Tuesday, October 11, 2011

We're doomed: authorship question edition

Ads have started popping up on campus for Anonymous, a new movie advancing the stupid idea at the Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who died ten years before Shakespeare died, is the real author of Shakespeare's plays.

The authorship question has always struck me as the most pointless species of coffee-shop bullshit, given that there's no reason to think Shakespeare didn't write those plays. No reason, that is, except chauvinism: the belief that only a member of the genetic aristocracy could possibly write fine plays.

As it happens, I just read Bill Bryson's Shakespeare book last month. The final chapter is devoted to this trumped-up controversy, which he entertains and dismisses more concisely than I ever could. His discussion culminates on page 195:
[It] is possible, with a kind of selective squinting, to endow the alternative claimants [the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Derby, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and others] with the necessary time, talent, and motive for anonymity to write the plays of William Shakespeare. But what no one has ever produced is the tiniest particle of evidence to suggest that they actually did so. These people must have been incredibly gifted-- to create, in their spare time, the greatest literature ever produced in English, in a voice patently not their own, in a manner so cunning that they fooled virtually everyone during their own lifetimes and for four hundred years afterward. The Earl of Oxford, better still, additionally anticipated his own death and left a stock of work sufficient to keep the supply of new plays flowing at the same rate until Shakespeare himself was ready to die a decade or so later. Now that is genius!
What is it about the allure of conspiracy theories that makes otherwise smart people stupid?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Misguided perfectionism in R.U.R.

I'm most of the way through Capek's R.U.R., the play that coined the word "Robot." My favorite part, so far (and by far) is the long comic prologue, which occurs ten years before the main action of the play.

Among other things, it's a funny and vivid illustration of one kind of worry about perfectionist moral theories-- that is, theories that hold that we have a moral obligation to develop or perfect our human natures. A lot turns on understanding what our natures are, and the implications of perfectionist theories, if we're off target in our sketch of human perfection, can be menacing. Thus the following conversation, which conflates "ideal human" and "ideal worker" to funny and terrifying effect (p 17-18 in my Penguin Classics edition). Helena Glory is a visitor at the robot factory. Everyone else supervises some aspect of the factory's work.
HELENA: Why do you make [robots] then?
BUSMAN: Hahaha, that's a good one! Why do we make Robots!
FABRY: For work, Miss. One Robot can do the work of two-and-a-half human laborers. The human machine, Miss Glory, was hopelessly imperfect. It needed to be done away with once and for all.
BUSMAN: It was too costly.
FABRY: It was less than efficient. It couldn't keep up with modern technology. And in the second place it's great progress that... pardon.
FABRY: Forgive me. It's great progress to give birth by machine. It's faster and more convenient. Any acceleration constitutes progress, Miss Glory. Nature had no understanding of the modern rate of work. From a technical standpoint the whole of childhood is pure nonsense. Simply wasted time. An untenable waste of time. And in the third place--
HELENA: Oh, stop!
I just love the line, "From a technical standpoint, the whole of childhood is pure nonsense." So true.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

To be or not to be, I there's the point

I've been reading Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: The World As Stage. He includes this version of the opening of Hamlet's soliloquy from one of the "bad quartos," an early, published version of Hamlet presumably transcribed from the memory of someone involved in the production (p 160 in Bryson).

To be, or not to be, I there's the point,
To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all.:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I marry there it goes,
For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an everlasting Judge,
From whence no passenger ever returned...

This is funny, but interesting too. We're familiar with tons and tons of phrases from the first half of the Hamlet soliloquy:

- slings and arrows
- outrageous fortune
- sea of troubles
- thousand natural shocks
- to sleep, perchance to dream
- what dreams may come
- shuffled off this mortal coil

None of those stuck in the transcriber's mind. The thing that seems to have made the biggest impression is the ratio-like series, "to die, to sleep, to sleep, to dream." Seems like a great illustration of 1) the fallibility of memory 2) the importance of word-choice 3) the fact that there is no audience but individuals with idiosyncratic psychological makeups.

