmagazine made it the lead story. We were also confronted with George W. Bush’s ignorance of the names of three out of four leaders in world trouble spots, and this called for much double-doming and deep dissection. After Ronald Reagan, who didn’t know all the names of his own Cabinet members, you would think there was little excitement to be mined in that department. The disquieting news that John McCain has a temper has been thoroughly mulled over by all and sundry. All this follows months of discussion on burning topics like W. Bush’s alleged drug use thirty years ago, vast attention to Gore’s shifting from blue suits to earth tones, Donald Trump being treated as though any reasonable citizen would consider voting for him, the Warren Beatty candidacy, and much more that is of no help whatever in selecting the next Leader of the Free World.”

So, there you have it. Ivins dismissed Trump, then running as Reform Party candidate, as an irrelevant clown.

Sensitivity is Censorship

At least the Streissand Effect still works. I had never heard of the novelist Bruce Wagner before he took back his manuscript from Counterpoint Press over his editor telling him to excise the word “fat” from his story. Chris Beck at SpliceToday has the most complete account of the story where an author with a real following was asked to tone down his content to avoid offending people’s sensibilities.

Wagner uses the word fat to describe a character who calls herself Fat Joan and she is purposefully trying to bring her weight to 1,000 pounds in a bid for reality television celebrity. This is not the authorial voice labeling a character “fat” as an insult — it’s the voice of a character whose psychological fitness is more meant to be questioned by the reader than her physical fitness.

Rather thank make the edits, Wagner has released the novel for free on his website.

Though, what if, I wonder, the author had meant to question the girth of his own creation? It’s hard to imagine Shakespeare’s Falstaff or Sir Toby Belch without prodigious bellies. Or, in the case of Alfred Jarry, the lard of his Pere Ubu is absolutely meant as moral judgment as a tyrant king starves his people to feed his avarice — such things happen in real life, even in America today. We’re having an election about it.

It’s getting harder and harder for writers who haven’t established an audience to stand up to the demands of sensitive editors and even professional “sensitivity readers” trying to avoid “cancel culture” episodes. I see two big problems for authors with unique voices these days:

  1. A non-trivial portion of young intellectuals, who might be counted on to buy books and support artistic expression, have taken a strict view of “freedom of speech” where only government can “censor” content and no artist can expect an unfettered right of expression on any publishing or even social media platform. They do not view the publisher’s demands for edits as inappropriate and would argue that Wagner’s ability to distribute his novel through his own website is all the free speech that a healthy culture needs. The ethos here is one were you can speak all you want but have no right to be heard. This is unhelpful for artists and thinkers without an established audience or platform and especially for artists who need to be paid for their work.
  2. Related: publishers used to champion controversial work but are unwilling or unable to do so in a culture that will censure them for taking risks. It’s publishers, after all, who brought the ethos of sensitivity reading, not to mention sensitivity readers, into the industry.

Without the support of publishers willing to push back against social prudery, Beck finds that: “Younger writers are more accepting of their prose being nannied by the guardians of faux civility, which doesn’t bode well for the future of the power of the written word.”

What’s little understood here is that freedom of speech isn’t something that can be captured entirely by the first ammendment, and it doesn’t end with government censorship. It’s an ethos, and one that we’re culturally abandoning, one lost novel at a time.

A (re)Brief History of Time

While rereading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, I watch the Errol Morris documentary A Brief History of Time (it’s on HBO Max for the moment) and then went right into reading the illustrated and expanded version of Stephen Hawking’s book from 1996. The joke about A Brief History of Time, when it debuted in 1988, is that it was the bestseller that every intellectual had on the shelf but that few have read — kind of a slim Infinite Jest for the set who brought the kinds of dates home who peruse the bookshelves in judgments while you’re in the other room, opening a wine you have a story about.

That’s unfortunate, if true! A Brief History of Time is exceedingly readable, and the prose is, possibly owing to Professor Hawking’s disability, unadorned and economical compared to Sagan’s. Hawking cuts out the flights of fancy in favor of bon mots (Sagan, for example, spends a few pages imagining the internal monologue of a primeval hunter/gatherer while Hawking makes due with one-liners about how reversing entropy would put crockery manufacturers out of business). Visiting Cosmos and A Brief History of Time back to back is like taking in a year’s worth of “physics for poets” symposia and really offers excellent grounding for keeping up with news about quantum mechanics and cosmology.

Particles and anti-particles annihilate each other.

Quantum fluctuations near the event horizon of a black hole generate particles and antiparticles from the black hole’s mass.

Sometimes the antiparticle falls back into the hole and the particle escapes as radiatiopn

This excellent book is easier to understand than you might imagine.

You don’t need my take on the science but one thing I’ll remark on is that as fast as science seems to be moving that so much of what we know is still rooted in about a century’s worth of work, dating to the advent of General Relativity and The Uncertainty Principle. String Theory started in the 1960s. Hawking and Roger Penrose performed a lot of their black hole work in the 1970s. They’ve been talking about dark matter and dark energy since the 1970s. Everything that seems newfangled to outsiders has origins in our childhoods, if not before, it’s just that nobody was telling us.

Also, while the mathematics behind Hawking Radiation might be beyond most of us, the concept isn’t so tough: Quantum fluctuations near the event horizon of a black hole manifest as particles and anti-particles, from the mass of the black hole. Particles and antiparticles annihilate each other if they touch. But they don’t touch if the antiparticle falls back into the black hole and the particle escapes as radiation.

Going to take a break for some fiction but I think the next science book will be The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose. It intimidates a bit more from the shelf, with its Pynchonian girth. I flipped through and Professor Penrose seems unwilling to spare us the math, so this might take more time, which is finite but unbounded.

