Archive for September, 2009
Before catching a flight to Switzerland yesterday, I stayed at a hostel in Derry just around the corner from the Bloody Sunday incident of 1972. Here are a few pictures of the murals in that part of town:
Yesterday, I read this amusing (and true) piece of advice C. S. Lewis gave to a pen pal:
The essay on Easter is a promising bit of work; the sentences are clear and taut and don’t sprawl. You’ll be able to write prose alright.
As for what you are saying, I think you are exaggerating a bit at the end. Everything I need is in my soul? The Heck it is! Or if so, it must contain a great many virtues and a great deal of wisdom which neither I nor anyone else could ever find there.
Very little of what I need is at present in my soul. I mean, even things of the soul’s own sort, like humility or truthfulness. And it certainly does not in any obvious sense contain a number of other things which I need at the moment: e.g. a stamp for this letter.
Never exaggerate. Never say more than you really mean.
I watched a course on the Old Testament by Prof. Christine Hayes the other day and thought her take on the Book of Job was worthwhile sharing:
Job’s friends erred because they assumed that there’s a system of retributive justice at work in the world and that assumption led them to infer that all who suffer are sinful, and that’s a blatant falsehood. But Job also errs; if he assumes that although there isn’t a system of retributive justice, there really ought to be one. It’s that assumption that leads him to infer that suffering is a sign of an indifferent or wicked God, and that is equally a falsehood. Job needs to move beyond the anthropocentrism that characterizes the rest of Scripture and the Genesis 1 account of creation, according to which humankind is the goal of the entire process of creation.
God’s creation, the Book of Job seems to suggest, defies such teleological and rational categories. In a nutshell, God refuses to be seen as a moral accountant. The idea of God as a moral accountant is responsible for two major errors: the interpretation of suffering as an indicator of sin, or the ascription of injustice to God. In his final speech, Job confesses to a new firsthand knowledge of God that he lacked before, and as a result of this knowledge Job repents, “Therefore, I recant and relent, / Being but dust and ashes,” 42:6.
Here we see the other meaning of Job’s name, “one who repents,” suddenly leap to the fore. What is he repenting of? Certainly not of sin; God has not upheld the accusations against Job. Indeed he states explicitly in a moment that the friends were wrong to say he had sinned.
But he has indicated that guilt and innocence, reward and punishment are not what the game is all about, and while Job had long been disabused of the notion that the wicked and the righteous actually get what they deserve, he nevertheless had clung to the idea that ideally they should. And it’s that mistaken idea–the idea that led him to ascribe wickedness to God–that Job now recants. With this new understanding of God, Job is liberated from what he would now see as a false expectation raised by the Deuteronomistic notion of a covenant relationship between God and humankind, enforced by a system of divine justice.
At the end of the story Job is fully restored to his fortunes. God asserts he did no evil and the conventional, impeccably Deuteronomistic view of the three friends is clearly denounced by God. He says of them, “They have not spoken of Me what is right as my servant Job has,” 42:7. For some, the happy ending seems anticlimactic, a capitulation to the demand for a happy ending of just desserts that runs counter to the whole thrust of the book, and yet in a way I think the ending is superbly fitting. It’s the last in a series of reversals that subverts our expectations. Suffering comes inexplicably, so does restoration; blessed be the name of the Lord.
God doesn’t attempt to justify or explain Job’s suffering and yet somehow by the end of the book, our grumbling, embittered, raging Job is satisfied. Perhaps he’s realized that an automatic principle of reward and punishment would make it impossible for humans to do the good for purely disinterested motives. It’s precisely when righteousness is seen to be absurd and meaningless that the choice to be righteous paradoxically becomes meaningful. God and Job, however we are to interpret their speeches, are reconciled.
The suffering and injustice that characterize the world have baffled humankind for millennia. And the Book of Job provides no answer in the sense of an explanation or a justification of suffering and injustice, but what it does offer is a stern warning to avoid the Scylla of blaspheming against the victims by assuming their wickedness, and the Charybdis of blaspheming against God by assuming his. Nor is moral nihilism an option, as our hero, yearning for, but ultimately renouncing divine order and justice, clings to his integrity and chooses virtue for nothing.
For my own humble take on the Book of Job, see Job’s Wager: An Alternative to Pascal’s Wager and the Atheist’s Wager.
Why we left our social network in Germany and moved to Ireland
My wife Connie is an American from Colorado. As a child, she was deeply interested in the world around her. She loved animals, wanted to know more about science, felt great empathy for the plights of other people, and became a ferocious reader. But her family was dysfunctional, and she spent much of her childhood in day care or at school. There, her lively mind and sensitivity for others seldom helped her. She never belonged to the “popular” girls and grew steadily more dissatisfied, both socially and intellectually.
