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A Swede in Germany

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Some observations after reading up on literary theory

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During some further renovations in my building, I have made two prolonged visits to the city library. Specifically, I have downed about a third of “Literaturtheorie”* by Oliver Jahraus. While some of the contents are very interesting, my overall impression is not that favorable and I (a) see my less than stellar impression of the non-natural sciences re-inforced and (b) have gained a somewhat better understanding of what is going wrong in the academic system.

*Unsurprisingly, “Literary Theory”. I do not know whether an English translation of the actual work exists, or whether any such translation kept a literal version of the title.

Because I do not have a copy at home (and because I read with an intent on learning something about literary theory—not to write a non-literary critique), I must be a bit on the vague side. However:

  1. The text is filled with a type of specious, “non sequitur”-y reasoning that I have repeatedly observed in softer fields (and in e.g. some types of political and religious propaganda): Premises are stated that are not necessarily convincing and/or obviously represent personal opinion and/or only cover a particular perspective; based on these premises, one or several (il)logical jumps are made to reach some type of conclusion; this conclusion is fed into another series of (il)logical jumps; and at the end a thesis is stated as if proved beyond reasonable doubt. To boot, this often involves disputable use of different-concepts-represented-by-the-same-word.* As usual, I have the impression that the respective author has a particular opinion, be it well-founded or not, knows that he lacks strong arguments, and tries to create a chain of somewhat plausible sounding arguments that will give the impression that he has proved his opinion—while in reality the argumentation borders on the nonsensical. Indeed, this type of argumentation is often so weak that it becomes impossible to attack, because there are more holes than substance—launching a counter-argument would be like punching fog.

    *Similar to jokes in the manner of “zero is smaller than one; zero is nothing; ergo, nothing is smaller than one; ergo, minus one is not smaller than one”. (But intended to be taken at face value and more subtle.)

    I do have a suspicion that there is a strong element of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” involved—that many nod in agreement in order to not seem stupid, believing there to be considerable substance in such texts that they simply are unable to see. In reality, the emperor is as naked as he seems.

    My earlier text on “Der Untergang des Abendlandes” mentions some similar problems. I also point to the Sokal hoax.

  2. One of the core ideas of the book seems to be that literary theory is mainly an attempt to answer the question “What is literature?”, which would raise some serious concerns as to whether it is worth bothering with as an academic field. Certainly, the question is a worthy one, and an analogous question is often asked in other fields; however, this question is typically just the first step, something answered to e.g. limit research to a sufficiently well defined or sufficiently small topic, or to ensure that various parties speak of the same thing. If it is allowed to be the dominant question of the entire field, then the field amounts to navel-gazing and self-referential orgies.
  3. At the same time, paradoxically*, he appears to see literary theory (and/or literary science, in general) as the epitome of scientific development, and seems to want to raise it to a model for other fields, including the natural sciences… In this, he deals more with a philosophy of science than with literary science. Not only is this nonsensical and presumptuous—it also amounts to turning a flaw into a virtue…

    *Thinking back, quite a lot of his claims are paradoxical, e.g. on the pattern “X is strong because of X having a weakness”.

    Moreover, the reasoning used was largely based on characteristics of softer fields, which makes a generalization to harder fields inappropriate. This point can be quite important in the larger picture, e.g. with an eye on post-modernism and its often outright misological take on science: What if this is largely simply a matter of inappropriate generalization, possibly through a lack of an understanding of the harder sciences? Notably, the more specific references made to the harder sciences were usually faulty or misleading, including a misrepresentation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.*

    *I do not remember the details, unfortunately, but it might have been a claim about observation of X changing the value of Y, which is not what the uncertainty principle is usually taken to imply. (Which is rather that a more precise determination of the value of X makes the determination and/or value of Y less precise.)

  4. A specific point that annoyed me was a lengthy discussion of “Theorien” (“theories”), where various conclusions were drawn that fall apart on his failure to separate between the concepts of model, theory, and hypothesis, randomly mixing aspects of each under what he referred to as “Theorien”. (I admit that the borders between the three can be both hard to determine and a matter of dispute, but mixing them in a blanket manner is going too far.)
  5. The language pushes the border of the acceptable, leaving me with the impression of someone trying to “sound smart” (not at all unusual in the softer fields). This includes odd choices of words, e.g. the Latin or English loan “evozieren” to imply “evoke”, where standard German would normally call for the more Germanic “hervorrufen”. (As in, hypothetically, “the text evoked strong feelings” and “der Text hat starke Gefühle hervorgerufen” vs. “der Text hat starke Gefühle evoziert”.) It also includes those pointless and pseudo-intellectual hyphenated constructs that are so common in e.g. texts on art or Marxism (see excursion). While the overall sentences used are nowhere near as bad as Spengler’s (cf. link above), there is some similarity e.g. in undue jumps within a sentence and undue complexity (even by my standards); he also tends to throw in words in a manner that can make the one word correctly parsable only when the reader is five words past it (somewhat in the style of a “garden-path sentence”).

If* this type of understanding of the sciences, lines of reasoning, lack of stringency, whatnot, is typical for the softer sciences, we might as well give up on them…

*Chances are that the “if” holds—this is not the first time I have made a similar experience.

Excursion on pseudo-intellectual hyphenated constructs:

Remarks: (1) I am a little uncertain whether these are common in English, but I have often seen them in both Swedish and German. Should they be uncommon, consider combinations like “abstrakt-biomorphe*” (“abstract-biomorph[ic]”?) and “zynisch-satirisch” (“cynical-satirical”?). (Both are taken from a German art catalog.) Note, in contrast, more legitimate examples like “manic-depressive” and “Marxist-Leninist”, where the introduction of a single word is highly sensible, the word is accepted domain terminology, and the word has spread into the general vocabulary. (2) Here, I have used a plain hyphen (“-”), consistent with most of the examples that I have seen. However, an n-dash (“–”) does seem more natural to me in many or most cases. (3) Note that the issue is not one of hyphenation, per se, but of a particular way of merging two (usually) modifiers to form a new unity, despite not naturally belong together (or having connection better expressed in a more conventional manner). In contrast, e.g., my above “different-concepts-represented-by-the-same-word” does not serve to introduce a new and “smart sounding” word but to make clear that these words are tightly bound together, in order to make parsing easier for the reader.

*The use of “biomorph” leaves me skeptical for other reasons, including the low understandability and the failure to use something more naturally German. Going by the components of the word, it likely means something shaped like something living, but that is very vague and almost necessitates the application to something which was not living to begin with (or the “biomorphy” would not be worth mentioning). However, it is possible that the meaning is detectable through context (I have not studied the catalog in detail) or that this is an established word within the art world.

These have puzzled me since my first encounter, almost certainly more than thirty years ago. At that time, I thought they were some type of domain specific terminology with precise technical meanings*—today, I lean towards expressions created to sound smart or a (typically highly misguided) stylistic means of expressing something. For instance, “cynical-satirical” is unlikely to have an established wider meaning, and likely expresses the same thing as “cynical and satirical” or**, on the outside, “satirical in a cynical manner”. With “abstract-biomorph”, I am even puzzled whether this would express something different than “abstract biomorph” (note space), because the most reasonable interpretation is something that is biomorph in an abstract manner (but possibly it is intended to signify something that is simultaneously abstract art and biomorph). In some cases, the construct appears to be just a means to contract two separate or semi-separate thoughts into one word, as with the hypothetical*** “I typed a text while drinking some water” vs. “I drinkingly-typingly produced a text”.

*Note that this is the case with e.g. “manic-depressive”.

**The introduction of an unnecessary ambiguity is a good reason to avoid such constructs. But for that, I might have given the specific special-case of “cynical-satirical” a pass for convenience, and I might very well have used a “cynical/satirical” myself (note the use of a slash, not a hyphen, which avoids the ambiguity).

***I did not find a specific real example on short notice.

Such manipulatively-confounding writings amusingly-annoyingly strike me as tauro-fecal.

Excursion on other visitors, group-study, etc.:
During my first visit, most other visitors (in the area where I read) appeared to be college age and actually appeared to study (and to do so individually). During the second, they seemed a few years younger and spent more time talking, giggling, and even (playfully) hitting each other. While some of the talking did revolve around some school topic (judging by the two sitting nearest to me), it is clear that these sessions were nowhere near as productive as they could have been. This matches my own experiences* well: Group-study is usually unproductive for good heads, nowhere near as helpful for poor heads as educators claim,** and tend to follow a tempo determined by the most bored and/or unfocused individual.*** To boot, these people disturb the more serious visitors.

