Friday, December 17, 2010

Thoughts on Becoming a Parent

This week I suddenly found myself the father to a beautiful and wonderful baby girl. Even though her arrival was not exactly a surprise, in a sense it was the greatest surprise of my life. The moment she came kicking and screaming into the world, announcing her arrival loud and clear with her brand new (and already powerful) set of lungs, my wife and I looked at each other with what seemed a mixture of relief, joy, and utter amazement. What had been for 9 months a more or less abstract idea had suddenly appeared in the flesh, a living, breathing human being that we were responsible for bringing into the world. How could such things be?

When I was a younger man I felt ambivalent about the idea of having children. I think this was partly explainable by the feeling--not that I thought of it this way at the time--that my own life was a story whose outline and plot I was still trying to figure out, and that therefore I wasn't ready to launch a whole new story for someone else. In other words, why give impetus to a new human life when I was still working out the purpose and meaning of my own existence?

But now I can see that such hangups are completely beside the point. If a human life is a story--and I believe that a life is the very model of a story, the thing that stories imitate--then none of those stories are complete, or even remotely figured out, until you reach the end. Which means, of course, when you die. Every person who becomes a parent does so in the middle of things (in medias res, as in the ancient epics), while busily trying to sort out their own lives. In fact, the very act of parenthood, for those who choose it, is a monumentally important aspect of their own lives, and is one of the main factors that helps to make their lives--and their selves--what and who they are.

As a non-parent, I often heard it said that parenthood changes you, that it is impossible to comprehend the love a mother and father feel for their child without having experienced it yourself. As a new parent, I now know this from experience. Looking back, I feel that my love for my daughter grew in parallel with her growth in my wife's womb, starting as just a mustard seed upon news of her coming. Seeing the ultrasound image and learning that our child was a girl made her--and our love--one degree more real. Giving her a name made her even more real, an identifiable and unique human being. Yet she remained an enigma, an invisible and still ultimately abstract idea.

My daughter was born five days after her predicted due date, and in the final days before her birth I felt a bittersweet longing, an anxious eagerness to meet her. Upon finally--yet so suddenly--seeing her live and in person, our love for her also emerged, fully formed, as sudden and surprising as she herself.

How can I describe the love of a parent for his or her child? Like any love, it will have its ups and downs, its waves and troughs. But, as with any love, these fluctuations are only on the surface of a vast underlying sea. It has started out for me, as it undoubtedly does for most new parents, on a crest of euphoria. Strange as it may sound, the closest thing I can compare it to is the experience of being in love. Actually, it truly is being in love, just a different kind of love than is usually meant by that expression. Everything seems more meaningful, more valuable than it did before. The world glows in a radiant light that somehow had not been quite so visible until now. My daughter is to me the rarest and most precious of all earthly treasures, even though I hardly know her--even though it may seem to an outside observer that there is hardly anyone there to know. But to me she is (alongside my wife) the most interesting and important person in the world.

Where does this deep, vast sea of love come from? It is as mysterious as life itself. In fact, I would say that love, in its wide variety of forms, is the very meaning of life itself. This conviction I actually arrived at some 20 years ago, when, as a budding philosopher, I wondered what the ultimate meaning and purpose of existence was. Following the trail as far as I could, I could not get past one idea: love. This may sound strange to those of a philosophical or, certainly, a scientific cast of mind. To understand intellectually what love is--to explain it or define it--is pretty much beyond human capability. But to my mind, love, understood in the broadest possible context, was what gave ultimate meaning to everything. When you think about it, everything else we consider important--money, power, fame, success--are ultimately meaningless and empty without love. The Apostle Paul was right when he said that without love, "I am nothing." Having reached this point, I realized that love could not be justified or explained in terms of anything else. It was its own marvelous and miraculous answer: this, I decided, must be what it's all about.

My daughter, new as she is to life, has confirmed this for me like never before. What is important has its importance only in relation to what the modern philosophers call subjective consciousness and what the ancient ones called the soul. To give a definition that does not really define much of anything, one might say that love is the valuation of one consciousness or soul for another as an end in itself, rather than a means to a further end. I want to give my daughter everything that is good, whether she ever returns the favor or not. I have no doubt that as she grows up and matures, she will bring me much pride and joy and returned love, but those are not the reasons I wish to give to her. She is an end in herself--her good, her benefit, is where the buck stops. Everything I do in relation to her is ultimately measured in those terms.

Yes, I am still in the process of writing my own life story, its direction clearer than it was before, yet still a work in progress. And now I have participated in giving life to a whole new person with a whole new story. This is the way of all flesh. Plants, animals, and human beings all give rise to further generations--this thing called reproduction is nothing more nor less than life affirming itself as good. Life, too, is a mystery. Scientists can explain the physical processes of life but no one can really explain what life is. But somehow we know that, like love, life is its own answer. As someone somewhere once said, "That is all ye know, and all ye need to know."

I look forward to teaching my daughter many great and wonderful things about life and the world we live in and about herself. But I look forward even more to all the great and wonderful things that she will teach me about life and the world we live in and about myself--things that, in her own remarkable way, she has already begun to teach.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Tao That Can Be Effed Is Not The Eternal Tao

In "Effing the Ineffable", philosopher Roger Scruton discusses the undiscussable... that which is undiscussable not because of any distasteful content, but because it lies beyond the power of human language to express. Philosophers throughout the ages have, in the course of their philosophical journeys, come face to face with the ultimate, ineffable mystery of being, and have (in some cases at least) humbly given up the attempt to describe or explain it (while others, as Scruton playfully points out, have exhausted countless words in attempting to describe the indescribable).

Perhaps the most famous example of this reticence in the face of reality's ultimate mystery is the opening line of the Tao Te Ching (a favorite of my philosopher father): "The Way [Tao] that may be spoken of is not the eternal Way."

Scruton uses other examples, such as that of Thomas Aquinas, the builder of an immense, cathedral-like system of Christian philosophy in the 1200s, who ended up on his deathbed "in a state of ecstasy, declaring that all that he had written was of no significance beside the beatific vision that he had been granted, and in the face of which words fail."

There is also the modern example of Wittgenstein, who stated simply, "“that whereof we cannot speak we must consign to silence.”

As Scruton says, "There is nothing wrong with referring ... to the ineffable. The mistake is to describe it." The ineffable is that which is meaningful, but in a way that cannot be adequately expressed or captured in words. Often it is perceived in quasi-mystical experiences in which we might glimpse some deeper or fuller vision of the world, or perhaps an "intimation" (in Wordsworth's language) of another world beyond this one. Poetry is the closest that language can come to expressing such meanings, since poetry by its nature transcends the ordinary, practical use of language in order to express, or at least to suggest, the inexpressible.

Scruton gets high marks in my book for saying this about people who dismiss such notions of a transcendent reality as "unscientific fiction": "... people of this scientistic cast of mind are disagreeable to me. Their nerdish conviction that facts alone can signify, and that the “transcendental” and the eternal are nothing but words, mark them out as incomplete."


Monday, October 18, 2010

My Lovely Frankenstein, Part 9

During the last week of school before Christmas, Boris was arrested after a gang fight and thrown in the town jail. Dr. Laren had to bail him out.

"Oh, Boris, what am I to do with you? Perhaps I should withdraw you from that school. Maybe it was a mistake to think that society could accept you."

Boris looked down sadly. "Dr. Laren... why... did you... make me?"

"I made you, dear Boris, to be the son I never had. You were so wonderful at first. But now you're breaking my heart."

Boris couldn't help but cry this time. "I'm... sorry... Dr. Laren. I just... want people... to like me."

"I know, Boris, I know. I'll tell you what. You don't have to go to Elmville High any more. From now on, you can stay here and I can teach you, and you can have your friends in the woods."

"Okay," said Boris, sniffing.


Boris tapped at Judy's bedroom window. She opened it.

"Boris, what are you doing here? You know I can't see you anymore."

"But Judy... I am going... to be good... again. No more... fights."

"Oh, Boris, have you really come back to your senses?"

"Yes. Dr. Laren... is taking me... out of school."

"Out of school? Well... I suppose that's what's best." She sighed and put her hand on his green cheek. "Are you going to be my old, sweet, gentle Boris again?"


"Well... all right, I suppose I'll give you another chance. But Dr. Laren might need to do some talking to my parents to convince them that you really are reformed."


Dr. Laren did talk to Mr. and Mrs. Parker, and explained how Boris had reverted to his former gentle self after withdrawing from school. They agreed to allow Judy to see him again.

