“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Two Great Poems

Fiction and the Reading Public
by Philip Larkin

Give me a thrill, says the reader,
Give me a kick;
I don't care how you succeed, or
What subject you pick.
Choose something you know all about
That'll sound like real life:
Your childhood, your Dad pegging out,
How you sleep with your wife.

But that's not sufficient, unless
You make me feel good--
Whatever you're 'trying to express'
Let it be understood
That 'somehow' God plaits up the threads,
Makes 'all for the best',
That we may lie quiet in our beds
And not be 'depressed'.

For I call the tune in this racket:
I pay your screw,
Write reviews and the bull on the jacket--
So stop looking blue
And start serving up your sensations
Before it's too late;
Just please me for two generations--
You'll be 'truly great'.

(1950). In Philip Larkin: Collected Poems

Cowboys
by C.K. Williams

The science-fiction movie on the telly in which the world, threatened by
aliens with destruction,
is, as always, saved, is really just a Western with rays and jets instead of
pistols and horses.
The heroes crouch behind computers instead of rocks, but still mow
down the endlessly expendable villains
who fire back but somehow always miss the stars, except one, the extra-
lovable second lead,
nice guy, funny, a little too libidinal, who you know from minute one
will teach us to die,
in his buddy's arms, stoical, never losing sight of our side's virtues: com-
munity and self-denial.
On the other channel, Pompeii: Christians, pagans, same story, them
and us, another holy mission,
the actors resonating with deep conviction, voices of manly sanctity, like
Reagan on the news.

(1987) In C.K. Williams: Collected Poems

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Can't go Libertarian

We all know to get your chops as a true rugged individualist you have to hate government interference in the lives of citizens. So what is a stand-alone, bootstrap puller American to do when the only two options are tax-and-spend and bombs-for-god. Enter the sexy alternative, libertarianism: economic conservative, social liberal. A lot (though I doubt a majority) of scientists find appeal in this set of political values, perhaps because a lot of them make money on patented programs, chemicals, materials, etc.

Left or right, politicians provide endless fodder for comedians and talk show clowns practicing psuedo-journalism--O'Reilly, Beck, Blitzer--as well as the talk show clowns practicing real comedy--Stewart, Colbert. I confess, any time I see a large group of congress people on the news, I fight back a gag reflex at the uncanny resemblance to a convention for used car salesmen. It's easy to look at this shyster hoard and jump right on board with Reagan when he said government wasn't the solution but the problem.

But there's something adolescent about libertarianism: you imagine an angry kid shouting, "You can't tell me what to do!" And the perennial refrain: "As long as you live under my roof, you'll live according to my rules." But though the government doesn't always know best the matter is much more complicated than the proposed solution of shrinking it implies.

George Orwell taught us to fear government control of our personal lives. Reagan and Gingrich taught us to deride the inefficiencies of government bureaucracies. But it's institutions in the private sector that are by far the best at controlling our personal lives, right down to our thoughts. And bureaucracies aren't limited to government; they're endemic to all large institutions, as any call to your cable or phone company will prove.

Wanting to endlessly cut taxes and deregulate also shows an adolescent understanding of the limits of human independence. We question the right of all Americans to health care, but not their right to lawyers if they're arrested, or to education when they're young. We rely on police and emergency workers. We rely on roads. An advanced civilization is simply too complex for any individual to truly go it alone. Do we really want to do without the FDA? I, for one, don't have the time, expertise, or resources to test my own food and drugs for safety.

At the same time libertarianism takes a rather naive view of how the world works. It's not too difficult to see that a basic law of human nature is that the powerful will contrive whatever means necessary to remain in power. The rich get richer. By shrinking government, we are ceding control of the country to institutions with a profit motive. Trickle Down, as the economic crisis has shown, is a trick the rich played on those less fortunate. "Hey," they said, "let us do whatever we want, get as filthy rich as possible, and you all will benefit." Far too many intelligent and reasonable people fell for this.

Checking the power of moneyed interests is especially pressing right now, because two issues on the current policy table are as clear examples of rich institutions operating to the rest of our detriment as there is. Though the coal and oil industries have spent millions to make us believe otherwise, global warming is a severe threat. And the only people who could possibly benefit from a continuation of the current health care system are the top executives in the industry, who incidentally are spending around $3 million a week to lobby congress.

