February 27, 2009

Best Doctor's Note Ever

Much of my February "break" time has been spent marking papers. It's not my favorite part of my job, but it has its good moments. This batch, one bright spot was finding this note attached to a late assignment:
[This student] has been impaired above the neck for the past 2-3 weeks, and this has interfered with her school work.
I'm sure it has.

February 23, 2009

Confessions of an Anti-Shopaholic

The movie adaptation of Sophie Kinsella's Confessions of a Shopaholic is out and so is a tie-in edition of the novel, with Isla Fisher looking Betty-Boop-Cute (and oh-so-adorably frazzled and confused) on the cover. In honour of the occasion, here's the post I wrote after reading Confessions last year. In case it's unclear, the subtext is that even though some of my favourite movies are 'chick flicks,' I draw the line at this one.

Silly Novels about Silly Women; or, Reflections on Jane Austen, Sex and the City, and Winning at Scrabble (originally posted January 20, 2008)
Well you see, it was a busy week, and sometimes it's nice to have something light to pick up and read over breakfast or whatever....but Confessions of a Shopaholic sure is lame. In a general way, I don't have much to add to what I said before about "chick lit." I'm glad I got this book from the library and didn't pay a cent for it, because I want to get rid of it as soon as possible. I don't necessarily object to a little mindless diversion. But--what really irked me with this one was actually the same thing that irks me about Bridget Jones's Diary, although that novel is much more clever and entertaining: what's supposed to be the charm of foolish, incompetent women? Is it really so hard to imagine smart, committed, capable women in romantic contexts?

The answer of course is no, because the supposed "mother of chick lit," Jane Austen, does precisely that. Elizabeth Bennett does not win Mr. Darcy's heart by being cute but trivial; she earns his respect and charms his socks off. Anne Elliot doesn't deserve happiness because she happens into an insight or two after a whole book of being silly and irresponsible: we know all along that Wentworth will be the foolish one if he falls for anyone without her integrity and capacity for intelligent action. None of Austen's protagonists discovers, conveniently, that having no real interests beyond clothes, shopping, and sex, no professional competence, no ideas of any substance, is actually the way to true love. "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story," Anne Elliot famously protests when confronted with literary ' evidence' of women's character. "Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands." Yet with the pen in their hands, some women peddle this kind of "sell-yourself-short" fantasy to women--and it sells!

Is the appeal of this variety of "chick lit" that it reassures women that not only do they not have to be smart and successful to be attractive but that their failures (blue soup!) will make them more appealing to smart and successful men? Or is it just easier to put that kind of story together than to confront, as Austen does, just what kind of challenge a strong woman poses to conventional ideas of romance, femininity, and narrative? (There's a kind of equivalent for men in Forrest Gump, I think: better to be mentally deficient but good-hearted, and somehow, by accident, you will win every race.) Once upon a time my (very shrewd and professionally successful) grandmother cautioned me not to beat my then-boyfriend at Scrabble. The message was that brainy women are off-putting, that competence is incompatible with charm. (This theory was wholly undermined by her own life, though she persisted in calling herself "Whistler's mother," a label nobody who knew her could ever accept.) Though she was a huge fan of her granddaughters' successes, I think she was not altogether wrong--not in principle, but in practice. Sex and the City, which looks in many ways like it belongs in the "chick lit" genre, is very smart sometimes about the difficulties independent, successful women face in negotiating romantic norms and expectations (remember the episode in which Carrie buys Berger a Prada shirt? or the one in which Miranda wants to take Steve to an office party?). Sex and the City presents fantasies of other kinds, to be sure, but overall I think it refuses to make its women silly and often this is precisely where their romantic problems begin. In this respect anyway, perhaps the series is more in Austen's tradition than I would have thought, and certainly more so than even Bridget Jones. In any case, I say go on and win at Scrabble if you can! Your self-respect depends on it.

