The Grail Code 
The Last Great Age of Romance
October 4th, 2008

Though I’d contend that the golden age of chivalric romances reached its climax with Walter Map, that was far from the end of the genre. Even Cervantes, whose Don Quixote is still the greatest parody every written, hardly made a dent in the flow of romances. As late as the late 1600s, Mlle de Scudéry brought chivalric romance to yet another peak of popularity—and perhaps, in her own way, to an artistic peak as well.

Madeleine de Scudéry’s romances appeared under the name of her brother, “M. de Scudéry, Governour of Nostre Dame,” but most critics think he had little to do with them. One of her novels, the famous Grand Cyrus, still probably holds the record as the longest novel ever written. In the original edition, it took up more than 13,000 pages. Yes, that’s a five-digit number, and it’s not a typing mistake.

I’ve been reading one of her romances called Almahide: or, the Captive Queen. It’s a bit shorter than the Grand Cyrus, but not a whole lot shorter. My copy was printed in a giant folio in 1677, with small print in two columns and almost no paragraph divisions, and it still takes up hundreds of pages. (Hard to say how many, because the folio combines several volumes with their own page numbers, and I don’t feel like doing any of that higher-math stuff.) The binding smells of 331-year-old leather, and I always end up falling asleep with the thing beside me, which means that my poor wife has to lift it when she comes to bed. In extenuation I can only point out that she knew what she was getting into when she married me.

How, you might ask, does a writer fill up so many pages? The machinery of the plot is usually pretty straightforward: a large number of female characters get themselves abducted and rescued by an equally large assortment of male characters. What takes up space, and gives the book its distinctive atmosphere, is the long internal monologues of the characters.

In Almahide, for example, we have a noble young man in the court of Granada, Morayzel by name, who seems to have no interest in the beautiful women who surround him.

Here is the way an ordinary novelist might express the idea:

Though the court of Granada was filled with famous beauties, Morayzel—much to everyone’s surprise—remained indifferent to them all. Sometimes, in fact, even Morayzel himself was surprised by his own indifference.

But here is the way Mlle de Scudéry writes the same thing (in the 1677 translation by J. Phillips, Gent.):

He was Courteous and Civil among Ladies, but never in Love; and whatever Ambuscado’s they laid to insnare his Liberty, he still preserv’d his Freedom. All Persons were amaz’d at it, and sometimes he admir’d at it himself, and oftentimes examin’d himself from whence such an indifferency should proceed, especially at those Years when the most indifferent are concern’d. Is it, said he, a Vertue or a Vice? Is it an Excess or a Defect of Reason? Hast thou Eyes, or art thou blind? Is it an effect of thy Pride or thy Humility? Dost thou owe thy Freedom to thy Contempt of thy self, or thy Disdain of others? The first perhaps does not seem agreeable to Reason; the second less. Flatter not thy self Morayzel; and since thou wilt not betray thy self, consider with thy self whether it be out of any poorness of Spirit, or out of Vanity, that thou art so insensible; and whether thou neglectest thus all sorts of Conquests, by reason of their difficulty, or because they are too easie to obtain. Is it possible, said he, that in so great a Court there should not be one Lady surpassingly beautiful? Is there not one worthy of thy Love? Then calling to mind the several Beauties of the Court; The young Algadire, said he, has she nothing in her Eyes that sparkles and pleases? The Complexion of the amiable Zambrine, has she nothing that is excellent? The Lily whiteness of the noble Despine, does not that dazzle thee? Alicola’s Vermilion, does not that delight thee? The Lips and Teeth of Miriane, have they no Charm? The lovely face of Meladine, has that nothing that pleases? The Breasts and plumpness of Amesabeg, are they not worth thy taking notice of? The lovely Hands and Arms of the charming Donique, will they not move thee? The Shape and Majesty of Lidive, do they not attract the Eyes of all the World? Zelebine’s Disdain, does that damp thy Courage? The sweet temper of the amiable Nafile, is that not sufficient to move thee? The sprightly Humour of Tamarate, will that not sport thee into Love? The serious Gravity of the prudent Caramante, will that not gain thy Respect? The sublime Wit of Osmane, has that no absolute Power? The moderate and equal temper of Alemate, does that not always please alike? The Mirth and Conceits of Myrize, are they not pleasant and sharp? The Eloquence of Alabee, knows that not how to win a Heart? The harmonious Voice of Liparis, will that not allure the Souls of all that hear her sing? The languishing Looks of Emine, cannot they insensibly insinuate themselves? The Vertue of Betulite, has that no Power? The Generosity of Enoramira, is that not to be admir’d? The Nobility of young Isa, is not that enough to satisfie an ambitious Spirit? The Riches of Ziliole, are they not sufficient to satisfie the most Covetous Person in the World? And are there not others in the Court, that have those Charms I know not how to express, whose secret Power is more terrible than all those visible Beauties? Yes without doubt there is all this in Granada, and therefore since all this will not move, conclude with thy self that thou art rather a Statue than a Man, and that thy Insensibility is as reproachful as it is extraordinary.

