Tuesday, November 17, 2009

lit ephem

I'm employed now.

I'm translating a Swedish popular song "Vårvindar friska" (spring breezes) and some snapsvise elaborations. Probably the song is popular more for the melody than the words. It's one of those aaba tunes where the "a" bit is in the minor and it switches dramatically and crescendoingly into the major at "b". (The funeral march in Chopin's sonata has the same format.)

I've read Catherine Daly's Vauxhall and I'll write about it soon. I had my doubts about Vauxhall after some quick dips and I looked askance at it for about a year or more untill I finally got the space to sit down and read it all through; when I got to the end I realized it's a kite that flies. Is it so evidently a step into the dark as, say, Papercraft or To Delite? Is it more a summation of "this is the things I can do", only better than ever? The latter is my first thought. I'm kind of surmising that the unexpected lack of new publications since Vauxhall (Daly had kept up a stream of pubs to that point) indicates a pause for new direction.

Also, Tony Lopez' Darwin. If Ron Silliman was talking about the cover when he hyperbolized that it "might just be" the most beautiful book of poetry ever (which he wasn't, not consciously at least), then I have to warn you that this cover does tend to flake off, because Acts of Language have printed it cheaply on an office colour printer, it isn't a proper book jacket. But anyway, it is a neat cover (Iceland mountain scenery with some dirty snow and a white streak of sky on the horizon). And this is another brilliant book, consisting of found sentences. Ron was right to draw attention to the formal aspect of the book and he drew out the variable paragraph lengths and called this a soft aspect, which it is, but there's a hard aspect too because the sentences in each of the ten sections add up to 55.

Some of the sentences can be Googled. E.g. the man in the beige or golden trousers was a description of a Maddy suspect in the Guardian. Surprisingly, Darwin's own writings, which provide a good many of the sentences, don't seem to be on the Internet. That can't be right, that must be Google being weird.

You know how Giles Goodland's Capital provides a reference for every sentence? Well, what I mean is it would be great if you did make a poem of this kind (i.e. not a flarf poem) in which Every sentence was Googlable, because then it would mean that if you read a sentence that you wanted to explore further, you could just go and do it straight away, leaving the poem for a moment in the same way that you leave a room. In this way the poem would perhaps have a generous transparency, it would no longer so tightly control what you did with its materials.

For me Darwin has a definite subject, I think Lopez's stuff always does, which in this case I guess you could define as the post-Darwinized world. A lot of the sentences are scientific, academic, or high-minded, quality journalism. There's a paucity of women's names - well it goes deeper than that, I feel a conspicuous lack of a female presence in the many-sourced writings. That builds a tension up. And a lack of conversation, of spontaneity, of frivolity. Is it even a conspicuous lack of real life altogether? You begin to feel stifled, as if the quoted sentences are doubly-written hence doubly distanced from the world in which we exist... You can't help noticing, also, how many of the undeniably highminded scientific extracts do involve animal testing. I think this is all deliberate and Darwin is possibly just as angry a poem as that one about bullimia in Conductors of Chaos. - I hear on the radio this morning a report that most bullimics have been bullied. A sort of feeling of being bullied is how I respond to the aggregated highminded sentences of the scientists and pundits. For it is not only faith schools (see below) that enforce a view of life.

So what's the relationship between a literary work like this and science? does it 1. seek to go on its own totally independent exploratory journey, using science as just one of its fuels 2. or try to register resonances in a world admittedly influenced by science 3. try to compose a critique of science, inevitably and necessarily from without? The latter is really what I'm interested in. I think you can criticize science as a social force by straightforward observation. Can you also erect an alternative methodology to go behind science? Such as collage in this case? or religion? or homeopathy?

Because I've also recently read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, which looked irresistible in the bookshop and was very OK in reality, though not the unprecedented masterpiece of thinking and literature that the gushers would have you think. Dawkins is indeed (as he hopes) consciousness-raising on religious labelling of children and on religious schools - i.e. I think differently about these things now than I did before I read the book: last week I didn't see either of these things as presenting a moral problem but now I do. And I like where he starts to go on the "by-product of evolutionary advantage" theory re why religion exists. His descriptions of the evils of religion are temperate and hence all the more overwhelming. But (talking about sectarian violence) it might well have been supplemented by a recognition that religion often becomes a place of last defence in response to the oppression of others.