*Which are limited through this very observation: I turned down requests for group-study as a matter of course, once beyond the age when they could be forced upon me by teachers.

**Because the poor heads would learn from the better heads, which is rarely the case: Having things explained brings less than understanding them on one’s own, and with group study the emphasis is shifted in the wrong direction.

***Similar claims often apply to group-work as well, often deteriorating into one or two persons doing most of both work and thinking, while the rest mostly free-load or even act to the detriment of the project.

Excursion on continued reading:
I have not yet made up my mind on whether to continue with this specific book, should I seek refuge in the library again. On the one hand, my overall impression is of a relatively poor return on the invested time; on the other, the parts that are likely to be most useful to me are still left. (With an eye on my attempts to be an author of fiction, my superficial formal knowledge of literary science, theories, criticism, …, is a potential weakness—albeit not one that is of critical importance.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

June 12, 2019 at 1:17 am

Distortion of literary works / Enid Blyton

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While I have always been strongly opposed to censorship, political correctness, intellectual dishonesty, (mis-)editing of the words of others, and similar, there is a particular area that troubles me with an eye on my own contemplations of becoming an author of fiction—presenting distortions of the works of dead authors as if they were the actual works.

For instance, I recently stumbled over the Wikipedia page on “The Famous Five”, and was distraught to read:

In modern reprints, George still wants to be a boy, but the statement that her short hair makes her look like a boy has been removed as it is now considered offensive to assume that girls need long hair to be considered feminine. Anne’s statement that boys cannot wear pretty dresses or like girl’s dolls has been taken out. Julian and Dick now help the girls with cleaning the house and washing dishes.

This increases the series of children’s’ books* that have been distorted in an irrational and destructive manner, contemptuous of both the author and the readers. (To boot, the claim “now considered” is a further inexcusable lack of encyclopedic standards on behalf of Wikipedia. A correct claim would be that e.g., depending on what applies, the “censor’s** considered it offensive” or “some population groups considered it offensive”.) Not only are such distortions despicable in general, but here the reasons appear to be particularly weak. I note, concerning the hair, that in such young people it can be the only physical differentiation and that judgments like “looks like a boy” and “looks like a girl” have to be measured against the time in which they occurred. To boot, George almost*** certainly otherwise dressed and whatnot as a boy, making the hair just one piece of a puzzle. Removing references to the hair thoroughly distorts the original intentions. Similarly, removing Anne’s statement distorts her character and misrepresents the times. This is especially bad, as it removes the contrast between the boyish/unconventional George and the girly/traditional Anne, weakening the two characters and the “group dynamic”. That the boys help with house-work again misrepresents the times and risks a character distortion—how do we know that they would have helped, had they lived in today’s world? Worse: I strongly suspect that these changes, especially the last, is not so much a matter of wanting to avoid offense as of deliberately influencing modern readers to hold a certain set of values—an utterly inexcusable reason for an already inexcusable act.

*Other examples include “Huckleberry Finn”, “Doctor Dolittle”, and the Swedish “Ture Sventon” and “Pippi Långstrump [Long-Stocking]”—among the at least dozen cases I have heard of. (The true scope of the problem is likely orders of magnitude greater and afflicting many more languages.)

**I call a spade a spade—these people are no better, arguably worse, than regular censors. (To “call a spade a spade” is another example of how unjustified censorship is common: Here, “spade” refers to a digging implement in a saying that goes back to ancient Greece. Still, there are people who consider it offensive because the same sequence of letters, much more rarely, has been used to refer to Black people…)

***It has been a very long time since I read one of the books, and there is some minor room for a combination of character being misremembered and contents not matching what would be reasonable based on first principles.

I note that the motivations give in other contexts tend to be very poor. For instance, Swedish censorship and distortion have been directed at the word “neger” as being offensive—however, unlike the English “nigger”, “neger” was never offensive. This changed at some point in the 1980s or 1990s when the PC movement presumed to declare it offensive. This with no reasonable motivation and likely based on a mindless analogy with the English “nigger”—if the one is offensive, then so must be the other…

A particular perfidious version, inexcusable beyond the inexcusable, is the claim that certain changes were made because “we” are sure that this is what the (long dead) author would have wanted—a presumption so moronic and/or dishonest that I feel like punching the speaker in the face.

Such changes, worthy of the Ministry of Truth, are a crime against the author, who sees his work distorted, and a crime against the reader, who is refused the opportunity to read the original work and whose view of the world of old is potentially distorted. Indeed, for a member of the politically correct who actually had a brain, would it not make more sense to let the children see that the world was different in the past and draw their own conclusions? Would it not be better that a girl noted that Anne did house-work and that Julian did not—and questioned the “why”? To look at Anne and George and ask who she would rather be? For the girl-who-wants-to-be-boy* (or vice versa) to look at George and how she had the courage to go against convention even back then? Etc.

*However, I am uncertain to what degree George’s wishes were comparable to some modern cases and to what degree she just wished for a more boyish life-style, considered girly-girls silly, whatnot. Not only are my contacts too far back, but I doubt that Blyton would have been explicit on the topic (if it even occured to her).

As for myself, I have not yet made up my mind on whether to become an author of fiction, and chances are that I would never have a sufficient and enduring popularity that such concerns would actually be relevant. However, I state now and for the record that I absolutely and categorically forbid such distortions of any of my works, current, past, present, and irrespective of type. If I am alive, I will exercise legal options; if I am dead, I will come back to haunt the culprits. The latter especially if someone presumes to try that utterly inexcusable excuse “we know that this is what he would have wanted”—you now know that it is not!

Excursion on other distortions:
Unfortunately, the general problem of distortion is not limited to e.g. censorship and children’s literature. Notably, newer German editions of older texts often come with the claim that the orthography has been “behutsam angepasst” (“cautiously adapted”) or similar, in order to match modern German—and this even for works that were written as late as the 19th century… This might be less harmful than the above, but still brings risks and disadvantages—and most changes are pointless in that the average reader could take the old spelling in a stride.* (A better solution would be to add a few corresponding notes. For truly extreme examples, a parallel original and “translated” text is an option.) For instance, one reason to read older books is to get a feel for the historical language, which is no longer possible. For instance, any such change risks an unintended distortion.** For instance, it is possible that the author deliberately chose a more traditional spelling over a more new-fangled one, in which case the alteration is in direct contradiction to his will.

*A notable example is the common use of “th” in many cases where today “t” is used, e.g. “Thal” vs “Tal” (“valley”). Consider e.g. the extinct Neanderthals vs. the valley Neandertal—at the time of their discovery, the valley used the “th” spelling, which is preserved in the anthropological name, while it uses the “t” spelling today. (And, yes, Neanderthal is correctly pronounced with a “t” sound—not with a lisp.)

**E.g. because two words that used to be spelled (slightly) differently are now spelled the same or vice versa, because some rhyme or play on words does no longer work, or because some spelling choices might have been very personal. (The latter especially in times when the orthography was less standardized than today.) An interesting example is the disappearance of older words, word cases, whatnot. Consider e.g. a modernized version of Shakespeare that replaces “thou” with “you”, etc.: This would lose a lot of nuance as to who is in what relationship to/with someone else and how the relationship might change over time.

The problem is not necessarily limited to dead authors either (but is particularly perfidious there, because they cannot defend themselves). Translations are a horrifying source of problems, at least in Germany, where I have encountered many efforts so awful that they should have led to a summary firing. The German translations of Terry Pratchett’s books have often been disastrous (cf. portions of a text on Pratchett’s death)—and do not get me started on German movie translations… While this is often the result of mere incompetence, e.g. ignorance of what a certain word/phrase/reference/… means,* it can also be deliberate. Notably, there is a school of translators who attempt to hide the fact that a work actually is a translation at any and all cost… (Including rather losing a play on words than giving an explanation of it, or rather re-writing cultural references to some highly approximate local equivalent.) This is an anti-intellectualism and dishonesty that is truly deplorable.