Judy helped Dr. Laren and Boris decorate for Christmas. They listened to Bing Crosby records, baked cookies, strung lights, and hung ornaments. Boris's favorite part was putting the tinsel on the tree. And, of course, he placed the star on top.

Judy sat on the sofa beside Boris and lay her head on his large square shoulder. She closed her eyes and sighed with contentment. "Oh Boris," she said, "it's so nice to have you back."

"It's nice... to have you back... too," said Boris.

"No boy could be more beautiful than you, Boris Laren... my lovely Frankenstein."


Friday, October 15, 2010

My Lovely Frankenstein, Part 8

The next morning Boris walked down to Judy's house and rang the doorbell. Mr. Parker answered. "Well, hey there, Boris. Did you come to see Judy?"

"Does Judy... hate me?"

"Of course not, Boris. Why would Judy hate you?"

"She missed... the game."

"Oh, that. She stayed home because she wasn't feeling well. Would you like to see her?"

Boris's spirits lightened. "Yes.. want to see... Judy."

He lumbered down the hall to Judy's bedroom. She was still in bed but sitting up reading. Her face lit up when she saw him. "Boris, darling! I'm so happy to see you!"

"I'm... happy... too."

They embraced. Judy said, "I'm so sorry I missed your game last night. I caught cold. I'm still not feeling well. Father told me the bad news about the game. I'm sorry, Boris. Achoo!"

"Bless... you."


"You... still love me?"

"Of course I still love you, Boris dear, don't be silly."

"Chip... told me... you... did not love me."

"Chip told you what? Why, that hooligan! You shouldn't listen to him, Boris. You know he's just jealous. You don't need to doubt my love for you."

"I know," said Boris with a shrug. "I was... afraid."

"Oh, Boris," said Judy, putting her arms about him, "I'll always love you, my big, green, adorable creature."


The other kids, however, had stopped loving Boris. Now, instead of admiring looks or friendly greetings, the other students gave him cold stares or just ignored him altogether. They also called him names and teased him. Frustrated, Boris started wearing jeans, T-shirts, and a leather jacket, put grease in his hair, smoked cigarettes, and got involved in gang fights. He even formed his own gang called The Creeps. Judy was worried.

"Boris, what has gotten into you? You used to be such a nice boy. But now..."

But Boris didn't care. Eventually Judy's parents forbade her to see him.

"And you know what the worst part is, Boris?" said Judy, tearfully. "They don't even need to forbid me, because... well, I don't want to see you anymore, now that you've become a hoodlum!"

This only increased Boris's anger and bad behavior. He was called to Mrs. Allen's office several times.

"Boris, I am very disappointed in you. For most of the semester you have been one of Elmville High's best students and star athletes, and now you have become a juvenile delinquent. If you don't shape up, I shall have no choice but to expel you."

And Dr. Laren said, "Boris, I'm very concerned about you. When I made you, I thought you were the most gentle creature on earth. Now you have become violent and increasingly savage. I did not make you a monster, Boris, but you are becoming one!"

Thursday, October 14, 2010

My Lovely Frankenstein, Part 7

The other kids at school seemed a little more distant after that, polite but not really friendly.

"He was just trying to protect me," Judy tried to explain to everyone.

But the other kids talked.

"Don't you think he's scary?"

"Well, he is a monster, after all."

"He has too much strength. You'd always have to be careful with him around."

"That stitch is a little gruesome."

"I don't know about you girls, but that pallid green skin is enough to give me the creeps."


It was the last game of the season and the Elmville Eagles were battling the Georgetown Giants for a chance to go to the state championship. Boris was distracted because he didn't see Judy at her usual spot in the stands, and he had been kicking badly.

During the third quarter, while Boris stood on the sidelines still searching vainly for Judy, he heard someone call his name. It was Chip McPherson.

"Hey, Boris," said Chip as he approached, "I bet you're wondering why Judy didn't show up for your big game."

Boris just glowered at him.

"Well, I'll tell ya why," continued Chip. "It's because she don't love you anymore. Yeah, that's right. She told me herself. She realized she could never have any normal life with you, so... she called it quitsville."

"You... lie," said Boris.

"Well, you can believe it or don't, but that's what she told me."

Boris frowned.

"Oh yeah," said Chip as he walked away, "she said she only went out with you 'cause she felt sorry for ya. Why else would she go out with someone so ugly?"

Boris wanted to cry. Now he couldn't concentrate at all on the game, and he kicked even more poorly.

The game was tied at 24 with only seconds remaining. The whole stadium was in a frenzy, but Boris didn't care at all. He felt like he was in the middle of a bad dream.

Finally, with time left for only one more play, the Eagles called out Boris to kick a field goal that, if successful, would send them to the state championship. He walked out numbly to the field.

He botched the kick. A Georgetown player picked up the football and ran it all the way back for a touchdown, so that Elmville lost 30 to 24.

Boris heard their boos as he trudged back to the locker room. He felt like everybody hated him. In the locker room, his teammates expressed their disappointment. "Way to go, Boris." "What a blockhead!"


After the game, Boris made straight for Judy's house. It had started raining, and by the time Boris showed up at Judy's bedroom window he was shivering and soaked. He saw Judy lying in her bed asleep. Even though he was very upset, he didn't want to disturb her rest, and he was afraid that she didn't want to see him anyway. So he stood there and watched her for a moment, sadly admiring her beauty, then returned home forlorn.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

My Lovely Frankenstein, Part 6

Boris was invited to a Halloween party at Ace Banning's house. Judy accompanied him proudly as the Bride of Frankenstein. She put on a tall black wig with a white streak, garbed herself in a long black sheet and long black gloves, powdered her face deathly white, and blackened her eyes and mouth. Boris went as himself.

Boris handed out candy to the trick-or-treaters, and inadvertently frightened more than a few children. He won bobbing for apples and ate a little too much candy. It was the best night of his life until Chip McPherson showed up with his sidekick Biff Jarvis.

"Hey, that's a great costume there, Frankie," said Chip sarcastically. "Oh... it's not a costume! Your face really is that ugly!"

Boris ignored him, but Chip continued.

"Do you scare yourself every time you look in the mirror?" He cackled and jabbed Biff in the ribs. Biff laughed along.

Boris frowned. "Leave... me... alone... Chip. I don't... want... to fight you."

"You don't wanna fight me, eh? You hear that, Biff? Monster boy here don't wanna fight me! Oh, that's right... it's because you're all sweet and gentle, right? Well, you wanna know what I think? I think you're chicken! How about that? A monster who's a scaredy-cat!"

"Go away, Chip!" said Judy. "Must you always be so childish?"

"Well, looky here, if it ain't Mrs. Frankenstein herself!"

"What is your problem?"

"You wanna know what my problem is? I'll tell ya what my problem is. My problem is that big, ugly, green monster that you seem to like so much!"

Judy glared at Chip with barely suppressed rage. "The only monster around here is you, Chip McPherson." She brushed past him.

"Judy, doll!" said Chip, following after her. "I love you, baby!"

Judy rolled her eyes. "You and I were finished a long time ago, Chip."

Chip stared at Judy as though blinded. "So that's it? You're choosing that freak show over me?"

She turned and faced him. "Boris is more of a gentleman than you'll ever be, Chip."

"I can't let you do it, Judy."

"What are you talking about?"

"I can't let you give yourself to that... that thing!" He grabbed her arm.

"Let go of me!"

At this point, Boris grabbed Chip's arm, wrenched it off Judy's arm, stared Chip in the eyes, uttered in the most frightful voice, "Don't... touch... her!", and shoved Chip McPherson violently onto the floor, knocking over a table in the process. Everyone stopped talking and turned to stare.

Chip sat up, shook his head, and touched his bleeding lip. "Did you see that? He tried to kill me!"

Boris felt everyone gazing upon him in horror. With a terrible cry, he turned and ran out the door. "Boris!" called Judy, and ran after him.


She followed him into the dark woods and finally caught up with him by the edge of the little stream. He sat on a log and hung his head. She sat beside him, in the light of the full moon, still in full Bride of Frankenstein costume.

"Oh, Boris, are you all right?" She put her black-gloved arm about his shoulders.

"They... hate... me," he said despairingly.

"Oh, Boris, they don't hate you. We'll explain everything. They'll understand that you were just trying to protect me."

"Why... do you... love me... Judy?"

"What do you mean, why do I love you? I love you because you're the sweetest, kindest, most wonderful boy in the whole wide world! Isn't that what I always tell you?"