February 20, 2009

This Week in My Classes (February 20, 2009)

Whew. This has been another week in which I have not been able to count on even getting to class. However, despite the best efforts of winter, children with mysterious abdominal pains, a non-responsive iBook (now recovered, thank goodness) and other threats to a well-ordered but precariously balanced life, all of my scheduled class meetings actually went ahead as planned. And next week is Reading Week! In celebration of which I am determined not to do anything specifically work-related this weekend...and tonight I'm going to watch ER (which I was too tired and busy to watch 'live' last night) and other suitably diverting things without, for once, feeling guilty about all the things on my "to do" list. (Alright, I confess: I've rented "Mamma Mia!" which looks suitably frothy and brainless, plus nostalgic, as once in my foolish youth I was an ABBA fan. Hey, it was the 1970s: lots of people were ABBA fans...and frankly, after tuning in briefly to the Grammy Awards this year, I find myself thinking we could do worse than churn out some songs with catchy tunes, nice harmonies, and lyrics you don't mind teaching your 7-year-old daughter.) [Update: "Mamma Mia!" is absolutely terrible. Awful. Appalling. The acting is bad. The singing is worse--in fact, I ended up skipping through most of the musical numbers because I couldn't bear it. I knew the storyline was going to be lame but it was worse than I expected watching it play out. Sigh.]

In Mystery and Detective Fiction we finished with The Maltese Falcon this week. I continue to find it one of the saddest books I know. We had some fun thinking about whether Sam's line "If they hang you I'll always remember you" is actually kind of romantic. Although I can still work up some enthusiasm for discussing this novel, I am planning to do The Big Sleep in its place when I teach this class next year. After a while, it's hard to feel you have anything fresh to say, and there's a temptation to rely too hard on last year's notes. I have never even read all of The Big Sleep, so working it up to teaching pitch will be a fun part of next year's planning.

In Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt, on Wednesday we had our class presentation on Darwin, which concluded with a "test what you've learned about Darwin"-type game called (yes, you guessed it) "Natural Selection." I always enjoy students' ingenuity. I challenge them to think about how they feel when their classmates present--what strategies keep them engaged, what kind of activities they feel are productive, and so on. Their game questions were open-ended enough that (once we stopped worrying about our team's extinction, or who would get the prize cupcakes) we had some good general discussion about the impact of Darwin's ideas on Victorian literature as well as on more contemporary issues. Today we discussed Browning's "Caliban Upon Setebos." I was quite anxious coming into class, as things have not been as lively in this seminar as I am used to, and this is not the most accessible of poems. However, we did at least as well today as we have been lately, for which I give Browning all the credit. It's such a strange, interesting poem that I think at least some of the students were simply drawn in by that, while the dramatic monologue form provides a lot of useful starting points for analysis. Though it is not explicitly a poem about evolution, one aspect of it that we discussed was the way Caliban observes with world in the manner of a naturalist. We were pretty well prepared to consider the ironic revision the poem offers to Paley's Natural Theology (the poem's subtitle is "Natural Theology on the Island"), and to compare Caliban's inferences about the design or purpose of the universe based on his observations to the conclusions our other authors have suggested. All in all, then, I thought it went quite well. Still, I think we'll all be happy to get to Silas Marner next--after the break!

February 14, 2009

Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk

(belatedly x-listed)

By the end of Palace Walk I was enjoying it a lot more than I was at first, and I think that's because I had learned to let go of some of the expectations I had for the novel--or for novels more generally. Although I knew at an intellectual level how many of my assumptions about the plots and forms of novels must be bound up in very culturally specific literary and other values, much about Palace Walk seemed familiar at first, and I think that sense of familiarity misled me, so that it took a while for me to realize how far from home I had really gone. It's a "family saga" novel, for instance, the first in Mahfouz's 'Cairo Trilogy.' It's a novel of urban life; one of the critical blurbs on the back cover proposes that the "alleys, the houses, the palaces and mosques and the people who live among them are evoked as vividly in [Mahfouz's] work as the streets of London were conjured up by Dickens." So far, so familiar. It opens as a novel about a young wife immured in her home, waiting (like an angel in the house) for her husband to return from his nightly carousing. As the novel goes on, we learn about Al-Sayyid Ahmad's nearly tyrannical control of his home and family--his wife Amina rarely leaves the house, certainly not without his permission, and his daughters are never seen by outsiders, observing the street life outside the house from peepholes in their latticed balcony. In the world of the novel, his strictness is unusually conservative, and the license he grants himself (particularly his series of mistresses) raises even within his own consciousness some concern about hypocrisy. Further, early in the novel one of his sons catches glimpses of a neighbour's daughter and becomes illicitly enamored, while one of his daughters trades glances with a handsome police officer who has spotted her one day dusting the curtains. Both matches are forbidden by the head of the family.

OK: a tyrannical patriarch hypocritically indulging himself while opposing young love--don't we know where this is going? Resistance, rebellion, exposure, reconciliation, marriage. The model, I thought, was not so much Dickens as Trollope, with the balanced attention to an array of closely connected characters, the patient chronological unfolding of events (and then, and then, and then...) without narrative tricks or rhetorical flamboyance, and the evidence of incremental changes to social manners and mores, the gentle but persistent ceding of one generation's norms to another's.