At thirteen, she met several homeschoolers who came from functional families and made a very positive impression on her. Not only did Connie envy them; she also decided that she would like to try homeschooling with her own children one day.
Accordingly, when Connie and I got married, homeschooling was one of our main topics of discussion. Then we had our first child, Sophie, and her personality was remarkably similar to Connie’s. I became convinced that, at least in Sophie’s case, homeschooling was probably the best option.
The only problem: We lived in my native Germany where homeschooling is a crime. That was unfortunate, since Sophie and our two other children enjoyed being close to their Oma and Opa, not to mention the many good connections we had in Germany. Life went well, except for the cloud of mandatory schooling looming on the horizon.
Connie was especially shocked that whenever she mentioned homeschooling as a viable alternative to school, most Germans said something to the effect of: “Really? That’s allowed in other countries? Well, they are lagging behind a bit, aren’t they? I’m sure soon they’ll catch up and have mandatory schooling, too.” There was so much prejudice against homeschooling that it was hard to even engage in a reasonable conversation about it. To many Germans, it seemed hardly comprehensible that you could have mandatory education without having mandatory schooling.
This prejudice among Germans included the authorities, school officials, and teachers. I myself was an art teacher in a private school, so I have nothing against schools or teachers in general, but it was hard to find teachers who were willing to question the system.
Anticipating the severe troubles that would likely follow if we committed a crime in the eyes of the law by attempting to homeschool in Germany, we decided to leave our social network there and start a new life in Ireland. Unfortunately, this did not spare us from Sophie having to attend special German classes just before we moved. But that’s a long story …
And speaking of stories, I just published a book that relates to our situation. It’s called The Gobblestone School: A Tale Inspired by the German Criminalization of Homeschooling – a children’s story somewhat in the vein of Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory etc.). Just in case that’s your type of thing.
In the past weeks, I’ve been watching several Yale lectures, among them a course in ancient Greek history by Professor Donald Kagan. One of the things that caught my attention was his epistemological approach to history:
[T]here is this critical school that says, “I won’t believe anything unless it is proven to me.” At the other extreme, there’s me, the most gullible historian imaginable. My principle is this. I believe anything written in ancient Latin or Greek unless I can’t.
Now, things that prevent me from believing what I read are that they are internally contradictory, or what they say is impossible, or different ones contradict each other and they can’t both be right. So, in those cases I abandon the ancient evidence. Otherwise, you’ve got to convince me that they’re not true.
Now, you might think of this as, indeed, gullible. A former colleague of mine put the thing very, very well. He spoke about, and I like to claim this approach, the position of scholarship to which we call the higher naiveté.
The way this works is, you start out, you don’t know anything, and you’re naïve. You believe everything. Next, you get a college education and you don’t believe anything, and then you reach the level of wisdom, the higher naiveté, and you know what to believe even though you can’t prove it. Okay, be warned; I’m a practitioner of the higher naiveté.
So, I think the way to deal with legends is to regard them as different from essentially sophisticated historical statements, but as possibly deriving from facts, which have obviously been distorted and misunderstood, misused and so on. But it would be reckless, it seems to me, to just put them aside and not ask yourself the question, “Can there be something believable at the root of this?”
Over the weekend, I watched a CNN report on the Tea Party demonstration in Washington. Behind the reporter stood someone who carried a sign that read “Who is John Galt?” – a reference to Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. Rand, who was born in Russia but chose to become an American, wrote her book in the 1950s largely in response to Marxism. And she does an incredible job showing why Marxism ultimately does not work.
However, I’m less convinced by what she puts in Marxim’s place, namely laissez-faire capitalism, meaning capitalism (almost?) completely free of government intervention. Here are two questions I have for proponents of laissez-faire capitalism:
1. How will unrestrained capitalism be able to protect our environment (and thus, in the long run, us)? Without restraint, capitalism will self-destruct and take the planet with it.
2. How will unrestrained capitalism prevent the cancer of virtual money from spreading? By “virtual money” I mean the fact that money is nowadays primarily a virtual entity that does not necessarily stand in proper relation to the material world. Money can beget money to the point where it utterly exceeds the actual value of work and property. Theoretically, someone could multiply his virtual money to such a degree that they owned more than the real value of all human property in the entire world. Needless to say, this destroys the balance and stability in the world. How will laissez-faire capitalism reign this in?
