Friday, March 24, 2006

E.O Wilson and God

This interview with E.O. Wilson in Salon wasn't exceptionally interesting, but one passage got to me. For the most part, I agreed with everything Wilson said, and have since high school. I actually get the impression Wilson has lived with these ideas for a long time, too, and would rather have talked about something else (like, say, his book) if the interviewer had not focused so exclusively on whether or not he thought there was a god.

Wilson's answer, like Mill's, is who knows - but if gods are around, they're certainly not like the ones described in the world's major religions, and they either don't care what we do or are not particularly benevolent. Here's the section that stuck with me.
I think this is actually of great importance when we're talking about science and religion. There are a lot of people who discount the literal interpretation of the Bible because it does not square with modern science. And even God is such a loaded word. What if we put that word aside? Can we talk about energy or some sort of cosmic force?

That's why I say, I leave this to the astrophysicist.

Not the religious scholars?

Oh, of course not. They don't know enough. Literally. I hope I'm not being insulting. But you can't talk about these subjects now without knowing a great deal of theoretical physics, particularly astrophysics and developments in astronomy concerning the origins and evolution of the universe. But one thing we may very well be able to understand from start to finish -- we haven't done it yet -- is the origin of life on this planet. And that's what counts for human beings. Where we came from. And it's beginning to look -- it's looking pretty persuasively -- that we are in fact ultimately physical and chemical in nature, and that we evolved autonomously on this planet by ourselves. There's no evidence whatsoever that we're being overseen or directed in our evolution and actions by a supernatural force.

It's very strange, because I have never really had a strong faith in anything supernatural or divine, but this passage really disturbed me. Something about the way it was said. I think it was the phrase "ultimately physical and chemical in nature," as vague and obvious and accurate as that sounds -- something about it seemed horrible. Maybe I've never really forced myself to think about what logically follows from agnosticism.

I think previous generations had to fight their way through the fraudulence of their faiths; and they had to overcome the emptiness that comes with its loss on their own, by making some sort of meaning out of apparent pointlessness. But agnosticism seems to come ready made for my generation - most people I know didn't really start out with faiths to lose; religion struck them as either silly or beside the point pretty much from the time they began to think about things. If it's a given that there isn't a god - the reflection that previous generations, who had to make an active decision to renounce their faith, were forced to engage in, never really happens. Maybe this is why I see some people my age returning to church largely out of confusion; I've never seen anyone who has actually lost faith go back.

Friday, March 17, 2006

American Inventor

That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time. -- John Stuart Mill

Last night, I sat and watched all two hours of American Inventor, the ABC reality show created by Simon Cowell and some other guy. It is exactly the same as American Idol except with inventors instead of adolescent singers -- and has gotten a number of severely negative reviews, accusing it of being derivative and manipulative. I believe the Orlando Sentinel called it a "queasy retread." What this means is unclear but I think they didn't like it.

Everything about these reviews is accurate. The show's judges are again either obnoxious, completely inarticulate, or gushing, although their personalities are not divided up as neatly as in American Idol, and their comments are not as predictable (dog, that was hot!). The inventors, like the singers, are again the subject of mocking or gauzy featurettes, with music to indicate whether you are supposed to find this person inspiring, ridiculous, or heartbreaking. Every moment that is at all dramatic is seen eight times in teasers before the show will agree to show it to you.

None of this keeps the show from being, for me, genuinely fascinating. Unlike American Idol, which features young people (within their genre of choice) trying to sound as much like other singers as possible, American Inventor focuses entirely on individual eccentrics, something Idol only does in the early qualifying rounds and the shows cobbled together with the express purpose of ridiculing people who can't sing. Also, you learn very little about a person singing a song badly; they might be slightly delusional for trying to attend the audition, but that's about all you can feel. The situation is pathetic but little more.

It is a different story when a person has poured tens of thousands of dollars and decades of his life into something that is a pure product of his imagination; the nearest Idol equivalent would be performing a song that you spent years writing yourself. This is a situation that has an element of tragedy. Not because the idea is bad, necessarily -- most of the inventors who have spent a great deal of money do have a decent idea. It is tragic because their devotion to it has become single-minded, and they have sacrificed too much. Or because their ambition has blinded them to some enormous flaw, like extremely restricted appeal; one man (who actually made it through to the next round) had spent $20,000 on a prototype for a shovel which did work, but whose only function was filling sandbags faster.

