And they say physics killed philosophy

I just came across a tantalizing little review of Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe in the London Review of Books.*

The short, doesn’t-nearly-do-it-justice upshot is that Smolin, a physicist, thinks that too many of his colleagues are beholden to a set of models that depend on abstract mathematical symmetries. I’m hardly qualified to discuss the specifics, but it does remind me of another book I found thanks to the LRB, Denys Turner’s biography of Thomas Aquinas.

During his life, Aquinas had to contend with the neo-Platonists, who believed that every person has an immortal soul connected to his body, and that this soul was what ascended to heaven (one would hope) upon dying. Aquinas believed that the soul was the organizing principle of the body, the form of man, and that the soul ceased to exist upon death.

Without getting into specifics (which would take too long to explain, and I might not do a very good job of it anyway—just read the Turner!), the Platonists had an easier time joining their philosophy with Christian teachings about the afterlife, but a harder time explaining what happened before people are born (If souls are immortal then where to they come from? Were they around forever before being joined to a person at birth? why would a soul bother teaming up with physical substance in the first place?). Thomas had a bit of an easier time explaining things around birth (well, a soul comes into play whenever a human being has a form that we can identify as human), but a harder time lining his philosophy up with the Catholic’s view of afterlife (so if the soul is the form of man, what happens to that soul after death? How can it go to heaven if the body stays put on Earth and starts to rot? If we get our bodies back at the resurrection, what happens in the interim? Does god reunite the substance that our bodies had with our souls? What if some of that substance has become a part of another person?).

And so the unfamiliar, academic logic around the debates that Thomas had in his lifetime have an echo in those circling around physics today. A neat little correspondence.

 

*Alas it’ll have to remain tantalizing to you too, reader, as this review is in the pay-to-view section of the periodical.

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Some thoughts on Rowling, Hermione, Ron and Harry

This is the last thing from a fanzine, but I do genuinely think that Harry Potter represents genuine quality work, and so I’m going to post about JK Rowling’s recently expressed regret that she didn’t have Hermione and Harry get together, rather than Hermione and Ron.

Given the character histories involved, I’m not sure how bright Harry’s prospects for parenthood are. You’d hope that he wouldn’t punish his kids by locking them under the stair, but Vernon didn’t demonstrate many other options. Ron and Hermione come from loving family backgrounds and I think would be more stable in the long term.

But that doesn’t explain why a sixteen year old Hermione would choose to go with Ron (if that’s the right word—she’s not thinking of family histories and who’d be more stable or whatever). Would she prefer the likeable wallflower or the emotionally turbulent (if not emotionally damaged) Harry? It’s romantic and tempting to put her together with Harry, but even if they did get together, how would it play out? She’s seen him go through weird kinds of torment and possession and loads of stuff that she never had to deal with. I could see them getting into a resentful caretaker dynamic (“just listen to me Harry, my research is telling me what is best for you,” “well you just CAN’T know what I went through”), which doesn’t seem like a very good paradigm. In that sense Ginny is a much better fit because she went through something similar to Harry (kinda like how Peeta is a better fit for Katniss because they both went through the Hunger Games). That being said, maybe the most acute ending would have been to have Ginny and Harry be childless in the series’ epilogue.

Anyways, maybe Hermione remembers Ron getting concussed in their first year of Hogwarts and feels obligated to love him and so represses her love for Harry. Maybe Hermione would have loved Harry, but a self-preservation instinct kicked in telling her not to get too close (watching someone scream in their sleep and suffer from debilitating nightmares might permanently change your perception of that person). Listening to that self-preservation instinct seems like the kind of wisdom that comes from experience, and maybe in a real world version of HP Hermione would date Harry and they’d either muddle on or end messily, in which case she’d either reenact the same dynamic, overreact and date no one, or find a new dynamic with someone else, perhaps someone like Ron. The only solution I can see is to get Steven Sondheim to write a musical about the characters as adults.

The upshot is that I disagree with Rowling. There’s no wrong choice in the matter, but whichever one she chose, it says something strong about Hermione’s character. Whether or not that instinct for self-preservation would kick in at such a young age, whether she’d be old enough to recognize it, I like that Hermione would have a sort of freedom from Rowling’s feelings about how who she should have ended up with.

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Christmas Season Things:

 

1)      The Mark Rylance production of Twelfth Night, playing at the Belasco in New York City, is out of this world.

2)      I’ve been looking to get into Thomas Aquinas for awhile now and—thanks to the London Review of Books, might have a doorway.

 

Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait looks like a combination biography (though the details of Aquinas’ life are pretty scanty) and introduction to his thought. Most of the Aquinas readers I’ve found seem to have been designed for classes that were already steeped in the specifics of the man’s philosophy, so it is nice to have something that is more of an introduction.