The Bryson book has been a pleasure to read, though it was marketed to far too big an audience. It has nothing to say about the plays. Bryson seems totally uninterested in them. It has little to say about Shakespeare-- we hardly know anything. But it is a collection of interesting and often funny anecdotes of Shakespeare's day and subsequent Shakespeare scholarship. It's an easy way to satisfy a curiosity for historical context.

Basically, if you're looking for a book to help you get into Shakespeare, this isn't it. If you already like Shakespeare, but don't know anything beyond the text of the plays, then this provides some quick and fun context.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Rawls on Hume

Another quote forwarded me by my advisor. This is Rawls, from his Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. He nails one of the many things I like so much about Hume.

A unique feature of Hume among the great moralists is that he is happy and contented with what he is. He is utterly without lament or sense of loss, with no trace of romantic anguish and self-pity. He doesn't complain against the world, a world that for him is a world without the God of religion, and the better for it.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wilderness, school reform, and choice of metric

Another bit from A Sand County Almanac. Leopold offers an illustration of how (non-obviously) poor initial decisions about evaluative standards can lock us into a self-destructive course.

Wilderness is the home of big game. Thus one group that has long advocated for wilderness conservation is hunters. In fact, hunters and anglers were pushing for a quasi-environmentalist agenda long before there was any movement recognizable as modern environmentalism. It's because of hunters that the departments charged with tending the natural environment are Departments of Fish and Game, not Departments of Biodiversity, or some such. But the focus on quantity of big game-- on hunter satisfaction-- as the metric by which to judge the quality of wilderness areas proved self-destructive:
One of the most insidious invasions of wilderness is via predator control. It works thus: wolves and lions are cleaned out of a wilderness area in the interest of big-game management. The big-game herds (usually deer or elk) then increase to the point of overbrowsing the range. Hunters must then be encouraged to harvest the surplus, but modern hunters refuse to operate far from a car; hence a road must be built to provide access to the surplus game. Again and again, wilderness areas have been split by this process, but it still continues.
This is a good cautionary tale for the school reform movement. Choice of evaluative metric has profound effects on the thing being evaluated. It's very important, then, that your choice of metric do a good job of tracking what's actually valuable-- because a mistake in identifying what's valuable might not only miss the point, but actively contribute to the destruction of what's really valuable.

I don't think many in the reform movement think that standardized tests are testing what's actually valuable about childhood education. They think, instead, that they've settled on a reasonably good proxy for educational value that has the virtue of being objective, analyzable with familiar statistical methods, and easily comparable between schools and years. This approach is almost certainly doomed. Leopold's wilderness example shows us that we should be humble and careful in settling on metrics, even when we sincerely believe the metric tracks what's valuable. (We often make mistakes in judging what's valuable.) The school reform movement has chosen a metric it knows doesn't track what's valuable. The right attitude toward a future in which Rhee/Duncan/Obama-style standards-and-accountability reforms continue to take hold is dread.

(Leopold quote from "Wilderness." Page 191 in my edition of A Sand County Almanac.)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The last Silphium dies: caring about nature for its own sake

My first garden, about eight years ago now, changed my attitude toward plants. I planted it because I wanted food out of it: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and herbs. I expected I'd care about the plants in my garden because their welfare was a necessary condition of my eating some delicious meals. After a few months of nursing seeds and transplants into full-grown plants, that isn't really how it turned out. When a neighbor accidentally snapped the stalk of a flourishing habanero, I wasn't mainly sad at the loss of a dozen peppers. I was sad that the plant didn't get to finish out its life. Which is to say, I was sad for the plant.

Once I discovered I that I can care about plants for their own sake, entirely apart from what they can do for me, it became clear that a lot of talk about conservation and environmentalism at least partly misses the point. Casting environmentalism as a means by which to improve the lot of human beings may be a good political strategy, at least in the short term, but it's only half the story. Acts or policies that harm the environment are prima facie bad, whether or not those environmental harms affect people.