The show devoted far too much time to making fun of people who were clearly unstable or crackpots, or who have immense ambition and no real idea, but its concept is too powerful for the judges or producers to ruin. You could see an entire life in some of these people's faces - I mean the people who took what they had made seriously. Unlike Idol, it didn't seem to be just the money or fame they wanted, but validation for decisions they had made over years and years. And you couldn't laugh at them - not without looking at the plausibility of your ambitions, or wondering whether the laughter came out of some defensiveness about your own compromises.

As I watched the show I kept thinking that, no matter how much intelligence and creativity is lavished on scripted shows, this is what they have to compete with - and although the scripted comedies might be better at provoking laughter, I can't think of any that can match the humanity of this one show, built around this fairly brainless, derivative concept. Even when they are being belitted or cut into vignettes, these people are more interesting, more alive, than every fictional character on television.

At the end of the show, a fourteen-year-old with what I thought was a pretty good invention (a ventilator that fit into a car window, so dogs would be comfortable inside alone) was turned away. He was bitter, crying; a judge went outside and comforted him, told his mother she was doing a wonderful job. It looked like she was raising this kid and his little brother alone. At the end of the show, when the judge was gone, the boy thanked his mother for helping him so much on the project; he was still crying a little, and he told her she was the best mom in the world. She started tearing up and hugged him. And I didn't care that the producers of the show were trying to get me to be stirred or sad with their goddamn schmaltzy music; it was stirring, it was sad.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Rivers & Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time

My roommate recently rented Rivers and Tides, a documentary about Andy Goldsworthy. What a wonderful movie! Goldsworthy is an abstract sculptor who works with natural materials -- rocks, leaves, moss, ice. His art is generally installed in the areas where the materials come from (there is one indoor installation in the movie where he uses clay) and is also distinguished by its ephemerality. Except for some of the stone installations, most of what Goldsworthy creates -- like some beautiful arrangements of fall leaves -- is meant to be taken apart, either slowly or quickly, by the natural world. He documents them with photographs.

Anyway, the film is episodic, following him from one project to another. The main interest is the art itself, and my attention flagged a little any time the movie started to focus on Goldsworthy's life, conversation, or family. Goldsworthy seems like a nice guy, and he is very interesting when talking about the natural world -- about spores, bracken, and how to stabilize clay (hair, apparently) -- but vague and tedious when he talks about his art: he has to resort often to words like "energy," and then, much to his credit, realizes that he is not saying much and stops. One of the loveliest things about his art, in fact, is that it requires no analysis; I can't think of another modern artist whose work almost everyone would find beautiful.

Goldsworthy's art taps into some very universal sources of beauty -- fall leaves, the sun shining through ice; and the shapes he is obsessed with -- a line that winds back and forth like a river, a circle that, like the sun, appears to have been cut out of something -- all have something elemental about them. The art shows us how to notice the natural beauty that is overlooked because it both common and chaotic; by supplying an element of order that appears to have risen organically out of the material, he points out the beauty that is always there.

What I found inspiring about it is that this is not only art that anyone can appreciate; it is art that anyone can make, although Goldsworthy admittedly has incredible patience and a brlliant eye. In one scene, for example, he grinds iron-rich stones he finds in a stream and tosses the red powder into the water; the camera follows the color as it swirls and defuses through the current. It is lovely, but it is exactly the same beauty that exists in a cup of tea, if you bother watching the color seep out of the bag and spread like smoke through the cup. I remember spending hours digging channels in our yard as a kid, and using the hose to make the water run through them. There is something instinctual in the kinds of things that Goldsworthy does -- an instinct that seems to be getting increasingly foreign as we lose contact with the natural world.

It is true, there are plenty of beauties in the unnatural world as well, but I feel like the ability to sense them begins with an appreciation of the natural. I remember seeing a purple dragonfly in Madagascar and thinking that its wings looked like cellophane, and then noticing how odd it was that, when struck by a natural phenomenon, I always made analogies to the synthesized, as opposed to the other way around. But I immediately recognized that the dragonfly's wings were lovely, and I would probably never have thought that about cellophane. But cling wrap actually is rather beautiful, as amazing a sign of human capacity as the dragonfly is of evolution.

