Saturday, November 09, 2013

Bram Stoker, Dracula


Opening Passage:

3 May. Bistritz.—Left Munich at 8:35 P. M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late. Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. I feared to go very far from the station, as we had arrived late and would start as near the correct time as possible. The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East; the most western of splendid bridges over the Danube, which is here of noble width and depth, took us among the traditions of Turkish rule.

We left in pretty good time, and came after nightfall to Klausenburgh. Here I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem., get recipe for Mina.) I asked the waiter, and he said it was called “paprika hendl,” and that, as it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians. I found my smattering of German very useful here; indeed, I don’t know how I should be able to get on without it.

Having had some time at my disposal when in London, I had visited the British Museum, and made search among the books and maps in the library regarding Transylvania; it had struck me that some foreknowledge of the country could hardly fail to have some importance in dealing with a nobleman of that country. I find that the district he named is in the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe. I was not able to light on any map or work giving the exact locality of the Castle Dracula, as there are no maps of this country as yet to compare with our own Ordnance Survey maps; but I found that Bistritz, the post town named by Count Dracula, is a fairly well-known place. I shall enter here some of my notes, as they may refresh my memory when I talk over my travels with Mina.

Summary: Dracula stands out in the genre of horror in part because, despite its Gothic roots, it is not really a horror story but a crime story. It's a bit difficult for us to read it that way, because we all know the mystery. But if you don't see this aspect of the story, you miss out on a great deal. And it is quite clearly the way the book sets itself up to be read: Van Helsing explicitly talks about Dracula in criminological terms, for instance, and the book is very carefully structured to peel back different layers of the mystery at different times, until we get to the final pursuit of the terrible criminal at the very end.

The underlying detective story, however, also bears a larger significance as a sort of picture of Western civilization beating back the darkness. The 'detectives' themselves could hardly be more deliberately chosen to show this. We have England (Seward, the Harkers, Holmwood), continental Europe (Van Helsing), and America (Morris) represented. Every single person is an active contributor to the building of civilization before Dracula even enters the scene. We have the men of science, Seward and Van Helsing, at the forefront of medical research. We have the resourceful men of the physical frontiers, Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris. And we have the professionals, the business-like Harkers. And together they pull in a representative selection of the advances of the day. We have telegraphs and steamboats, trains and Winchester rifles, stenographic shorthand and newspaper research, experimental psychiatry and blood transfusions. The blood transfusions are interesting; they read a bit oddly today -- no notion of blood type -- but while there had been blood transfusions by this point, it was only just short of science fiction. And of course, years before phonographs were a common item, we find Dr. Seward recording his diary on a phonograph. The fact that they are doing this is, again, explicitly noted by Van Helsing; it is one of their primary advantages in trying to stop Dracula that they are familiar with these things and he, clever as he is, must learn. It is not enough; but it is quite clearly recognized as one of the advantages on their side. Even when we get into the superstition and lore, they are able to learn what they need because of the state of the art of the day.

None of these things, however, are the heart of civilization; the heart of civilization is love for each other. This, too, is quite clearly indicated by Van Helsing, although it can easily be seen in the structure of the novel. It is love that makes it possible to defeat Dracula: the love, both marital and amicable, of men for women and women for men; the love of friend for friend; even the love between colleagues who respect each other. All of these play their part, and without any of them, the defeat of Dracula would not have been possible. It takes all of our heroes to bring down Dracula. Only by being united do they stand a chance -- and the unity it takes is both an openness to each other and a willingness to die for each other. Every progress they make is impossible without joining their forces; the single greatest they make is at one point not being completely open with each other; and their victory only becomes possible when, at great risk, they trust Mina with everything they know despite the fact that she could involuntarily give it all away to Dracula.

There are a number of other interesting features of the work. Mina Harker is quite an active heroine. She is the one who brings all the pieces together, over and over again. We also get here an English novel with an extraordinarily positive view of Americans. The chivalrous, fearless, resourceful, amiable, larger-than-life Texan, Quincey Morris, is a striking character. He is not as central as any of the others, but to some extent this makes him more remarkable: he is there wholly as a friend of Arthur Holmwood, and later everybody else, but he never flinches from the task. Stoker had visited America and toured it fairly extensively; he had met Teddy Roosevelt, probably twice, and he was something of an americaphile. The focus stays on the Europeans, but Stoker lets Quincey Morris share the honors of the killing blow with Jonathan Harker.

It's also nice to clear away a lot of the bad movie accretions and see the original ideas in their pristine form. It's flowers of garlic that provide wholesome protection. The single best weapon against a vampire is a good knife -- a Kukri knife or a Bowie knife. And, of course, the single best defense is the Host. Stoker was a Protestant (Church of Ireland), and except for Van Helsing none of the heroes are Catholic, but it's a very Catholic book. Van Helsing does some things with the Host that a Catholic author probably would not have written him as doing, but the book recognizes the potential problem:

“What is that which you are using?” This time the question was by Arthur. Van Helsing reverently lifted his hat as he answered:—

“The Host. I brought it from Amsterdam. I have an Indulgence.” It was an answer that appalled the most sceptical of us, and we felt individually that in the presence of such earnest purpose as the Professor’s, a purpose which could thus use the to him most sacred of things, it was impossible to distrust.