Excursion on Blyton:
Blyton might have mass-produced works with little literary value and might, by reputation, actually have approved in exchange for a bit of extra money. None of that matters: The editors have no such actual approval; the distorting effect for the readers remain (cf. above); the works have, irrespective of literary value, a great following and have been loved by millions (implying that any change is likelier to do damage than to do good); and, above all, if this is accepted for one author, what protects other authors? Indeed, even “To Kill a Mocking-Bird”, widely considered a work of considerable literary accomplishment, has been targeted by the PC crowd. It is important that not one inch be given to these people.

Excursion on tomboys and Feminists:
A peculiarity when it comes to e.g. Feminists and tomboys vs. girly-girls is that “tomboy” is often described as some type of insult or framed in a context of boys/men looking down on the tomboys who “should” be proper girly-girls instead. This repeats a pattern of ignorance and over-generalization about what men are actually like and what they actually think about women—I very much preferred George to Anne at that age, I have preferred girls/women with boyish/mannish interests later in life, and the same applies to a very sizable portion, likely a majority, of the male population. Yes, when it comes to sex and romance, there are many cases where a certain femininity in behavior and style can be attractive; no, when it comes to playing, socializing, whatnot, the tomboy and her adult successor tend to do better. For that matter, too much femininity and/or stereotypically female behaviors are a turn-off in romance too. (Too much make-up, too many shoes, too much emotionality, etc.—the likes of Carrie Bradshaw are not a good ideal.) Of course, even a boyish girl/woman can be quite physically attractive, aesthetically pleasing, and even feminine—this is not an either–or area. (Consider e.g. Evangeline Lilly in “Lost” or Keira Knightley in “Bend it like Beckham”*.) When a man says “tomboy”, it is more likely to be a compliment than an insult.

*Incidentally, a good example of German mistranslations: It was renamed to the alleged English title “Kick [sic!] it like Beckham”… Also a good, if fictional, example of how men tend to view tomboys—compare the positions of the two fathers and the two mothers towards the respective daughters and their “boyish” interests.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 18, 2018 at 8:22 pm

A few thoughts around prose

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What makes good or aesthetic prose and good (writing) style has been on my mind lately. A few particular issues:

  1. I am not convinced that these matters are that important: Language is mostly a vehicle for something else*. By analogy, whether someone watches the same movie in VGA and mono or Ultra-HD and surround sound can make a difference—but it is far more important what movie is watched. If someone can get the point across with mediocre writing—is that not enough?

    *Exactly what depends on the work. Examples include a set of facts, a line of reasoning, a character portrait, a realistic depiction of life, a series of action scenes, a feeling of horror, …

    Some* authors have such an ability to write beautiful prose that it enhances the enjoyment of the text; however, they are a small minority and most best-selling** authors are fairly weak in this regard.

    *I can e.g. recall being highly impressed by some of Goethe’s and Thomas Mann’s works. Unsurprisingly, such authors often have a background heavy in poetry; surprisingly, they have often been German, possibly because the apparent unwieldiness of the German language has led to a compensating increase in skill. Shakespeare is an obvious English example, to the degree that his plays are considered prose.

    **This could partially be explained by the typically commercial and/or “low brow” character of best-selling material. However, (a) the basic principle of language as a vehicle applies even to “high literature”, (b) there are plenty of examples of high literature in unremarkable or even poor prose. (The German of Kafka, e.g., is in parts horrendous, yet he remains in high esteem.) The success of great literature when translated into other languages is a further argument, seeing that now the skills of the translator and the many obstacles to translation are of similar importance to the (prose) skills of the actual author.

    In terms of style, some limits* must be set, especially regarding clarity and (to some degree) conciseness. However, the limits needed for a reasonable vehicle are not all that high (assuming that grammatical correctness has been reached), and any intelligent college graduate should already have the skills to exceed them.

    *There are many writers, including a disturbing proportion of bloggers, journalists, and Wikipedia editors, who are so awful that they should better not write at all.

  2. Verbosity* is a tricky issue. (And, in as far as it is negative, I am unusually poorly suited to throw the first stone.)

    *Here this word should be taken in a very wide sense, covering not just “needless words”, but also e.g. the inclusion of details of little importance, roundabout descriptions, unnecessary dialogue, … (No better generic term occurs to me.) Indeed, my focus below largely leaves the topics of prose and style, to focus on something more general.

    On the negative side, works like Pride and Prejudice show how verbosity can be taken too far, e.g. through turning the joy of reading into boredom or unduly increasing the time needed to read a work. Generally, text that does not serve a clear purpose, e.g. moving the story forward or giving nuance to a character, is often a negative and amounts to unnecessary filler. A good analogy is the low tempo and low content shown in many independent, low-budget, whatnot, movies—including those that begin with someone driving a car in silence for several minutes, then parking in silence, then walking to something in silence, with the first significant words uttered/events happening after five or more minutes. It would be better to condense the little information present* to a fraction of the time and just make the movie a little shorter—boring and artistic are not the same thing. Another analogy and partial example is the use of unnecessary adjectives and blurb in advertising language, as discussed in an older text on idiocies of ad writing (to which I might added the blanket advice to cut out any and all adjectives from an advertising text).

    *E.g. that a strategically placed photograph hints that the driver is married with two children, without the need to explicitly mention the fact—something that takes seconds, not minutes, to bring across. If worst comes to worst, doing a “Star Wars”-style introduction and skipping the car ride entirely would be the lesser evil… (Notably, if these car rides and whatnot are intended to serve another purpose, e.g. building atmosphere or tension, they usually fail equally badly at that. If they could pull it off, by all means—but it appears that they cannot.)

    On the positive side, it is often the small additional details that add charm to a work, that prevent it from being just a string of events, that give a marginal character that extra dash of individuality, etc. I have made some minor experiments with cutting out everything (apparently) non-essential from a text, and the result is so sterile and uninteresting that it makes a TV manuscript* a good read in comparison. The lesson is that, while any individual item that appears non-essential might actually be non-essential, removing too much kills the work.** While there is a point of “too much”, most amateurs are likely to fail clearly on the side of too little.*** There are even cases when something with no apparent major bearing on the overall plot/theme/whatnot cannot be cut without damaging the whole—consider e.g. “The Lord of the Rings” and the many detours and side-adventures. (Sometimes the road is more important than the apparent destination.) As a counter-point, I have usually found Stephen King more interesting as a short-story writer than as a novelist: While his ability to paint interesting portraits, give color to situations, find interesting developments, whatnot, might be his greatest strength, he often pushes it too far in his novels—and cutting another**** ten or twenty percent would be beneficial. Quality over quantity.

    *A TV manuscript, like most plays, is not intended to be read for entertainment—it is an instruction on how to create the entertainment. The difference might be less extreme than between a recipe and the finished food, but it goes somewhat in the same direction.

    **Also similar to a recipe: This-or-that ingredient might be foregoable entirely, another might only be needed in half the stated proportion, whatnot—individually. Remove/reduce all of them at once…

    ***My contacts with the works of amateurs have been very limited since I left school, but these contacts, my recollections from my school years, and my own preliminary dabblings with fiction all point in this direction. Indeed, it could be argued that this is the failure of the aforementioned independent movies, e.g. in that the car ride could have remained, had it been sufficiently filled with something interesting (and preferably relevant to plot, characters, whatnot).

    ****According to “On Writing”, he tries to cut ten percent from the first to the second draft.

    From another positive point of view, reality has details, and fiction with too little detail is unlikely to be realistic: Go for a walk in the forest and there will not just be trees around—there might not be a pack of wolves, but a squirrel, a few birds, and any number of insects is par for the course. (And a tree is not just a tall brown thing with small green things on it.) Take a train-ride and there will almost certainly be some unexpected event, even be it something as trivial as being asked for the time or someone falling over. Etc. Sometimes such details do more harm than good; sometimes they are exactly what is needed. (Do not ask me when: I am very far from having developed the detail judgment.)

    The trick is likely a mixture of finding the right middle ground and gaining a feel for which “extras” are merely unnecessary filler and which actually bring value to the text—add color, but do not lose tempo. Chances are that the drives for detail and relevance can be combined, e.g. in that an event written just for color is re-written to actually tell us something about the character(s).

  3. The use of various connecting words and “preambles”* is an aspect of my own (non-fiction) writing that has long left me ambivalent: On the one hand, they do serve a deliberate, connecting purpose that enhances the text in some regards; on the other, I am often left with the feeling of a lack of “smoothness” and of too many words that only have an auxiliary character—or even the fear that I would be annoyed when encountering such an amount in texts by others.