I've known some people who have had similar experiences that led to similar conclusions. (Most people I know who garden, in fact, have had similar experiences.) The problem is, there's no way to argue that someone ought to care about plants for their own sake if they haven't had the relevant experience of caring about plants for their own sake. That's an uncomfortable position to be in, and it risks being insulting or infantilizing. ("Oh, you wouldn't believe the things you believe if you had a little more experience with nature.")

I just finished Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. It's great for lots of reasons, but one in particular has me excited: it includes a passage that I think might, maybe, be able to give people a little bit of vicarious experience of caring about a plant for its own sake. It's a little long, but definitely worth it:
Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard that I pass in driving to and from my farm. It is time for a prairie birthday, and in one corner of this graveyard lives a surviving celebrant of that once important event.

It is an ordinary graveyard, bordered by the usual spruces, and studded with the usual pink granite or white marble headstones, each with the usual Sunday bouquet of red or pink geraniums. It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pinpoint remaining of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840's. Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant, or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.

This year I found the Silphium in first bloom on 24 July, a week later than usual; during the last six years the average date was 15 July. When I passed the graveyard again on 3 August, the fence had been removed by a road crew, and the Silphium cut. It is easy now to predict the future; for a few years my Silphium will try in vain to rise above the mowing machine, and then it will die. With it will die the prairie epoch.

The Highway Department says that 100,000 cars pass yearly over this route during the three summer months when the Silphium is in bloom. In them must ride at least 100,000 people who have 'taken' what is called history, and perhaps 2,500 who have 'taken' what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these, hardly one will notice its demise. If I were to tell preacher of the adjoining church that the road crew has been burning history books in his cemetery, under the guise of mowing weeds, he would be amazed and uncomprehending. How could a weed be a book?

This is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of floras of the world. Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.


Silphium first became a personality to me when I tried to dig one up to move to my farm. It was like digging an oak sapling. After half an hour of hot grimy labor the root was still enlarging, like a great vertical sweet-potato. As far as I know, that Silphium root went clear through to bedrock. I got no Silphium, but I learned by what elaborate underground stratagems it contrives to weather the prairie drouths.

I next planted Silphium seeds, which are large, meaty, and taste like sunflower seeds. They came up promptly, but after five years of waiting the seedlings are still juvenile, and have not yet borne a flower stalk. Perhaps it takes a decade for a Silphium to reach flowering age; how old, then, was my pet plant in the cemetery? It may have been older than the oldest tombstone, which is dated 1850. Perhaps it watched the fugitive Black Hawk retreat from the Madison lakes to the Wisconsin River; it stood on the route of that famous march. Certainly it saw the successive funerals of the local pioneers as they retired, one by one, to their repose beneath the bluestem.

I once saw a power shovel, while digging a roadside ditch, sever the 'sweet-potato' root of a Silphium plant. The root soon sprouted new leaves, and eventually it again produced a flower stalk. This explains why this plant, which never invades new ground, is nevertheless sometimes seen on recently graded roadsides. Once established, it apparently withstands almost any kind of mutilation except continued grazing, mowing or plowing.

Why does Silphium disappear from grazed areas? I once saw a farmer turn his cows into virgin prairie meadow previously used only sporadically for mowing wild hay. The cows cropped the Silphium to the ground before any other plant was visibly eaten at all. One can imagine that the buffalo once had the same preference for Silphium, but he brooked no fences to confine his nibblings all summer long to one meadow. In short, the buffalo's pasturing was discontinuous, and therefore tolerable to Silphium.

It is a kind of providence that has withheld a sense of history from the thousands of species of plants and animals that have exterminated each other to build the present world. The same kind of providence now withholds it from us. Few grieved when the last buffalo left Wisconsin, and few will grieve when the last Silphium follows him to the lush prairies of the never-never land.
(Excerpted from "Prairie Birthday," p. 44-50 in my edition of A Sand County Almanac.)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Vonnegut on moral character

I'm thinking about re-reading Mother Night. I've gone a while without a Vonnegut fix. I pulled it off the shelf this afternoon, and discovered the opening paragraph of the introduction, which I'd forgotten:
This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don't think it's a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
I think it's a marvelous moral. I should definitely re-read this book.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Hornby on excellence's long tail