Somone carrying a sign with a reference to Atlas Shrugged seems to suggest that laissez-faire capitalism is the answer to the problems we are currently facing. To me, this is naive. I can forgive Ayn Rand for ignoring the destruction of the environment and the existence of virtual money in the 1950s. But now? Now that it has become glaringly obvious how very serious these issues are?
Let John Galt stay in the world of literature. In the real world, there are other solutions required.
Is Fantasy just wish-fullfilment? C.S. Lewis had this to say about the question:
A liberal use of the marvellous, the mythical, and the fantastical in a story is, as far as it goes, an argument against the charge of wish-fulfilment.
The Freudian fantasy exists to give us the nearest substitute it can for real gratification; naturally it makes itself as lifelike as possible. It had to be unreal as regards the main issue—for we are not really famous men, millionaires or Don Juans—and to make up for this it will be scrupulously “real” everywhere else.
Does not all experience confirm this? A man who is really hungry does not dream of honey-dew and elfin bread, but of steak and kidney puddings: a man really lustful does not dream of Titania or Helen, but of real, prosaic, flesh and blood. Other things being equal, a story in which the hero meets Titania and is entertained with fairies’ food is much less likely to be a fantasy than “a nice love-story” of which the scene is London, the dialogue idiomatic, and the episodes probable.
On these grounds I wish to emend the Freudian theory of literature into something like this. There are two activities of the imagination, one free, and the other enslaved to the wishes of its owner for whom it has to provide imaginary gratifications. Both may be the starting-point for works of art. The former or “free” activity continues in the works it produces and passes from the status of dream to that of art by a process which may legitimately be called “elaboration”: incoherencies are tidied up, banalities removed, private values and associations replaced, proportion, relief, and temperance are introduced.
But the other, or servile kind is not “elaborated” into a work of art: it is a motive power which starts the activity and is withdrawn when once the engine is running, or a scaffolding which is knocked away when the building is complete. Finally, the characteristic products of free imagination belong to what may be roughly called the fantastic, or mythical, or improbable type of literature: those of fantasy, of the wish-fulfilling imagination, to what may, in a very lose sense be called the realistic type. I say “characteristic products” because the principle doubtless admits of innumerable exceptions.
Chapter 1 – The Horrible Gobblestone
“Did you say something, Simon? I couldn’t hear you. Speak up!” Mrs. Gobblestone roared from the front of the class. “Mouse, Simon. The text says mouse, not moose! … There was a period at the end of that sentence, Simon. You read it as if the sentence had just continued on. … Stop stuttering, for goodness’ sake! … There you go again—stuttering! Stop it! I can’t stand it! You’re an embarrassment to this class, Simon! I’m very glad I’m not your parent.”
Although Simon agreed with Mrs. Gobble-stone’s last statement, the rest of her tirade did rather upset him. The frightening effect was undoubtedly aided by Mrs. Gobblestone’s voice, which sounded as if she smoked about a thousand cigarettes a day. If you never saw her face but only heard her voice, you would never guess she was a woman. Never seeing her face would of course be very fortunate, for her fiery-red curls, knobby nose, tomb-green eyes, and lipstick-smeared mouth are said to have reappeared in her students’ nightmares for years.
As a result of the dragon voice constantly interrupting Simon whenever he read out loud in school, he began to sweat and shake as soon as Mrs. Gobblestone called his name for reading. “Simon!” Her grating voice pronouncing his name felt like Caesar calling prisoners into the Coliseum, where lions would pounce on the prisoners and tear them to pieces.
Well, actually Simon had no idea what it felt like to be torn to pieces by lions; very few people do. But he could not imagine that being torn to pieces would feel any worse than reading to Mrs. Gobblestone. And who would not mumble and stutter and read monotonously and try to get the task over with as quickly as possible, when standing in front of snarling lions? Simon certainly did, because he was a reasonable and intelligent boy. Only someone too dull to notice the hostilities would have been able to read well in Mrs. Gobblestone’s presence.
Thus Mrs. Gobblestone went home each day and complained to her husband, “I wonder where our dear Germany will end up, Oswald. The young people of today can’t even read, and as much as I encourage them to improve, they never do. And their writing is completely unintelligible.” And she would shake her fiery-red locks and scratch her too-large nose. “I tell them as much, too—tell them that they need to print explanations next to their scrawls, if they expect me to decipher what they’ve written. But their writing only becomes worse as time goes by. The youth of today! Spoiled and brainless, I’m telling you!”
