The Grail Code 

Archive for April, 2008

John Donne and the Case of the Missing Toilet Paper

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

<meta name="GENERATOR" content="OpenOffice.org 2.3 (Linux)" /><br /> <style type="text/css"> <!-- @page { size: 8.5in 11in; margin: 0.79in } P { margin-bottom: 0.08in } --></style> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in">A while ago I was visiting my mother-in-law, a voracious reader of detective novels, and I happened to notice a book called <em><a href="http://www.mysterylovers.com/index.php?target=products&product_id=48285">Critique of Criminal Reason</a> </em><span style="font-style: normal">sitting in her reading queue.</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">“Please don’t tell me that’s ‘Immanuel Kant, Detective,’” I said, painfully aware of the literary fad that has turned everyone from Jane Austen to Oscar Wilde to Groucho Marx into an amateur detective.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">She assured me that it was what I suspected. Furthermore, she tells me now that she enjoyed the book, although (having actually read Kant) I still can’t imagine how the dialogue would go. “I know no investigations more necessary for a full insight into </span>the nature of the faculty which we call understanding, and at the same time for the determination of the rules and limits of its use, than those undertaken in the second chapter of the ‘Transcendental Analytic,’ under the title of ‘Deduction of the Pure Conceptions of the Understanding’; and they have also cost me by far the greatest labor—labor which, I hope, will not remain uncompensated.” That’s one of Kant’s shortest and most lucid sentences.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">But I feel a bit ashamed of myself for making fun of people who make famous authors into detectives, partly because the first volume of my own “Thomas Love Peacock Mystery & Mayhem” series is in proof right now, but mostly because these are people who actually love books and the authors who write them, so much so that they can’t bear the idea of not having any more Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde to read.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">And that’s a wonderful thing, because most contemporary literary study is done by people who really, really hate books.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">I am, of course, being deliberately unfair and even abusive. But that’s not anything new, is it?</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">What brings all this up is a <a href="http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article3712980.ece">long and eloquent essay</a> in the Times Literary Supplement, in which Raymond Tallis carefully disassembles the latest fad in academic literary criticism. </span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">He was provoked by an A. S. Byatt commentary in which she tried to apply “neuroaesthetics” to explain why she liked John Donne. It seems that the age of Deconstructionism is drawing to a close; now literary critics are expected to be neuroscientists, explaining the delicate effects of poetry by referring to the various activities of gray stuff in the brain.</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Well, they’re not really doing neuroscience, of course. That would involve a lot of hard work. What they’re doing is borrowing some half-digested ideas from neuroscience to make their criticism look all sciencey. And I can’t help feeling that—once again—the main attraction of the theory is its incomprehensibility. Just as with Deconstructionism, the pillar of the theory is jargon. A real neuroscientist would see at once where his science is being distorted and misunderstood, but real neuroscientists don’t live in university English departments. Only an occasional crossover like Raymond Tallis (Emeritus Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester and author of </span><em>The Enduring Significance of Parmenides: Unthinkable Thought</em><span style="font-style: normal">) dares to expose the nonsense, but I have confidence that the academic establishment will be able to dismiss him as a reactionary crank. After all, what does he know about literature? He’s only a scientist.