More Hornby. This is a long excerpt from Fever Pitch in which he recounts the story of Gus Caesar, who was, for a short while, a struggling fullback for Arsenal. It's a terrifying story, and makes me wonder if it's ever sane to choose to enter the big pond.
Soon after I had stopped teaching and begun to try to write, I read a book called The Hustler by Walter Tevis. I was much taken by Fast Eddie, the character played by Paul Newman in the film, just as I had been much taken with the notion that I was the Cannonball Kid when Charlie Nicholas moved down from Celtic. And as the book seemed to be about anything you wanted to do that was difficult-- writing, becoming a footballer, whatever-- I paid it extra special attention. At one point (oh God oh God oh God) I typed these words out on a piece of paper and pinned it above my desk:
That's what the whole goddamned thing is: you got to commit yourself to the life you picked. And you picked it-- most people don't even do that. You're smart and you're young and you've got, like I said before, talent.
As the rejection slips piled up, these words comforted me; and as I began to panic about the way things that everybody else had, like careers and nice flats and a bit of cash for the weekend, seemed to be slipping out of arm's reach, friends and family began to try to reassure me. "You know you're good," they said. "You'll be OK. Just be patient." And I did know I was good, and I had committed myself to the life I had picked, and my friends, and Fast Eddie's friends, couldn't all be wrong, so I sat back and waited. I know now that I was wrong, stupid, to do so, and I know because Gus Caesar told me so.

Gus is living proof that this self-belief, this driven sense of vocation (and I am not talking about arrogance here, but the simple healthy self-confidence that is absolutely necessary for survival), can be viciously misleading. Did Gus commit himself to the life he had picked? Of course he did. You don't get anywhere near the first team of a major First Division football club without commitment. And did he know he was good? He must have done, and justifiably so. Think about it. At school he must have been much, much better than his peers, so he gets picked for the school team, and then some representative side, South London Boys or what have you; and he's still better than anyone else in the team, by miles, so the scouts come to watch, and he's offered an apprenticeship not with Fulham or Brentford or even West Ham but with the mighty Arsenal. And it's still not over, even then, because if you look at any First Division youth team of five years ago you won't recognize most of the names, because most of them have disappeared. (Here's the Arsenal youth team of April 1987, from a randomly plucked programme: Miller, Hannigan, McGregor, Hillier, Scully, Carstairs, Connelly, Rivero, Cagigao, S. Ball, Esqulant. Of those, only Hillier has come through, although Miller is still with us as a highly rated reserve goalkeeper; Scully is still playing professional football somewhere, though not for Arsenal or any other First Division team. The rest have gone, and gone from a club famous for giving its own players a fair crack.)

But Gus survives, and goes on to play for the reserves. And suddenly, it's all on for him: Don Howe is in trouble, and flooding the first team with young players: Niall Quinn, Hayes, Rocastle, Adams, Martin Keown. And when Viv Anderson is suspended over Christmas 1985 Gus makes his debut as part of a back four that's kept a clean sheet away at Manchester United.

Howe gets the sack, and George Graham keeps him on, and he's used as a sub in quite a few games over George's first season, so things are still going well for him-- not as well as they are for Rocky and Hayes and Adams and Quinn, but then these players are having an exceptional first full season, and when the squad for the England Under-21s is announced it's full of Arsenal players, and Gus Caesar is one of them. The England selectors, like the Arsenal fans, are beginning to trust Arsenal's youth policy implicitly, and Gus gets a call-up even though he isn't in the first team regularly. But never mind why, he's in, he's recognised as one of the best twenty or so young players in the whole country.

Now at this point Gus could be forgiven for relaxing his guard a little. He's young, he's got talent, he's committed to the life he's picked, and at least some of the self-doubt that plagues everyone with long-shot dreams must have vanished by now. At this stage you have to rely on the judgment of others (I was relying on the judgments of friends and agents and anyone I could find who would read my stuff and tell me it was OK); and when those others include two Arsenal managers and an England coach then you probably reckon that there isn't much to worry about.