And whatever the physical issues, or the issues of canon law involved with the odd idea of an indulgence for crumbling a Host to seal up a tomb, symbolically it all works. It is the Body of Christ that protects from evil. The whole of the vampire lore of the book, of course, is eucharistic: the vampire is the devil's parody of the Eucharist, and the true Eucharist is the most powerful safeguard against it.

I also listened to the Mercury Theatre on the Air version of the story.

Mercury Theater on the Air: Dracula from The Radio Ghost on Vimeo.

As with most of their episodes, it is quite faithful, but fitting the whole book into an hour is impossible, so they make some interesting changes that do affect the narrative. The first and most obvious is that Dr. Seward is the narrator. While we do get a lot of the book in Dr. Seward's voice, the narrators in the sense of the characters primarily mediating the story to the reader, are the Harkers. Jonathan Harker has the first and last word, and we only get Dr. Seward's diary -- which is actually recorded in a phonograph, you remember -- because Mina Harker is transcribing it for us. It is Mina Harker who is also organizing all the epistolary materials that compose the book. The switch to Dr. Seward is quite a significant change. It does make sense for radio -- after all, again, it is Dr. Seward who is recording an audio version of the events in the first place.

There are also some cuts to keep the story in bounds. We lose both Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris, more's the pity, and Dr. Seward in the radio version succeeds, rather than fails, to win Lucy Westenra's hand in marriage.

The single most significant change is that it is Mina Harker, not Jonathan Harker (and, of course, not Quincey Morris), who strikes the triumphant blow. I find this an interesting modification and wonder what the reasoning was. Given other changes it makes some sense. Dr. Seward, not Mina, is giving us the story; and the story has to move much more quickly, and so can't have Mina's painstaking work in putting everything together. There's a resulting danger that Mina will end up being too passive. Giving her the honors gives her an active role. It's interesting as well to consider the implications of the change. In the book, Dracula can only be overcome by everybody; it's a very Catholic ending, complete with the Body of Christ and a martyr. The radio ending seems to me to be a more Protestant ending -- everyone helps, but Mina herself must overcome him through some hidden impulse of grace. And that fits with the fact that a lot of the Catholic symbolism of the book simply doesn't and probably couldn't make it into the radio episode.

Favorite Passage:

Mr. Morris, who had sunk to the ground, leaned on his elbow, holding his hand pressed to his side; the blood still gushed through his fingers. I flew to him, for the Holy circle did not now keep me back; so did the two doctors. Jonathan knelt behind him and the wounded man laid back his head on his shoulder. With a sigh he took, with a feeble effort, my hand in that of his own which was unstained. He must have seen the anguish of my heart in my face, for he smiled at me and said:—

“I am only too happy to have been of any service! Oh, God!” he cried suddenly, struggling up to a sitting posture and pointing to me, “It was worth for this to die! Look! look!”

The sun was now right down upon the mountain top, and the red gleams fell upon my face, so that it was bathed in rosy light. With one impulse the men sank on their knees and a deep and earnest “Amen” broke from all as their eyes followed the pointing of his finger. The dying man spoke:—

“Now God be thanked that all has not been in vain! See! the snow is not more stainless than her forehead! The curse has passed away!”

And, to our bitter grief, with a smile and in silence, he died, a gallant gentleman.

Recommendation: Highly recommended. The major difficulty with the book is that it takes some work not to bring in distorting presuppositions; but if you can approach it with an open mind, there are layers and layers.

Friday, November 08, 2013

The Country Music Crisis

I have two music-wake alarms, just to make sure. The first and primary one is my iPod; the second happens to be a country music station, primarily because that happens to be the station that was coming in loud and clear when I plugged in that radio clock, and secondarily because it clashes so extraordinarily with my iPod -- which consists mostly of goth metal, classic rock or covers of classic rock, and Finnish pop -- that it pretty much guarantees that I will get out of bed even if I get to sleep very late. But I often keep the station on and end up hearing a lot of country. One of the results of this is that I have acquired a new pet peeve, which is country songs about driving around in trucks.

I've heard a lot of country music in my day. And having come back to it after a few years of mostly hiatus, I confess to being somewhat appalled. It is not uncommon for literally half the songs to be songs, by men with very irritating voices, about driving around in trucks. This, which began as a source of bafflement to me, has been sharpened to the point of distaste, when I realized over time that a number of these songs about driving around in trucks have since been replaced by new songs about driving around in trucks. The montony is broken up only by songs about men leering at women or Brad Paisley's disgruntled "Southern Comfort Zone".

Now, country music has always been an unusually self-aware genre of music; its two major themes are (1) Family and (2) Country Music. And thus we have lots of classic songs about people in bars and honky-tonks listening to a jukebox or a band. It is not surprising that there are country songs about people driving around in trucks; a lot of people listen to country music while driving around in trucks, and country music will thus make songs about people in trucks. But the thing of it is, you can pretty much guarantee that people listening to music in bars have some kind of story, sometimes very emotional, behind their being there, which gets into the deep center of what it is to be human, and that there is a practically endless diversity in those stories. The primary reason for driving around in a truck, though, is that it's what you have to do to get somewhere else, usually the grocery store or school or home; I defy anyone to establish that people typically drive around in trucks for profoundly emotional reasons that speak to the human condition. Yes, it happens on occasion; there used to be some very good songs about truckers who just wished they could be home, or whose occupation just made loving and living too hard. I haven't heard a single song about the genuine and genuinely human hardship of a trucker, though; it's all about people going around in pick up trucks. And after a song here and there about driving by your ex's place, or about the fun of driving around with a hot girl riding shotgun, or (I will grant you that it shows a little ingenuity) driving your dad's truck because you miss him, you've pretty much used up the human interest potential of that storyline.