But it didn't take long for this complacent sense of "I know where this is going" to be disrupted. Denied her romantic officer, the beautiful daughter placidly accepts marriage to another suitor of her father's choice (one whom she does not meet until the match is made). She relocates to her husband's house and is essentially removed from the main action of the story. Denied his Mariam, the son harbors some quiet regrets until one day word reaches him that she has been seen smiling (yes, smiling) at an English soldier, and that's the end of any lingering fondness. In other words, this family accepts the authority of their father--and this is even after they become aware of his double life, the chief effect of which revelation is to encourage another son in his own pursuit of pleasure. Another development that I thought at first foretold rebellion: Amina, the faithful, obedient (I would say, servile) wife, goes on a short expedition while her husband is absent, to visit a nearby mosque. On the way back she is struck by a car, making it impossible to keep the outing a secret. As soon as her broken collar bone is healed, Al-Sayyid Ahmad kicks her out of the house, sending her back to her mother's to await his final decision--will he take her back, after such outrageous defiance of his authority? (She went out to a mosque, remember, while he goes out every night to drink, sing, and make love to his mistress.) We know where this would go in a Trollope novel--he'd end up a raving monomaniac in a remote Italian villa. But he takes her back, and, more to my point, she waits patiently for his decision and returns with joy to her cloistered existence, her family responsibilities, and his authority.

My frustration with these aspects of the novel reveal the way formal expectations merge with ideological ones. As I was reading, I kept feeling as if the novel had lost its momentum. Where was it going, if not along the paths I kept foreseeing? But the problem was (is) with me, not (or not necessarily, or not solely) with the novel. I wanted something for this family that, I gradually figured out, it did not want for itself: call it rebellion, or reform, or modernization, or something else. Perhaps it would be right to say that I wanted it to be an English family, rather than an Egyptian one. It's not that the novel does not show any difficulties with the exercise of the father's power, or any alternative possibilities, including greater freedom of movement and expression for women (though barely, and peripherally, and often inviting a cloud of negative judgments). The hedonistic son, for instance, is divorced at the insistence of his wife and her family after he is caught making a move on a female servant (though I think it's possible that the real problem in this case is not that he is unfaithful but that he can't keep his lust under control and away from his home). But the novel is not about challenging the overall structure or values of their lives in these respects, at least not as far as I can tell. My expectations--my wishes--for them reflected values I brought with me to the novel, values that were challenged by their own commitments, both social and religious, and the dramatic tension and comic resolution I sought were not applicable in their case.

What is Palace Walk about, then? Well, like a Trollope novel, it seems to be as much about the day to day things people do and say as about anything more thematically specific: it's a "slice of life" novel, and thus requires no major narrative arc to sustain itself. A plot emerges to do with Egyptian resistance to British control, and this plot does culminate in some dramatic events, but they have not been motivated by a consistent or compelling focus on political or other grievances, and they do not draw together or provide a unifying climax for the novel's varying events or characters (in the way we would expect of a Dickens novel). It's just one more series of events--though through it we are given a thorough refutation of Al-Sayyid Ahmad's wish for his children to live "apart, outside the framework of history" so that "he alone would set their course for them" (422). If this intention of his had been declared earlier, and more of the novel devoted to showing its futility, perhaps the novel's conclusion would have more than personal resonance. Or perhaps the other two novels in the trilogy pick up and run with the revolutionary potential, both of the individual characters' fates, and of the realization that personal life is, must be, political and that Al-Sayyid Ahmad's patriarchal authority and imperious will cannot inhibit the forces of historical change. Maybe, in other words, across the larger series the novel I was expecting emerges.

