Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Say What?

This is a quote from Michael Chabon, which one of my facebook colleagues posted. My colleague thought this was beautiful. I thought it was pretentious crap.
"The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken. We call this period of research “childhood.”

"There follows a program of renewed inquiry, often involuntary, into the nature and effects of mortality, entropy, heartbreak, violence, failure, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and grief; the researcher learns their histories, and their bitter lessons, by heart. Along the way, he or she discovers that the world has been broken for as long as anyone can remember, and struggles to reconcile this fact with the ache of cosmic nostalgia that arises, from time to time, in the researcher’s heart: an intimation of vanished glory, of lost wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken. We call the moment at which this ache first arises “adolescence.” The feeling haunts people all their lives.

"Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness. The question becomes: What to do with the pieces? Some people hunker down atop the local pile of ruins and make do, Bedouin tending their goats in the shade of shattered giants. Others set about breaking what remains of the world into bits ever smaller and more jagged, kicking through the rubble like kids running through piles of leaves. And some people, passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again.

"Two difficulties with this latter scheme at once present themselves. First of all, we have only ever glimpsed, as if through half-closed lids, the picture on the lid of the jigsaw puzzle box. Second, no matter how diligent we have been about picking up pieces along the way, we will never have anywhere near enough of them to finish the job. The most we can hope to accomplish with our handful of salvaged bits—the bittersweet harvest of observation and experience—is to build a little world of our own. A scale model of that mysterious original, unbroken, half—remembered. Of course the worlds we build out of our store of fragments can be only approximations, partial and inaccurate. As representations of the vanished whole that haunts us, they must be accounted failures. And yet in that very failure, in their gaps and inaccuracies, they may yet be faithful maps, accurate scale models, of this beautiful and broken world. We call these scale models 'works of art.'"

The world is not broken. It's a fine planet, full of strange and wonderful and profoundly interesting things. It sits in a good planetary system, a good galaxy, a universe that looks beautiful to me.

There are things I am not entirely crazy about, such as mortality. But if we didn't have mortality, we wouldn't have evolution. Instead, we'd have a planet covered with single-celled organisms, if that. Think of missing out on dinosaurs, trilobites, corals, elephants, social insects, birds...

What bugs me is not the planet or the universe, it's human behavior, which can change. For that matter, I think mortality is fixable, though not -- I am afraid -- in my lifetime.

By saying that the world is broken, Chabon is letting humans off the hook. (Notice that he is mixing entropy, which is physics, and mortality, which is biology, in with human behavior. Entropy may be inevitable. Human meanness is not.) And he is buying into the Book of Genesis, and the idea that we are stuck with a fallen world, because our ancestors did something bad a long time ago. No. We are apes who have evolved, and we are still learning to be a new kind of being.

I tend to blame class society and the rich and powerful, more than I blame our primate nature. We are a species dependent on culture, and culture is highly changeable, which suggests we can change. We can -- in theory -- build a new and just society within the shell of the old. It's not impossible the way reversing entropy is impossible. Never confuse the difficult with the impossible; and never confuse the universe with the USA.

This reminds me a bit of Sturgeon's law: "90% of everything is crap." Sturgon was talking about fiction, and he is probably right. But I wouldn't call 90% of stars crap, or 90% of birds crap. And I am not sure that 90% of human products are crap, except in a society driven by profit. Is 90% of folk art crap? How about 90% of folk tales?

Unlike Chabon, Sturgeon was not pretentious; and he was smart enough -- and a good enough science fiction writer -- to not make Chabon's mistake of confusing people with existence. And, like many science fiction writers, he probably had enough sense to realize that much about human society is contingent. The way we are now is not the way we must always be.

This is why I write science fiction and fantasy. I do not like writing so elegant that it enables us to think badly.

P.S. I also think Chabon's Bedouin metaphor is an example of what Edward Said called "Orientalism" -- a prejudiced, ignorant stereotype about the people of North Africa and the Middle East. The Bedouin were not losers herding goats among the ruins. Their culture developed to survive in an environment no longer conducive to settled life. The "giant" cultures that preceded them had failed, due to climate change, unsustainable agriculture and war. The Bedouin managed to keep going, because they had adapted to arid and damaged land. Their culture is now changing again. (I just read the Wikipedia entry on Bedouins.)


Blogger Jordan179 said...

The arrogance of the Chabon quote lies in its assumption that the Universe should be perfect for us. It is in our nature to adapt to the Universe, including adapting the Universe to ourselves; it is not the Universe's nature to adapt to us for our convenience. As to your specific point, I think that classes in the sense of disparities of wealth is very much a part of human nature, namely that humans are territorial and variable; I also think that America is one of the most socially-egalitarian of all nations: in most other parts of the world, either the disparities of wealth are greater (as in most of the Third World) or something else (birth, profession status) is allowed to carry effect at (administered) law to a greater degree than is the case in America (this is particularly the case in the Western European social democracies and the remaining Communist dictatorships).

The Bedouin were better at surviving in the desertified land than were the great civilizations which preceded them. On the other hand, the Bedouin as they existed had less potential: as long as they remained Bedouin, they could not evolve into bigger, more complex, more technologially advanced and more powerful cultures and polities, as had some of the great civilizations which had preceded them. That's I think what Chabon meant by "greatness" there -- if he was being reasonable, that is, which I can't evaluate becaue I'm not familiar enough with his work in general.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Therem said...

Well, this isn't the first time Chabon has been accused of being pretentious. However, I think you're taking his piece rather more literally than he intended -- and also more literally than I took it when I read it. He's talking about an emotional experience that many people -- particularly sheltered, American suburban people -- have as they grow up and discover that the world is not as it was described to them when they were young and "innocent". I don't think he is talking about the physical world at all; the brokenness is human, social, and historical in nature. And I think he's alluding to Plato's allegory of the cave & philosophical idealism far more than the book of Genesis.

4:06 PM  
Blogger delagar said...

I think he's talking about the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, the myth or teaching which appears (as far as I can remember) in the midrash, the one about the broken world -- that as God was creating the world, he dropped one of the jars that contained the light of creation (I might not have all the details right -- its been awhile since I studied this stuff!).

All the light of creation (and light equals goodness) tumbled everywhere from the broken jar, scattering through the world. Since then it's been the job of created humankind to hunt out those bits of light and patch the broken jar together -- to mend the world, as it were. Each good act we do is a bit of light, a bit of mending.

(Which, if so, yes, he's back there in Genesis.)

He would then be suggesting (I'm guessing, since I haven't read the bigger piece this is part of) that we can't mend the world -- that all we can do is mess around with bits of it? Make little toys? Amuse ourselves briefly?

9:15 PM  
Blogger Foxessa said...

He's stuck in the early 19th century, post-Napoleonic era mind-set.

Such as Horace Smith's poem,
"On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below" written in competition with his friend Shelley's, "Ozymandias."


N Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
"The wonders of my hand."— The City's gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Love, C.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Therem said...

delagar, I think you are onto something. Chabon is clearly familiar with Jewish culture (I don't know if he is Jewish himself), and has featured Jewish characters and communities in a number of his novels. He would certainly be familiar with the concept of tikkun olam.

However, I don't think he's saying that all we can do is amuse ourselves. I think he's saying that the decision to be constructive -- to make something we think good -- even if we have no sense that it will last or be supported by a just universe, is the important thing in life. Very existentialist, in a way.

9:18 PM  

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