 

I was also pleased to note that the author, Denys Turner, takes up an argument against Richard Dawkins’ knee-jerk materialism and makes something of a stand for the value of theology and philosophy as worthwhile endeavors. As quoted in the review, Turner says that “there is scarcely a proposition of Thomas’s theology that [he] is able to formulate accurately enough to succeed in accurately denying.” Ouch.

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A Break from the Usual

I don’t typically get political, but this debt ceiling business has me heated… and so!

Let’s imagine that you’re in high school in a small town, and you have an older, spendthrift cousin. Some of his expenditures are good (he bought a car to take grandpa to his dialysis treatments), some of them are questionable (that car was a Lexus), and some of them are a bit shady (he uses said Lexus to make women think he’s rich). He does alright at making money, but he never seems to have quite enough, and he’s always everyone he knows up for money, even you. And usually people are willing to give him a few bucks because he pretty much always pays them back at some point.

Eventually you might get a point where you say, “hey man, enough is enough. I’m not going to lend you any more money to pay off some other creditor any more. If you go broke it’s on you and you should be responsible for your own decisions.”
And that’d be fine. Your cousin probably does need to learn a lesson, and if his credit goes to hell, well, that’s on him.

Now imagine that the spendthrift is your father. He’s always running from creditor to creditor, trying every idea he can think of (idealistic, shady, or just deluded) to make just a little bit more money so he can pay down the money he owes. He always stumps up in the end, but you and most everyone else is getting uneasy about how much he owes. You might realize from your earliest days that dad needs to spend less money, that he needs to spend it more wisely, that he needs to tighten the belt and treat himself and the family a little less often, but no one seems to listen to you. Not only that, but his web of loans and counterloans actually does manage to keep the ship from leaking too badly; you get to the doctor when you need it, you don’t have to drop out of high school to get a job to make ends meet for the family, and so on.

So what should you do? Should you try to teach him the same lesson you’d teach your cousin? Sabotage his attempts to extend his credit a bit more and cause the whole shebang to collapse? Sure you’d get to wag your finger and say, “this is what happens when you aren’t responsible!,” but you’d also be fucking yourself over. The next time you went to the bank they might think, “this poor bastard seems alright, but he’s X’s son. Can’t risk throwing that much money into that sinkhole of a family,” before they say, “I’m sorry, but credit is pretty tight these days, and we can’t get you the money with such a small down payment.” Or that technical school might think, “you know we woulda given this kid a chance—he’s pretty smart—but pops stiffed the bank on his last loan… better not take the chance,” before saying to you, “Sorry, but we can’t take the risk that you’ll be able to afford our tuition. Sorry!” You get the idea.

I don’t much know what I’d do if I were the son of a spendthrift (it is always hard to take the reins from your forebears when they get older and are perhaps less able to make good decisions), but I’m pretty sure throwing the family into default would be a disaster. So if Ted Cruz and his moron cohorts want to live in a fantasy world where the US defaulting on its debts somehow won’t affect their own well being, please someone, just let Texas secede and sink their own goddamn boat without taking me with them.

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Review of The Great Gatsby (novel)

The Great GatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Accepting that clichés are such because they’re true, I’ll refrain from paying The Great Gatsby the usual accolades, let my rating speak for itself and merely list a few observations about the book.
Gatsby is pretty much a standard part of the high school curriculum, but it’s an odd book to give high school students. As perfectly as Fitzgerald captures a man’s struggle to hold on possibilities that may just have slipped through his fingertips, this aspect of life and aging has no appeal for someone just beginning to romp in the passions of his or her own youth. At best, high school students can appreciate Fitzgerald’s themes in an abstract way, get examples of good writing style, and perhaps receive the seeds of something that will bloom then they themselves are borne back into the past and come upon the memory of reading The Great Gatsby.

Even if the sum of what students get out of the book is Fitzgerald’s prose, it’s still a fantastic example of good English style. The sentences are all well constructed and even when Nick Carraway goes off the rails in his descriptions we sense that it’s because of his unexpressed Romanticism and his hunger for a passionate life. It may not be great writing per se, but it is great characterization. Furthermore, Fitzgerald managed to write almost an entire novel out of what James Joyce might call epiphanies: little bits of dialogue or description that capture some startlingly raw nuance of human experience (The difference is that Fitzgerald weaves them seamlessly into a story that’s easy to follow while Joyce, being the avant-garde, presented his epiphanies in a chaotic hodgepodge that resembles day to day human experience but which is was much more difficult to follow).