Other features of the novel interested me as I went along: the style and rhythm to the conversations, for instance, which often (as in Al-Sayyid Ahmad's flirtations with Zubayda) have a theatrical quality, as if language is used as much for rhetorical display and competition as for direct expression. It can seem unnatural or artifical, but my impression from other things I've read by and about Arabic writers is that this is a characteristic or tradition of Arabic speech, one that presumably the translator here has been careful to capture. The characters' speech is also permeated with religious references, particularly quotations from or allusions to the Qu'ran; commonplace as Biblical allusions are in the British novels with which I am most familiar, the pervasive assumption of religious authority and purpose is rarely, if ever, conveyed in this way. And sometimes I was struck by patterns of imagery or metaphor that did not seem to translate comfortably, as here, for example:
These hearts, distracted from their sorrows by their mother's, began to think again about their own worries now they were reassured about their mother's well-being. In the same way, when we have acute but temporary intestinal pain we forget our chronic eye inflammation, but once the intestinal distress is relieved, the pain in the eyes returns. (234)
Well, OK, that's a clear enough analogy, but hardly poetic. Here's another similarly blunt moment:
The moment a thought occurred to him, a memory stirred, someone mentioned her name, or anything similar happened, his heart would throb with pain and exude one grief after another. It was like a decayed tooth with an inflamed gum. For a time the toothache may die down until the tooth presses against a morsel of food or touches a solid object. Then the pain erupts. (258)
Perhaps there's a tradition of medical metaphors that works better in Arabic.

One reason I was curious to read Palace Walk is to broaden the context for my work on Ahdaf Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun. She names a number of English novelists, specifically George Eliot, as influences on her, but is also obviously familiar with Egyptian and Arabic literature, and Mahfouz is probably the most famous Egyptian novelist. It seemed to me that I should read--because I would learn from--novels written out of different traditions, if only to check myself from making assumptions about Soueif's work based on knowing one side of her hybrid literary inheritance. That I felt so blundering working my way through Palace Walk certainly confirmed this opinion for me, and that I ended up feeling fond of, if frustrated by, so many of the people I met in the novel makes me think it won't be out of obligation only that I'll go on and read the next two books in the trilogy.

February 12, 2009

Happy Darwin Day!

Today is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth. I hope you can all find some appropriate way to celebrate. Some suggestions:
Watch Richard Dawkins's "Growing Up in the Universe" with your children. Buy "The Genius of Charles Darwin" for yourself.

Watch any of the Stanford "Darwin's Legacy" lectures I keep recommending.

Spend some time browsing Darwin's writings or correspondence.

How about this podcast from Scientific American?

In London? Enjoy the "Big Idea Big Exhibition" at the Natural History Museum.

Check here for Darwin Day events in your neighbourhood.

Donate to the Charles Darwin Foundation.

Curl up with A. S. Byatt's Angels and Insects or George Levine's Darwin Loves You.
There is indeed a grandeur in this view of life.

February 11, 2009

This Week in My Classes (February 11, 2009)

It's all about violence in both classes this week--Chandler, Hammett, and mean streets in Mystery and Detective Fiction, and the struggle for survival in Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt. Now that I think about it, another interesting commonality is that in both contexts the violence is approached with detachment: cool, wry cynicism in the hard-boiled detective stories and scientific curiosity in Darwin.

Today in particular I wanted to loosen everybody up: in the faith and doubt seminar, discussion continues to be a bit lackluster compared to what I'm used to in fiction-focused classes (is it me or them or the material? probably some of each), and in the mystery class, the larger format and the wide range of material (all requiring a good dose of literary and historical context to set up the examples) means more straight lecturing than I ordinarily do. In both courses, though, the goal is always to enable them to carry on well-informed, precise conversations about the material themselves, so it is crucial for me to shut up (or at least quiet down) sometimes and let them try out the ideas and skills we've been accumulating.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction today, then, I asked them to use our reading, Chandler's (long) short story (is it really a novella?) "Trouble Is My Business," as the chief exhibit in a debate about the literary capacity of genre fiction. We read "The Simple Art of Murder" for Monday, in which Chandler claims that Hammett proved "the detective story can be important writing." In making this case he focuses primarily on Hammett's realism, but he also argues for the effectiveness of Hammett's prose for his purposes. So I invited them to hold his story up to that standard, or indeed to any standard they might have for what makes literature "important." Half of them were asked to develop the argument for its importance, the other half against. They rose well to the challenge. Originality, realism, style, and depth seemed to be the basic qualities they expected to find in important literature--but, as we've discussed more than once this term, originality in particular is a tricky question when dealing with genre fiction, as it is defined through its adherence to conventions. Some of the more interesting specific debates were about Chandler's language, from the tough talk (how realistic is that smart-alec patter? and if it's not realistic, do we appreciate it for other reasons?) to the "poetic" language (all those colorful similes! or are they too often cliches?). One of my own standards for importance is having ideas--not necessarily being overtly or didactically philosophical, but engaging us by aesthetic means in a process of thought about something that matters, something below or beyond the mechanics of plot. I didn't think "Trouble Is My Business" offered much in the way of ideas. I do think The Maltese Falcon does--which is why I agree with Chandler's assessment of its merits. In any case, the main point was to let them exercise their wits on the readings and test some assumptions about how they might (or do) judge different forms of writing. Are we satisfied with concluding that something is good "of its kind," or do we accept a hierarchy of kinds? When the more relativist position was put forward at one point, I asked how many would choose not to see a film simply on the grounds of the kind of film it was--a large majority raised their hands. While this could be considered simply an expression of taste ("I just don't like things of that kind"), if pressed, I think we would defend our tastes, or our choices, on the grounds that some kinds of things seem more worth our while than others--not our taste in ice cream or pizza, of course, or of red wine over white, but our taste in something requiring intellectual and emotional engagement, such as a book or a movie. I think this is a worthwhile conversation to have, if only to keep us thinking about why we like or value the things we do. I was pleased to get a lot of participation, including from people who had not put up their hands before.