    *E.g. “However, […]”, “To boot, […]”, “Notably, […]”, “On the other hand, […]”, etc.

    Looking at almost all texts that I read, including by successful fiction writers, such words are used far less often, and much more of the job of making connections is left to the reader (who, judging by myself, is only very rarely impeded). My background in software development (where the text given to the computer should leave as little room for ambiguity as possible) makes me loath to change my habit, but chances are that I do take it too far even in non-fiction context—and in a fiction context, this habit could be deadly.

  4. I am often troubled by (and some of the previous item goes back to) the limited mechanisms for formal clues concerning the syntactic/semantic/whatnot groupings and intentions of a text. A recurring sub-issue is the use of commata, the comma being used in a great number of roles* in writing, which often forces me to deliberately hold back on my use, lest my texts be littered with them.

    *Including e.g. as a list separator, as a separator of main and subordinate clause, as an indicator of parenthesis, … The situation is made worse in my case, because different languages have different rules, and I am underway in three different languages. (For instance, according to English rules, a text might correctly include “the horse that won”. According to German rules, this would be “the horse, that won”. Also note the contrast to the English “the horse, which won”, with a slightly different meaning.)

    For instance, if we consider a sentence like “the brown horse ran fast and won by a large margin” there is a considerable amount of “parsing” left to the reader—and parsing that largely hinges on knowing what various words mean/can mean in context*. Grouping the individual words by structure, we might end up with “(the (brown horse)) ((ran fast) and (won (by (a (large margin))))”—while a sentence like “the horse and the mule […]” would result in the very different “((the horse) and (the mule)) […]”, giving some indication of how tricky the interpretation is.** (And such a mere grouping is far from a complete analysis—in fact, I relied on previous analysis, e.g. the identification of “horse” as a noun and “won” as a verb, when performing it.)

    *Not all words have a unique interpretation. Consider e.g. garden-path sentences or absurdities like “Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.”, which actually is a complete sentence with an intended meaning.

    **Humans rarely notice this, unless they are learning a new language or the sentence is unusually tricky, because these steps take place unconsciously.

    Fields like linguistics and computer science approach such problems through use of very different representations, notably tree structures, that are capable of removing related issues of ambiguity, needing* to know what every word means, etc., and I often wish that everyday language would use some similar type of representation. As is, I stretch the boundaries of what language allows to express my intention—to the point that often I catch myself using “e.g.” and “i.e.” more as interpunctuation (in an extended sense) than as formulation. (Which explains my arguable overuse: In my own mind, they register more like a comma or a semi-colon does, than like “for instance”.)

    *With some reservations for words recognizable in their role through various hints or context. The classic example in English is the “-ly” suffix as a (far from perfect) hint that a word is an adverb.

  5. As an interesting special case of the previous item, the use of commata and semi-colons is often contra-intuitive: If we view the comma (“,”), semi-colon (“;”), colon (”:”) and full-stop (“.”) as differently strong “stops”,* which is common and has some historical justification, then a sentence like “I found red, green, and yellow apples” simply does not make sense. We might argue that the separation of “red”, “green”, and “yellow” is warranted; however, at the same time we want them to be (individually or collectively) attached to both “I found” and “apples”—which is simply not the case if the commata are viewed as stops.**

    *Here we see another case of characters doing double duty: Among the multiple roles of quotation marks we have both the signification of a literal string and of something metaphorical or approximate. Different signs for these roles, the role as an actual quote, the “scare quote” role, and whatever else might apply, would be neat. (Then again, most people would likely be over-challenged with such a system, and it would degenerate back into something less differentiated—a problem that might kill quite a few potential improvements.)

    **But note that this problem disappears with appropriate grouping, like “I found (red, green, and yellow) apples.”, which would be one way out. A better way, disconnected from the interpretation as stops, is to see the sentence as an abbreviation of the cumbersome “I found read apples and I found green apples and I found yellow apples”.

    In some cases, the problem could be limited by the prior introduction of a stronger stop*; however, this would often lead to awkward results and/or be incompatible with established use. For instance, “examples of apple colors: red, green, yellow” would be OK (in a context where this is stylistically tolerable), but “examples of apples colors are: red, green, yellow” is extremely odd. This solution is similar awkward for the original example (“I found: red, green, and yellow apples”) and leaves the original problem unsolved—“I found” is now offset, but “apples” is not. We might get by with “I found: red, green, and yellow: apples”, but this would be entirely unprecedented, hard to combine with any current interpretation of “:”, and better solved (assuming that an extension is suggested) by use of one of the bracket types**.

    *Note that the examples provided are somewhat different when “:” is viewed as a stop and when viewed as a “list introductor” or similar.

    **For instance, the scripting language Bash uses “{}” for a similar effect: The command “echo 1{a,b,c}2” results in the output “1a2 1b2 1c2”. (However, “()”, “[]”, and “<>” would be equally conceivable. Other bracket types exist, but would be problematic with current keyboards.)

Excursion on “Catch-22”:
A draft extended the mention of Kafka with “Joseph Heller, whose ‘Catch-22’ I am currently reading, appears to be a similar English example”. If this book is considered “high literature”, it is indeed a good example; however, I am highly skeptical to this classification: Apart from a few good laughs and the eponymous “catch”, the first hundred-or-so pages has had very little to offer of anything—and give the impression that the author has just sat down by the keyboard, written down whatever occurred to him in the moment, and then sent the resulting draft to be published. There are, incidentally, some Kafkaesque setups, but I would recommend Kafka, himself, to those looking for the Kafkaesque. It might be that the book makes more sense to someone who has lived in a similar setting or it might be that the remainder is better; however, my current feel is that this is yet another book that has gained its reputation due to popularity—not literary quality.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 29, 2018 at 10:40 am

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Overlooked explorations of the male role, etc.

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After my recent review of “Pride and Prejudice”, I have spent some time thinking on actually and apparently simplistic literature vs. something that has long annoyed me immensely: Common claims from (almost invariably female) “gender theorists” and their ilk that men would spend too little time analyzing the “male role”, that questions of “manhood” or “masculinity” would not be sufficiently explored, and similar. (While the same, apparently, does not apply to women—presumably, courtesy of the same “gender theorists”.)

These claims show a gross ignorance of the type of influences those men who are interested in fiction are exposed to since childhood—and the considerable efforts, conscious or not, spent exploring such topics in fiction, since long before “gender studies” arose as a social construct*. To boot, it severely underestimates the amount of time many men spend privately contemplating related issues, let alone the apparently universal** male question of when one ceases to be boy and becomes a man.

*Two can play that game…

**With reservations for societies where some type of initiation ritual is involved, as well as sub-cultures where it is tied to first having sexual intercourse. (Going by my own experiences, I suspect that the question is raised so commonly mostly because the process is gradual, both in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of the surroundings.)

Take “The Lord of the Rings” and consider the wide variety of characters, character developments, and situations: Take as positive examples Frodo and his heroic march; Sam and his undying loyalty; Merry and Pippin, and the sacrifices they make for friendship; and how all four grew to become so much stronger than they originally were (or proved themselves to be vs. thought that they were). Take as negative examples Boromir committing evil* in an effort to do good; Saruman being corrupted by a wish for power; Theoden falling prey to his personal Iago; or even Frodo, unable to give up the Ring during the deciding moment. (With many other examples to be found.) There are (mentally/morally/whatnot) small men and great men, there are small men growing, there are great men shrinking. There are dilemmas and decisions. There is heroism and cowardliness. There are good ends and means; and there are bad ends and means—even intermingled (cf. Boromir). A particular point of note is the epilogue in the Shire—unlike in so many other stories, defeating the main evil does not ensure that the world is safe and sound, and the work still goes on. (Incidentally, while the text is dominated by male characters, the few women that do occur are by no means house-wives focused on child-rearing. Most notably, Galadriel is a ruling queen, is one of the most powerful beings that appear in the story, and appears to wear the pants in her own family; while Eowyn disguises as a man, rides to battle, and slays one of Sauron’s greatest champions—both much worthier examples** than any of the female characters in “Pride and Prejudice”.)

