Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Magpie

"I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

Isaac Newton

Just a few tidbits from the Web today:

1. Following up on yesterday (I just can't seem to let this go), it is worth remembering that social life requires a certain minimum of formalized compulsion known as ritual in order to keep the threat of dissolution at bay. Thus President Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts performed an encore of the swearing-in, accurately this time. It is pure symbolism, but no less necessary for that.

2. While it's hard to fault any poet or any poem granted pride of place at an inauguration, I was not impressed by Elizabeth Alexander's effort, "Praise Song for the Day" (a transcript of her words is here, but apparently we don't yet have her original format). I suppose she was trying to be accessible, and the sentiments expressed were laudable, but the piece seemed both prosy and platitudinous; the language did not crackle or excite. As Horace would say, it instructed but did not delight. Or as Harold Bloom argued, noteworthy literature must be both deeply strange and absolutely true--strange needn't be bizarre or loopy, but it must be stranger than this poem.

3. William Saletan in Slate discusses the couple who are up for charges of reckless endangerment after their 11-year-old diabetic daughter died when they chose faith healing over traditional medicine. As he notes, this is pretty crude religion (as if medicine can't be a tool of God); it sounds like child abuse leading to manslaughter to me.

4. Mark Bauerlein at Brainstorm joins the lament over what he calls the "tsunami" of digital media threatening to submerge book culture altogether, although he contends that educators and other defenders of the faith (my term) must fight back all the harder. It seems to me that this kind of concern, which gathered steam in the 1990's but still seemed a bit cranky at that point, has reached a certain critical mass these days, although that doesn't mean anything will change. After all, it is now a culture-wide phenomenon and not the doings of any particular interest or industry; it has its own internal momentum now. (His metaphor struck me because the first grader at home loves watching videos of tsunamis and other natural disasters on Youtube; he's not a morbid child, really).

5. Jonathan Oberlander considers the prospects for health care reform under Obama in a commentary in The New England Journal of Medicine (one line summary: the financial and political obstacles for change remain massive, but the economic crisis could shake up traditional interests and power blocs just enough to actually get something done this time around).

6. I speculate a lot about identity from time to time. Donald Winnicott is famous for his distinction between the "true" and "false" self, and we all feel that we know people who fall more into one or the other category. Identity comprises both natural endowments and the narratives we aspire to, and we hope that the two go together in a way that seems at least remotely organic. David Hadju in The New Republic makes the case for Lucinda Williams as the genuine article, as a musician who has remained true to herself in a business notorious for fakery (she is compared favorably in this respect to Taylor Swift and Beyonce).


Anonymous said...

'literature must be both deeply strange and absolutely true--strange needn't be bizarre or loopy, but it must be stranger than this poem' - like Michelle Obama's infamous 'butcher's apron' dress - uniquely strange, but somehow appropriate, and definitely memorable.

On reckless endangerment in the name of religion (bizarre and loopy in a very bad sense)...
Definitely manslaughter. It reminds me of the refusal of Jehovah's witness fanaticists who reject blood transfusions on the pretext of a flimsy interpretation of a bible quote: '..and whatsoever man eatheth blood....cut him off..' - well that obviously rules out vampirism... but also rare meat and black pudding. And disturbingly, this taboo extends to their very own children...for chrissakes! (sorry)- it's evil to wish death on your child when intervention is at hand. That's not playing God or against God's rules; it's playing human with the 'tools' God gave you.

All it takes is one influential person's dogmatic interpretation and plague-ish dissemination of an idea that can conveniently be used to whip the masses into a medieval frenzy of fear and conformity - and then you have control.

I think the bible is amenable to personal truths and interpretation. It's sacrilegious to enable mortal authoritarians with the ultimate power to dictate what and how individuals should believe/worship.

The power of will and reason - use it! that's why God gave it to ungrateful...

Anonymous said...


I am thoroughly enjoying your effort over here.

I love the Newton quote.