I will also concede to you that country music has a long history of being the only popular music genre that has a significant sense of humor about itself. Unlike pop, rock, or hip-hop, country music has always made fun of itself by parodying itself, or by shooting for a kind of fun silliness. There are plenty of serious country songs, but it's not at all surprising that among the classics are "All My Ex's Live in Texas" and "(I've Got) Friends in Low Places" and more recent favorites include "Redneck Yacht Club". Silly songs like this show up elsewhere, but in country music they're a constant tradition. But to the extent there's any joke in these songs, it's pretty unimaginative; there's only so many ways you can joke about how the hot girl riding shotgun is making it hard to drive before it becomes pretty obvious that everyone is telling the same joke over and over again. But a lot of them don't seem to be joking at all; you start realizing about the middle of the song that the dork who can't come up with a topic other than 'Pick up trucks are cool' is not having fun with the idea but actually thinks singing it makes him cool.

I will also concede that country music has never stopped experimenting, sometimes controversially. That's also irrelevant. It stops being experimenting when so many people are doing it that 'it seems like too many people are doing it' becomes a common complaint.

The irony is that it seems to be the men who are phoning it in. The women seem to produce songs that are pretty decent. You just never hear them, although occasionally Carrie Underwood or (more rarely) Miranda Lambert or (more rarely still) Kacey Musgraves will actually be played. This imbalance is also very strange: country music has always been one of the genres of music in which women do extraordinarily well. How in the world the genre could have so changed that repetitive songs by men are repeatedly outdoing obviously higher-quality songs by women (and, one hopes, by men, as well, although the only higher-quality work by men that ever gets played seems to be old classics, at very rare intervals), and in a matter of a handful of years, is baffling.

I had begun to wonder if this was just a peculiarity of the radio station I happen to listen to, but listening around a bit, plus this article have made pretty clear that this is quite typical:

These days, pop-country is more popular than ever — but also more despised than ever. Stars like Brown, Alan Jackson, Kacey Musgraves, and Gary Allan have begun publicly expressing unhappiness with their format, which this year has become an increasingly homogenous platform for men (a few weeks ago, Carrie Underwood was the only solo female in the Top 20) singing about trucks and beers and girls and then more trucks.

Trucks and beers and girls and then more trucks. Yes, that pretty much sums it up; it's only a matter of time before someone writes a song about driving a truck, drinking beers, with a hot girl "all up on me", all at once, which country music stations will blithely play fifteen hundred times a day. Did all the country music songwriters get replaced by teenage boys? How many songs about trucks do you need?

When asked what musical trend needs to die out immediately, Musgraves responded: “Anyone singing about trucks, in any form, in any song, anywhere. Literally just stop – nobody cares! It’s not fun to listen to.”

So that in itself is proof that not everyone in Nashville has gone completely looney-tunes. Sensible musicians need support. I might have to listen to more Musgraves; online, apparently, since the radio will barely play her because it's so important to play a long line of songs about men leering at women and/or driving around in trucks.

ADDED LATER: I think we can put it all in a simple sentence that should be intelligible even to the idiots who sing these songs. If all you can think to do with a woman is have her ride shotgun, you need to meet one.

Music on My Mind

Liv Kristine, "Streets of Philadelphia". A Springsteen song, of course.

The Best Blessing, Conscious Worth

Letter to Francis Austen (1809)
by Jane Austen

My dearest Frank, I wish you Joy
Of Mary’s safety with a Boy,
Whose birth has given little pain
Compared with that of Mary Jane.-
May he a growing Blessing prove,
And well deserve his Parents’ Love! -
Endow’d with Art’s & Nature’s Good,
Thy name possessing with thy Blood,
In him, in all his ways, may we
Another Francis William see!-
Thy infant days may he inherit,
Thy warmth, nay insolence of spirit;­
We would not with one fault dispense
To weaken the resemblance.
May he revive thy Nursery sin,
Peeping as daringly within,
His curley Locks but just descried,
With “Bet, my be not come to bide.” –

Fearless of danger, braving pain,
And threaten’d very oft in vain,
Still may one Terror daunt his Soul,
One needful engine of Controul
Be found in this sublime array,
A neighbouring Donkey’s aweful Bray.
So may his equal faults as Child,
Produce Maturity as mild!
His saucy words & fiery ways
In early Childhood’s pettish days,
In Manhood, shew his Father’s mind
Like him, considerate & kind;
All Gentleness to those around,
And eager only not to wound.
Then like his Father too, he must,
To his own former struggles just,
Feels his Deserts with honest Glow;
And all his self-improvement know.­
A native fault may thus give birth
To the best blessing, conscious Worth.-