In the faith and doubt seminar, I also devised a discussion exercise. We're reading excerpts from Darwin this week and a large part of what I want them to take away from it is a sense of how awareness of Darwin's scientific work and theories affects literary forms and interests in other writers we'll be reading. Scholars such as Gillian Beer and George Levine have done wonderful work showing how diffusive the influence of Darwin was on Victorian poets and novelists, from bringing scientific topics explicitly into their work to encouraging different ways of looking at the world or conceiving of the work of the novelist--no longer, for instance, modelled after the creative design of God but after the observations and inquiries of the natural historian. I made up a handout with excerpts from different works and invited them to consider how they might read through a 'post-Darwinist' lens: what ideas or strategies in the writing do they pick up on, what detail becomes more telling? Here are a couple of the passages I gave them:
I had often watched a large dog of ours eating his food; and I now noticed a decided similarity between the dog’s way of eating, and the man’s. The man took strong sharp sudden bites, just like the dog. He swallowed, or rather snapped up, every mouthful, too soon and too fast; and he looked sideways here and there while he ate, as if he thought there was danger in every direction, of somebody’s coming to take the pie away. He was altogether too unsettled in his mind over it, to appreciate it comfortably, I thought, or to have anybody to dine with him, without making a chop with his jaws at the visitor. In all of which particulars he was very like the dog.

It is one of those old, old towns, which impress one as a continuation and outgrowth of nature as much as the nests of the bower birds or the winding galleries of the white ants: a town which carries the traces of its long growth and history, like a millennial tree, and has sprung up and developed in the same spot between the river and the low hill from the time when the Roman legions turned their backs on it from the camp on the hill-side, and the long-haired sea-kings came up the river and looked with fierce, eager eyes at the fatness of the land. It is a town 'familiar with forgotten years.'

Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse; for whereas under a weak lens you may seem to see a creature exhibiting an active voracity into which other smaller creatures actively play as if they were so many animated tax-pennies, a stronger lens reveals to you certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom. In this way, metaphorically speaking, a strong lens applied to Mrs. Cadwallader's match-making will show a play of minute causes producing what may be called thought and speech vortices to bring her the sort of food she needed.
In general terms, we've talked about how Darwin's theory gives everything a history (or, as he says in Origins, a genealogy), as well as emphasizing the interconnectedness of all things. It starts to become clear why Henry James would have complained that Middlemarch is "too often an echo of Mssrs Darwin and Huxley"--not a reading that I think would come intuitively to the modern reader, so accustomed have we become to Darwinian ways of seeing.

February 9, 2009

You Know Someone's a Good Teacher When...

...they can convince you that you might want to read a 19th-century book about worm excrement. I'm just saying. (1:17 and following)

February 5, 2009

This Week in My Classes (February 5, 2009)

Between winter storms, snow days, and miscellaneous family scheduling crises, I have to say it feels like a triumph just to show up in my classes right now.