*And from another perspective, we have the ethical dilemma of when what actions are justifiable, and the opportunity to consider ourselves in different situations (also see another recent text.) Unlike many other instances of evil being done in the name of good (or “the greater good”, as case may have it), the attempted evil was, on the surface, small and the situation one involving the fate of the world, making his actions easier to understand. (The more severe flaw was, likely, that he failed to comprehend the nature of the Ring, and that things would have ended much worse, had he been successful, than they actually did. My last reading being too far back, I do not recall the degree to which his actions were caused by an active influence by the Ring. The interpretation of these actions might need some corresponding adjustment.) Similar concerns about motivations and what-would-the-reader-do-in-the-same-situation apply in other cases too.

**I caught myself originally writing “examples for a young woman”. I immediately stopped to change this, although not unreasonable in this specific context: While their might be some areas where the sex of an example or role-model is relevant, it is almost always better to focus on the admirable characteristics. The feminist insistence that young women be given female role-models for this-and-that is highly misguided and contra-productive. If we want a role-model, we should pick someone suitable in a manner that ignores both our own and the role-models sex (and color, religion, nationality, whatnot).

Take “Hamlet”; take the “Iliad”; take “Le Morte D’Arthur”; take any number of other works by a great number of authors, even (particularly?) in the fantasy and sci-fi genres; take, even, the lives and adventures of Spiderman and the Hulk, in those despised super-hero comics, those heights of male “immaturity”. To a thinking mind, the right work can raise more questions around what it is and takes to be a man, how to be good, what dilemmas and problems can arise in life, whatnot, than the field of “gender studies” does (even discounting problems like ideological bias within that field). Moreover, in my impression, they do so to a far higher degree than does, m.m., the corresponding age-group literature for women, as demonstrated by e.g. “Pride and Prejudice”.*

*I must make the great reservation that I am not overly well-read in this area; however, what works I have read/watched with a similarly “for girls/women” image (as e.g. “The Lord of the Rings” has a “for boys/men” image), have usually fallen similarly short as “Pride and Prejudice”—with questions like “Who gets whom?”, “Does he love me?” (or even “Do I love him?”), “Which of my two suitors should I pick?”, “Do I dare to have that chocolate bar?”, “Should I remain friends with that other woman, even though she is a horrible person?”, and similar shallowness. While some of these questions might, on a personal level, be important, they do not contribute much to personal growth, to developing a sense of ethics, to gaining insights, whatnot. (Note the difference between works written for women and works written by women—the latter can be quite insightful.)

These works often (similar to “Pride and Prejudice”) work with shallower and more unnuanced characters, proving that this, in and by it self, need not be a problem. However, where “Pride and Prejudice” gives the impression of either lack of insight or lack of effort (which, I will not presume to judge), they often do so for deliberate reasons, in order to e.g. make a point more obvious or to be allegorical.* (Also note that my complaint against “Pride and Prejudice” was not lack of character depth, per se, but the compounded lack of almost everything, character depth included.) More generally, many works of fiction can be quite thought-worthy despite having a reputation that goes more towards entertainment literature. For instance, many with only a fleeting familiarity see Terry Pratchett as just a humorist (he was much more); for instance, many see the “Narnia” books as just children’s literature (they have insight even for the adult reader and can be read on several levels). Also see an excursion in the aforementioned review.

*However, many, especially for younger readers, can take this to a point that important insights are lost, most notably the realization that the bad guys usually consider themselves to be the good guys.

Interestingly, questions like those discussed above do not necessarily have any stronger connection with being-a-man-as-opposed-to-a-woman*. Instead, they center on being-a-man-as-opposed-to-a-boy, or, more generically, an-adult-as-opposed-to-a-child; or forego such divisions entirely to focus on e.g. what is right, with no restrictions on who is concerned (being-good-as-opposed-to-bad**, to stick to the pattern). If then, a criticism against one of the sexes should be extended, it would be better directed at women*** for not paying enough attention to the child–adult (or good–bad) division and favoring the female–male division. To some degree, a man is a plain vanilla adult, making issues like a (specifically) male role largely uninteresting; while a woman is a strawberry adult with a scope of cream, chocolate flakes, and a cherry on top, making an investigation of a female role more understandable. (And while I have no objection to women being strawberry instead of vanilla, do they really need all those extras?)

*However, some do, at least in public perception, e.g. in that the demands on a man to take responsibility are larger, ditto to be a provider or protector, ditto to, in a life-or-death situation, give his life to protect his wife’s, etc. Apart from these being unlikely to cause dissatisfaction among feminists, they are also usually of a type that does not require an adjustment of the male self-image or whatnot—if anything, they suggest that women should step up more, that society should to put larger demands on women, and/or that women should revise their image of men.

**I use “bad” over “evil” for two reasons: Firstly, it is not necessarily a matter of e.g. ethics or consequences for others, it can also be a matter of e.g. capabilities and consequences for one self. Secondly, even when ethics is concerned, “evil” might push the contrast too far. For instance, in the parable of the good Samaritan, do we really wish to call those just walking by “evil”? Indeed, even “bad” might be too strong a word in at least some contexts.

***Or at least the type of women who tend to be found in areas like “gender studies” and feminism. Still, in my personal impression to date, women often see “being an adult” as the equivalent of “having a family”—while a man might be more focused on “carrying responsibility” or “doing the right thing”.

But here we might have the crux: These efforts deal with topics like right and wrong, good and evil, positive and negative behavior and developments, human strengths and weakness; often contrasting or putting in conflict egoism and altruism, loyalty towards two different things (say, a brother and country), duty and safety/comfortability, whatnot. What they do not do, is ask questions like “Should I wear a skirt to work?”—and why should they? That is a small and mostly irrelevant question, starting with the low probability that a man would want to do so. (The reverse questions around some women can have a greater value, e.g. to move them towards more practical clothing, but are still not truly important.)

True, in the area between these extremes, there are questions that might be worthy of some exploration (and do not obviously fit in the context of an epic fantasy adventure). For instance, we might consider “Is it unmanly to be a stay-at-home dad?”: It could be argued that someone who avoids that role for that reason is lacking in maturity. On the other hand, this constellation is not very common, with more common reasons including a greater drive to accomplish something professionally and a lesser tolerance of children. A typical intelligent and educated man will not fear what his blokes in the pub will say,* but he will have concerns like loosing ground in his career**, earning less, being bored by a less intellectual type of work, being driven up the wall after spending the whole day, week in and week out, with his children,*** etc. In contrast, here duty can come in, and a man who unexpectedly finds himself a single parent, might very well stay at home out of a sense of duty. His friends might give him a minor ribbing, but they would hardly think less of him—they would see a man doing something manly (viz. doing his duty by his children).

*A recurring issue is that “gender theorists” and feminists present a very stereotypical, prejudiced, and often outright incorrect image of men, e.g. through ignoring individual variation and over-focusing on sit-com “proles”—if men are painted as Al Bundy, then we should equally paint women as Peg Bundy. Similarly, if we do not look at the people with some modicum of intelligence, there is no point in discussing the matter: Stupid people will, barring a revolutionary medical break-through, remain stupid, no matter how many treatises are written on their behavior—and if we look at the behavior of stupid women, they are certainly not something for the female sex to be proud of.

**But is not a career drive also something to analyze/problematize/deconstruct/…? That depends on why the drive is there. Believers in the out-dated “tabula rasa” model of the human mind might jump to the conclusion that a career drive is necessarily something artificial, which explains much of their wish for further investigation (but, obviously, only within their own “everything is a construct” frame-work). However, there are strong signs that such differences are largely caused by biology, making a further investigation a low priority—if in doubt, because this drive is mostly beneficial. A major reason behind the continual failure of various modern feminist, PC, Leftist, whatnot attempts to create equality of outcome is simply that they push past the point where inborn characteristics become a deciding factor—they fail to realize that differences in outcome are not ipso-facto proof of differences in opportunity. (Similar arguments apply to other points above.)

***Note that a love of one’s children is not an obstacle to such irritation.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 19, 2018 at 5:07 am

Appointment with Death: Human memory and a major plot-twist

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I have just re-read Agatha Christie’s “Appointment with Death”, following a first reading some ten to fifteen years ago.

(spoiler alert)

While the book was as interesting and well-crafted as I remembered, my enjoyment was marred by the knowledge, from my first reading, that there actually had not been a murder—but a malicious suicide.