So I think shrinking government to enlarge individual freedom is misguided and wrongheaded. This brings up the possible objection that if we allow government to regulate business, there will be no one to regulate government. Fortunately, the Founders thought of this problem, and discovered a way to obviate it. It's called voting. Remember all that talk about how the price of freedom is eternal vigilance--well, we have to stop watching cable pseudo-news and start paying attention, real attention, to what's going on. We have to invest in education. And we have to learn ourselves, as well as teach our children how to navigate the media with critical thinking and technological savvy. Shrinking government isn't the solution. Educating the masses is the solution.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Reading Subtly's Epistemology

A truth is only as good as the methods used to derive it. This is what I call neopositivism. Of course, classical positivism is the stance that the only meaningful statements are those which can be proven or disproven, and it has historically been hoisted on its own petard because it's difficult to prove that only confirmable and falsifiable statements are meaningful. I suggest that the stance, a truth is only as good as the methods used to derive it, since it is a relative rather than an absolute claim, is in fact recommended by itself. Witness the welter of ideas on the blogosphere: some are better than others, and it tends to be the best researched, the most scientific, that bring us asymptotically closer to truth.

But neopositivism is recommended most by its utility. We must establish a standard of truth or we'll be lost in the infinite regress of "I have the heartfelt belief that my proposition is true" squaring off with "Well, I have the heartfelt belief that your proposition is untrue, and mine represents the real truth." The issue must be settled through an investigation into the methods used to arrive at each of the competing truths. In the heartfelt example, the issue can't be settled, and both "truths" can only be accepted by those unconcerned with the fact that their "truth" has nothing to recommend it over others.

What does this mean for Reading Subtly? The best blogs are usually the most researched. But I don't mean for this to be primarily a scientific blog. I take literature to be an epistemology as well, one which must play a supporting role to science, but an important one nonetheless. So while the best science blogs tend to be the most researched ones, the best literary blogs must have their own methodological standards. I suggest the best literature blogs will tend to be the ones which have undergone the most revision, the ones on which the author has spent the most time. So my standard for blog entries, my fiction and poetry, will be that only work I've spent sufficient time assessing and improving from its original state of inspiration will be posted.

This poses a bit of a problem because the blogs that garner the biggest audiences tend to be those that post frequently and regularly. So be it. I'll do my best to value quality over popularity. And anyway, I'm only posting my writing out of playful vanity... I think.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Welcome to Reading Subtly

Reading Subtly is primarily for my fiction, but it will also feature general thoughts about books, movies, and magazine articles. I am science-minded, read several science books and mags (and blogs), but I'm not a practicing scientist. By science-minded, I mean that I am very much concerned with epistemology--the ways people come to know what they know--and I believe science is by far the most worthwhile path to knowledge. Many of my religious friends, however, complain that science isn't enough, suggesting that it's somehow incomplete. I agree. The human mind is desperate for meaning, and though science can provide some raw material which can ultimately be woven into richer narrative tapestries such an endeavor isn't strictly scientific.

Literature too is an epistemology. We understand best what we can imagine to be otherwise: the universe needn't have been riddled with black holes, the earth needn't have been drowned in water, humans needn't have evolved to walk on two legs. "Spin multiple hypotheses," Carl Sagan admonishes in Demon-Haunted World. Not only does each prospective solution hold the possibility of being closer to the truth, but each attempt primes the mind to abandon those farther away, and opens us to new discovery. Literature, the imagining of other lives and other consciousnesses, opens us to discover a more encompassing humanity. It is set diametrically against the believer vs infidel tribalism which is too often catalyzed by religions. And it is absolutely essential in this postmodern, dangerously overpopulated world.

Reading subtly is about slowing down. Too many of us go about desperately trying to find our next entertainment fix. We seek out gorgeous celebrities jumping out of screens to escape big explosions. And we fixate on narratives of tribal war and revenge. Is it any wonder that worldwide tribal wars and honor killings consume so many lives? What if instead of the elitism of wizards and vampires and super spies and super cops we learned to control our craving for entertainment? What if we could sit back and appreciate the nuances of thought of people who could exist or have existed in the same wizardless, vampireless, superheroless world we all inhabit? What if instead of mass cult followings for J.K. Rowling, there were followings, outside of the vitiating pseudo-theories of academia, for Proust, or Bellow, or Munro? Reading subtly is about getting practice getting to know others, real or fictional, so that we can better know ourselves and better know our world--the better to live in it.