As for ourselves we’re very well;
As unaffected prose will tell.
Cassandra’s pen will paint our state,
The many comforts that await
Our Chawton home, how much we find
Already in it, to our mind;
And how convinced, that when complete
It will all other Houses beat
That ever have been made or mended,
With rooms concise, or rooms distended.
You’ll find us very snug next year,
Perhaps with Charles & Fanny near,
For now it often does delight us
To fancy them just over-right us.-

Cape Austen RN. 26th July

Frank was the fifth Austen brother, and the one closest to her in age (he was a bit less than two years older). Frank would have been thirty-five at the time, Jane thirty-three. In this letter, she uses verse to congratulate him on a baby boy, tease him by saying she hopes the boy will be as much trouble as Frank was while complimenting him on what he's become, and talks about her recent move, promising a letter (in prose!) from her sister.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Creepy Utilitarianism and Creeping Consequentialism

Two interestings posts on utilitarianism recently: Blame Utilitarianism! at "Crooked Timber" and Utilitarianism as "moral Esperanto"? at "A Thinking Reed". I don't have anything rigorously organized to say, but some crude first thoughts.

"Why do so many people hate utilitarianism so much?" Holbo asks. I find that utilitarians in the academy tend (1) not to be hugely up on the history of utilitarianism in general; and (2) not especially aware of what people espousing utilitarianism outside academia advocate. They tend to think of utilitarianism in terms of J. S. Mill and their favorite twentieth-century utilitarians and the articles they most recently read. (I'm not at all sure why this is the case; there's nothing about utilitarianism itself that requires it.) To the outside world, Bentham comes across as a little on the crazy and inhuman side, and while Mill does much better, it's not as if Mill has ever been a typical utilitarian. He wasn't in his day (reading James Fitzjames Stephen is a good corrective to any such view) and he hasn't been since. And when do people outside of academic ethics hear opinions being explicitly attached to utilitarianism? Outside vegetarianism, they only hear it with regard to very highly controversial claims, not just the obvious ones like abortion but more extreme things like infanticid and pedophilia advocacy and things that get disability rights activists riled. It's not really surprising that utilitarianism has a reputation for being slightly creepy among large segments of the general public; it's not difficult to find it being appealed to for defending things that are already considered creepy by a significant portion of the population. What other possible consequence could one expect from such behavior? Eventually maybe the argument on a particular topic will move people to stop thinking of it as creepy, but that doesn't happen overnight. And over time this builds up, as people remember (no matter how nuanced the original discussion) very little more than the crude fact that the last time they heard about someone arguing for something uncomfortable like infanticide or consensual incest or aborting people with 21 trisomy for the greater good, they did so on utilitarian grounds. It won't matter in the long run what qualifications the arguments themselves actually bear on any given topic; people are in the long run just left with the sense that the utilitarians never stop.

I'm not really sure utilitarians have much right to complain. Utilitarianism has often been reforming in character, and consequentialism in general tends to inherit the trait; and it's not really surprising that it raises suspicions because of it. Nor have utilitarians managed to develop over the generations without doing a fair amount of demonizing of other moral views themselves. (Anyone who has ever read a significant amount of Bentham gets enough demonization of non-utilitarian views to last a while; nor is he the last to rev up the rhetoric when talking to the public.) This all really neither here and there, though; public relations are not rational foundations, and the fact that utilitarians get reputations as perverse troublemakers is not really a matter of extraordinary importance, beyond perhaps suggesting that they might sometimes be better served by focusing on the humdrum mainstream rather than the sensational leading edge.

More interesting, I think is that both the comments in "Crooked Timber" post and the Atlantic article noted by Lee exhibit a phenomenon that I think has become very common, common enough to have its own label. We could call it creeping consequentialism. And put crudely and without all the nuances that are found in particular cases, it's the tendency of consequentialists generally to treat any kind of reasoning that might be used in the course of consequentialist analysis as proprietary. If you appeal to consequences, even in highly restricted contexts where consequences are the only thing we have significant information about, this gets treated as 'consequentialist' reasoning. If you make use of some rule for maximizing anything, this gets treated as consequentialist. (One would think from the way some consequentialists talk that any use of resources for any reason to get any kind of result is in and of itself consequentialist.)

Of course, this is all nonsense; consequentialism is not a name for the formal structure of means-end reasoning generally, but the name of a position that concerns itself with what is determinative for practical reasoning, or sometimes more narrowly, moral reasoning, across the entire field. Hume is not made a utilitarian simply because he regards utilities as very important, because there is a significant area of his ethics in which they are not determinative (or even necessarily relevant). If I make it a rule for my business to maximize market share, or, for that matter, make it a rule for my craft project to maximize the paper snowflakes made from paper I have available, this in itself has nothing to do with consequentialism and it certainly has nothing to do with utilitarianism, even if under the circumstances the consequentialist would agree with the decision. Likewise, reasoning on the basis of consequences in the context of trolley problems tells us nothing about whether the reasoner actually takes consequences to be generally determinative, or (to take just one alternative) a poor but sometimes necessary proxy when information is scarce, which is definitely not consequentialism.

Incidentally, I find some of the reasoning in the Atlantic article to be a bit curious. For instance, this:

If everyone were a utilitarian, dumbfoundedness wouldn’t be a problem. No one would say things like “I don’t know, two guys having sex just seems … icky!” Rather, the different tribes would argue about which moral arrangements would create the most happiness. Sure, the arguments would get complicated, but at least they would rest ultimately on a single value everyone agrees is valuable: happiness.