I read on, probably not paying as much attention to details as I should have, and saw Poirot, in his traditional final summary/round-up/interrogation, eliminate suspect after suspect, often explaining the inconsistencies in witness statements by a deliberate attempt to protect someone else (in turn based on the incorrect belief that this someone else was the murderer), leaving us with … a murder.

This leads me to two sub-topics:

Firstly, memory is a fickle thing. Incidents like these make me question how much of e.g. my own life that I (and others of theirs) might remember in a distorted manner, especially with an eye on the occasional inclusion in my writings. They also raise serious concerns about e.g. the reliability of witnesses*, and strengthen my opinions concerning topics like statutes of limitations.

*Professionals have raised such concerns for a long time. For that matter, Christie has been known to use unreliable witnesses, including an easily manipulated old lady in this book.

My suspicion is that a suicide was my main hypothesis for most of the original reading, and that this hypothesis, through a larger exposure, remained in my memory, while the actual culprit faded away. Indeed, I have repeatedly had similar experiences in the past (although none so harmful to a re-reading), e.g. in that I had a clear childhood recollection of the brave and capable hero of “Leiningen Versus the Ants” ultimately succumbing to a swarm of his enemies; but found that he actually survived and defeated the ants, when I re-read the story as an adult. Indeed, during the re-reading, my faulty recollection had me contemplating an interpretation of the story as symbolic of the futility of human plans and efforts against something too powerful (e.g. nature, God, or a greater mass of people)—an interpretation that did not pan out… That misrecollection was similar in that most of Leiningen’s efforts through-out the story had been futile: He had repeatedly temporarily held off the ants with consecutive lines of defense, but each line was ultimately over-come, and the general tendency of failure dominates the story. To boot, the scene with his last desperate run, and the attacks during it, must have been very strong to a child, leaving a correspondingly strong impression.

Secondly, I am left with the feeling that Christie made an error of judgment in what is otherwise the best of her books that I have read.* Not only was this the perfect opportunity for the twist ending of twist endings,** but it would also have fit with both the character of the victim (Mrs Boynton) and the timing of events: Mrs Boynton was portrayed as an extremely malicious and tyrannical woman, who enjoyed keeping her family down. To boot, she was elderly and sickly, with her death not being truly unexpected. To boot, her grasp over the family was cracking, as she had under her thumb an own daughter, three step-children, and the wife of one of the step-sons—and the latter had declared her intention to leave (even at the cost of losing her husband), the husband was contemplating following her, another step-son was enticed to rebellion by a new romantic interest (Sarah), and he and the step-daughter had contemplated murder to free the family…***

*In a guesstimate about a dozen—which is still only a fraction of her overall works.

**In light of the good fit, I make a minor reservation that Christie might have deliberately tried to mislead the reader into thinking suicide, and using the reversal as the twist. With my second reading, I am faced with the problem that I might have failed to see such attempts, already being convinced of the suicide; while my first reading is too long gone by. Even should this be the case, however, I consider the suicide version to be better (with corresponding alterations to remove any too open hints at suicide.)

***Here the question of what Mrs Boynton knew is important, with this question partially hinging on when she died. For instance, she was aware of Sarah, but likely never understood how great her effect was: The step-son in question went to take a stand and break free on the very day of her murder, but she is, towards the end, revealed to have already been dead when he reached her. However, since he pretended towards the others that she was still alive, another interpretation is possible for most of the book, that he did tell her off and that she took this as an impulse to act. The situation with the other step-son is quite similar.

Consider now a scenario in which she has the knowledge that her death is not long due, she is faced with this collapse of her petty dominion, and she sees a final way to spite the family—commit suicide and make sure that one or several of the “steps” go down for murder. (This might also, depending on the wills and laws involved, have moved more of her late husbands fortune onto her biological daughter.)

I am uncertain whether this scenario would have fit well enough given the facts presented prior to the summary, but if not, little would have to be changed. The issues around the syringe(s) need not be a problem, assuming e.g. that she had herself stolen one and deliberately left it at the site of the crime (in order to draw attention to the unnatural death); while one of the family members had later removed it, in an attempt to protect another family member (consistent with behavior actually displayed). Contradictory claims of when she was alive and when she must have been dead might be resolvable through an alleged incident with Mrs Boynton’s watch, which had run out and then been rewound and reset by one of the step-sons—possibly, she deliberately let the watch run out in order to somehow trick him into noting the wrong time from some other source.

The actual culprit and the resolution are unsatisfactory, too sudden, and leave the reader in a position where he would be hard-pressed to reach the right conclusion*: Mrs Boynton had once been a wardress in a prison. The murderer, Lady Westholme, had once been an inmate at said prison, Mrs Boynton had recognized her, and was now intending or threatening to use this knowledge to destroy Lady Westholme’s reputation, political career, whatnot.** Poirot’s conclusion of this hinged on statements made by Mrs Boynton directed at Lady Westholme immediately after being given a speech by Sarah, who was not even aware of Lady Westholme’s presence. (Specifically, statements that she never forgot a face and whatnot.) Re-reading the corresponding passages, I can see Poirot’s point (e.g. direction of gaze, surprising formulation); however, resolving the oddity of the statements in context by assuming that they were directed towards a third party forces the introduction of a greater oddity—she must now have left a severe insult to her self-image go entirely unanswered.*** To boot, the formulation was merely surprising, not implausible, with e .g. “I will never forget you or your insults; and one of these days, I am going to get you” being a reasonable interpretation. (Certainly, the effect on Sarah was considerable, pointing to an odd-but-skillful threat.)

*Poirot’s repeated emphasis of the scene might have been clue enough, but (a) I, specifically, was not paying the attention that a Christie story requires, (b) readers, in general, should not have to rely on meta-information, e.g. what the detective’s suspicions are, in order to reach the right conclusion—the point of a good murder mystery is for the reader to try to find the culprit in competition with the detective, not to be led by him. (I have no recollection of whether I managed to get to the right conclusion during my first reading.)

**How seriously such threats were taken by Lady Westholme is further illustrated by there actually being a suicide in the book: Lady Westholme’s, as she realized that the game was up. Notably, Poirot repeatedly emphasizes that he could not necessarily prove anything, and a conviction was likely far from certain, making a “death before dishonor” scenario likelier than despair over a return to prison.

***Unless we assume that she deliberately directed the same set of statements towards two individuals simultaneously, which, while not entirely impossible, is a bit far-fetched. (Or, just possibly, that she deliberately ignored Sarah as a slight in its own right. If so, however, it failed entirely.)

Generally, to my taste, too many of Christie’s work involve various surprise connections from the past, people living under assumed identities, and similar. In one extreme case, I believe “A Murder is Announced”, there are actually two (!) long separated siblings independently using assumed identities. That these surprise connections are not necessarily the culprits, actually makes matters worse: With Lady Westholme, the surprise connection was the reason for the murder—in other cases, we have both a murder and an unrelated surprise connection. (Not to mention the additional coincidence that these murders take place in connection with Poirot or Miss Marple far more often than could be statistically expected. More generally, if a crime-fighter goes on vacation, it appears a fictional necessity that a crime takes place under his nose…)

A related criticism is how often the murderer is someone originally not among the obvious suspects: If the murderer is someone unexpected in a single story, this is not a problem—it might even be good. However, when it happens in story after story, the effect will be ruined by readers who learn to expect the unexpected. Do X, Y, and Z inherit a fortune after the murder? Then X, Y, and Z are likely innocent, so let us focus on A, B, and C instead.

(These criticisms notwithstanding, I consider Christie brilliant.)

Excursion on incongruities:
When looking at fictional detectives, small incongruities are often very important, in that when nine out of ten facts fit a hypothesis, the hypothesis will turn out to be wrong. Sherlock Holmes might have gained less relative the police from his deductive abilities than from his search for small details and insistence that all the details be explained by a single hypothesis. This well matches my experiences from other areas, e.g. in that a minor deviation in a database is often a sign of faulty code—and possibly code that will at some point cause a major deviation. Scientific theories are a great source of examples—if the theory does not explain all that it is supposed to explain, and have all its predictions come true, something needs to be fixed. (My experiences with real-life crime-fighting is extremely limited, but the same almost must hold there, except as far as coincidences need to be taken into account—that cigar ash might have been left by the burglar, but there is also some chance that the butler had taken liberties and failed to clean up the evidence in the excitement after the burglary was discovered.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 16, 2018 at 12:24 am

Pride and Prejudice

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I have just finished reading “Pride and Prejudice”—and find myself both puzzled and disappointed: While I was well aware that Jane Austen was a “chick-lit” writer, I had expected a work of depth and quality commensurate to its and her reputation. Not so.