Anyway, just some thoughts as I sit in a typical office building, where vast resources have been used to create something that, taken as a whole, is so astonishingly ugly that one wonders how much longer it will take for our sense of anything but human beauty to be totally stamped out -- how else could we stand continually being in places like this? Since schools, modern office buildings, care facilities for the elderly, and hospitals are coming more and more to ressemble one another, we will soon spend most of lives with flourescent lighting, industrial carpet interspersed with stretches of linoleum, and the hum of the air conditioner. I also find it kind of funny that the the drab beige hallways at my office are distinguished from each other primarily by the works of high art on their walls -- Matisse is an especial favorite, specifically the cut-outs that he did towards the end of his life, when he was going blind.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Michael Dirda on William Gass's A Temple of Texts

William Gass has published another book of essays. It is admiringly reviewed by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post. Here's the passage that caught my eye:
Like the grizzled gunfighter who straps on his Colt yet one more time, Gass draws on a lifetime's skill, for invective, wit and persuasion, to defend what matters -- "the sustaining of standards, the preservation of quality, the conservation of literacy's history, the education of the heart, eye, and mind." Meanwhile, our world has come to worship crud, and Gass fearlessly, fiercely tells us so.
Just to provide some context, the subtitle of the review is "William Gass celebrates high art and decries the crush of mediocrity." Specifically, William Gass dislikes crappy books, really likes great books, and is annoyed -- I am too -- by the fact that libraries seem to be spending the majority of their resources on things like Internet stations instead of more books. Gass is also upset that the world seems to honor trash a great deal more than art: "It is a fact of philistine life," he writes, "that amusement is where the money is."

I do not disagree with any of this -- what I am curious about is how Dirda decides to describe this critique; he says that Gass lays his smackdown on the world's worship of crud fearlessly. Now, I have read a couple of Gass's introductions (they were good) and I can believe that he is as good as writer as Dirda indicates -- but does anyone believe that it takes anything like courage for a tenured professor at Washington University to deride the mediocrity of American popular culture? Will he lose his job? Will the CEO of MTV and a couple of judges from American Idol come over to his house and beat the crap of him?

No, I doubt it. I doubt it because this is about as conventional an opinion as an aging literary author can hold. Maybe a few young culture studies professors at his school will call him an elitist, but I suspect he will rather relish this.

Dirda does not mention other professors, though. Here are the people he thinks Gass is daring to offend: "In some essays Gass can scarcely subdue his anger at the enemies of art and civilization. The cowboy jingoist and the fundamentally religious won't find his views to their taste, nor will those who worship at the altar of the Internet or sacrifice to the American idols of pop culture."

That's right, Gass doesn't care who he pisses off. Consequences be damned! Can you just imagine the look on Bush's face when he opens up his copy of A Temple of Texts? He is in for one rude awakening. As are all the other churchgoing cowboy jingoists interested in literary criticism, and possibly a few well-read ranchhands.

To be clear, I am not saying that authors must only put out books that they believe have a good chance of influencing the people they criticize; very few books would be published if this were true. (See preaching to the choir.) But it is delusional to call an author courageous for taking on people who will never read him, and who don't care what he writes -- when he is flying so far below the radar of his victims (or, in this case, I suppose, over it) that he is not even inviting a confrontation. Orhan Pamuk, on the other hand, could legitimately be characterized as fearless. So, for that matter, could David Irving, who was recently jailed for holocaust denial.

I am not arguing that any of these people are better thinkers or people than Gass. As Orwell pointed out in his great unfinished essay on Evelyn Waugh the courage that it takes to express a certain opinion is no gauge of its validity:
It is nonsense to pretend, for instance, that at this date there is something daring and original in proclaiming yourself an anarchist, an atheist, a pacifist, etc. The daring thing, or at any rate the unfashionable thing, is to believe in God or to approve of the capitalist system. In 1895, when Oscar Wilde was jailed, it must have needed very considerable moral courage to defend homosexuality. Today it would need no courage at all: today the equivalent action would be, perhaps, to defend antisemitism. But this example that I have chosen immediately reminds one of something else—namely, that one cannot judge the value of an opinion simply by the amount of courage that is required in holding it.
One of the passages that Dirda quotes provides a clue as to why a modern author might like to think of himself as taking on powerful enemies, and also why a smart reviewer might go along with it, despite the fact it is obvious that the usual response of today's powerful to high culture is total indifference. Here is William Gass on the great books of the past:
Classics are by popular accord quite old and therefore out of date; while by the resentful they are representative only of the errors of their age, their lines sewn always on the bias, their authors willing tools of power and unjust privilege. Odd, then, that the good books were usually poisons in their time, when those biased pages were burned, those compliant authors jailed, and their ideas deemed diseases of the worst kind -- corruptions of the spirit -- to be fought with propaganda first, followed by prison, fire and firing squad, the gallows and the stake, all at the behest of the powers in place...
This is demonstrably untrue. (That sentence goes on a while longer, by the way; it is always good to pay attention to when a writer gets really carried away, because he will frequently be lying.) Think of every great book you can name, every consensus classic: for every author who was persecuted, you will find a hundred who were greeted with either praise, censure (of the kind that doesn't draw actual blood), or complete indifference -- that is, they got exactly the same reception that writers get today. Gass's "usually" isn't even valid for the writers that he examines in this collection of essays. The powers that be did not bother to come after Rilke, Stein, Burton, Gaddis, Walser, Elkin, James, Ford, etc. -- maybe some pissy reviewers did, but that was it. The only person that I can see qualifying at all is Joyce, and all that happened was that his book got banned, which is much less painful (physically, I mean) than getting shot or burned.