"But... I'm... ugly."

"Oh, Boris... you are not ugly."

"Look at... me! I'm... green!"

"I love your green skin, Boris. You know why? Because it's your skin. It's the soul that makes someone truly beautiful. Why, someone could be the handsomest guy on earth, but if he had an ugly heart, that would make him an ugly person. But you, Boris... you have the most beautiful heart of anyone I've ever known. And that makes you a beautiful person."

"Even though... I have... an ugly... face?"

"I don't think your face is ugly, Boris. Why, you're quite handsome, in a spooky sort of way. And you're big and strong. A lot of the girls think you're cute, you know."

"They... do?"

"Of course, silly. Didn't you see them staring at you at the Homecoming Dance?"

"No... I was just... looking... at you."

"Oh, you're sweet."

"You look... lovely... tonight... Judy."

She smiled. "Thank you."

"Now... you are more... my type."

Judy laughed, and they kissed in the moonlight as a bat fluttered overhead.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My Lovely Frankenstein, Part 5

One day after school, Boris was walking past the football field when someone shouted out, "Hey, Frank! Why dontcha have that doctor give you a new face?"

The other players laughed, and Boris, losing his temper, kicked a football that was lying on the sideline. The jocks watched in astonishment as the football soared high and far and landed somewhere in the bleachers on the other end of the field.

"Holy smoke!" said Ace Banning, the quarterback. "Did you see that?"

"Hey Frankie! Where ya goin'? We were just kiddin', pal!"

Coach Freeman chased down Boris. "Say there, Boris... have you ever thought about playing football?"


Boris became the placekicker for the Elmville Eagles. At the Homecoming Game against the Fairview Falcons, Boris became a hero. The Eagles were losing 17 to 16 with a few seconds left to play. Out came Boris in his jersey with the name LAREN and the number 0. From halfway down the field, Boris kicked the ball easily through the goalposts, and the Eagles won 19 to 17.


The next night, Boris, wearing a tux, escorted Judy to the Homecoming Dance. He got more than a few looks from the other girls.

"He's so mysterious."

"You know, for a monster, he's actually kind of cute."

"He must be so strong. You wouldn't have to worry about anyone with him around."

"Don't you just adore that stitch?"

"I don't know about you girls, but that pallid green skin is enough to make me swoon."

"I'm such a lucky girl," said Judy. "Oh, I'm so glad you're mine, Boris." She rested her head on his broad shoulder and closed her eyes as they danced, and the girl singer crooned:

My lovely Frankenstein
How I want you to be mine
People say that you're a scream
But to me you are a dream


Judy asked her parents if she could invite Boris over for dinner, and they agreed, if somewhat reluctantly.

"So, Boris," said Mr. Parker once they were all sitting round the table, "have you been looking into any colleges?"

"No... not yet," replied Boris. He stuffed some peas into his mouth.

"I hear you're making quite a name for yourself on the football team. Keep that up and you'll get yourself a scholarship."

"Did you want any meatloaf, Boris?" asked Mrs. Parker.

"Mother," said Judy, "I told you Boris doesn't eat meat."

"A vegetarian, eh?" said Mr. Parker. "There's nothing wrong with that, Boris. I like a good rare steak myself, but to each his own, right?"

"Do you have any family, Boris?" inquired Mrs. Parker.

"No... family. Just... Dr. Laren."

"I see. Well, it was very kind of Dr. Laren to... er... adopt you."

"Honey," said Mr. Parker, shaking his head, "you know as well as I do that Boris was not adopted. Dr. Laren
created him."

"Father!" exclaimed Judy.

Mrs. Parker looked away sorrowfully.

"Well, it's true, isn't it?" said Mr. Parker. "We don't care where you came from, Boris. All that matters is who you are on the inside."

Boris smiled. "Pass... the butter?"

Monday, October 11, 2010

My Lovely Frankenstein, Part 4

The other kids talked.

"Did you hear? Judy Parker likes that creepy new kid."

"It's a real shame, isn't it? The prettiest gal in school going for that freak of nature."

"Look, here comes the Bride of Frankenstein now."


Boris soon discovered an interest in making art. He would cut shapes out of colored construction paper and paste them onto other sheets to create pictures.

One night he decided to surprise Judy with a gift, a picture he had made just for her. He crept through backyards until he came to the Parkers' house, then peeked in her bedroom window.

Boris opened his eyes wide in amazement, for at that moment Judy was in the middle of undressing. "Wow," he said clumsily.

When Judy saw Boris's green face at her window, she gasped and quickly threw on her robe. She went to the window and opened it. "Boris, you gave me such a fright. What are you doing here?"

He wanted to tell her how beautiful she was, but felt too shy. "I... made you... this," he said, handing her the card.

"For me?" She looked at the picture he had made. It was a pink heart pasted on a black background. In the heart, in crudely drawn letters, was written JUDY. She smiled. "Oh, Boris, it's lovely. Thank you." She leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead.

Boris couldn't remember anything else that happened that night.


After a while people got used to Boris, and they even got used to the idea of Judy being his girlfriend. Everyone, that is, except Judy's parents.

"What's wrong with Boris?" she demanded. "He's the nicest boy I've ever met."

"He may be nice, Judy," said her father, "but what kind of job can he get? How is he going to provide for you?"

"There's a circus that's interested. They've even made him an offer."

"Judy, darling," said her father, shaking his head. "The circus is no way to make a living."

"I always thought you would marry a doctor," said her mother, stoically fighting back tears.

"Oh, Mother, Father," sighed Judy. "I love him. Doesn't love count for anything?"

"You're so young, Judy," said Mrs. Parker. "When you get older you'll realize that love isn't everything."

"Well, I don't ever want to grow old then!"

"Judy, honey," said Mr. Parker, "love doesn't put food on the table."

"And besides, Judy," added Mrs. Parker, "he's..."

"He's what?"


"Oh, Mother!" Judy stormed out of the room.

Friday, October 8, 2010

My Lovely Frankenstein, Part 3

The case was decided in Boris's favor, and Dr. Laren proudly walked beside him as he entered Elmville High, followed by a battalion of police and reporters.

All eyes were glued to his green face as Boris entered his first classroom.

The teacher cleared her throat. "Class, this is Boris. I'm sure you've all heard much about him."

"Dontcha mean Boris Karloff?" someone muttered. Snickers all around.

"That will be enough," said the teacher sternly. "Boris, have a seat."

Boris sat in a chair at the left front of the classroom. He noticed the girl to his right staring at him, but her large brown eyes seemed to be filled with admiration rather than fear or disgust. She had wavy brown hair, fair skin, and pretty red lips, and Boris thought she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

"Hey, Frankenstein," whispered a boy in the next row. "Can I call you Frankie?" A few students giggled.

Boris tried to ignore them, remembering what Dr. Laren had told him. "Some people will be cruel, Boris. It's only to be expected. People say mean things because they're afraid of those who are different from them. You just show them what a nice boy you really are."

He turned to the boy and smiled, in his awkward, grimacing way. "My name... is... Boris. What's... your... name?"

The boy grimaced back, but not in an attempt to smile. "Man, you're one ugly cat."

Another boy mocked his voice. "My... name... is... Boris..."

Boris stopped smiling and turned away. He felt like crying, but didn't want to show tears in front of the other students.

"Leave him alone," scolded the girl, frowning at the boys. "Don't mind them, Boris, they're just a bunch of cads."

The other boys scowled but said no more.


After class, the girl followed Boris to his locker. "Hi, I'm Judy."

Boris looked at her. He felt warmed by her smile. "I'm... Boris."

She chuckled. "I know. Everyone knows who you are."

He smiled shyly.

Judy continued, "Don't you worry, Boris. You're just different, is all, and people need time to adjust. I'm sure everyone will like you once they see what a nice guy you are."


Boris and Judy walked home together after school. A boy in white T-shirt and blue jeans, his hair slicked back with grease, approached them. "Hey, Frankenstein," he called.

"Go away, Chip," returned Judy impatiently.

"Hey, Judy... doll... what are you doing hanging out with this monster?"

"He's not a monster!"

"Have you gone nuts? Look at this creep!"

"You're so square, Chip," said Judy as she brushed him aside.

Chip looked on in disbelief as Judy sauntered off with Boris. "Well," he shouted after them, "at least I don't have a square head!"

"Gosh, he is so annoying," said Judy, shaking her head. "I don't know what makes him think he'll ever have another chance with me. He's the real creep, Boris, not you."