This argument makes very little sense. Yes, pretty much everybody thinks happiness valuable in some way; but it's also quite obvious that most people guesstimate what will really and truly give greater happiness, and likewise they often make judgments on the basis of rules of thumb they can't explain, but just have picked up somewhere. Further, utilitarians are about the last ethical position that can dismiss claims of ickiness; that people find certain things to be icky is directly relevant both to pleasure and to satisfaction of preferences, and its relevance does not depend at all on people being able to explain the reason they find things icky, any more than the relevance of something being unpleasant or less preferred depends on people being able to explain why. Utilitarianism gets around moral dumbfounding not by eliminating it but by simply not caring on first analysis why people have the reactions they do -- the reactions get considered regardless of what people can or can't explain about them. You can't be a utilitarian while picking and choosing when you'll consider things that affect people's happiness and when you won't. A utilitarian may think that someone's disgust is irrational; but the utilitarian can't claim that it's irrelevant to their happiness, no matter how irrational it is, and if the utilitarian simply dismissed the reaction as irrelevant -- rather than, say, overbalanced by other happiness-relevant factors -- it is the utilitarian who is being irrational. Perhaps there is some deeper argument here that is not coming across, but as stated this is just a silly argument. If everyone were a utilitarian, it wouldn't affect in the slightest whether people would say things like, "It just seems icky/unpleasant/ugly/distasteful/disgusting/creepy" or add whatever else you want to the list. Utilitarianism doesn't magically eliminate these things, it can't simply pretend they don't exist, and any worries about people not being able to give reasons for their reactions are going to be even of interest to the utilitarian only for very abstract and indirect reasons about what's better for society as a whole.

This is quite general, of course. If, for instance, human beings have a natural tendency to enjoy punching people in the face, a utilitarian will have to take this into account, even if the ultimate conclusion is that the greatest happiness of the greatest number requires that people not make use of this pugilistic means to happiness. If he tried instead to dismiss it out of hand, you would be able to catch him out: he's not a utilitarian at all, but is letting his analysis be governed by non-utilitarian considerations. (I leave to the side whether one of the oldest criticisms of utilitarianism, that it is in fact always rigged in this way, is true.)

Yellow Leaves, or None, or Few

Sonnet 73
by William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Radio Greats: Skulking Permit (X Minus One)

Of the more comic episodes of X Minus One, the one that probably stands out most is "Skulking Permit". Robert Sheckley's satirical short story, "Skulking Permit", first appeared in 1954 in Galaxy Science Fiction. It's a mildly amusing story; most people like it, although it's usually not considered his strongest comic story. However, it is almost perfect for radio adaptation. And X Minus One's adaptation is an excellent one. The actors really make it come alive, in part by so very genuine and sincere in their approach to their characters; and it is very funny.

We find ourselves on the stellar colony of New Delaware, which has been separated from earth for over 200 years. They haven't heard much from Earth at all in that time, but recently they've been notified that Earth is coming for an inspection, to guarantee that there are no aliens among them and that they are fully loyal to Earth and her traditions. They don't quite know what an 'alien' is, but they know Earth means business, so they are set on making sure that they make a good impression. The thing of it is, they know from old books that their culture is not very Earth-like, so they're going to have to make it up whole cloth. A lot of it they can fake. But the real test is whether they can pull off one of the most important and influential of all these strange Earth traditions, the one that all the old books never stop talking about: crime.

You can listen to "Skulking Permit" online at My Old Radio.

The Courage to Learn

The process of learning good judgment, virtuous judgment, in Pride and Prejudice is extremely difficult. How does one know how to judge without excessive prejudice, excessive anger, and without arrogance, self-righteousness, and rigid intolerance? The answer implicit in the novel is through the prudence and wisdom to adhere to good principles in the first place, but also through the courage to learn, accept, and revise the places where one goes wrong. Pride and Prejudice is about cultivating the courage to be open to education through a constant revision of self-knowledge in order to try to understand one's principles better and to act according to them. Paradoxically, courage requires humility.

Sarah Emsley, Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues, p. 102

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Half a Crown Here and There

The inattention of the two brothers and the aunt to Julia's discomposure, and their blindness to its true cause, must be imputed to the fullness of their own minds. They were totally preoccupied. Tom was engrossed by the concerns of his theatre, and saw nothing that did not immediately relate to it. Edmund, between his theatrical and his real part, between Miss Crawford's claims and his own conduct, between love and consistency, was equally unobservant; and Mrs. Norris was too busy in contriving and directing the general little matters of the company, superintending their various dresses with economical expedient, for which nobody thanked her, and saving, with delighted integrity, half a crown here and there to the absent Sir Thomas, to have leisure for watching the behaviour, or guarding the happiness of his daughters.
[Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Chapter 17]

If there's any sign of Mrs. Norris's lack of sensible priorities. Sir Thomas Bertram is fantastically wealthy. Not only does he have a top-tier estate, Mansfield Park, and any income from that, he also owns plantations in the West Indies. In Regency England this makes him one of the wealthiest people imaginable. It's true that most of his wealth is probably tied up in assets; but there is simply no imaginable situation in which Sir Thomas is hurting for a half a crown; saving him that amount is like saving a multimillionaire money by shopping for presents at the Dollar Store.