Fortunately, in Mystery and Detective Fiction we have been reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which I have lectured on a few times before, so though there are logistical preparations to make, the intellectual effort has not been tremendous. I did find the moral problems of puzzle fiction more pressing than usual this time because a particularly tragic local murder case (as if there are any other kinds!) wrapped up recently, really bringing home to me the peculiarity of treating violent death as lightly as Christie's books do. Where is the sense of horror or violation? Even Poirot, though his perspective is more somber, seems more interested in the moral degeneration in the culprit ("His moral fiber is blunted. he is desperate. He is fighting a losing battle, and he is prepared to take any means that come to his hand, for exposure means ruin to him. And so--the dagger strikes!") than in injustice and cruelty of Ackroyd's death. I have to agree with critic Julian Symons that one of the costs of this genre is "the sense that the author has any feeling for the people in the story." On these grounds, at least, I'll be glad to move on to hard-boiled detection next week, and especially to P. D. James a bit later. I think the Victorians were right in the emphasis that they placed on literary treatment when evaluating literary ethics. The murder in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is even more horrible than that in Ackroyd (if these things can or should be measured), but the detachment necessary to solve the mystery is always highlighted as a problem, an unsuitable reaction, if you like, for a human being facing evil.

In Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt, we have wrapped in In Memoriam. Our discussion last week was really faltering, and one cause I identified was the general unfamiliarity of the class members with scansion. Many of the beauties of In Memoriam are subtle ones, brought about by variations on the consistent and superficially limiting form. Paying attention to the rhythm of the lines is one way to slow your reading down enough to appreciate other effects as well. So we did a class workshop on scanning, working towards an understanding of why T. S. Eliot (not a very Tennysonian poet, at least on the surface) would have said of In Memoriam that it gives us "132 passages, each of several quatrains in the same form, and never monotony or repetition." Section VII is usually my lead example. Take the final quatrain, for instance, with the almost brutal effect of the extra stresses and harsh alliterative consonants in the last line:

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly through the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

In a poem that is preoccupied, among other things, with "the sad mechanic exercise" of "measured language" (V:6-7), we should feel acutely the moments in which grief disrupts the meter.

I think this session helped us move past some of the problems they were having integrating discussion of content and themes (what is Tennyson saying about faith, trust, hope, death, science?) with poetic analysis, which should help us when we get to Arnold a bit later, and then to Hopkins.

I'm now working hard on Darwin in preparation for next week's readings. I admit, I have a bit of science envy, so I was particularly excited to come across the series of lectures from Stanford's "Darwin's Legacy" course, which I found first at iTunes U (and what an amazing resource that can be!) and now, I discover, also available on YouTube. Of particular relevance to our literary focus will certainly be George Levine's talk on Darwin's work and/as literature, but I took a look at the introductory one and couldn't resist watching the whole thing, and since then I've also watched the second one, on "Religion and Science: Probably Not What You Think" (given by Eugenie Scott, the Director of the National Center for Science Education), and most of the third one (by Darwin biographer Janet Browne). I'd better get down to my business and watch Levine's lecture this weekend. I know I could review his books instead, but I do enjoy the lecture format. I miss being a student! What a pleasure it is to listen to such smart, passionate, articulate, knowledgeable people.

February 3, 2009

Being Good Without God

Our local bus company is refusing to carry ads from Humanist Canada because they "could be controversial and upsetting." The dangerous text? "You can be good without God." Controversial and upsetting? Isn't this just a fact? Throughout history and around the world, people without a belief in "God" (by which, in common usage, we mean the God of the major monotheisms)--whether humanists, skeptics, agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, etc.--have lived highly moral lives; many of them have also contributed substantially to the development of a more just, good, and beautiful society. It's outrageous, and should be plenty "controversial and upsetting," to insist otherwise. Is the side of a bus the appropriate place to convey this common sense message? Well, I don't see why not: a pretty wide range of goods, services, and opinions are advertised there already. And the comment that "the transit authority would reconsider its position if Humanist Canada toned down its message" is truly stunning. Nothing about "you can be good without God" is an overstatement, and the tone is no more than declarative. It's a far less provocative message than the one on display in London, "There's probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life"--and even that is much more evasive than any religious billboard or bumper sticker I've ever seen (now that this "truth in advertising" precedent has been set, can we look forward to signs that read "Jesus Maybe Saves," or pronouncements that "There is probably no god but Allah"?). But it's not Metro Transit's decision that really irks me, but the immediate and predictable storm of protest that this represents an unacceptable assault by atheists on religion. Again, it's a fact that religion is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for virtue. The level of "debate" in the comments thread at the CBC site is so abysmal I can't see any value in contributing to it. Instead, here is a re-run of a related post from my archives. Embedded in it is an excerpt from a conference paper I presented at ACCUTE in 2006 called "George Eliot: Moralist for the 21st Century." Today I would particularly draw attention to the quotation near the end of the post from Eliot's essay "Worldiness and Other-Worldliness: The Poet Young":
'And in opposition to your theory that a belief in immortality is the only source of virtue, I maintain that, so far as moral action is dependent on that belief, so far the emotion which prompts it is not truly moral—is still in the stage of egoism, and has not yet attained the higher development of sympathy. In proportion as a man would care less for the rights and the welfare of his fellow, if he did not believe in a future life, in that proportion is he wanting in the genuine feelings of justice and benevolence...'
Compelling arguments can be made, in fact, that being good because of God (while obviously better than being bad) is a lesser form of morality, one that substitutes extrinsic reasons, hope of reward, and fear of punishment for a commitment to the intrinsic value of doing what is good and right.