"Isn't he dreamy?" sighed Judy. She was on the phone with her girlfriend Mary.

"Well, he's... different," replied Mary.

"That's what I like about him. He's not like the other boys."

"That's for sure."

"Now Mary, there's nothing wrong with Boris. He has to be the sweetest guy I've ever met."

"Yes, but..."

"But what?"

"Judy, he's... green."

"Mary Burke," huffed Judy, "I never thought you were superficial."

"Superficial?! Judy, don't you think he's a little... weird?"

"Boris is the kindest, most gentle boy I've ever known. Now tell me what's so weird about that!"

Thursday, October 7, 2010

My Lovely Frankenstein, Part 2

At night, Boris would sometimes climb out his bedroom window and explore the town. He crept through backyards, frightened cats, and peeked in windows, curious to see what other people looked like and what they did. Sometimes he almost got in trouble, like the night when Mrs. Pritchard caught sight of his green face staring in through the kitchen window. Her bloodcurdling scream sent him fleeing in terror.


Boris's nightly antics soon led to rumours that a monster was loose in Elmville. Dr. Laren realized that Boris only behaved this way because he was eager to learn about the outside world. He decided that it was not good to keep him sequestered any longer, and that Boris was ready for his introduction to society. He told Boris that he would enroll him in the local high school.

"Will I... make... friends?" asked Boris in his halting English.

"Of course you will, Boris," replied the doctor. "Who wouldn't like such a sweet boy as you?"

Boris smiled and daydreamed of making friends at school.


He got more than a few stares during the walk to the high school. "Don't mind them, Boris," said the doctor. "You're just special, that's all. They've never seen anyone quite like you before. They'll like you once they get to know you."

Mrs. Allen, the principal, lost all color in her face when Boris and Dr. Laren entered her office. Dr. Laren announced proudly that Boris was ready to enter high school. The principal's response was less than enthusiastic.

"I'm sorry, Dr. Laren, but we simply cannot allow... Boris... to attend school with the other students."

"And why not? Because he's different?"

"Dr. Laren... he's... well, you know..."

"He's what, Mrs. Allen?"

"He's..."--she shook her head bewilderedly--""

Dr. Laren stood angrily. "This is discrimination, Mrs. Allen."

"Now, Dr. Laren, please..."

"This is a violation of Boris's constitutional rights! I'm contacting my lawyer!"

"They won't get away with this, Boris," said Dr. Laren after they had returned home. "I really thought Mrs. Allen would be more open-minded. And she calls herself a progressive!"


The lawyers came, and with them a swarm of reporters. Boris was a celebrity.

"Boris is a very special individual," stated Dr. Laren's lawyer to the newshounds. "He is the kindest, most sensitive person I have ever met. Make no mistake--there is much more at stake here than just the rights of Frankensteinian Americans. We are fighting against ignorance and prejudice, and for the right of every citizen, regardless of origin, to equal treatment under the law."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

My Lovely Frankenstein, Part 1

His first memory was of frightful lightning flash, terrible roar of thunder, and Dr. Laren screaming madly, "He's alive! He's alive!"

Those first hours were vague. His body weak, his mind cloudy. Bandages unravelled, revealing flesh of unearthly green. He saw himself in a mirror--the square head, jet black hair, bolt in neck, stitch on forehead. Dr. Laren gave him clothes to wear: black turtleneck with matching jacket, brown pants, and heavy black shoes to cover his large feet. The doctor also gave him a name.

"Boris," pronounced Dr. Laren, gazing upon his pride and joy. "I shall call you Boris, after my great-uncle in Transylvania."


Dr. Laren taught him many things during those first few days. Boris learned that he lived in a house on Hartford Street in a town called Elmville in the United States of America. He also learned how to speak.

When Boris had finished his lessons for the day, he would play in the woods behind Dr. Laren's house. In the woods he befriended the birds and rabbits and squirrels, and occasionally picked a flower to admire its delicate beauty and enjoy its sweet fragrance. He developed a taste for nuts and berries, and Dr. Laren soon discovered that Boris could not stand the taste of meat.

"I do believe, Boris," said the doctor, "that you are the most gentle creature on earth."


One day while wandering through the woods, Boris happened upon a little girl sitting by the edge of a stream, kicking the water with her bare feet. She wore a white summer dress and Boris thought she looked as pretty as a flower. "Hello," he said in his best friendly voice.

The little girl turned and, upon seeing Boris, screamed in fright and ran away.

"Wait!" cried Boris. But it was no use. He kneeled on the patch of grass where the girl had been sitting and gazed into the stream. Then he despaired, for he knew why the girl had been so repulsed. Why should such a lovely creature want anything to do with a hideous, deformed thing like himself? Dejected, Boris sat by the stream and wept.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What Is Philosophy?

When I chose to become a philosophy major at the beginning of the fall semester in 1992, I felt that I was striking out on a lonely road. Far from the madding crowd of people pursuing careers in business or some other respectable profession, here I was seeking to find... what? What exactly is it that philosophers do?

There is an old tale about Thales, the earliest Greek philosopher we know of. According to this legend, Thales was walking along one day, so wrapped up in his philosophical musings that he stumbled and fell into a hole in the ground, and found himself the object of a pretty young woman's laughter and mockery. This story serves as an illustration of how many--perhaps most--people view philosophers: absent-minded, their heads in the clouds, spending their time thinking about abstruse ideas and abstract questions, utterly impractical, oblivious to the real, everyday world in which everybody else lives.

Little wonder that I gravitated toward philosophy... I was a philosopher by nature!

But is philosophy really so remote from ordinary earthly concerns? The view of philosophy I have just described makes it sound as though philosophy consisted of nothing but intellectual games, like the creation of castles in the air or solving mental puzzles as a pastime. And indeed, this is the opinion that many people throughout the ages have had about philosophy: that it is impractical and frivolous, producing nothing but a bunch of fancy notions and esoteric ideas that bear little or no relevance to real life.

Even as I felt myself setting out on a path far less traveled, I also had a sense that philosophy mattered. Of course I thought so: why would I choose to major in something so impractical (in terms of getting a job) if I didn't believe in its inherent value? From the very first steps of my philosophical journey, I felt an instinctive conviction that philosophy was related to real life in a significant way.

But to be able to explain this to people who do not share my passion for philosophy (which is to say almost everyone), I must first explain what philosophy is. And don't feel dumb if you aren't sure: philosophers themselves aren't even sure, and debate the definition of their own discipline as much as they debate anything else. I can give you my own personal understanding of what philosophy is, but ask a dozen other philosophers and you'll get a dozen other definitions to choose from.

Philosophy is many things, but for a basic definition, what I consider to be the very essence of philosophy, I fall back on the etymology of the word: it derives from the Greek word philosophia, which means "the love of wisdom". I think it's important to note that philosophers don't necessarily claim to be wise, that is, to have already attained wisdom. They only claim to love wisdom, and to seek after it as one would a treasure, considering it more valuable than worldly goods. One of my favorite personal metaphors of the philosopher is also an old, familiar one: the person who sets out on a solitary journey up the mountain, leaving behind the material concerns of village life in order to seek some ultimate truth about the world, some deep wisdom about life. The mountain is a good metaphor, I think, both because of the idea of solitude (even if it is just intellectual solitude, not always physical), and because of the notion of perspective, achieving a transcendent view of things, lifting one's eyes from the mundane details to the big picture.

Of course, in the real world, philosophers too must eat, and since not many Fortune 500 corporations are willing to pay someone a handsome salary with full benefits to sit there and contemplate the meaning of life (nor should they), philosophers must earn their living in some other way. For one thing to understand about philosophy is that it is not really a profession. It is one of the liberal arts, which properly belong in the realm of leisure, free from economic attachments. Of course, there are such things as philosophy professors, but they are being paid to teach philosophy. One might argue that they are also paid to publish philosophical papers, but this is different from being paid simply to philosophize, and is not even the same thing as being paid for writing philosophy, which many people, including many great and famous philosophers, have done without making so much as a dime, and without being in the employ of the academy. Socrates, perhaps the king of all Western philosophers, didn't even write a single word as far as we know. He basically just hung around town and bugged the crap out of people by asking too many abstract questions, such as "What is justice?" or "Do the gods love the good because it is good, or is the good good because the gods love it?" And he did this without having a PhD!

So philosophers love wisdom. You might say they are aspiring wise men (or aspiring wise women... even though philosophy is a rather notoriously male-dominated pursuit, there have since ancient times been a fair number of female philosophers). But what is wisdom?