Wicked Professor

Before I handed back my students' projects today, I told them that the projects did not completely fail to be mostly not bad.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Radio Greats: The Cold Equation (X Minus One)

From the far horizons of the unknown come transcribed tales of new dimensions in time and space. These are stories of the future; adventures in which you'll live in a million could-be years on a thousand may-be worlds.

Rather curiously, straight science fiction did not really have much of a place in classic radio until the era was drawing near an end. It's difficult to explain the dearth of science fiction in the early Golden Age of Radio, but the increased importance of science fiction later can at least partly be explained by greater salience of science fiction in general and partly by the fact that science fiction was still a genre that was very difficult to bring to television, and therefore it was an area in which the bleed from radio to television was very limited. You can move a series like Dragnet or Gunsmoke without any loss, but 1950s television really had very little that could compete with the imagination in the science fiction department. The late 1950s saw a surge in science fiction on the radio, however, both in mainstream series like Suspense and in primarily-SF series. It's generally recognized that the greatest of these science fiction series was X Minus One. The storytelling is often extraordinarily good -- it should be, since it adapted stories by authors of science fiction's own Golden Age -- and the production values were relatively high for a such a late radio program.

X Minus One itself was an attempt to repeat the success of slightly earlier series, Dimension X; all the early episodes, in fact, are re-done Dimension X episodes. But the quality was in general better, and so the series branched out into stories from the pages of Astounding and Galaxy, two of the most important magazines from the Golden Age of Science Fiction; the stories were by Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and many others who eventually became big names in the genre. The stories are extremely diverse, so for this Radio Greats I will be focusing on one of the best dramatic episodes; and I will do one of the best comic episodes for the next one.

Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" was published in Astounding Magazine in 1954. It is consistently considered one of the best science fiction short stories ever written, and one of the highlights of Golden Age science fiction. Intriguingly enough, the story as we have it is due to editor John W. Campbell refusing to accept the endings that Godwin kept coming up with. Godwin kept trying to make it a happy ending; Campbell kept refusing to accept a happy ending. Thus a tragedy was born.

"The Cold Equation" -- sometimes it is given the same plural title as the short story, sometimes not -- is an excellent version of the story. A woman stows away on an emergency dispatch ship (EDS) in order to visit her husband; she's trying to make amends for an affair. The problem is that the fuel for an EDS is precisely measured, and there's not enough margin of error for her extra mass. Procedure is to jettison the stowaway. The astronaut cannot bring himself to do it. But the equations of physics do not care: there's only so much fuel, and it's burning faster than they can afford; they could jettison other things, but the ship is bare except for medicine that needs to get where it's going. Of course, a good re-telling of a science fiction's saddest short story is inevitably going to be sad.

You can listen to "The Cold Equation" at My Old Radio.

Some Not-Quite-Love Poem Re-Drafts

A Woman Slew Me Yesterday

A woman slew me yesterday.
It happened in the common way:
a noonday knock upon the door,
a word or two, a settled score,
a spear of ice to pierce me through.
You know it well, for she was you.
No, not a word of hot defense,
for every killer must repent,
however justified the blow@
But sun still shines and rivers flow,
and though your insults shot me through,
perhaps today I live anew.
So let us not be trapped by pride,
and I will set the harm aside,
and let us love with zeal, not pain,
until you kill me once again.

Love by Universe

I love you more than all the earth.
It is not half enough!
Soon I'll love like solar systems.
Dismiss it all as fluff.
The after-day one galaxy
will scarce contain my awe --
but still too small, still too pale.
Wait, and have them all.


You catch my heart; yes, you presume
to catch my heart, and me to doom
to love of you. Shall such demand
be satisfied? My heart unhand!
Be satisfied to know my smile,
in passing tarry but a while,
like pilgrim in a foreign land.
Release me now, my heart unhand!

The Harp and the Vine

You ask, and I wonder,
but I still know my mind;
here in the garden the columbine
spirals and curls, begging for rain,
while your words like the thunder
echo from clouds;
I know your pain, but I am proud,
and here in the garden the rosy thorn
still mocks me,
filled with ruthless scorn.
You ask, but the iris will pay you no mind
as the wind starts to hum
through the harp and the vine.

In All the World Are None for Me

In all the world are none for me.
The lonely whispers from the sea
like shadows slink out on the sly
beyond the corner of my eye:
no words enmesh my wary heart,
nor force, nor faith, nor artless art,
and always-mocking almost-mights
still haunt the dark and lonely nights
like long-smashed idols made of sand
that whisper of lost promised lands,
or gnat-like nothings made of air
and pithless deserts, dry and bare.
But one small impulse deep inside,
so stubborn in its inborn pride,
will seek, will quest, and never stay,
till love is found, or judgment day.

How Strange Is That?