The book is not only chick-lit and extremely “high concept”*, but is also void of anything that would raise it above mere entertainment literature.** There are minimal or no attempts to explore questions of ethics, philosophy, personal development (except as below), social criticism, …, and no sign of a “higher” purpose. There is some space given to psychology (in a wide sense), but not much and most is trite, not going much beyond the typical in even entertainment literature. Above all, there was nothing that made me stop to think, showed me something important that I did not already understand, left me an even marginally better person after the reading, …*** For intellectual purposes, I might just as well read a Bond novel—and if I did, I would at least be entertained.

*Specifically, focusing on twists and turns during the process of finding a husband in the then upper-class Britain.

**Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with reading (I often do) or writing entertainment literature. The point is the difference between reputation and reality. (Also see an excursion at the end.)

***A potential lesson is that trying to figure people out without communication is extremely error-prone, including the apparent female habit of trying to deduce a man’s feelings and intentions towards her based on small actions and endless speculation. Ditto understanding a situation after hearing only one side. However, I have understood both since I was a teenager.

The characters are without exception one-dimensional, and most are truly silly and/or unsympathetic people, be it out of stupidity, narrow-mindedness, shallowness, immaturity, or, indeed, “Pride and Prejudice”.* Some lee-way might be given to the teenage or border-line teenage characters acting like teenagers; however, the situation is not that much better when we move up in age, as exemplified by e.g. Mrs. Bennet and Lady de Bourgh. Consider the main character, Elizabeth (“Prejudice”), who builds her entire impression of Darcy (“Pride”) based on hearsay, without any attempt to find out his side of the story—how many twists and turns could have been avoided which just a little bit of common sense and fairness. (While it is true that this failing is very common, it also made it very hard for me to sympathize with her—and even harder to understand that Darcy would be interested in the long-term.)

*Writing this, I contemplate whether the intention might have been some type of deliberate satire of or comedy based on human absurdity, stupidity, silliness, or similar—possibly, something along the lines of “The Pickwick Papers” or “Three Men in a Boot”. However, if so, it is not very skillfully done, and Austen leaves the impression of taking these people seriously. (On the character level: That some were deliberately written as stupid is clear.)

Now, based on the juxtaposition of “Pride” and “Prejudice”, and looking at the initial developments, we might expect personal growth to be a theme. However, even that is not truly the case. Elizabeth did not come around through learning to disregard prejudice, get both sides of the story, whatnot—she was forced to re-evaluate specific prejudice in light of ever more evidence that she had been wrong. To boot, she took far longer than reasonable to complete her change of mind. Whether she truly learned her lesson is far from clear. Darcy might, depending on interpretation, have developed farther; however, most of his later behavior, e.g. his explanatory letter or his help to Lydia, could also be seen as rooted in continued pride*.

*At least the latter illustrating the question (posed in the book) of whether pride is necessarily something negative. (An deeper exploration of this topic could have made the book more valuable.)

In terms of plot, events, whatnot, there is not much to be found—for most of the book nothing actually happens. Who gets whom is not enough to fill a book this long… The main intrigues could have been contained in one volume (as opposed to the actual two), with considerable margin to spare, with no loss of value, and a considerable improvement in readability. The only point of the book that brings something resembling excitement, roughly three-quarters through, is when Lydia, one of Elizabeth’s sisters, unexpectedly elopes, throwing the family into panic. This caused a few chapters worth of more dynamic story, but the situation was soon resolved, and things went back to “nothing actually happens”. Indeed, I suspect that even this episode was not added for excitement, but more to give Darcy an opportunity to validate himself. (Else it would likely have taken place much earlier.) Many of the events and developments that did take place are too predictable, even hackneyed*, including the Elizabeth–Darcy situation: That a woman has strong negative feelings for a man at the beginning of a story, is a very strong hint that they will be romantically involved by its end…

*At least from today’s point of view: Some of it, in all fairness, might have been more novel at the time.

The length is not undue merely because nothing happens, however: The long-winded (even to me!) prose also extends the length of the text considerably, without adding anything over a more compact formulation. (Admittedly, this is a fairly common problem with works from that time.) I often even found myself drifting off, unable to concentrate on the text, because the amount of information gained from reading a certain passage was too small to keep my brain alert.

Even the romance parts are, at least by modern standards, not that romantic. There is little difference made between love and infatuation. Much of the marriage seeking is merely convenience; and this (even with marriage as truly life-long commitment at the time), is often reduced to “is he/she socially suitable, attractive, and willing”*, without spending sufficient time on examining actual long-term compatibility**—where someone with sense and sensibility might, today, consider asking for a date, marriage is already on the table. And, no, this is not the take of the parents—it is the take of the presumptive spouses. This is the odder with an eye on the example of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth’s parents, who are stated outright to have married too optimistically and been less than satisfied because of it. I might go as far as comparing parts to pubescent school romance, in terms of both shallowness of criteria and the roundabout approach to determining whether an interest is returned.

*Echoing the famous first line of “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”.

**Two previous texts of mine ([1], [2]) are highly open to marriages based on reason, and would allow a fairly short period of prior acquaintance. However, this went hand-in-hand with an exploratory process and a great focus on ensuring that both parties would know in detail what to expect.

A partial saving grace is humor: I found myself laughing on several occasions, but the overall amount of humor is simply too small to make up for the weaknesses. A dash of humor in an already enjoyable or valuable work can be the icing on the wedding cake—here, we have the icing on a plain layer of sponge.

Excursion on “popular” and “classic”:
I have long suspected that many of the “classic” works have earned their status more through popularity than quality—that the popular of today is the classic of tomorrow. “Pride and Prejudice” is a likely candidate. (At least some of Dickens’ works, while often having considerably more depth, could also be examples. Similarly, would anyone read “Le Morte d’Arthur” today, had it not contained knights, magic, and whatnots?) This is not necessarily a bad thing; however, when being a classic is automatically seen as a sign of quality, instead of enduring popularity, then caution is needed. The popularity issue is worsened by the lower competition in earlier days, with e.g. far more books being published today than in the 19th century or far more TV shows being broadcast than in the 1950s.

As a counter-point, I have repeatedly encountered books and authors with more depth than their reputation/my expectation. For instance, I recently read a few books by H.G. Wells: I had expected something decidedly pulpy, but found them to be surprisingly intelligent and containing more food for thought than “Pride and Prejudice” did. I have earlier written about “Black Beauty” as a very positive surprise.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 15, 2018 at 3:12 am

Thoughts after re-watching Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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Earlier today, I re- watched “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”, and found myself contemplating and meta-contemplating the Pearls’ change of life, the starting point being a scene where the originally extremely innocent Pearls break through a wall and attack everyone in the room—but do so using non-lethal weapons.

Going by the movie*, the Pearls started with an extremely low-tech, one-with-nature society, giving the impression of a Pearl being somewhere between an idealized Buddhist and a “noble savage”. An external event destroys their home planet and forces a small group of survivors to flight on a crashed foreign space ship (a very low-nature, one-with-technology setting). They spend a prolonged time learning how to handle technologies and develop new technologies with a Pearlish twist. They do not shy away from illegal black-market deals, or from bringing guns to such a deal.** They intrude on the normal functioning of the eponymous city, perpetrate the aforementioned attack, kidnap a military leader*** (Commander Filitt), cause a great deal of property damage, whatnot. This according to the principle “you have what we need”.

*Which need not have shown everything of interest and might e.g. have given a simplistic view of the pre-apocalypse life of the Pearls.

**Admittedly, a very important deal, central to their hopes of restoring their civilization.

***In their defense, Filitt was personally to blame for their apocalypse. On the other hand, I doubt that they knew this at the time, there being no obvious way for them to have such knowledge (I am uncertain whether the movie made some contrary statement, e.g. relating to psychic powers or extensive research); more likely, they were just looking for a bargaining chip, which caused an implausible coincidence.

Even so, they appear to have kept a pacifist core, tried to limit their activities to the necessary minimum, and (likely) saw their actions as a necessary evil.