Ah, grasshopper... by asking such questions, you have already started on the philosopher's path.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Tale of Three Loves, Part Three

The Romantic poet Percy Shelley described poetry as "the center and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred." These words sound shocking to modern ears, for they invert the currently accepted hierarchy of knowledge. Most people today probably don't think of poetry as knowledge at all, let alone "the center and circumference of knowledge", and most likely would laugh if anyone suggested that poetry is a superior form of knowledge to science.

Ray Bradbury, that poetic, philosophical science fiction author, has been one of my favorite writers since childhood. In the story "--And the Moon Be Still As Bright", from The Martian Chronicles, the character Spender describes how the noble Martian civilization reconciled the various forms of knowledge:

They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful.

Poetry, philosophy, art, religion, science--each of these is a way of knowing. We are trained to think in our modern world that science is either the only valid way of knowing, or that it is at least the most valid way of knowing. But this is a sad misunderstanding. Science is an important way of knowing the world, but it is only one way of knowing it. In order to be well-rounded human beings, we must also know the world through the vehicles of artistic and literary beauty, philosophical contemplation, religious revelation--each of us will choose a different set of sources in which to seek truth and meaning, but the point is that we need something beyond science to provide us with those answers. Science is not in the business of meaning. This is not a criticism of science, it is just a recognition of its nature as a form of human knowledge.

Going along with Shelley and Bradbury, I would say that science tells us facts about the universe, while poetry (or, by extension, any of the other non-scientific ways of knowing) attempts to tell us what it all means. I believe this is what Shelley meant about poetry being the "center and circumference of knowledge". Poetry--historically the vehicle of religious truth expressed in the form of myths--is what interprets reality for us. It takes the raw data and information of science and converts it into knowledge and wisdom, in highly symbolic forms that are the most powerful way of expressing and understanding the deepest truths about the world.

The ancient philosophers understood that philosophy, the "love of wisdom", has its beginning in the sense of wonder. I have often thought of philosophers as being like children in their ability to continually wonder at the world and ask "Why?", even about the simplest and most ordinary things. Grown-ups and non-philosophers are often impatient with such questions, or (in the case of philosophers) think the questions are stupid or pointless. But philosophers are simply seeing the world through the eyes of a child, i.e. with an acute sense of wonder.

Wonder is the sense that the world is marvelous, mysterious, and endlessly fascinating. It is akin to the odd feeling you get when you stare at some ordinary object long enough until it becomes strange to your sight, or think about some quite ordinary concept until it starts to seem quite bizarre. It is the power that makes the scales fall from our blinded eyes and allows us to see the astonishing reality of what has always been there right in front of us. Wonder is a humble attitude toward reality, a recognition that we do not really know what we think we know. Poetry, too, is born in the sense of wonder. So are all the arts. So is religious faith. And yes, science, too, is born in the sense of wonder.

My own childhood sense of wonder compelled me to marvel at the natural world around me, from the subtropical Florida landscape in which I dwelled to the farthest reaches of the cosmos that I could see quite clearly through the magic windows of books, movies, and television. That same sense of wonder compelled me to explore the universe through my own imagination, whether this took the form of drawing pictures, writing stories, or playing astronaut. It later compelled me as a young man to undertake the journey of philosophy, to scale the solitary mountain heights and seek what wisdom I could find there. And, at least at certain sparkling moments when my mind can temporarily escape the cares and concerns of practical existence, this same sense of wonder illuminates the mundane, everyday world in which I move about and reminds me that I am, to my utter amazement and delight, still living in the same magical universe that I remember living in as a child.

"It is good to renew one's wonder," said the philosopher. "Space travel has again made children of us all."

--The Martian Chronicles

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Tale of Three Loves, Part Two

As one who chose to become a philosopher, I have often felt some dismay at the fact that science seems to guard its territory, i.e. the natural and physical world, from incursions by other disciplines. It is as though scientists say, "You poets go over there and sing your songs; you philosophers go that way and speculate; but leave the study of nature to the professionals. We have instruments, calculations, and empirical data, after all. What do you have but pretty words and abstract notions? Your heads are in the clouds, while we soberly examine the real world."

So there.

Ours is a scientistic civilization, which is to say one that affords science with the prestige we used to give religion in terms of providing us with ultimate truth. Scientism is not science but rather a philosophical doctrine which holds that science is the supreme arbiter of truth in everything--including what have traditionally been considered matters of the heart and of the spirit, the answers for which have traditionally been provided by things like religious faith, philosophical wisdom, or literary and artistic works.

This worship of science as the be-all and end-all of human knowledge has created an unnecessary conflict between science and other forms of knowledge in our culture. As a young science lover who also loved to write stories and draw, and who had a religious upbringing, I never understood what the big deal was. Whether or not I actually heard it or read it, I knew instinctively the dictum that "All truth is God's truth." All modes of human knowledge were valid. They did not contradict each other, but rather were complementary, members of a team that worked together toward the common goal of understanding reality. Each member of the team had a different job, and each member was valuable and important in its own way.

It is true that each field of knowledge has its particular domain, its area of expertise and authority. However, the definitions of these boundaries may not always be properly understood. I feel that this is the case with science in today's world. Yes, science studies the natural world. But that does not mean that science provides us with all possible truth about nature, and it does not mean that other disciplines such as philosophy, poetry, and art cannot tell us anything about nature that science cannot tell us.

For it is not enough to say that science studies nature. Science studies nature in a particular way--a scientific way. It observes, records, experiments, verifies, and makes hypotheses and theories about general laws of nature. But is this quantitative approach the only way to study nature or to know anything about it?

I would say no. There is an assumption in our culture that if someone is interested in the wonders of the natural world or the mysteries of the physical universe (as I very much was when I was a boy), that person should study science. Well, science is good--I've made it plain that I have had a lifelong passion for it myself--but it is only part of the picture. Science seeks to approach nature objectively (although many philosophers will point out that it is never truly, completely objective), without reference to any human values. (It can be thought of as the Dragnet approach: "Just the facts, ma'am.") The humanities, on the other hand, are by definition concerned with human values and seek to understand reality in human terms. Why can't the humanities--things like philosophy, poetry, art--seek to understand and know the natural world in their own way? Why can't a poet tell us things about a flower, for instance, that a scientist cannot tell us? The poet speaks a different language than the scientist, and is looking at different aspects of the same thing... but why isn't the poet's knowledge about the flower valued as highly as the scientist's quantitative data? What about the philosopher's musings about the nature of the flower? The artist's vision of the beauty of the flower?

Of course, the reason lies in our ideas about what makes knowledge valid and valuable, and our current bias is toward the practical, the verifiable, the quantifiable. All very useful in the world of business, industry, and technology, but if we (quite unreasonably) accept that this is all there is to life, we find ourselves living in a very dull and drab world indeed.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Tale of Three Loves, Part One

Science was one of my first loves in life. When I wasn't reading books about outer space, the prehistoric past, the arcane secrets of mathematics and physics, or the animals and plants of Florida and the world, I was peering through a telescope at the cold evening stars, or through a microscope at the weird world of incredibly small things, or perhaps experimenting with a chemistry set, examining the organs of the Visible Man, trying to predict the weather by observing cloud and wind patterns, building and launching model rockets, or collecting pet walkingsticks, snails, and Venus flytraps. Even my tastes in fiction, movies, and TV shows reflected my deep and fond attraction toward science, for my favorite genre in each was--what else?--science fiction.

With such solid and impressive science-nerd credentials, no one could accuse me of being unfriendly toward or ignorant about science. When I started college, I was planning to major in Biology, with the idea of perhaps becoming a zoologist and studying animals in the wild. But, after the first day of Philosophy 101, I decided I wanted to be a Philosophy major, and the rest is history. I had already been tentatively exposed to philosophy prior to this, through discussions with my father, so I was already predisposed to an interest in the subject, but upon this more formal introduction, my curious like blossomed into ardent love.

Meanwhile, my passion for my old flame Science, I am sad to say, flagged during my undergrad years. It had already decreased somewhat in intensity during my teens, but around the time I graduated from high school, I experienced a renaissance of my artistic and creative side (which had also been strongly apparent in my childhood in the form of drawing and writing), and I became focused on making music, writing poetry and fiction, and cultivating my newfound fervor for the arts in general. Science during this time, unfortunately, lay all but forgotten in the dust. My interest in science did not begin to recover until around the time I graduated with my philosophy degree, and has continued to grow throughout my adult life until today it has reclaimed its rightful place beside philosophy and literature as one of my primary intellectual passions.