Here we have the names of (by my quick count) twenty-three women, from Algadire to Ziliole, whose sole function in the narrative is to be dismissed by Morayzel. Yet each is the subject of a brief character sketch. You can see how that sort of thing would take up page after page, even if the plot is a bit thin. But the astonishing thing, and perhaps the thing that marks Mlle de Scudéry as some species of literary genius, is that they’re not just names; they’re twenty-three different women, even though we’ll never hear of any of them again.

I have more to say about this last burst of glory for the chivalric romance. Just as the medieval romances found their perfect satirist in Cervantes, so the seventeenth-century romances found a perfect foil in Mrs. Lennox. And because I happen to love her, but you probably don’t know who she is, I think she’s worth an article by herself.

What Science Is For
October 1st, 2008

According to the BBC, we can use mouse genetics to track human migration. The Viking invasions are mentioned here, but human migrations of all sorts may well be mirrored in the house-mouse populations. Can you imagine a more useful or interesting use of genetic science? I mean, sure, we might be able to cure cancer or something dull like that, but perhaps we can also know exactly where the Saxons settled and when. Now that’s what I call science.

The Nazis’ Grail Wrangler
July 2nd, 2008

Here is a very interesting article on Otto Rahn, the Grail-obsessed archaeologist who became Heinrich Himmler’s pet in the Nazi search for the Holy Grail. It portrays him as a kind of German Indiana Jones–except that, instead of fighting the Nazis, he was working for them, and instead of being a two-fisted he-man, he was a shy scholarly type, and instead of being a ladies’ man with a roving eye, his eye roved in the other direction. Otherwise it’s hard to tell him apart from Harrison Ford.

The article shows us how easy it is for simple studious types to be seduced by the lure of extravagant funding. Fortunately no one ever dangles extravagant funding in front of me, so I can confidently say that I have not fallen prey to that temptation.