George Eliot: the Friendly Face of Unbelief (originally posted June 25, 2007)

I've read a number of reviews lately on the spate of books by the 'new atheists,' notably Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and, most recently, Christopher Hitchens. Among the many interesting features of these reviews is how often they protest against the tone of the books, even if they agree with their arguments. A lot of people seem worried that a world without religion will be either a coldly austere, heartless place, or a chaotic place with no moral principles or values drawing people into communities. The complaints about the harsh tone of these books seem motivated by these fears, as well as by the widespread (but, as Harris especially would argue, misguided) attitude that whatever our own views on religion, we ought to treat it with respect. They are also often accompanied by the complaint that writers like Dawkins and Harris are taking away beliefs that bring comfort or satisfy emotional and aesthetic needs, without offering up anything to replace them.

I don't personally think there is any obligation for critics of religion to be nice, or for them to make up for whatever people may feel has been taken away from them along with their superstitions. And, in fact, all three of the writers I have named have plenty to say about ways an atheistic worldview can enhance, rather than inhibit, our emotional, moral, and aesthetic experiences and sensibilities. But it's clear that their case is not always persuasive, particularly to those readers who most need persuading. Because I think the world would benefit if they were victorious in their campaign on behalf of reason and evidence, I think they should call in some allies who can help them past what may be primarily a problem of genre. In addition to making the case against religion, they need to help people move imaginatively towards a world in which it is no longer necessary. Who better to assist in this endeavour than George Eliot, who was, as noted by one of her contemporaries, "the first great godless writer of fiction"?

Of the three writers I've named, Hitchens makes the most explicit appeal to literature. In god is not Great, he remarks that atheists "are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books" (5). Later, he notes that the "study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected" (283). This general position is one with which I have great sympathy; it is also one which, though without explicit reference to replacing theistic moral systems, is much considered in the work of contemporary moral philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum who are exploring the contributions literary forms make towards our ethical understanding. But Hitchens could get a lot more specific about just how George Eliot is useful to his project. Here are some excerpts from my paper "George Eliot: Moralist for the 21st Century" that suggest how her ideas, particularly as given literary form through her fiction, might complement his and the others' work and contribute to forming what Ronald Aronson in The Nation describes as "coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life's vital questions."
[A recent University of Minnesota study] found that many people consider atheists "self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good" (Edgell et al. 227). The researchers conclude that “Americans construct the atheist as the symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether” (230). However contingent the relationship between morality and religion may seem in academic or philosophic circles (witness the decisive critiques of divine command theory in analytic ethics, for example), most of our real-world compatriots are convinced that morality will break down without religion, with dire consequences for human flourishing. To correct this mistake—to lay these fears to rest—we could really use George Eliot’s help.

As her contemporaries noted, George Eliot’s novels portray “a world of high endeavour, pure morality, and strong enthusiasm, existing and in full work, without any reference to, or help from, the thought of God” (Mallock 698). After her own de-conversion from Christianity, Eliot worked tirelessly to develop a secular, humanistic framework for morality. As is well known, she believed, with Feuerbach, that people have given the name “God” to qualities and aspirations of their own, that motives and accomplishments called “religious” and credited to supernatural forces are really the products of human effort, of the human capacity for generosity, sympathy, and love—but also egotism, pettiness, and hatred. In her deterministic universe, we are responsible for our own deeds and their consequences, for our own contributions to, or obstructions of, the “growing good of the world” (Finale). She rejected extrinsic motives for good behaviour, including appeals to the “glory of God” or hope of an afterlife, arguing eloquently that “the immediate impulse of love or justice … alone makes an action truly moral” (rev. of Constance Herbert 322). These are components of an ethos that seems highly conducive to “moral solidarity” and “the common good.”