What I noticed in that rhapsodic passage, in addition to its lack of accuracy, is a nostalgia for a time when it seemed like writing was of consequence -- when one could call a writer fearless and not be saying something ridiculous. Roth has a wonderful passage about this sort of envy in The Prague Orgy, when Zuckerman almost seems to wish that he lived under a repressive government: every sentence would be an act of defiance against the censor; manuscripts would have to be smuggled out of the country before they could be published.

But the sad fact, as far as I can tell, is that writing has rarely been of political consequence in the way that Gass implies, even in our own horrible 20th century. Plenty of people have been persecuted, it is true, but this has not always been correlated with the quality of their writing -- and there is nothing about great writing that is fundamentally inflammatory for the powerful. Most great writing, as Gass admits, is only consequential to the readers that it connects with.

This is why I never quite understand the despair over our culture that emerges every few years with a new book from Bloom or Gass. The majority of people who have any love of literature will admit that, at least since there has been a large reading public, shit culture has ruled the roost. Even the great writers who achieved a measure of popularity in their lifetimes now seem to have been appreciated for the wrong books or the wrong reasons. Most devotees of art also usually believe that greatness eventually finds or creates the audience that can appreciate it, and that mediocrity (no matter how much it is praised) will soon be buried under the avalanche of more recent mediocrity. Has anything really changed so fundamentally in our world that this will stop being true?

(I do get the impression that things have gotten worse in universities when it comes to teaching literature. But it is the habit of lifelong professors to mistake this for the declining intellectual and artistic health of the entire society. If they want to find passionate and serious readers - who do not go through books simply looking for evidence of something or another - I suggest they stop hanging around students and other professors. A love of reading will occasionally survive a university education, but it will rarely survive the decision to start teaching there.)

Anyway, I tend to believe that things are not as bad as he says. Our political and economic elites certainly seem much less literate than they have in years past, but I don't know what effect this has on the general state of literature. Randall Jarrell and Dwight Macdonald - writing mainly in the 50s - both made similar criticisms: the books they stomped on are now justly forgotten; the books they loved are appreciated, as usual, by a few; and despite every despairing assessment of this country's intellectual landscape, America -- as far as I can tell -- has not produced fewer works of art in the last fifty years compared to the fifty before that. It has produced a great deal more shit, I suppose, but that is not really relevant.

A Former Army Interrogator on Torture

I came across this editorial in the New York Times by Anthony Lagouranis. He doesn't say anything that most people do not already know about American interrogation practices overseas, but the candor with which he does it -- and the fact that he does no grandstanding about the superiority of his conscience -- has something genuinely inspiring about it.

I had always assumed that the soldiers that engaged in the sort of thing at Abu Ghraib were following -- if not orders -- then at least thinly veiled suggestions, and certainly did not bear sole responsibility for what happened. But I also had a feeling that the people chosen for prison duty, like most police officers, were naturally thugs, who had few qualms about what they were doing. I couldn't imagine myself, placed in the same situation, doing any of the things that are in those photographs.

I am not so sure any more; this is the first piece I've read from an army man whom I felt like I was reasonably similar to. There was a time, both after September 11th and on the eve of the war with Iraq, when I could really imagine myself serving in the reconstruction of Iraq or Afghanistan; I could separate it from my general lack of support for the invasions themselves, because it seemed like noble and necessary work -- both things that seem (probably falsely) like they are in short supply over here, away from the gunfire.

At this point, though, I could not imagine having anything to do with the American armed forces. Not because of fear, exactly -- I would have tried to serve in a non-combat capacity anyway, and I would be willing to stand the risk of simply being in Iraq -- but because I cannot imagine my peers being the sort of people at Abu Ghraib, and being commanded by people that either consciously ignored or encouraged such behavior.