John Donne and the Case of the Missing Toilet Paper
April 15th, 2008

<meta name="GENERATOR" content=" 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="">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="">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="" title="View all posts in Literary Criticism" rel="category tag">Literary Criticism</a> | <a href="" title="Comment on John Donne and the Case of the Missing Toilet Paper">3 Comments »</a><hr> </p> </div> <div class="post" id="post-179"> <b><a href="" rel="bookmark" title="Permanent Link to A new tale of Sir Gawain"> A new tale of Sir Gawain</a></b><small><br> April 13th, 2008 <!-- by Christopher --> </small> <div class="entry"> <p>I’m a little bit skeptical myself, but our friend <a href="">Dr. Boli</a> has published what appears to be a <a href="">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="" title="View all posts in Later Romances" rel="category tag">Later Romances</a> | <a href="" title="Comment on A new tale of Sir Gawain">No Comments »</a><hr> </p> </div> <div class="post" id="post-178"> <b><a href="" rel="bookmark" title="Permanent Link to Holy Grail of lithiated nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide"> Holy Grail of lithiated nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide</a></b><small><br> April 10th, 2008 <!-- by Christopher --> </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="">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="" title="View all posts in Holy-Grails-of" rel="category tag">Holy-Grails-of</a> | <a href="" title="Comment on Holy Grail of lithiated nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide">3 Comments »</a><hr> </p> </div> <div class="post" id="post-177"> <b><a href="" rel="bookmark" title="Permanent Link to What does a grail sound like?"> What does a grail sound like?</a></b><small><br> April 7th, 2008 <!-- by Christopher --> </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="" /></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="">Eric Idle</a>?</p> <p align="left"> </div> <p class="postmetadata">Posted in <a href="" title="View all posts in Holy-Grails-of" rel="category tag">Holy-Grails-of</a> | <a href="" title="Comment on What does a grail sound like?">No Comments »</a><hr> </p> </div> <div class="post" id="post-175"> <b><a href="" rel="bookmark" title="Permanent Link to Holy Grail handed over"> Holy Grail handed over</a></b><small><br> January 30th, 2008 <!-- by Christopher --> </small> <div class="entry"> <p>The Anglican Archbishop of York has <a href="">handed over the Holy Grail</a> to Pope Benedict. And if you were wondering what it looks like, here’s a picture:</p> <p align="center"><img src="" /></p> <p align="left">Yes, it’s a beer <em>and</em> a movie tie-in. And it has “a distinctive taste with plenty of fruity hops,” which is about how I’d describe the movie it commemorates.</p> </div> <p class="postmetadata">Posted in <a href="" title="View all posts in Holy-Grails-of" rel="category tag">Holy-Grails-of</a> | <a href="" title="Comment on Holy Grail handed over">2 Comments »</a><hr> </p> </div> <div class="post" id="post-174"> <b><a href="" rel="bookmark" title="Permanent Link to Chalices everywhere!"> Chalices everywhere!</a></b><small><br> January 28th, 2008 <!-- by Christopher --> </small> <div class="entry"> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in">I’ve had a couple of comments on <a href="">this story</a> that may be borderline spam, but since they have to do with chalices they’re certainly right up our alley.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in">They point to <a href="">this site</a>, which is peddling a theory that Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings are full of hidden images.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in">Briefly, the argument is this: that when you flip one of Leonardo’s paintings, and place the reversed image next to the original, you see shapes. Especially you see chalices, or closely related forms of stemware.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in">“We asked a probability expert [to] form a proper hypothesis and to do a calculation relative to the probability of the discoveries being random or coincidental based on these facts.” Not surprisingly, the probability expert decided that there was no possibility that the discoveries were random.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in">I think the probability expert is all wrong.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in">First of all, let me say that I know very little about statistics. Let me also say that, for the purposes of this argument, I don’t have to know a whole lot about statistics. No complicated mathematics will be involved. A bit of multiplication, but we have calculators for that.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in">So, first, what’s the probability of finding a <em>random</em> image (not stated beforehand) in a rich and complex painting flipped and set beside the original? About 1 in 1, I’d say. You <em>will</em><span style="font-style: normal"> find something if you keep looking. You will also find an image in the wood grain on your desk if you keep staring at it, or in a marble floor.</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Now, on to the probability of finding a </span><em>particular</em><span style="font-style: normal"> image at random. Here is where it gets a little more complicated, because there’s an enormous difference between declaring what the image will be </span><em>before</em><span style="font-style: normal"> you find it and declaring what it was </span><em>after</em><span style="font-style: normal"> you’ve found it.</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Suppose I have a room ten feet long by ten feet wide, and suppose I have the floor marked in one-inch squares. That makes 14,400 squares, which we’ll number according to their positions along the length and width of the room. For example, one corner will be square L=1, W=1; the square next to it will be L=2, W=1; and so on.</span></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Now, if I close my eyes, spin around three times, and throw a penny into the air, the odds of its landing on any </span><em>particular</em><span style="font-style: normal"> square are 1 in 14,400—a pretty high number. So if I tell you that the penny is going to land on square L=83, W=29, and then it does land on that square, you’ll be suitably amazed. I must be psychic, you’ll say. If I can do it again and again, I’ll be rushing to apply for the Amazing Randi’s million-dollar prize before it’s too late.