But as it turns out, they are all wrong. So far he has leaped over every hurdle in his path comfortably, but even at this late stage it is possible to be tripped up. Probably the first time we notice that things aren't right is in January 1987, in that first-leg semi-final against Tottenham: Caesar is painfully, obviously, out of his depth against those Spurs forwards. In truth he looks like a rabbit caught in headlights, frozen to the spot until Waddle or Allen or somebody runs him over, and then he starts to thrash about, horribly and pitifully, and finally George and Theo Foley put him out of his misery by substituting him. He doesn't get another chance for a while. The next time I remember him turning out is against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in a 1-1 draw, a week or two before the Luton final, but again there is a moment in the first half where Dixon runs at him, turns him one way, then the other, then back again, like your dad used to do to you when you were a really little kid in the back garden, and eventually strolls past him and puts the ball just the wrong side of the post. We knew that there was going to be trouble at Wembley, when O'Leary was out injured and Gus was the only candidate to replace him. Caesar leaves it late, but when the ball is knocked into the box seven minutes from time, he mis-kicks so violently that he falls over; at this point he looks like somebody off the street who has won a competition to appear as a centre-half in a Wembley final, and not like a professional footballer at all, and in the ensuing chaos Danny Wilson stoops to head the ball over the line for Luton's equalising goal.

That's it. End of story. He's at the club for another three or four years, but he's very much the last resort centre-back, and he must have known, when George bought Bould and then Linighan and then Pates, with Adams and O'Leary already at the club, that he didn't have much of a future-- he was the sixth in line for two positions. He was given a free transfer at the end of the 90/91 season, to Cambridge United; but within another couple of months they let him go too, to Bristol City, and a couple of months after that Bristol City let him go to Airdrie. To get where he did, Gus Caesar clearly had more talent than nearly everyone of his generation (the rest of us can only dream about having his kind of skill) and it still wasn't quite enough.

Sport and life, especially the arty life, are not exactly analogous. One of the great things about sport is its cruel clarity: there is no such thing, for example, as a bad one-hundred-metre runner, or a hopeless centre-half who got lucky; in sport, you get found out. Nor is there such a thing as an unknown genius striker starving in a garret somewhere, because the scouting system is foolproof. (Everyone gets watched.) There are, however, plenty of bad actors or musicians or writers making a decent living, people who happened to be in the right place at the right time, or knew the right people, or whose talents have been misunderstood or overestimated. Even so, I think there is a real resonance in the Gus Caesar story: it contains a terrifying lesson for any aspirants who think that their own unshakeable sense of destiny (and again, this sense of destiny is not to be confused with arrogance-- Gus Caesar was not an arrogant footballer) is significant. Gus must have known he was good, just as any pop band who has ever played the Marquee know they are destined for Madison Square Garden and an NME front cover, and just as any writer who has sent off a completed manuscript to Faber and Faber knows that he is two years away from the Booker. You trust that feeling with your life, you feel the strength and determination it gives you coursing through your veins like heroin... and it doesn't mean anything at all.

Hornby on choosing to grow up

Nick Hornby, in Fever Pitch, sees growing up as a matter of seizing occasional opportunities:
I used to believe, although I don't now, that growing and growing up are analogous, that both are inevitable and uncontrollable processes. Now it seems to me that growing up is governed by the will, that one can choose to become an adult, but only at given moments. These moments come along fairly infrequently-- during crises in relationships, for example, or when one has been given the chance to start afresh somewhere-- and one can ignore them or seize them.
I think this is basically right, though I wouldn't put it in terms of "becoming an adult." I'd put it in terms of "becoming the sort of person one wants to be." The older I get, the clearer it becomes that the idea of adulthood is nonsense. We're all still muddling through, the same way we always have.

Hornby seems to treat crises and fresh starts as distinct opportunities for growth. I'm inclined to think they are two necessary conditions. Turmoil reveals the things we'd like to change, fresh starts gives us the opportunity. This is why break-ups are growth experiences for almost everyone: the crisis and the fresh start come bundled together. In those situations, we have a choice about whether or not to change in ways that make us more like the person we want to be.