Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Most Overrated Novel of the Twentieth Century

You may remember a rap hit of 2005, “My Humps,” (see also here) by a group calling themselves Blackeyed Peas. One thing that distinguished this thing from all the other obvious candidates for the the office of Worst Song Ever was that it managed to be both artistically and morally bad. It was offensive in about every way it could be. I have been thinking about “My Humps,” because I have been reading a book that achieves something of this negative sort of greatness, but in the realm of literature rather than music.

This is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. A student in my course on philosophical ideas in literature wanted to write his term paper on it, though I had not read it myself. I figured, what the heck, I really ought to read it – students keep bringing it up as an example of a work that offers a challenging critique of war and the military ethos. So I’ll read it. I am still staggering from the shock of its amazing badness.

Here are some of the things that I think are bad about it:

1. It is a one-trick pony. This is by intention a humorous book, a work of social satire. But it consists of basically the same joke over and over again: military people are evil and stupid. They are also stupid and evil. (Did I mention that they are evil? Also stupid?) I found this pretty clever and amusing for about the first twenty pages. But by that time I still had about 450 pages more to go, and the rest of it wasn’t any fun at all.

2. It's a bad argument. Satire always has an intellectual point. The point here seems to be that war is a bad thing. The book makes that point by depicting the people who make war as stupid and evil. It does so by presenting all the characters who are regarded as sane by the standards of the military world as doing things that are actually insane, while the one character who is actually sane is regarded by everyone else as being crazy. But why should we expect military people to be insane, stupid, and evil? The book gives no reason. Now, you might think: “So what? Literature can’t give you reasons, unless it preaches at you. Short of that, it can only present conclusions.” This isn’t true.

For instance, a fiction writer could make Heller’s sort of point by showing characters, who in themselves are no worse than other people, interacting with a social environment that brings out the worst in them, with the result that decent people are trapped in a Hellish situation in which they are doing indecent things, while only people who are inherently evil rise to the top and flourish. This is what Ayn Rand does in her first novel, We the Living (1936). There she shows us a group of young people interacting with the Communist system, an environment based on the idea that the individual exists for the sake of the state. Some of the sympathetic characters idealistically believe in the system, while others just as idealistically hate it. All are damaged by it, because what such a system means, must mean, in practice, is that some individuals must be sacrificed, and for no higher or nobler end than to serve the interests of other individuals. The only characters who do well in this environment are the ones who are glad to step in and collect the benefits of the sacrifices of others. In the process, the empty rhetoric that enables the idealistic supporters of the system to conceal from themselves the real nature of the environment they have created breaks down. It would be hard to go into more detail about how this narrative makes this point without looking at the details of Rand’s text, but suffice it to say that it is genuinely enlightening, and that it enlightens by argument-like means. But this is not easy to do. It requires the philosophical acumen as well as literary imagination. It requires that one be able to think in conceptual terms as well as narrative terms. It also requires that you show characters as undergoing a development as a result of their dynamic interaction with their environment. But these are capacities that Joseph Heller either didn’t have or couldn’t be bothered to use in writing Catch-22.

3. The tone is wrong. The events he describes in this book are great moral evils. The tone of voice in which he describes them is one of arch irony and smug sneering. Such a tone is simply inappropriate to the subject matter. The wrinkled lip is not the gesture of moral indignation. It leaves the reader with the impression that the author, who is so ready to find other people evil and stupid, is actually some sort of moral moron himself. At one point in the book, one of the unsympathetic characters tells the narrator about a fun prank he and his fraternity brothers used to pull in college. They would lure high school girls into the frat house, and then they would gang rape them all night long. Then they would steal the pennies out of their pockets. Finally they would blackmail them by threatening to tell their parents that they had consensual sex with them, and let them go. Does Heller realize how evil this sort of behavior is? I doubt it. If he did, he wouldn’t expect us to chuckle about it. This is why I found reading this book such an emotionally punishing experience. Over and over, it presents me with a picture of pure evil, but in such a way that I am prevented from having the appropriate emotional reaction. It felt like I was trapped inside the mind of someone whose mind I don’t want to be in at all.