I felt I fell in love with you today; how strange is that?
Waiting for the bus we stopped and stayed to chat,
when suddenly and subito my head was overturned,
unbalancing my body as my blood began to burn.
I cannot even say I really caught your name!
Some devil-hearted cupid plays a mischief-ridden game;
uncanny things, ungrounded, maddening, and swift,
now throw the world off kilter, the earth begins to shift!
Meeting you but once, but for a little while,
I am haunted by your eyes, the flashing of your smile;
and though I hardly know you, nonetheless my brain
will spin imaginations as though your love were gained.
But swiftly comes its death as swiftly came its birth,
and if it pass away, what is such feeling worth?
The merest little fizzle, a frenzy in the brain,
and after sudden torrent nothing will remain
but cynic's self-suspicion, memories that fade,
and wry and quiet gravestones where madness has been laid.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Ender's Game

I went and saw the Ender's Game movie this weekend; some thoughts.

(1) The movie is much better than most big-budget science fiction movies made today. The special effects are especially well-chosen and sometimes truly impressive, which is getting harder to do -- visually, this is what Hollywood tries to achieve but usually fails at. There is no outright bad acting -- which in itself is impressive, particularly given the number of adolescent roles here (Asa Butterfield does an excellent Ender, and Abigail Breslin brings an extensive emotional range to Valentine) -- and pretty much every actor does quite a bit with what he or she is given. And it is surprisingly faithful to the book -- they fail to make proper use of the ansible and limitations on faster-than-light travel, but most of the changes are rather minor, and the handful of big changes mostly do help with the cinematic storytelling.

(2) The faithfulness to the book is, surprisingly, its primary problem, for two reasons. The first is that the story feels a bit rushed at times. There's too much here; you hardly get through one thing and you're off to another. The second is that the emotional punch of the book is largely missing. The reason the story as it stood was able to carry the whole book was that in the book you really do see the world through Ender's eyes; it's a very introspective story. You can't get on the screen, and so need something to compensate for it; because it mostly stays close to the book, we don't get anything that can do that.

(3) However, also because it stays close to the book, it avoids the usual problem with Hollywood adaptations, in which movies deviate from the book in extraordinarily stupid ways.

(4) They could also have done the scene after the final battle somewhat better; it's one of those things where you can to some degree see what they were trying to do, but it didn't quite work, in part because of the rush-along character of the movie.

(5) However, if you like SF movies, and particularly if you liked the book, this is one worth seeing; as I said, it's a much stronger movie than most science fiction movies made today. Had they improved the pacing and emotional tone a bit, this would have been truly stellar. As it is, it's just fairly good.

Passages on Fortitude in Sense and Sensibility

Chapter 15:

They saw nothing of Marianne till dinner time, when she entered the room and took her place at the table without saying a word. Her eyes were red and swollen; and it seemed as if her tears were even then restrained with difficulty. She avoided the looks of them all, could neither eat nor speak, and after some time, on her mother's silently pressing her hand with tender compassion, her small degree of fortitude was quite overcome, she burst into tears and left the room.

Chapter 31:

"...I have never told you how this was brought on. We were within a few hours of eloping together for Scotland. The treachery, or the folly, of my cousin's maid betrayed us. I was banished to the house of a relation far distant, and she was allowed no liberty, no society, no amusement, till my father's point was gained. I had depended on her fortitude too far, and the blow was a severe one—but had her marriage been happy, so young as I then was, a few months must have reconciled me to it, or at least I should not have now to lament it. This however was not the case. My brother had no regard for her; his pleasures were not what they ought to have been, and from the first he treated her unkindly. The consequence of this, upon a mind so young, so lively, so inexperienced as Mrs. Brandon's, was but too natural. She resigned herself at first to all the misery of her situation; and happy had it been if she had not lived to overcome those regrets which the remembrance of me occasioned. But can we wonder that, with such a husband to provoke inconstancy, and without a friend to advise or restrain her (for my father lived only a few months after their marriage, and I was with my regiment in the East Indies) she should fall?..."

"... Surely this comparison must have its use with her. She will feel her own sufferings to be nothing. They proceed from no misconduct, and can bring no disgrace. On the contrary, every friend must be made still more her friend by them. Concern for her unhappiness, and respect for her fortitude under it, must strengthen every attachment. Use your own discretion, however, in communicating to her what I have told you...."

Chapter 32:

To give the feelings or the language of Mrs. Dashwood on receiving and answering Elinor's letter would be only to give a repetition of what her daughters had already felt and said; of a disappointment hardly less painful than Marianne's, and an indignation even greater than Elinor's. Long letters from her, quickly succeeding each other, arrived to tell all that she suffered and thought; to express her anxious solicitude for Marianne, and entreat she would bear up with fortitude under this misfortune. Bad indeed must the nature of Marianne's affliction be, when her mother could talk of fortitude! mortifying and humiliating must be the origin of those regrets, which SHE could wish her not to indulge!

Chapter 35:

Her exertions did not stop here; for she soon afterwards felt herself so heroically disposed as to determine, under pretence of fetching Marianne, to leave the others by themselves; and she really did it, and THAT in the handsomest manner, for she loitered away several minutes on the landing-place, with the most high-minded fortitude, before she went to her sister. When that was once done, however, it was time for the raptures of Edward to cease; for Marianne's joy hurried her into the drawing-room immediately. Her pleasure in seeing him was like every other of her feelings, strong in itself, and strongly spoken. She met him with a hand that would be taken, and a voice that expressed the affection of a sister.