Even the advertisements for the Army or Navy, which conscientiously avoid showing anything like an actual war -- or even a shot anywhere from the Middle East, where everyone who signs up will soon go -- seem designed to discourage people like me from even being interested in a military career. They present the life of a soldier as one non-stop rush, a sort of brainless live-action video game. I am not twelve any more; this is no longer my idea of paradise, and I am usually either scared or bored by people who still think it is.

The one or two commercials that imply that being a soldier might require intelligence usually present it as the opportunity to be around fancy gadgetry; the one that I remember has a soldier showing off his knowledge of computers to his starstruck high school buddies. There is not a single exhortation to join the army as a form of service, both to the country and the world, as there has been in every previous war this country has actually cared about. (To be fair, there was one where a boy in high school wrangles up some lunch for a homeless guy, and then grows up to be an army specialist in delivering food to places that need it -- but I have not seen that one in ages, while the others appear to be in heavy rotation.)

All of this made me wonder, why in the world did Lagouranis join? Because if there are really many men like him in the army -- both already there and who continue to join -- then there is hope yet. Maybe enough people will say something and things will start to get cleaned up; maybe they are already getting cleaned up. Things genuinely do seem to be getting better at Abu Ghraib, according to Lagouranis. The administration can keep holding people for no particular reason -- there is nothing a soldier can do about that -- but at least they won't be beaten and suffocated.

Anyway, I found the answer for why Lagouranis joined online, and it was more than a little dispiriting. He did an interview with Frontline about detainee interrogations. The entire interview is worth reading, but here is why he said he joined the army.
So give me a sense, if you can, of your own preparation. … How did you become an interrogator?

Well I joined because I wanted to learn Arabic. I had no interest in interrogation. And this was before 9/11, so I didn't even expect we would go to war. So yeah, after basic training they sent me to Ft. Huachuca, Ariz., where they do MI training. And I went through the interrogation classes and after that I went to Monterey to learn Arabic.

So the fact that this reasonably conscientious and intelligent young man is in the army is a complete accident. And after he voiced concerns about prisoner treatment, he was given an "honorable discharge." So, basically, while kicking out anyone who might run things in a reasonably humane fashion, the army is busy discouraging such men from joining at all. Now that America seems so much more willing to use its army when not actually attacked, on missions whose objectives are much more complicated than defeating an enemy on the battlefield, how exactly are we going to manage with an army run entirely by drones and bureaucrats?

The entire interview should be read, but here is an especially interesting section, on the nature of our military intelligence on the "Arab mind." This is the sort of advice that higher-ups give to interrogators, and this is the sort of obviously illogical information that is accepted without question when all you have, and want, are soldiers who are not expected/capable (it eventually amounts to the same thing) of thinking about anything.
I know that at Guantanamo, at the earliest stages there was this kind of urban myth -- maybe, maybe not -- that Arab men had an inordinate fear of dogs. Did you hear that?

I heard that all the time, but not from Arabs. I mean, that just seems silly. It's like everyone has a fear of a growling German Shepherd when you're tied up and helpless. And it's like when people were saying, "Arabs, they really hate being sexually humiliated." But who doesn't? I mean, who wants to be sexually humiliated? That's not a cultural thing, that's a human thing. So I attribute a lot of those comments to just pure racism. You hear a lot of comments like that, that really don't make sense.

Like what?

Soon as I got to Abu Ghraib, we were given a brief by a psychiatrist, an Army psychiatrist. He didn't know anything about Arabs or Arabic or Islam, but he'd read a few books and told us things like, "Don't expect to ever get a timeline out of an Arab. They can't think like that, they can't think linearly; they have to think associatively." You know, things like that. Or that "Arabs, it's part of their culture to lie," you know. "They just lie all the time and don't even know that they're doing it." It's like ridiculous, you know?

… What was the effect of that kind of information on [people]?

They believed it, and they continued throughout the whole year that we were there with that idea about Arabs, that they're liars and they don't make sense; they're not rational.

And so what happens in an environment … where that becomes the way you feel about the people in your control?

Well, partly that lends to the frustration. Because they're blaming their lack of ability to get intelligence on the fact that a logical argument presented to somebody, or whatever psychological way that you're going to back them into a corner isn't going to work on an Arab. You point out a contradiction to them and they don't care, then they just have a new story and that's it. But I think that's true for anybody who's a prisoner being interrogated. You know, they feel helpless, so their story's going to change. It's going to be very hard to back them into a corner. So yeah, I think it added to the frustration and probably contributed to this culture of abuse.