</span></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">But suppose I don’t tell you before I throw the penny. Instead, I wait till it lands and then announce that it fell on square L=14, W=111. Amazing! The odds of its hitting that one </span><em>particular</em><span style="font-style: normal"> square were 1 in 14,400! That can’t </span><em>possibly</em><span style="font-style: normal"> be chance! Well, now you think I’m not really the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. You patiently explain to me that the penny had to land </span><em>somewhere,</em><span style="font-style: normal"> and although it’s true that there was a 1 in 14,400 chance of its landing on any </span><em>particular</em><span style="font-style: normal"> square, it’s only amazing if I called L=14, W=111 </span><em>before</em><span style="font-style: normal"> I tossed it.</span></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">You’re perfectly right, of course. Yet this basic error in statistics underlies more than half the conspiracy theories and supposed amazing discoveries you read about on the wonderfully weird web. It underlies the statistical argument against evolution. </span></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">The question gets more complicated when you start to have sequences of events—more complicated in the sense that the numbers get bigger. That’s really all.</span></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Here’s an example: five random lines of text. I generated them at <a href=""></a>, so they should be random enough for our purposes.</span></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">icpbyldwcgbmsyogyljb </span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in">tteqvcckaihnrbyqyvgt</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in">sgnmbgswbswdafgkbunk</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in">jnmqzmclymnrdxhspocp</p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">jbulylikiourtlpfbakc </span></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Now, the odds of finding any one letter in any particular position are 1 in 26, since there are 26 letters in the alphabet. So, right off the bat, there’s only a 1 in 26 chance that the first line would begin with </span><em>i,</em><span style="font-style: normal"> which it does.</span></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">The odds of finding any particular two-letter sequence in a particular position are 1 in (26 x 26), or 1 in 676, so it’s beginning to look extremely unlikely that the first two letters would be </span><em>ic,</em><span style="font-style: normal"> and yet there they are.</span></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Looking at the third line, I can see that the word “bunk” is spelled out at the end. What are the odds of that? The odds of finding any four letter sequence in any particular spot are 1 in (26 x 26 x 26 x 26), or 1 in 456,976. It simply can’t be random chance. Some invisible hand must have written that word as some sort of message to me.</span></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Once again, if you thought I was serious, you’d be either amused or dismayed, depending on how well you liked me. Yet this is the sort of argument we’re facing in this comment.</span></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Here is a general rule of statistical interpretation: whenever someone tells you that something can’t be random chance because the odds against it are astronomical, suspect a misunderstanding of statistics. The higher the stated odds, the more you should suspect a misunderstanding. Pretty much </span><em>every</em><span style="font-style: normal"> event is extraordinarily unlikely if you use the ex-post-facto method of applying statistics, but that’s what we expect in a rich and varied universe.</span></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">All right, now for some fun. Part of our correspondent’s argument from probability hinges on this statement: “We searched a minimum of over 5000 paintings of the period and were unable to locate any use of the Perpendicular Mirror Process outside Leonardo da Vinci’s works.” In other words, 5000 paintings and no mirror chalices.</span></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">So I went to the wonderful <a href="">Web Gallery of Art</a> and looked at paintings of the Renaissance period. I picked the paintings as randomly as I could, which is to say I just started at the beginning of the As. Then I took a few paintings and subjected them to the Perpendicular Mirror Process. I didn’t look at 5000 paintings. More like a few dozen.</span></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Here are some images I came up with. Note the prominent chalice shape in the center of each picture.</span></p> <p align="center" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><img src="" /></p> <p align="center" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Andrea del Sarto: </span><em>Portrait of His Wife</em></p> <p align="center" style="margin-bottom: 0in"> <p align="center" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><img src="" /></p> <p align="center" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Andrea Del Sarto: </span><em>St. John the Baptist</em></p> <p align="center" style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal"> <p align="center" style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal"><img src="" /></p> <p align="center" style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">Bergognone, <em>St. Agnes</em></p> <p align="center" style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">(in this one, note also what appears to be the ghostly outline of a smiling mask!)</p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal"><span style="font-style: normal">So I had no trouble finding chalice shapes. They’re all over the place. </span></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">After a while, I began to wonder just how easy it is to find chalices this way in pictures where human bodies are concerned. So I tried the same technique on a photograph of me, because I’m the only one I know who doesn’t object to being manipulated this way.</span></p> <p align="center" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><img src="" /></p> <p align="center" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Christopher Bailey: </span><em>Self-Portrait</em></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Wow! Spooky, huh? This is starting to freak me out.