But while the writing of The Great Gatsby is easy to follow and appreciate, it’s more difficult to care about the characters. As a fifteen year old it was agonizing to read Gatsby’s circuitous attempts to reconnect with Daisy. I didn’t appreciate the social constraints that he tried to respect and circumvent. The American archetypes with whom I’d been raised, the spitting cowboys and ball players, were rebellious, freedom loving types who escaped the pernicious structures of wealth and power, not appeasers and social climbers. Secondly, authors often create literary drama by having people fighting against such constraints with violence or direct, coercive action—think about Macbeth usurping the throne or Dmitri Karamazov physically striking his father—but most of what Gatsby does is show up, spend money entertaining people he may or may not like, and request that his neighbor ask his old flame to tea. Third, Gatsby may spend gobs of money and throw gigantic parties, but that’s much more appealing as a fantasy than as drama.

Put all these three together and you come to one conclusion: Fitzgerald anchors a superficial age by showing us Gatsby’s impossible dream—that he wants to be wealthy and all that means, but his only means to obtaining that wealth (bootlegging) precludes him from being a part of the club—but it requires a leap for the reader to find this sympathy, a leap which may be beyond most 15 year olds. Certainly at that age I found that Shakespeare and The Brothers Karamazov’s emotions were more immediately accessible and gripping.

And yet there is something terrible and honest about those social constraints, and the fact that Fitzgerald writes of them so baldly. America is ostensibly about social equality, and yet the social strata in Yale, East Egg, and so on are very much as manifest today as they were then. So I come back to the question that I started with: what is the idea of making high schoolers read Gatsby? It is possible that The Great Gatsby is a convenient collocation of both great writing and a work of art that can give insight into a bygone age and our own? It is possible that educators are telling students to value their youth, to realize that it will some day be gone and that the avenues which seem so plentiful and easy will one day be closed. It’s possible that the book challenges them by giving something so far beyond their experience that they must use their imaginations to sympathize with it. But really, the cynical side of me says, assigning The Great Gatsby is a message to any aspiring Nick Carraways (ie, shy, retiring writers) out there:

Man up, kid, and be ready for some kicks in the teeth. The good part?—once in a while someone will be able to describe those kicks in a way that gives you art, an obscure solace.

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On Rachel Shteir and Linkbait

Last week Rachel Shteir’s review of The Third Coast, Golden, and You Were Never in Chicago appeared in the New York Times Book Review (though she claims it is actually an essay). Proud Chicagoans quickly responded: every city has problems, Chicago has a lot going for it, and Shteir can go back to New York if she misses a “real” city so much.

I followed up with a bit of reading on Shteir, including an interview that made her views a little clearer. Her argument is more that Chicagoans are prone to boosterism and ignore the very real problems that their city has. (She also says that the personal remarks against her are a “sad commentary on the state of criticism.” As true that sounds, it makes me think of her as the huffy old person pining for the good old days when debate held to a high level of decorum and no one ever said anything untoward). As she said that she viewed it as an essay more than a review, and as I’m someone who’s taught about writing essays here and there, I’ve got a few humble bits of advice for the esteemed professor.

1)      Beginning your essay by quoting a conversation with your friend in which you list Chicago’s problems makes it sound like you’re thesis is that Chicago sucks. If you state your actual argument (that Chicagoans are so prone to boosterism that they don’t admit to/address their problems) at the outset and people will A) know what the charges against their city are and B) be forced to reckon with those charges on your terms.

2)      You wonder how many times Milton Friedman passed by the projects on his way to Lakeshore drive from the University of Chicago campus without entering them… and then admit that you rarely left Hyde Park as an undergraduate at same. I’m not saying that students need to venture into unsafe neighborhood to have cred, but to accuse Friedman of a something you yourself didn’t do isn’t really fair.

3)      The only book of the three that you like is Dyja’s The Third Coast. It sounds quite like you find Chicago’s history as a place for radical art and architecture to be the most interesting bit of everything you read, but then you bury it in a justifiable but unconstructive complaint about Chicagoans’ inability to take criticism (and no, I don’t buy it when you suggest that ruffling feathers is in and of itself a good thing that contributes to the debate). If you’re interested in that part of Chicago’s history, and I am interested in that part of Chicago’s history, why not tell me about that and relegate the stuff about Chicago boosterism somewhere else?

All that aside, what I really think is going on is linkbait. Shteir is obviously a smart woman, and the editorial staff at the Times has, you know, a little bit of experience, but one wonders if they’re really just stirring the pot to get hits on their webpage. After all, I wouldn’t have found out about all this if it wasn’t for the criticism Shteir was taking for trashing Chicago as she does. If I’m going to imply that I’m smart enough to identify poorly constructed arguments, I should also be smart enough to recognize the fact that I get my news through filters that favor arguments that are built to inflame more than edify. Such are the modern media.

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A Very Short Review of Richard Ellman’s Joyce Biography

James JoyceJames Joyce by Richard Ellmann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All of the artist, none of the art.

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