Why Do America’s Most Vile Companies Associate Themselves With Tolkien?

J.R.R. Tolkien cautioned against reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as simple allegory, as the mythos is meant to speak for itself. But taken as an epic cycle, it’s the story of an innocent Bilbo Baggins who takes a heroes journey and unearths a great lost power when he discovers the “one ring” forged by Sauron, the greatest, most powerful and corrupting evil in the world.

A generation later, Bilbo’s nephew Frodo Baggins, equally as innocent as his uncle, is asked to deliver the ring to the wise and immortal elves. But even they are potentially corrupted by its influence and so Frodo and his friends, including the deposed king of men, a representative from the elves, a representative from the dwarves and Frodo’s hometown friends undertake to destroy the ring by hurling it into the fires of Mordor. Along the way, they are stalked by a pitiful creature corrupted by the ring’s influence and all are twisted by a plant engulfing war that spares no one and allows for no neutral parties.

In the end (spoiler alert?), Frodo and his best friend Samwise succeed at their task, but at the painful loss of their innocence and childhoods. There are themes of heroic sacrifice and, yes, the notion of seemingly powerless people accomplishing great things against the forces of history.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have occupied significant space in western popular culture, from Leonard Nimoy singing The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins to two film trilogies by genius director Peter Jackson that redefined the Hollywood blockbuster. Nerds love it.

Nerds name their businesses after it.

The most prominent example is Palantir, a global surveillance and big data analysis company that took its name from the crystal orbs that wizards in the Tolkien universe use to see far away places. It’s a clever name for a company that, as The Intercept described, “Helped the NSA Spy on the World.”

But it’s also misnamed. Palantir, founded by libertarian techno-tyrant Peter Thiel, who once destroyed the media outlet Gawker because he didn’t like it, has built a company where the looking glass focuses on others but nobody can see into Palantir (well, except that now Palantir wants to sell stock so we can see that prying into the lives of everybody on Earth is still a money-losing proposition.)

In The Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf is aghast to find that his colleague Saruman is utilizing a Palantir. In the books, this is not a one way device. When you look into one Palantir, somebody looking into another might be watching you. In The Lord of the Rings, the evil Sauron is on the other end.

Another evil company with a Lord of the Rings name is Anduril. In The Lord of the Rings it is the sword of Aragorn, forged from the remnants of the sword the heroic Isuldur used to chop the ring off of Sauron during the first world war. So, this is the weapon that, in the novels, defeats the worst evil the world has ever known and reminds us that there’s always hope and cause to fight.

Thje real-world Anduril, however, supplies drones to the U.S. Border Patrol for use stopping brave people fleeing political, social and economic oppression by making a hazardous trip across our militarized southern border. So, it is evil. Not only is it evil, it delights in its crapulence by boasting on its careers page:

“We won’t tell you that you’re making the world a better place with ad optimization and emoji filters. We believe the most socially impactful thing we can do is help people in life-and-death situations make better decisions.”

Ha, ha. Make the world a better place by utilizing drone chicanery against defenseless refugees. How heroic. Dorks.

Dimensions

Rereading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as part of a mission to brush up on my understanding of physics, astronomy and cosmology. I also rewatched the Errol Morris A Brief History of Time documentary and after Cosmos will reread The Illustrated A Brief History of Time. I plan to conclude, for now, with a first reading of The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose. I’m hoping some immersion study in popularized from from 1980 through now (I’d read Brian Greene’s Until the End of Time last year) will at least bring me to some acceptable level of comprehension.

Anyway, it feels like this:

“Infinite Regression” by Jon Lomborg, Cosmos page 266

This painting, which Lomborg made for the book, actually did help me get a sense of what it means for the universe to be finite but unbounded, at least from our perspective as prisoner of three physical dimensions.

Stunning Nature Writing by Edgar Allen Poe

I’ve never bee a huge fan of “man vs. nature” tales. Sure, I love The Old Man and the Sea, but that’s really existentialism at work, along the vein of Heart of Darkness. I haven’t delved into the James Fenimore Cooper or the Jack London. But I’ve add an odd little book by Edgar Allen Poe on my shelf since 2008 and finally opened it — the shuffle of the library being packed in one location and unpacked in another unearths all sorts of little surprises.

The Journal of Julius Rodman is five chapters of a fictionalized memoir of an expedition up the Rockies that Poe wrote for Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine as a serial. It’s an incomplete novel as Poe was fired from the magazine and dropped the project. There are no supernatural or macabre elements, but the romanticism is in high gear.

Amazon.com: The Journal of Julius Rodman (Pushkin Collection)  (9781901285956): Poe, Edgar Allan, David, Michael: Books
published by Pushkin Press, 2008

Upriver, Rodman and his companions find dead buffalo washing up on the banks. Soon, they discover the source — a herd of the beasts attempting to cross the river at the wrong point, reaching steep embankments where they cannot climb out, criss-crossing the deep, flowing waters and exhausting themselves against the current. The band of explorers can only watch as:

“They now struggled fearfully to scramble up the bank, and one or two of them had nearly succeeded , when, to our great distress (for we could not witness their noble efforts without commiseration) the whole mass of loose earth above caved in, and buried several of them in its fall, without leaving the cliff in better condition for ascent. Upon this, the rest of the herd commenced a lamentable kind of lowing or moaning — a sound containing more of a dismal sorrow and despair than anything which is possible to imagine — I shall never get it out of my head.”

Just stunning writing there, had to share.

Then… This Happened

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