</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">What I loved most about this article, though, was that it gave me a new word to describe what’s wrong with every one of the fashionable schools of literary criticism that wash over the academic world every decade or so, leaving only destruction in their wake. It’s not even Professor Tallis’ word, but he gets the credit for introducing me to it:</p> <blockquote> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">Approaches governed by very general ideas tend to bypass the individual work or author: understanding is replaced by what W. T. Mitchell called “overstanding”. The capacious frame of reference in which the work is located—evident to the critic but not to the author—places the former in a position of knowing superiority vis-à-vis the latter. The work becomes a mere example of some historical, cultural, political, or other trend of which the author will have been dimly aware, if at all. The differences between one author and another are also minimized. Like hypochondriacs, theory-led critics find what they seek: so Jane Austen and the Venerable Bede are alike in representing the hegemony of the colonizer over the colonized, the powerful over the powerless, or the voiced over the voiceless; or in their failure to acknowledge the fictionality of the bourgeois fiction of the self.</p> </blockquote> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">“Overstanding” is exactly the word I’ve been looking for all these years. It distills exactly what I think is wrong with all the critical fads: they all assume that there is nothing to be gained by reading.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">Whether they’re Marxists, Deconstructionists, or Neuroaestheticicsts, the fad critics already know all they mean to know when they open a book. Analyzing a work—and it makes no difference whether it’s <em>Sense and Sensibility</em> or <em>Jane Austen, Girl Detective</em>—is just a matter of showing how it fits the theory. There’s not even the germ of an idea that reading a great book might change the way you see the universe. That’s not on the agenda. We already know how to see the universe; we just have to prove that Homer, Walter Map, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, August Wilson, or whoever it is we’re reading confirms what we, the smug academics who know everything, have already decreed. Isn’t it lucky that we’re so much smarter than Shakespeare these days?</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">In fact, Shakespeare is no better than the telephone book. They’re both just texts. </span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Neuroaesthetics is even more reductive than that. “</span>Bellowing in a rage when one discovers that the toilet paper has run out, and someone has neglected to replace it, would involve the very same processes Byatt invokes to explain the particular impact of the poems of a genius, if such processes do occur. The mental objects constructed under such irritating circumstances also involve percepts, memory images, abstract concepts, and an extraordinary confection-by-association of them, as one justifies one’s rage and allocates blame, and deploys sophisticated neural algebras that simultaneously locate oneself in an unsatisfactory toilet and a careless world populated with thoughtless people.<span style="font-style: normal">”</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">I’m going to be using that word “overstanding” a lot.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">This approach to literature is full of tragic consequences, and I use the word “tragic” to mean “like something in a play by Sophocles.” The very people who most love books are the ones who get sucked into these academic movements. But fate inevitably leads them to murder the books they love. By denying the very possibility of an author who knows <em>more</em><span style="text-decoration: none"> than they do, the tragic suckers permanently shut themselves off from the objects of their love. But if they see through the nonsense and refuse to have anything to do with it, they may find themselves cut off from the possibility of devoting their lives to literature in the academic world. </span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal"><span style="text-decoration: none">So why do these schools of criticism flourish? Mostly because </span><em><span style="text-decoration: none">nobody understands them. </span></em><span style="text-decoration: none">They are ultimately nonsense. But no one wants to admit to being baffled by what everyone else seems to understand.</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">Here’s a joke for you:</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">Q. What did the otter say when his friend was swallowed by a walrus?</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">A. “Hey, look! An</span><em> in-ter-net!</em><span style="font-style: normal">”</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">Do you get it?</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">Well, of course you don’t. It’s pure nonsense. There’s nothing to get. But have a ten-year-old boy tell that joke to his fifth-grade class at recess, and watch as they all groan knowingly and insist that, yeah, they got it.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">For a university audience, you have to make the nonsense a little more obscure, but the social principle is the same.