Her husband Oswald, who was a short bald man with thick glasses, would squint up at her and nod, “Yes, darling, yes. The youth of today. It is horrible.” He would never say more, because he feared his wife as much as her students did.
As did the teachers. They all moved around her like animals fearful of a voracious beast. She was, after all, the principal of the Engels Elementary School in the big harbor city of Hamburg, Germany, and it was unofficially called the “Gobblestone School.”
For Simon, this Monday morning had started out no worse than all other Monday mornings. As usual, he was sitting on an uncomfortable chair, trying to read out loud from a textbook placed on the much-too-high desk in front of him, while he was being shredded to pieces by the snarls from the front. Nothing unusual. This was what school was about. It prepared him to become a functional citizen later on who had managed the Art of the Pecking Order, which is the most important art form in our time.
But, oh, how different the Gobblestone School was from taking a book to bed at home and discovering what lay hidden between its covers! The reading was best at nighttime, when the weather outside was dark and rainy—occasionally interrupted, if Simon was really lucky, by lightning and thunder—and when all the lights were turned off, except for a little reading lamp.
Simon liked to read. Very much so. He had missed many a meal and many a night of sleep because his mother had not been able to pry him away from some gigantic tome. But he did not like to read at school, on this uncomfortable chair, underneath these horribly bright lights, and at this desk, which was so high that it had apparently been donated by a giant. He didn’t like the kind of texts they were reading, either.
“And when the mouse went into the house,” he was reading right now. How boring! No, more than boring: ridiculous! Didn’t they know that Simon had already read dozens, hundreds, gazillions of novels?
It was hard to believe, but this morning things actually got worse than the usual Monday mornings.
Mrs. Gobblestone was just interrupting Simon’s reading again with her thunderous voice when he felt something like a heat wave hit him from her direction. He looked up and thought he glimpsed the last flickers of a fire escaping her mouth.
“What do you think you’re staring at, boy?” Mrs. Gobblestone bellowed. “My face is not a computer screen! Put your nose back in your book, Simon! In your book!”
“Y-yes, Madam,” Simon stuttered and continued to read, thinking that a computer screen would have been a welcome change from her face.
A few seconds later, his eye again caught a bright flickering close to Mrs. Gobblestone’s head. This caused him to halt his reading, a move which brought on another tirade from the direction of the teacher’s desk.
“Simon! What the devil are you looking at?” Mrs. Gobblestone’s throaty voice roared through the classroom and reverberated against the walls.
This time, Simon knew there was no mistake. Fire had actually come out of Mrs. Gobblestone’s mouth. She had breathed fire. But that wasn’t all. Her teeth seemed different, too, with longer and sharper points than before. He could not help staring open-mouthed at the altered Mrs. Gobblestone, who now raised both of her arms in the air and threw another insult in Simon’s direction. And as she did so, her fingers suddenly sprouted long, curvy claws, and the hairs on her arms bristled visibly like those of a frightened cat.
What was going on? Simon blinked a few times to make sure this was really happening. His eyes were not deceiving him. Mrs. Gobblestone was clearly undergoing some sort of transformation, and unfortunately not a favorable one. This was really unnecessary, her being so horrible already. Simon began to whimper and draw back, unsuccessfully trying to find shelter in his uncomfortable chair.
There! Mrs. Gobblestone’s skin had changed color and was now a bright red. And her nose! Where was her nose? The nostrils were still there—very big, and heaving up and down like those of a running horse—but the rest of her nose had entirely disappeared. And her eyes! Oh no! Her awful eyes had grown in size beyond any reasonable proportion. And what was that? Something moved behind Mrs. Gobblestone’s large bottom, something that looked like a tail. Yes, Mrs. Gobblestone had a tail—a pointy tail with a spiky end, swinging back and forth like a weapon.
Simon’s chair screeched as he pushed back across the floor, and then he tipped over. For a moment, his arms flung about in the air. Then the chair fell over on him with a loud bang, and Simon bashed the side of his head against the hard floor. His glasses shattered and the classroom grew hazy, like paint in too much water.
Now Available! *The Gobblestone School: A Tale Inspired by the German Criminalization of Homeschooling*
Imagine a school turning into a dark fortress. Imagine all its teachers and students becoming a swarm of monkeys, witches, dinosaurs, and robots. Imagine the principal herself changing into a red, fire-spitting dragon.
Simon and Emily do not have to imagine such things, because in their school all of this really happens. The two children try to get behind the reason for the transformation and embark on a dangerous journey. Will they be able to break the wicked spell over their school? And will they manage to get their parents out of prison?
A satirical tale that brims with imagination and celebrates free education.