More important than her specific conclusions, though, is her resolve to work with the facts of human existence rather than comforting fictions. She did not deny the austerity of non-belief, but she agrees with Harris that
“the fact that unjustified beliefs can have a consoling influence on the human mind is no argument in their favour” (67). The “‘highest calling and election’,” she asserted, “is to do without opium and live through all our pain with conscious, clear-eyed endurance” (Letter 254).
Other examples of George Eliot's own statements on the relationship between faith and morality include this, from "Worldiness and Other-Worldiness: The Poet Young":
‘And in opposition to your theory that a belief in immortality is the only source of virtue, I maintain that, so far as moral action is dependent on that belief, so far the emotion which prompts it is not truly moral—is still in the stage of egoism, and has not yet attained the higher development of sympathy. In proportion as a man would care less for the rights and the welfare of his fellow, if he did not believe in a future life, in that proportion is he wanting in the genuine feelings of justice and benevolence...’
And this, from her letters, a simple statement that would have revolutionary consequences if applied instead of many of the doctrines put forward in the world's sacred books:
Our moral progress may be measured by the degree in which we sympathize with individual suffering and individual joys.
These are all philosophical statements, but George Eliot opted to give her ideas fictional form so that we would not just understand them intellectually, but experience them as principles operating in the world of human feelings, histories, and relationships. I have written more about this choice elsewhere. For my purposes now, I'll just say that this choice of genres allows her to show us morality and community both flourishing and faltering as the result of human character and human choices. The mathematician Laplace famously replied to Napoleon, when asked about the role of God in his view of the universe, that he had "no need of that hypothesis." Through her novels, George Eliot helps us understand that we too have no need of it, and that we will do better by ourselves and by others when we acknowledge our own responsibility for the world we live in and the rules we live by.

February 1, 2009

Weekend Miscellany: Richard III, Lit Crit, Lit-Blogs, and Zombies

At the Globe and Mail books site, Margaret Cannon reviews a new Ricardian novel that sounds like it might be a fun addition to my collection: A Secret Alchemy, by Emma Darwin ("yes, an offshoot of that Darwin").

Also at the Globe and Mail, P. D. James answers readers' questions; here's a reply that is pertinent to the discussion I'm having in my class on mystery and detective fiction about Golden Age puzzle mysteries and their limitations:
P.D. James I agree that few contemporary mysteries concentrate on logical deduction from physical clues. This was much more popular in the so-called Golden Age of Agatha Christie. Today we concentrate more on clues arising from character. In The Private Patient, Dalgliesh discovers such clues when he visits the victim's house and has access to her papers. Even so, I doubt whether he would have been able to make an arrest if the killer hadn't acted so spectacularly at the end of the book. But what does remain important is fair play. The reader who concentrates on solving the mystery should never be left feeling that some vital information was available to the detective and not to him. We should never need to ask, "How on earth was I expected to know that?" But I think that today, for many readers, solving the crime is less important than being engaged in an enthralling and well-written novel.
At (or in, depending on your medium) the TLS, Josh Cohen reviews Enthusiast!, by David Herd:
Woven into the book’s readings is a potent polemic against the assault daily perpetrated against enthusiasm by the bureaucratic mindset of the modern university. The imposition on literary study of alien measures of output, quality and aims blocks creative modes of circulation and exchange, insinuating bureaucracy into the very heart of the pedagogic relationship.
At Blographia Literaria, Andrew Seal has some interesting reflections on tendencies in 'lit-blogging,' particularly about the way its strengths ("the diversity of its members and the diversity of their interests, the ability to stage open-ended dialogues or discussion") could be channelled to do more than increase awareness and thus choice. Perhaps, he proposes, lit-bloggers could provide more guidance, or at least more reasons for different choices:
Instead of just aggregating choice, we can aggregate real knowledge; instead of bald lists which give the reader lots of options which she must sort out, an actual attempt to create something which will help a reader understand how to go about ordering a set of names or titles, how to turn a reading list into knowledge.
The Little Professor helps us see the full potential of adding zombies (though I admit I share Steven Beattie's feeling that this may be going too far.)

At the Guardian, Ian McEwan writes eloquently on John Updike:
The Updike opus is so vast, so varied and rich, that we will not have its full measure for years to come. We have lived with the expectation of his new novel or story or essay so long, all our lives, that it does not seem possible that this flow of invention should suddenly cease. We are truly bereft, that this reticent, kindly man with the ferocious work ethic and superhuman facility will write for us no more.
(And yet the excerpts he quotes fail to persuade me to read more Updike than I have already.)