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal"> </div> <p class="postmetadata">Posted in <a href="http://www.grailcode.com/archives/category/literary-criticism" title="View all posts in Literary Criticism" rel="category tag">Literary Criticism</a> | <a href="http://www.grailcode.com/archives/john-donne-and-the-case-of-the-missing-toilet-paper#comments" title="Comment on John Donne and the Case of the Missing Toilet Paper">3 Comments »</a></p> </div> <div class="post"> <h3 id="post-179"><a href="http://www.grailcode.com/archives/a-new-tail-of-sir-gawain" rel="bookmark" title="Permanent Link to A new tale of Sir Gawain">A new tale of Sir Gawain</a></h3> <small>Sunday, April 13th, 2008</small> <div class="entry"> <p>I’m a little bit skeptical myself, but our friend <a href="http://drboli.wordpress.com/">Dr. Boli</a> has published what appears to be a <a href="http://drboli.wordpress.com/2008/04/11/the-wonderfull-aventure-of-syr-gawayne-in-the-castell-of-mayden-clerkes/">newly discovered adventure of Sir Gawain</a>. If it is not an authentic work of Sir Thomas Malory, it is at least in his style and language.</p> </div> <p class="postmetadata">Posted in <a href="http://www.grailcode.com/archives/category/later-romances" title="View all posts in Later Romances" rel="category tag">Later Romances</a> | <a href="http://www.grailcode.com/archives/a-new-tail-of-sir-gawain#respond" title="Comment on A new tale of Sir Gawain">No Comments »</a></p> </div> <div class="post"> <h3 id="post-178"><a href="http://www.grailcode.com/archives/holy-grail-of-lithiated-nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxide" rel="bookmark" title="Permanent Link to Holy Grail of lithiated nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide">Holy Grail of lithiated nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide</a></h3> <small>Thursday, April 10th, 2008</small> <div class="entry"> <p>Curiously enough the words “Holy Grail” don’t appear in the article itself, but the front-page teaser for <a href="http://www.reghardware.co.uk/2008/04/10/boffins_build_better_battery/">this article</a> from <em>The Register</em> asks “Holy Grail of laptop power packs found?”</p> <p>Actually, the capacity is increased by 20 to 30% and the battery doesn’t decay quite as fast. Hardly what I’d call Grail material. To me, the Holy Grail of laptop batteries would be one that manages to charge itself from the air around you and makes a good cup of tea while it’s at it.</p> </div> <p class="postmetadata">Posted in <a href="http://www.grailcode.com/archives/category/holy-grails-of" title="View all posts in Holy-Grails-of" rel="category tag">Holy-Grails-of</a> | <a href="http://www.grailcode.com/archives/holy-grail-of-lithiated-nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxide#comments" title="Comment on Holy Grail of lithiated nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide">3 Comments »</a></p> </div> <div class="post"> <h3 id="post-177"><a href="http://www.grailcode.com/archives/what-does-a-grail-sound-like" rel="bookmark" title="Permanent Link to What does a grail sound like?">What does a grail sound like?</a></h3> <small>Monday, April 7th, 2008</small> <div class="entry"> <p align="left">Machine intelligence is wonderful. We now have the ability to target ads precisely to what people are looking for. For example, I was just looking at a collection of GNOME desktop themes, and I saw one called “Grail.” Of course I looked at it. But what really caught my attention on the “Grail” page was this advertisement:</p> <p align="center"><img src="http://www.grailcode.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/Grail-Ringtone-ad.png" /></p> <p align="left">Now I wish I had a cell phone, because that’s the only way to find out what a grail sounds like. Is it different for every person, in the create-your-own-reality way we’ve come to expect from the New Age? Or does it sound more like something by <a href="http://www.montypythonsspamalot.com/">Eric Idle</a>?</p> <p align="left"> </div> <p class="postmetadata">Posted in <a href="http://www.grailcode.com/archives/category/holy-grails-of" title="View all posts in Holy-Grails-of" rel="category tag">Holy-Grails-of</a> | <a href="http://www.grailcode.com/archives/what-does-a-grail-sound-like#respond" title="Comment on What does a grail sound like?">No Comments »</a></p> </div> <div class="navigation"> <div class="alignleft"></div> <div class="alignright"></div> </div> </div> </td> </tr> </table> </td> <td width="175" valign="top" bgcolor="#CCCCCC"> <div align="center"> <p><a href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0829421599/mikeaquilina-20"> <img src="http://www.grailcode.com/book.jpg" width="100" height="160"></a></p> <p><a href="/index.php"><em>Home</em></a><em><br> <span class="sdbar"> <li class="page_item page-item-16"><a href="http://www.grailcode.com/christopher-bailey" title="About 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