Chapter 37:

"Your sister," he continued, "has suffered dreadfully. Mrs. Ferrars too—in short it has been a scene of such complicated distress—but I will hope that the storm may be weathered without our being any of us quite overcome. Poor Fanny! she was in hysterics all yesterday. But I would not alarm you too much. Donavan says there is nothing materially to be apprehended; her constitution is a good one, and her resolution equal to any thing. She has borne it all, with the fortitude of an angel! She says she never shall think well of anybody again; and one cannot wonder at it, after being so deceived!—meeting with such ingratitude, where so much kindness had been shewn, so much confidence had been placed! It was quite out of the benevolence of her heart, that she had asked these young women to her house; merely because she thought they deserved some attention, were harmless, well-behaved girls, and would be pleasant companions; for otherwise we both wished very much to have invited you and Marianne to be with us, while your kind friend there, was attending her daughter. And now to be so rewarded! 'I wish, with all my heart,' says poor Fanny in her affectionate way, 'that we had asked your sisters instead of them.'"

Chapter 46:

The Dashwoods were two days on the road, and Marianne bore her journey on both, without essential fatigue. Every thing that the most zealous affection, the most solicitous care could do to render her comfortable, was the office of each watchful companion, and each found their reward in her bodily ease, and her calmness of spirits. To Elinor, the observation of the latter was particularly grateful. She, who had seen her week after week so constantly suffering, oppressed by anguish of heart which she had neither courage to speak of, nor fortitude to conceal, now saw with a joy, which no other could equally share, an apparent composure of mind, which, in being the result as she trusted of serious reflection, must eventually lead her to contentment and cheerfulness.

[...]"They have borne more than our conduct.—Do not, my dearest Elinor, let your kindness defend what I know your judgment must censure. My illness has made me think— It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past: I saw in my own behaviour, since the beginning of our acquaintance with him last autumn, nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave. My illness, I well knew, had been entirely brought on by myself by such negligence of my own health, as I had felt even at the time to be wrong. Had I died,—it would have been self-destruction. I did not know my danger till the danger was removed; but with such feelings as these reflections gave me, I wonder at my recovery,—wonder that the very eagerness of my desire to live, to have time for atonement to my God, and to you all, did not kill me at once. Had I died,—in what peculiar misery should I have left you, my nurse, my friend, my sister!—You, who had seen all the fretful selfishness of my latter days; who had known all the murmurings of my heart!—How should I have lived in YOUR remembrance!—My mother too! How could you have consoled her!—I cannot express my own abhorrence of myself. Whenever I looked towards the past, I saw some duty neglected, or some failing indulged...."

Chapter 47:

"When the dessert and the wine were arranged, and Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor were left by themselves, they remained long together in a similarity of thoughtfulness and silence. Mrs. Dashwood feared to hazard any remark, and ventured not to offer consolation. She now found that she had erred in relying on Elinor's representation of herself; and justly concluded that every thing had been expressly softened at the time, to spare her from an increase of unhappiness, suffering as she then had suffered for Marianne. She found that she had been misled by the careful, the considerate attention of her daughter, to think the attachment, which once she had so well understood, much slighter in reality, than she had been wont to believe, or than it was now proved to be. She feared that under this persuasion she had been unjust, inattentive, nay, almost unkind, to her Elinor;—that Marianne's affliction, because more acknowledged, more immediately before her, had too much engrossed her tenderness, and led her away to forget that in Elinor she might have a daughter suffering almost as much, certainly with less self-provocation, and greater fortitude. "

There is a certain amount of ambiguity in these mentions of fortitude: Colonel Brandon's use of the term (both Chapter 31 passages) is so highly colored by his peculiar experience that it opens the question of how well grounded his sense of what fortitude requires might be; John Dashwood's reference to fortitude (Chapter 37) is not really worth anything; and the narrator pokes fun at Elinor's fortitude at least once (Chapter 35). It is almost certainly also significant that every mention by male characters of fortitude in a woman is about her relations to men, whereas every use by the narrator is about her relations to herself (in particular, keeping her feelings in check).

Comparing to other novels, 'fortitude' shows up once (in a clearly ironic usage) in Lady Susan, once in Pride and Prejudice, three times in Northanger Abbey, four times in Emma. All of these usages seem quite minor; there isn't a great deal of moral weight attached to them. The interesting comparison is with the two novels that can be seen as addressing fortitude most directly: 'fortitude' appears six times in Persuasion, at least most of which do put considerable moral weight on the term, and not at all in Mansfield Park. Mansfield Park uses the term 'constancy' and related terms instead; in all the other novels where the term carries moral import (it usually doesn't), 'constancy' just means faithfulness in a relationship, but Fanny Price's constancy, which, while not referred to extensively rises to the front at several key points in the plot, is not constancy in this sense at all, but is at least much more like what is called fortitude elsewhere.

So is this just a peculiar accident ,or is there, perhaps, some difference of association? Perhaps 'fortitude' suggests to Austen a power of self-mastery with regard to the behavior by which one expresses one's feelings -- this arguably would differentiate Elinor and Anne on one side from Fanny on the other, since all three exhibit constancy of a sort, but Fanny doesn't have the relatively iron control of Elinor or Anne, as shown by the famous fact that we find her crying fourteen times in the novel.