</span></p> <p align="left" style="margin-bottom: 0in"> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"> </div> <p class="postmetadata">Posted in <a href="" title="View all posts in Conspiracies" rel="category tag">Conspiracies</a> | <a href="" title="Comment on Chalices everywhere!">1 Comment »</a><hr> </p> </div> <div class="post" id="post-168"> <b><a href="" rel="bookmark" title="Permanent Link to An atheist fantasy? Hard to tell"> An atheist fantasy? Hard to tell</a></b><small><br> January 27th, 2008 <!-- by Christopher --> </small> <div class="entry"> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in">I’ve just seen <em>The Golden Compass,</em><span style="font-style: normal"> the movie version of Philip Pullman’s book of the same name. (For American readers, at least; in England it was </span><em>The Northern Lights.</em><span style="font-style: normal"> American publishers always change the names of British books, I assume on the grounds that it makes the marketers look like they’re working for a living.) Now, I haven’t read the book, and I haven’t even followed the controversy except in its broad outlines. </span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Briefly, it is said that Philip Pullman is an atheist who deliberately wrote a fantasy designed to poison the minds of young people against Christianity and lead them toward atheist humanism, whatever that is. Pullman himself makes no secret of being anti-religious and anti-supernatural.</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">But as I say, I haven’t read the book. Certainly there are obvious anti-Christian elements in the movie. The organization at the heart of all the villainy is called the Magisterium—a word that, as far as I know, occurs in exactly two contexts: as a name for the teaching authority of the Catholic Church and as the name of the sinister all-controlling power in Philip Pullman’s novels. In the movie’s world, if you run foul of the Magisterium, it prosecutes you for heresy—another loaded word. The officials of the Magisterium get their fashion sense from Catholic bishops and cardinals. The usual sources on line say that the anti-Christian message of the book has been toned down a good bit for the movie, but it’s hard to miss anyway.</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">So if you think anti-Christian movies shouldn’t be made, you won’t like this one. If you like to judge movies by their own merits, however—well, you still might not like this one. It just feels shallow. The most interesting conceit in the fantasy world is the idea that people’s souls live outside them in the form of animal-shaped daemons (pronounced “demons”), but the movie seems to miss all the best opportunities for spinning metaphors and allegories out of that conceit. As for the rest, it’s difficult to decide what the moral is supposed to be. Freedom = Good, Dogma = Bad: I got that much. To judge by the actions of the admirable characters in the story, we are also to understand that war is good for its own sake, and revenge is an important humanistic value. I’m pretty sure I don’t like those ideas.</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">One more complaint: the narrative is full of cliches cribbed from every action and fantasy movie. At the climax, for example, our heroine destroys the evil soul-splitting doomsday machine in the villains’ secret hideout, and—just as in every parody of every James Bond movie—the destruction of that one machine somehow sets off a chain reaction that blows the whole complex to smithereens, taking just long enough for all the major characters to run around in a panic for a while before escaping just as the flames engulf the building. As my wife pointed out, the story has to have some reason why the villains can’t just fix the evil doomsday machine and go on with their villainy right away. What would you have come up with? she asked. I frankly admitted that I didn’t know; but if I were writing the script, I would have spent half an hour thinking about it, and at the end I would have come up with something. </span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">(On-line sources say that Tom Stoppard wrote the first screenplay for the movie, but the producers rejected it and had someone else rewrite it from scratch. I really, really want to get my hands on that Tom Stoppard script.)</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">So is there nothing to recommend the movie? I certainly wouldn’t say that. The story may be trite sometimes, and the moral may be muddied, but the pictures are beautiful. The landscape is dotted with gorgeous cities filled with a kind of Renaissance Deco architecture; I kept thinking that, if this Magisterium can provide a living environment like that, you might want to think twice about poking it in the eye. I also fell in love with Mrs. Coulter’s airship, which is positively the most beautiful dirigible ever seen on film. I want one for myself.</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">No less an authority than the Right Revd. Rowan Williams has suggested that </span><em>The Golden Compass</em><span style="font-style: normal"> be taught and discussed in religion classes. He sees it as a plea against dogmatism rather than against religion, and I agree that dogmatism is bad (as opposed to </span><em>dogma,</em><span style="font-style: normal"> which can be very good if it’s the right dogma). And I think that his approach is the best one. The movie isn’t suitable for very young children. But if your older children want to watch it, let them, and watch it with them. Then talk about it. You could start with something like “So, what did you think of Mrs. Coulter’s airship?”</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">And now an aside: Why would an anti-Christian fantasy retreat to more primitive forms of religion and superstition? The whole plot revolves around the separation of the soul from the body; the Magisterium’s evil plot is to get rid of the soul altogether, which is a very odd idea for someone to come up with if he doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as a soul. This, I think, is what has me more mixed up than anything else. To counter Christianity with magic and animism is all very well, if you want to lead the kiddies toward magic and animism. It seems like an odd strategy if you want to lead them toward scientism. But then, as I mentioned before, I haven’t read the book.</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"> </div> <p class="postmetadata">Posted in <a href="" title="View all posts in Later Romances" rel="category tag">Later Romances</a>, <a href="" title="View all posts in Literary Criticism" rel="category tag">Literary Criticism</a> | <a href="" title="Comment on An atheist fantasy? 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