Here a series of questions arise, the most notable to me being to what degree an individual, a group of people, or a civilization can ever go back to what it was before such a series of events, to what degree central parts of their being have been altered, and whether they are now better or worse than before. I will not attempt to answer these question, considering them more “food for thought” and an opportunity to see new perspectives of the world than something realistically answerable. (With the added complication that the Pearls are not human, implying that the answer for them need not hold for humans and vice versa.) I do point to some sub-aspects, however: (a) Strong parallels to the Garden of Eden and the banishment of Adam and Eve, where I have long tended not to see the banishment as a bad thing (cf. excursion); however, where the circumstances are sufficiently different that what is true for the one need be true for the other.* (b) The question of whether we are better of as children than as adults. (c) The degree to which we can, in a manner of speaking, switch context, personalities, whatnot.** (d) The effects of highly traumatic events and events where we might have to compromise our beliefs, reveal ourselves to be different than we want to be, and similar.***

*This includes the death of millions of Pearls, the actual destruction of the Pearls’ home-world, and the lack of culpability of the Pearls in their “banishment”. (Here other parts of Jewish history or pseudo-history might be more appropriate analogies, but they are less interesting on a metaphorical level. At the same time, it is interesting how this theme of loss, banishment, search for a home land, …, recurs. Following the hypothesis that much of the Tanakh was written during the Babylonian captivity, this might be explained by a focus on a then relevant theme—but the post-temple diaspora happened some six hundreds years after its end… As a clarification to any PC readers: With “pseudo-history”, I refer to parts of the Bible considered ahistorical.)

**Consider e.g. how the same man can be a war criminal and a loving husband and father, or, like Hitler, be a strong opponent of cruelty towards animals. Looking at less extreme examples, it is by no means rare that someone can not only have e.g. a work persona, a family persona, a out-with-the-gang persona, …, but a fully developed “identity” for each, moving well beyond the mask of a persona. Similarly, it is not unusual for someone to adopt different identities over time, with non-trivial effects on thoughts and behavior—another reason why identity politics is dangerous.

***For instance, when someone actively fights in a war.

Other questions include e.g. what might have happened, had events not resolved themselves, and whether the Pearls might have moved on to “harder” violence; to what degree a person/people can truly be pacifist* and whatnot, when later shown to be able to move even to actions like those of the Pearls; and how large the difference in principle between Filitt and the post-apocalyptic Pearls actually was (see excursion; but, to avoid misunderstandings, the Pearls are far more to my taste).

*I am not certain to what degree the original Pearl society should be seen as consciously pacifist (“we abhor violence”) and to what degree as innocent/naive (“what is violence?” or “what would be the point of violence?”). This can make a large difference when we look at this specific case, but does not affect the abstract question.

From a more “meta” perspective, I see an ever recurring observation repeated: It matters far less what one reads, watches, whatnot, than what is done with what was read, etc. Some material, undoubtedly, contains more “food for thought” than other, but this is of little import when someone does not think—and a good thinker can find interesting ideas even in apparently superficial material. Many of my own early (often superficial and undeveloped, yet valuable as stepping stones) insights into human nature came from watching “Friends”… This is also a major reason why the connection between being “well read” and being intellectually well developed is comparatively weak—having just read a large number of “great books” does fairly little for the intellect. Thinking about the books on the other hand… As corollaries, quality reading is better than quantity reading and quality reading than reading of quality books, and it is a bad idea to read a book just because it is considered “intellectual”. I read e.g. “Crime and Punishment” when I was around twelve—and it did nothing to enhance my intellect, because I did not have the tools and the understanding to do more than just read it.* I read “Nineteen Eighty-Four” at an even younger age—and based my then** strongly negative opinion on the lack of a happy ending… The sad truth is that some adults that pride themselves on intellectual reading have not progressed that much farther.

*Nor am I certain that I had any type of intellectual aspiration at the time: I just loved to read and one of the teachers at school handed me a copy.

**Today, I consider it a strong candidate for the most important book of the 20th century, and one of the few books that might actually deserve the label “mandatory reading”.

Of course, the reverse of this is that far from every insight found in a particular work was actually deliberately planted there. Consider the works of Shakespeare: Their great standing in terms of e.g. insight into human psychology is to a considerable degree rooted in the fact that so many minds have spent so much time searching for meaning. He might or might not have been superior to his contemporaries, but chances are that some of them would have an at least similar reputation, had they been exposed to the same scrutiny. Similar points apply to e.g. the Bible. (This is also a reason why I consider the naive search for symbolism in books dangerous—that the reader finds it does not mean that the author actually intended it to be there… Some books have it and an understanding the symbolism might be needed to truly understand the book; however, too many readers are under the misapprehension that symbolism is the A and O of reading and writing alike.)

Excursion on Eden etc.:
The traditional narrative is basically an ideal life, a crime/violation of trust/act of disobedience, and a resulting banishment into a worse life. I see several possible, partially overlapping, interpretations of the events as more reasonable/plausible, especially when we allow for an imperfect transcription of the actual* events, including e.g. the events being more of a young bird or young adult** (human) being kicked out to begin a separate life after having reached a certain degree of maturity; the eating from the tree inducing a change between two comparable states, one allowing a stay in Eden and the another requiring a move; and a less than exemplary God, who rejected Adam and Eve after they moved past the developmental stage that he had intended. To boot, there is always the interpretation of Eden as more of a state of mind than as a physical place.

*Under the arguendo assumption that the Bible is even approximately historically correct in this regard—I do not believe that Adam and Eve actually existed, and I suspect that the Pope does not believe it either, at this stage of Biblical criticism.

**I note the strong similarities with a child–parent relationship, the potential of a teenage rebellion, the obvious potential sexual interpretation of both snake and fruit, and the potential division into an innocent and non-innocent stage of development.

Excursion on Filitt and the Pearls in comparison:
Looking at actual damage done, the comparison is bordering on the ridiculous; and Filitt is far more ruthless than the Pearls. However, looking more at motives and principles, they shared a willingness to commit acts that others might consider wrongful in order to further the cause of their respective peoples, and both almost certainly considered themselves the Good Guys and fighting for a Greater Good*. We also do not know with certainty how they would have acted in transposed situations; especially when applying the psychological principle that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths a statistic, and when considering how different the respective stakes and means were.** By the same token, I cannot reliably predict how I would have acted if actually in the Pearls’ shoes, but from an “ivory tower” perspective I would have started with an entirely non-violent diplomatic approach with regard to the searched for artifacts, an attempt to get the legal authorities on Filitt’s trail,*** and/or an appeal to public opinion. If such approaches were tried by the Pearls, it is not clear from the film.

*A good example of why appeals to the Greater Good are dangerous and should be used only with great caution and great respect for the rights and interests of others.

**At least when we look at Filitt and the original apocalypse. The later events in the “city” are hard to see as more than self-preservation without a genuinely proposed Greater Good.

***Assuming that his culpability was known to them; otherwise, a more general target.

Excursion on reading material for precocious children:
The problems with reading “too adult” books too young are not limited to a mere lack of appreciation and benefit—it can also include exposure to material of a potentially harmful character: The too scary, too violent, too sexualized, … This only partly because of the risk of a direct negative influence*, but also because of the incomprehensibility of too many events that are easily understood by someone older. I can e.g. recall my first contact, at a very young age, with the word “condom” (resp. the Swedish “kondom”): A teenage couple was talking to each other, the boy pulled a carton (“kartong”)** of condoms out of his jacket, and the girl expressed a considerable reluctance—teenage stereotypes 101. I was so ignorant of related matters that I focused on “carton”, pictured the thing I associated most strongly with this word, a carton of corn flakes, and was highly confused—starting with the question how he had managed to carry it in his jacket… Such lack of comprehension can, in it self, cause a feeling similar to some night-mares when prolonged.

*Which I recognize, but where I do not want to call for a moral panic: Being too strict is just as bad as being too lax.

**Note that in an English text the words used or associations present might be different.

On the other hand, material that is “age appropriate” is also usually so much shorter, using so much simpler language, whatnot, that a precocious reader risks being severely understimulated. To boot, a parental ban on certain books will likely do more to increase interest than prevent reading…

Written by michaeleriksson

August 27, 2018 at 6:36 pm