His comments about the traditional arguments for God are suave dismissals rather than refutations. His own argument for the non-existence of God is likewise traditional and open to question (variant on the argument from improbability, or who made God? - basically an overturning of Paley in the light of Darwin). Open to question re relevance - for does this argument not concern a creator who is just part of nature? Surely the sort of religious people who are interested in philosophical proofs or disproofs of god all accept evolution as a matter of course, so whatever they mean by god doesn't mean a creator such as appears in Dawkins' argument - therefore it may seem to miss its target. Even so, it may be dead right. He seems to underplay fine tuning. He scornfully mentions "the argument from present ignorance", yet doesn't reveal any means of countering it. He analogizes the origin of language with genetic drift, but that's not a good analogy at all. He agrees with Boenhoeffer in his scorn for "a god of the gaps", but Boenhoffer was merely wrong. There is no other kind of god. If I was a believer I would glorify this god of the gaps. It is not a diminution of god, more a definition of god. False spatial analogy says that as science closes more and more gaps, god shrinks. But does "present ignorance" really shrink? Or does additional knowledge mean additional gaps that we never even imagined before? That's another false spatial analogy maybe, but I reckon it's a better one. Dawkins derides those who leap in with the god-answer whenever we temporarily don't understand things. But why not admit that it is (maybe temporarily, maybe not) the right answer? that god=gap? that god simply is the sort of solution we imagine when we can't see any other.

The real problem with the lack of relativism is that Dawkins doesn't understand how two contradictory things can be true at the same time. His truth is simple. At one point he asks guilelessly how religions can claim belief as virtuous when belief is obviously something involuntary - you cannot choose what to believe. I absolutely disagree: overwhelmingly people do decide what they're going to believe. That is, what they're going to say they believe and even think they believe ("belief" fragments into a million neurons when you try and pin it down). Surely after Freud you have no excuse for such innocence. So Dawkins is constantly taking the statements or beliefs of religious people and treating them to scientific demolition, but this is a category mistake. This approach, you might guess, is more appropriate to an argument against fundamentalism than the evasive slippery faithful in an Anglican church or a "mind body and spirit" bookshelf. And certainly US Christian fundamentalism is a tragedy waiting to happen. But do even fundamentalists believe the bible literally (in the scientific sense of literally)? That last parenthesis, in fact, suggests the frail relevance of Dawkins' attack. I think fundamentalists have their own non-scientific idea of what "literally" means. I suggest that in the real world (as opposed to a philosopher's thought experiment) it is not really Possible to believe that the bible is true (scientific sense). But it is all too possible to be a fundamentalist.

Dawkins of course gives me that "two cultures" feeling. He's very 19th-century and comically very like C.S. Lewis as if they are not diametrically opposed ideologists at all, but two quarrelsome boys in a large Victorian children's nursery in an Oxford suburb. [That sentence seems, I discover, to betray unconscious recollection of Eagleton's review] He only understands light literature, children's literature, and Shakespeare. He quotes A.A. Milne. Modernism doesn't mean anything to him, nor does relativism. This oughtn't to be a surprise. I've written before about the costs of being a scientist, how it seems to be very difficult to live both in the art world and the science world at the same time. But of course it DOES take me by surprise. And I think, well, I know you know a lot (I do tend to address authors in this silently hectoring way while I'm reading their books)..., but all the sociological markers that I really understand (i.e. the literary ones) tell me that you don't know anything at all. It's an optical illusion of mixed signals that the arty reader has to over-ride.

(Of course it's not just about lit v science, there are also chasms between artistic communities. I caught my breath yesterday to hear the violinist Lara St John on the radio talking about being Tolkien-mad - no, not so much that, but - extolling Tolkien's prose as wonderfully musical. Maybe she's even right, but that's not the point. It's just socially infantile (in the literary world). Then she played her arrangement - for violin - of Liszt's Totentanz, which was beyond amazing... Well anyhow, people are very various and I suppose communities like the various literature ones are just designed to paper over the cracks of how appallingly different people are. If we within the self-protecting community were honest, who would not turn out to be near-illiterate, stupidly misinformed, or grossly and heretically prejudiced?

I've also been reading Cobbett, whose own hyperboles come to a climax in the country around Warminster (e.g. Bishopstrow)- he never found better meat than at Warminster market - it was evidently then not so conspicuously an army town. My own idea of Warminster is chiefly connected with the Little Chef, Morrisons, the park and the nature reserve. Cobbett's anti-Semitism affects me as a new disturbance. With Chopin or Wagner, the problem was how to accept that a violent anti-Semite might nevertheless produce great art. But at least I could say, well they don't sound like the sort of people I'd have got on with personally. With Cobbett, the problem is more searching - violent anti-Semitism in someone I find thoroughly pleasant company, someone I think I'd have got on with really well. The truth is, we are never really safe from evil beliefs, if we don't have them it's just an accident. Or should I, as Richard Dawkins thinks, say thank-you to science for nurturing the enlightened beliefs that I hope I share? Maybe...

And Martin Chuzzlewit, which I'm reading with a somber critical face on me, occasionally cracking against its will into helpless laughter.

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