4. There is less than meets the eye. Some works of literature present themselves to you as pure entertainment and, once you are pulled into them, expand your mind with interesting and challenging ideas. There is more in them than initially meets the eye. Catch-22 proceeds in the opposite direction. It presents itself as dealing with great issues – and has nothing interesting to say about them. Take the title for instance. Bomber pilots have a a good reason to not want to fly any more missions – after all, the people you are trying to kill are shooting at you! And you don’t have to fly any more missions if it so happens that the pressures of combat have destroyed your sanity. However, if you ask to be excused from flying more missions on the grounds that you are insane, this exception does not apply to you, because not wanting to fly more missions is evidence of sanity. That’s the “catch.” Pretty clever, huh? Really tells you something about the twisted workings of the military mind, doesn’t it? Well, no, it doesn’t. All it means is that the judgement of whether you are sane is not left up to you. Isn’t that obvious in the first place? After all, these people are forcing you to do something that no one wants to do. If they let you decide whether you are fit to do it, you just won’t do it. So the decision of whether you are sane or not has to be up to your superior officers. But Heller doesn’t pursue this matter even to this pitifully low level of abstraction. He leaves it at the pretty clever, huh? level, leaving careless readers with an impression that there is something clever and deep here, whereas in fact there isn’t. I don't deny that people can learn things by thinking about what the author is saying, but that is true of any book, however bad it is. Any insights you get this way are ones that you came up with. They are not in the book.

5. It is ignoble. I'm sure there are any number of reasons to dislike war. It is a moral horror. In my own view, the main reason is that it inevitably kills, injures, and destroys the property of innocent people. Surely the most ignoble, morally lowest reason to hate war is that you hate military people. But that is the reason that this book offers, as its main argument.

Anyway, this book is so bad that the only real question it raises is, how did it ever get to have the reputation it has? Why is it on every "greatest novels of the twentieth century" list?* What the Hell? I guess the answer is probably pretty simple. It came out just before the Vietnam War (1961), when a lot of people would soon start thinking that war is a very bad thing, and that the military consists mostly of vicious idiots. In other words, Heller got a free ride because he was telling a lot of people something they already believed and already wanted to hear. But this of course does not speak in his favor, nor does it reflect well on the many readers who admired the book for that particular reason (especially the learned fools who compile "greatest novels" lists).
* By the way, this might be the only book (other than To Kill a Mockingbird -- a genuinely good novel) that regularly shows up on both critic-generated lists and reader-generated lists. Overrating this book is a disease that seems to infect humans of all classes, races, and creeds.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Explaining Religion (Human Universals Part II)

A comment made anonymously on my last post reminded me of a dimension of this issue that had slipped my mind entirely. I had pointed out that my attraction toward the wild places of the earth seems to involve seeing them as sacred. Is this a sort of religiosity, I wondered? Anonymous asked, somewhat more specifically, "Why is it that when we step into certain natural settings we are enlivened with a feeling of exhilarated reverence...?" What struck me about this question was the "certain natural settings." I had been thinking of the question as one about wild places in general. But now that I think about it, well yes, the phenomenon I have in mind is really much more specific than that. There is a small lake a short distance from the one pictured in the post below, very similar to it in many ways, but my reaction to it is very different from my reaction to "my" lake. I visit my lake every chance I get. I would never stay overnight at the other one. But it isn't because it is physically inhospitable. I find it somehow gloomy and disturbing. Frankly, it gives me the creeps.

Why? Actually, I have a hypothesis about that, a guess. It also might explain a lot of religious experience as well. It involves a speculation about the evolution of the brain, a subject I know almost nothing about -- so consider the source! Anyway, here goes.

We have two fundamental, radically different ways of understanding the world, and we are amazingly good at using both, from a very early age.

One is to read human expressions. When Nat was less than a full day old, he was already smiling back at me and the hospital staff. I noticed it and so did the nurses, who insisted that this was indeed what he was doing. I found this absolutely amazing. In a room full of blinking lights and other interesting stuff, his gaze went straight to the human faces, as the most interesting and the most understandable things he could see. This was something he did not need to learn to do -- or maybe he was predisposed to learn it amazingly fast.

The other fundamental way of understanding is cause and effect. Starting very early, babies enjoy shaking a rattle in order to cause the rattling sound to happen. I can remember when Nat, still a babe in arms, repeatedly pushed a doorbell with his toe in order to be able to hear the doorbell ring inside the house (far away!). Nature is a push-pull toy, and kids learn that very quick!

So we have expression reading for understanding people, and cause-and-effect for understanding the physical world. Each has its home in a different explanatory context. The thing is, though, that each way of understanding is not attached by evolutionary hard wiring to its normal context. We are free to turn to the physical world and read its expression. That's when a lake can seem to be smiling at us. This explains the difference between the two lakes above: they have different "expressions." One lake is high on a mounded expanse of pure granite, exposed the the brilliant sky. The other is deep in a hollow, with dense, dark forest growing right up to the water's edge. It doesn't smile at all.