All of this has given me a heightened awareness of the relationships between science, philosophy, and literature, and the ways in which they are alike and different, complementary and sometimes seemingly in conflict.

My current love for science, while in one sense just as pure as in my youth, is in another sense more complicated. For one thing, I see now that there is a distinction to be made between science itself and that which science studies, which is essentially the same thing we call "nature" (in the broadest sense of that term, including the whole universe and all of physical reality). Science is of course one method--in our modern civilization it is the predominant, and seemingly exclusive, method--of studying the natural world. But what I understand now is that it is not necessarily the only way to know and understand the natural world. While I continue to admire and esteem science as an essential human mode of understanding, I am adamantly opposed to scientism--the opinion that science is the only way, or even just a vastly superior way, of attaining knowledge about everything. To truly love and respect this lady Science does not mean putting her up on a pedestal and worshipping her as an idol.

(to be continued)

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Once and Future American Classicism

When I worked as the serials librarian at St. Petersburg Public Library, I was in charge of a large collection of periodicals, many of them in old hardbound volumes, spanning a range of time going back to the late 19th century. I undertook an inventory of these periodicals, since the vast collection had never been catalogued and the library needed to know what exactly it had (what we librarians call "intellectual control").

During the course of this inventory (a project which took up many months), I enjoyed glancing through these thick volumes of old magazines, each volume a sort of time machine taking me to a particular moment in the history of American popular culture. As I explored these weighty, dusty volumes with their crumbling, brittle pages, I was struck by the high aesthetic quality of much of the graphic design exhibited in the pages of these old magazines. Particularly in magazine covers, advertisements, or illustrations from the mid-20th century, I admired the simplicity and elegance in these images, whether they were paintings or photographs.

This graceful visual aesthetic, so foreign to the cluttered and gaudy visual culture of our Internet age, is something I see not only in graphic design but also in much of the architecture, furniture, movies, and fashions of roughly the middle third of the last century. This is, of course, what is commonly known today as "midcentury modernism", but what occurred to me as I viewed the wonderful and tasteful images in old magazines such as a 1930s Fortune or a 1950s Collier's is that this midcentury aesthetic is a kind of American Classicism.

When I call it "classicism", I'm deliberately comparing it to the aesthetic culture of ancient Greece and Rome. There have of course been revivals of "classical" aesthetics before, most notably in the Renaissance and later in the Classical Revival of the 18th century. The early American Republic, which consciously modeled itself after the ancient Roman Republic, constructed many of its important public buildings in a modified neoclassical style. But after World War I, and all the more so after World War II, when the United States came of age as a dominant world power, American culture and aesthetics seemed to come into its own as well.

Rather than imitating the style of the Greeks and Romans, it was as if the United States had suddenly discovered its own voice, its own unique style and aesthetic expression. In this way, American modernism was decidedly unclassical, a distinctively modern and forward-looking aesthetic that left the past far behind. However, I came to see that it was fitting to describe this new style as a new kind of classicism. The simplicity, grace, and elegance of this visual culture--interestingly balanced by an energy and movement that the ancient classicisms often lacked in their static grandeur--were simply a new expression of the classical spirit, a new way of formulating these enduring aesthetic ideals in a fast-paced, technology-dominated modern age.

Like the classicism of Greece and Rome, the postwar American aesthetic expressed the highest aspirations of its civilization, a modern civilization of electricity, speed, and the promise of space exploration. Though these qualities may seem uniquely modern, they are just variations of the perennial American values of renewal, freedom, expansiveness, optimism, energy, ambition, progress, and prosperity.

In another sense, of course, this style seems a thing of the past. We find ourselves now in the very future to which midcentury modernism looked forward with such anticipation, but the future is not what we once thought it would be. This is, of course, inevitable because midcentury futurism was a utopian vision, and utopias have a way of never quite becoming reality. What we once might have imagined as the marvelous space-age tomorrowland of 2010 has turned out to be just the same old real world.

But the real world needs ideals, and real life needs dreams. Whatever problems existed in the United States in the mid-20th century--and for those who have forgotten history, there were many--it possessed a wondrous vision of the future that made it seem like, no matter what darkness we were going through at present, a bright and better tomorrow lay ahead. It's true that too much optimism is naive and ultimately leads to bitter disappointment. But a complete lack of hope in the future deadens the soul, of an individual or a nation, and leads to demoralization, defeatism, and despair.

Just as Western civilization once looked to the glorious past of Greece and Rome and was inspired to renew itself, to reach for the future by looking to the past, perhaps the jaded, cynical United States of the 21st century can look back to its glory days in the middle of the 20th and seek once again to attain new heights.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Learning Curves

There used to be such a thing as a polymath, i.e. someone who had mastered all subjects (or at least a very large range of subjects) and could be said to "know it all". A walking encyclopedia, if you will. Granted, such people were the exception to the rule (for most of human history, people with anything beyond the most rudimentary education have been the exception rather than the norm). But during the Renaissance, such an achievement was considered attainable enough that it was held up as an ideal... the "Renaissance Man", someone who was talented and accomplished in many different fields of human endeavor, not just an expert in one area. One thinks of Leonardo da Vinci as perhaps the most famous instance of a Renaissance Man. There is also the more recent example of Goethe, who is described on the back of one Penguin Classics volume as "scientist, critic, autobiographer, letter-writer, sage, statesman, conversationalist"--and all this in addition to his biggest claim to fame as Germany's greatest poet.

Many people have noted that it has become more or less impossible to attain the status of polymath in today's world, given the explosion of information and the ever-increasing fragmentation and specialization of knowledge that this has created. Today's academics tend to focus narrowly on one subcategory of a subcategory of a subject area. Indeed, given the sheer quantity of what there is to learn in our 21st century world, it is enough of a challenge just to become an expert in one subject, let alone all (or even just many) subjects.

But there is another factor that further complicates the picture and adds to the difficulty of knowledge mastery, and that is the ever-accelerating rate of change in today's culture. In the past, once you mastered a subject, you didn't need to learn a whole lot more to remain a master in that field. Today, in many areas, there is no end to the learning required to stay on top of the latest developments in the field. This is especially true of technology, of course, but applies to varying degrees in other areas as well.

One problem this creates is that depth of learning becomes far less important than learning just enough to keep up and continue to function without falling piteously far behind the curve. After all, what good is it now if you became an expert in a 1995 version of a certain software package or programming language that has changed dramatically since then, but which you failed to keep up with? Many types of knowledge have an increasingly short shelf-life and become obsolete almost as quickly as they become "necessary" to maintaining one's professional expertise and skill set. Why should we invest the time and energy in learning the latest thing in depth when the knowledge will be useless a year from now? Why not learn just enough to get by? It's sort of like cramming for a test just to pass the test, without caring if we retain the knowledge for the future or truly learn something deeply. After all, how can we explore the ocean depths when we have to spend all of our time just treading water? Better yet, why should we care to learn something deeply when the knowledge will be worthless a year from now?

The end result of this ephemerality of knowledge is that expertise and depth in a given subject area is becoming less and less possible with each day that goes by. But perhaps more to the point, it is not so much impossible as it is increasingly irrelevant. Much knowledge in today's world is only "knowledge" for a brief time, then is discarded like yesterday's newspaper, as relevant and useful as last week's weather forecast, as sought-after as the last decade's fashions. Under these conditions, why invest more time and effort into learning something than you really have to?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Let Us Pause for Thought

In this article, David Levy discusses the Memex, a personal information device imagined (but never built) in 1945 by pioneering computer scientist Vannevar Bush. However, unlike most commentators on the Memex who celebrate its role as a forerunner of the personal computer, hypertext, and the World Wide Web, Levy looks at the legacy of Bush's idea in a different light: its effect on thinking and learning. Levy's assessment is ironic, for, whereas Bush's whole purpose in conceiving the Memex was to solve the problem of information overload, the information technologies that have been inspired by Bush's idea have ultimately served to make an already tremendous problem many times worse.

The problem, as Levy points out, is not merely that the volume of information available has exploded, but that the nature of networked, hyperlinked information, and our constant immersion in it, makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find the time and space in which to reflect upon and contemplate that information. This issue has been addressed by a number of writers, but Levy takes the admirable step of bringing in the German philosopher Josef Pieper to help enlighten the problem for us. Leisure--the time and space for stillness and reflection--is the ground from which knowledge and wisdom can grow. Our modern mental landscape, however, is cluttered with weeds. Who has the time, in a world of incessant "information", to stop and think?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Library of Congress All Atwitter

In what is surely one of the most bizarre historic preservation decisions ever made by a government agency (even by government agency standards), the Library of Congress is saving for posterity every tweet ever tweeted on Twitter.