Where does religion come in? Well, it seems to me that this experience can characterize your response to the physical world in general. Nature can seem to have the sort of "meaning" that a face has. Then you can get the feeling that the world we see is merely a thin membrane stretched over another, hidden one, and that this other one is the real meaning of this one. Like the meaning behind the smile. Then nature becomes the stage of humanly-meaningful moral dramas, like sin, salvation, judgment, and so forth (as in Michelangelo's interpretation of that theme, above). When you pray, you really feel that you are talking to Someone, and the He/She/It is listening.

It seems to me that this hypothesis of mine might be able to explain some otherwise very mysterious facts about religious feeling and behavior. One is the fact that religious people often claim to be certain of their religious views, even in the total absence of anything that the rest of us can perceive as evidence for these views. It may be that some people are much more susceptible of this experience I have described -- that of feeling the universe as having the sort of meaning that human expressions have -- than other people are. It could also be that some people are much more prone to treat this experience as evidence, to draw conclusions from it. For untold thousands of years, human beings who have my experience of these two lakes would have drawn conclusions about the spirits attached to these two places. I do not.

This might also help to explain why religion is a human universal, why we find it everywhere and why it shows no sign of going away -- and why scientific thinking (ie., cause and effect thinking) completely fails to predict it. There may simply be no way for an entire culture to keep its expression-reading faculty attached to its home turf. It wanders, and people are influenced by the result. Have to be.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Human Universals: Part I

I just found out about this, and I have to tell you I find it fascinating. There is a list of "human universals," written by a certain David E. Brown. It achieved some fame when Stephen Pinker published it as an appendix to The Blank Slate (which I haven't read). I think it's worthwhile spending a pleasant hour reading and thinking about it. The thing that hit me, and hard, as I read through it was how many of these things are denied by many members of the chattering classes. For some reason this really bothers me. If something if found in every known culture, I find it hard to say that it is really a terrible idea. Of course there are plenty of philosophers and other intellectuals who have no such hesitations. What is the matter with them, anyway? Or is it something that is the matter with me?

From time to time I will blog on items from Brown's list, as fancy and the whims of the time-budgeting gods move me.

In alphabetical order, the first item that jumps out at me, as something that some intellectuals love to hate is:

belief in supernatural/religion

Every culture whatsoever, Brown is saying, has some form or other of such a belief.

Actually, this is a little embarrassing. This is a point on which I have to admit that I myself seem to be rather alienated from the rest of the human race. I disbelieve in everything that could possibly be called "supernatural." Nature is reality, and reality is nature. That's all there is. (Did I really just say "all"? Isn't that a helluva lot? Isn't the greatest show in the universe -- the universe?)

But what about religion? When my Mexican friend Ramiro asked me last time I visited what my religion is, I said La natura es mi DiĆ³s. Actually, I said this mainly because it would be less shocking to him than Soy ateo (like Camille Paglia, I am a non-religiophobic atheist) but I am not so sure it is totally inaccurate.

Note that the gods of the Greeks, and of the Germanic and Celtic peoples, were really natural forces. Among the religions of the world, it is mainly the three monotheistic ones that insist on the sharp contrast between their divinity and the entire system of nature.

Rather like Ishmael, who feels drawn to "the watery part of the world," I am powerfully drawn to the wild places of the earth, in particular to one wild place, which I return to whenever I can (see the picture above -- also the two small pictures at the top of the left sidebar were taken there as well). It is a nameless mountain tarn, near the crest of the northern Sierra Nevada. Ishmael suggests that his returns to the sea are merely a desperate cure for his own "hypos" (ie., depression), akin to Cato throwing himself on his sword. However, as in the case of the thousands of Manahattoes he describes as standing like silent sentinels "fixed in ocean reveries," there is surely more to it than that, and I suspect that the "more" partakes of the experience of the sacred or the holy. Each season that I make it back to my wild mountain tarn, I spend my first hours sitting and staring into the emerald water, like Melville's sentinels. What is it that I see there? Even I don't know. I think the most honest description of my own experience of these tameless places is that I experience them as sacred. I can't explain it, but undeniably there it is. Is this "religion"? Do I have religion after all, if not belief in the supernatural? Not sure.