Now why our national library would deem worthy of preservation in perpetuity every single 140-character-or-less burst of communication "tweeted" since the service began in 2006 is beyond me. Would they, if they could, save every letter ever written? Every telephone conversation? Every email? Every blog post and comment? Every Facebook status update?

Of course, many of the above-mentioned communications are meant to be private, while Twitter updates are public by definition. Then again, history has a way of making all surviving recorded communications, however private their origins, fall into the domain of scholarly and/or public knowledge.

But the more relevant question to ask here is: Why? Which is not to doubt that some Twitter communications may be worthy of remembering and would be of potential value to historians and other researchers--but every single one?

This goes against every principle of archival preservation, which is decidedly not about saving everything, but about selecting what is worthy of being preserved for future generations. The LOC seems to be taking the intellectually lazy approach to preservation. It is acting like a hoarder, obsessively saving every little scrap, however worthless or forgettable it might be.

Perhaps future historians, confronted with millions upon millions of tweets, will say, "I'm sorry, but that's a little too much information."

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Irrelevancy of the iPad

At right: The original iPad.

There has been much hype about Apple's latest toy, the iPad (which is being released today), just as there is about every new gadget that comes out. Since the 1990s, there has been an almost continuous stream of hype and giddy optimism about computer technology in general, and an ongoing myth about how the Internet, the iPod, smart phones, Facebook, blogs, etc. are "revolutionizing" our turn-of-the-millenium world. There can be little doubt that we are living in the midst of a technological and cultural revolution in the strictly objective sense (i.e., that things are changing a lot, and changing fast), but it is another question entirely as to whether this revolution is completely good or beneficial.

I can already hear the impassioned screams of "Luddite!" at merely questioning the complete goodness and beneficence of the current digital revolution, as though I were committing a grave sacrilege against the all-knowing god of the microchip. But technology is our invention and our servant, at least that is what it is supposed to be, and we certainly have the right to question our own creation and to evaluate it soberly (which doesn't mean blindly demonizing it any more than it means blindly exalting it).

As I've said before, computers have produced many benefits for society, and the iPad will surely prove to be a useful tool for many people, but it will not help to advance human knowledge and intelligence any more than the computer already has. And it is questionable how much the computer has done to advance human knowledge and intelligence (in many ways, it seems to work against it, but that is a topic for another post). The only real advantage for knowledge that networked digital technology provides--and it is a big one--is that it greatly aids in the dissemination of information, and makes it easier to find things. But it does nothing, and even harms, the ability to actually gain knowledge or to enhance intelligence. We have already reached the apex of mind-enhancing technology. In fact, we reached that point centuries ago. This great advance was called the codex (known more popularly as the "book"). Gutenberg's printing revolution greatly enchanced this technology and made it more widely accessible, but we haven't really improved on it substantially. Even before the invention of the codex in the early Christian era, however, human knowledge and intelligence thrived and advanced, and culture blossomed and flourished. Wisdom never needed technology, still doesn't, and never will.

In our oh-so-enlightened and sophisticated 21st century, we like to look back at the "naive" utopianism of the 1950s, with its faith in space exploration and household gadgets, and even to look back in scorn at disastrous 20th century attempts to "modernize" our cities and our food. But we ourselves have our own starry-eyed utopianism, and that is our optimistic faith in computers and all the associated digital technologies that promise to make our lives complete. Perhaps, in 2050 or so, our children's children will look back on us and see us as laughably naive, or perhaps even resent what we did to ruin our cultural landscape and obesify our intellectual lives with our blind digital faith.

In the meantime, whenever I enter the marketplace of the microchip, I will follow the example of my teacher Socrates and be amazed at how many things I don't need.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Internet and Intelligence

And here we have a rather interesting survey on the question of how the Internet will affect human intelligence over the next decade. An amazing 76 percent of the respondents (who were not a sampling of the public at large, but a select group of professionals and "experts") believed that the Internet will "enhance human intelligence" over the next 10 years. These people agreed that "as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices".

Wow. I hardly know where to begin. The shortest and simplest response I can give is that this notion strikes me as being incredibly naive. This must be based on the overwhelming evidence that people have already begun to get smarter and make better choices over the last 15 years or so. (Yes, that is irony you detect.)

Two different people quoted in the article clarified this idea by stating that, while individuals would not necessarily get smarter, "as a society, we’ll get smarter collectively".

Okay. I have to confess it's not exactly clear to me what it means to say that society will "get smarter collectively". I suspect that this does not merely refer to the increase in information, which has been happening since the beginning of time, nor that these folks literally believe in a hive mind. I'm assuming they mean that the average intelligence of human beings will increase during the 2010s.

All I can say is that the 3/4 of these "experts" who subscribe to this view seem to have a pretty narrow idea of what intelligence is, if they believe it is something that can be increased by having access to lots of information. Much more intelligent is what Nicholas Carr, author of "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", said on the matter:

What the Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence, away from what might be called a meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence. The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking.

More on that later.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Information Overload

In this article it is suggested that the idea of the Internet causing information overload is a myth, based on the fact that people have raised concerns about the deleterious mental effects of new technologies throughout history. It tells of Conrad Gessner, the 16th century Swiss scientist who compiled the Bibliotheca universalis, an index of every book that was available at the time, who worried that such an abundance of information was "confusing and harmful" to the mind. The article goes on to suggest that since someone felt this way about the world of printed books back in the 1500s, our own 21st century concerns about information overload are just as unfounded.

But wait. We are assuming that Gessner was wrong about the problem of information overload in his time. And we are concluding from this that we, too, must be mistaken about information overload caused by the Internet age. Well, what if Gessner was right to realize that the vast world of printed books was too much for any one human mind to handle? And what if the exponential expansion of Web sites and other media in our own time has only made an already monumental problem a thousand times worse?

In terms of human brain capacity, we are no more intelligent than our Cro-Magnon forebears (who were not grunting troglodytes but articulate human beings with finely crafted tools and weapons, religious beliefs and practices, and sophisticated art). Google may not be making us stupid, but it is not making us any smarter either.

The ironic result of our millenia of accumulating human knowledge is that the individual human being can know less and less of the knowledge that is available to the human race as a whole. This is a simple mathematical fact, given that the body of human knowledge keeps growing while the capacity and capability of the human brain remains constant.

So, while it might have been possible for a Cro-Magnon sage in a fire-lit Ice Age cavern to know basically all that a human being was capable of knowing at that point in time, the ability of any one person to master all of human knowledge has gradually shrunk to the point of impossibility (which it had reached at least by the invention of the printing press, if not sooner).

In short, the Information Age has only accelerated the further diminishment of the individual human being's knowledge as a proportion of all available human knowledge. Perhaps Google really is making us stupid.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Meaning of Fame

When I finished my most recent reading of Beowulf, I was struck by the closing passage, words of praise for the fallen hero (as translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland):

Thus the Geats, his hearth-companions,
grieved over the death of their lord;
they said that of all kings on earth
he was the kindest, the most gentle,
the most just to his people, the most eager for fame.

One thing I found striking about this passage was the choice of phrases like "kindest" and "most gentle" to describe the mighty warrior-king. The entire story focuses on Beowulf's great deeds in slaying the evil monster Grendel, then Grendel's equally evil and monstrous mother, and finally a fire-breathing dragon (which, it should go without saying, is evil and monstrous). And yet, among just four terms of praise lavished upon Beowulf at the very end of the poem, two of them have to do with how kind and gentle he was to his people. The poet evidently felt that these were two significant qualities that made Beowulf the noble hero that he was, one worthy of being remembered in a great epic.

The phrase "most just" is not so surprising. But what struck me the most about this passage was the very last phrase
(at least in this translation) of the entire long poem: the most eager for fame. To our modern ears this sounds like dubious praise. We are accustomed not to think of heroes as being "eager for fame". If anything, we like to think that heroes are humble and self-effacing, which adds to their heroism. So what does the poet mean when he praises the great hero Beowulf for his eagerness to be famous? He evidently sees this as a quality that we should admire Beowulf for, as much as for his kindness, gentleness, justice, and his mighty heroic deeds.

In our modern media-saturated, celebrity-obsessed culture, we tend to think of fame as something superficial... and understandably so. We have celebrities like Paris Hilton who, as the saying goes, are "famous for being famous". Andy Warhol (famously) said that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. In reality TV shows we see a never-ending supply of people who want to be famous, not for any great accomplishment, but just for its own sake. In short, fame in our contemporary world has become completely divorced from what used to give fame its validity: greatness.

In the ancient world, and perhaps even in the modern world up until fairly recent times, fame was a much more meaningful quality. Not just anyone could become famous. Poets sang of great kings, warriors, and other heroic figures who accomplished great and mighty deeds, who provided their society with an example of nobility or virtue that the common man could look up to and be inspired by. Beowulf's eagerness for fame was nothing at all like the modern desire for instant celebrity based on nothing but self-interest and vanity. It was instead a passion to do great things, things that mattered and that were
worthy of being remembered, to be a person who contributed something valuable to his society. He had proven his fame-worthiness by putting his life on the line not once but three times against monsters that no other man was willing or able to face, and even more so by emerging victorious on all three occasions (though he also lost his life in his third and final battle, against the dragon). These were the kind of superhuman deeds that awed other men and made them wonder, "Who is this man Beowulf?" These were accomplishments that inspired the poet to memorialize him in a majestic poem, so that Beowulf's example could continue to inspire people throughout the generations and teach them the meaning of courage, self-sacrifice, nobility, and true greatness.

Aristotle talked about his ideal of the "great man". Among other virtues, he was characterized by the virtue of
magnanimity, meaning greatness of mind (or soul). One may also say that magnanimity entails a desire to accomplish great things. In itself, this desire is good, because great accomplishments ideally benefit society. The magnanimous man may even suffer or sacrifice for the sake of accomplishing his task. It is not about self-glorification and gratifying one's vanity and lust for attention (though these may be constant temptations). Being the "most eager for fame" simply meant that Beowulf had the strongest desire to (in the words of John Keating in Dead Poets Society) "make his life extraordinary". Fame was just the natural outcome, and the proof, of having done so.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Whence Tomorrowland?

On New Year's Day I told how I had come to realize the scope of the changes that had occurred during my lifetime, even if they were not the changes I and many others had imagined. It occurs to me that there is a significant difference in kind between the mid-20th century's vision of the future and the actual technological changes that have taken place. My wife Kara pointed out that our "progress" has essentially consisted of an accumulation of gadgets (like the ones I listed in the aforementioned post). But, as I also noted in that post, the look of things is basically the same. For the midcentury vision of tomorrow was to a large degree an aesthetic vision. Our streamlined, googie buildings, together with similarly futuristically styled clothes, vehicles, and yes, even household gadgets, would all communicate that we had arrived in the space age.

In the 50's, it probably seemed that modernist design (together with the fledgling space program) was well on the way to realizing this vision, and indeed the 50's futurist aesthetic is essentially a colorful and imaginative extension of midcentury modernism. It might have seemed logical to suppose that the modernist movement would evolve into something very much resembling the Googie or Tomorrowland aesthetic as the Space Age took us to other worlds while remodeling our earthly home in an exciting, fresh, and forward-looking style. Aesthetics, especially the aesthetics of our environment, has a profound effect on our psychology. Our built environment expresses and makes concrete our ideas and ideals and at the same time greatly influences our thinking and feeling. It's true that the Tomorrowland look is not the only one that might have provided a positive aesthetic for the 21st century, but no one came up with anything better in its place. Instead, it was given up for the anti-style and anti-vision of post-modernism.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My First Library

The first library I remember is the Lakeland Public Library in Lakeland, Florida. This is what it looked like in the early 70s, a rather interesting and cool 1960s modernist building that was only a few years old at the time:

This is the equally modernist interior:

Unfortunately, the Lakeland Public Library no longer looks like this. It was renovated in the 80s in the style that shall be known as Post-Modernist Bland (if you're curious, you can view pictures at the Lakeland Public Library website, where I found these photos).

I revisited the library in 2007 and thought it looked different from how I had remembered (other than simply looking smaller, which was to be expected), but I wasn't sure exactly how it had looked in the 70s, my childhood memories being vague. So I was quite happy when I discovered these photos, not only to find that a photographic record of the old library exists, but also because I was glad to know that it looked so cool back then. Of course, it is also sad that they had to do away with something stylish in favor of something not so much, but you can't really blame the city of Lakeland entirely. They were just following the 80s trend (which has continued up to the present) of making buildings boring.

Friday, January 22, 2010

2010 vs. 2001

Last night I watched the movie 2010, in honor of the fact that the futuristic setting of the film has become contemporary. Throughout my life I have made it a habit to read or view science fiction works at the actual times they are supposed to take place, whenever this has been possible. For instance, I read a Reader's Digest condensed version of 1984 on the two days in April 1984 when the action was supposed to have occurred. On New Year's Day 2001, I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, and during the year I read the novel. I had seen 2010 in the theater when it came out back in 1984, but, despite my regular habit since the mid-90's of watching old science fiction movies, I had never seen it since. In general, science fiction movies since Star Wars haven't excited me as much as older ones (with a few notable exceptions like Blade Runner), and 2010 became in my mind one of those mediocre 80's sci-fi movies that I just didn't care enough to revisit. However, since it is now the namesake year of that film, I decided to watch it again just out of curiosity, to compare its vision of the year 2010 with the reality.

Many people who have seen 2010 have pointed out that it has become much more dated than the older (1968) film to which it is a sequel, 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is true. The computers, for instance, look pretty much like PCs from... well, 1984. However, there is one brief shot of the main character, Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider), sitting on a beach using a laptop, which is interesting. The two home interiors that are glimpsed look like very mild versions of 1980's futurism (think Omni magazine or EPCOT, toned down). The movie is also dated politically, since it assumes the continued existence of the Soviet Union (with whom we are on the brink of a nuclear war... how 80's can you get?).

In other ways, though, the movie's predictions are way too advanced (artificial intelligence on the level of HAL 9000, manned spaceflight to Jupiter), but these are elements it borrowed from 2001, which, after all, posited the existence of such things nine years ago.

So why does 2010 date so much more than the older 2001? This is an interesting question, and I think it has an interesting answer. 2010 dates more, I think, because it is more realistic. That is, its vision of the future was based on the reality of 1984, with some reasonable guesses as to how things might change over the course of the next 26 years. The fact that these educated guesses about the world of 2010 were so cautiously "realistic" is precisely what has made the movie seem like a product of its time rather than a timeless masterpiece like its predecessor. 2001, while one could argue that its vision of the world 33 years hence was also reasonable given the rapid advances in space exploration in the 1960's, was not so constrained in its imagination. Stanley Kubrick's classic film dreamed big... it was a movie of vision. It was notably realistic in its details of space travel (no sound in the vacuum of space, for instance), but it was not "realist" in its imaginative scope. By "realism" in this sense I mean the sort of pragmatic, sober-minded outlook that rejects the grand visions of romanticism. 2001 is romantic in its bold imagination, its epic grandeur, and its mystical, transcendent yearning. 2010 possesses none of these qualities, but is instead a much more pedestrian affair. Where 2001 is magical and mysterious, 2010 attempts to demystify it, to explain the unexplainable and to convert the poetic myth of 2001 into bland literalism.

The very aesthetics of the two pictures attest to these vast differences in vision. The world of 2010 is actually much more realistic than the futuristic fantasy of 2001, but that is precisely the problem. 2010 presents us with a mundane vision, barely different from the reality we know. 2001 showed us something magnificent, inspiring, and wondrous. The interior of the Russian spaceship in 2010 looks like every other depressing, workmanlike spacecraft interior in 1980's science fiction films (something like the inside of a submarine), a far cry from the pristine white minimalism of the interior of Discovery in the earlier film. The interiors of the space shuttle and space station share this stylish futuristic aesthetic, which has the effect of making the imagined world of 2001 seem like a wonderful place. It is of course an idealized vision, but this is exactly what makes it inspiring. We are not inspired by imperfect realities, but by ideals.

All of this is not to say that 2010 is a bad movie. It's actually a decent, if not particularly memorable, science fiction film. The problem is that it suffers in comparison to its predecessor. Granted, 2001 is one of the high achievements of 20th century art and it would be unfair to expect any sequel, even if it had been done by Kubrick himself, to match up to it. But if you're going to touch a classic, the stakes are high. Disappointment is inevitable unless you really, really know what you're doing, which doesn't mean having a big budget or the most sophisticated special effects, but in having vision. And in any artform, that is one of the hardest resources to come by.

One last difference to point out: in 2010, there is just too much talking.