Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Age of Reasoned Dissent

Recently I have been engaged in reading a most excellent biography of Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier, in which the author reveals much of the mayhem surrounding the two scientists: these joint “discoverers” of oxygen,—one of whom isolated the gas, the other of whom named it, to oversimplify somewhat—who in fact lived lives of great combustability. Deeply embroiled in the politicks of the Eighteenth Century, on either side of a narrow channel with differing social circumstances, both became martyrs of a sort for freethinking and for science. Having just referred to this selfsame time period by its common name, “The Age of Reason,” I suddenly feel troubled by this designation. Religious persecution in England? Brutal uprisings in France? Exactly how reasoned is the epoch?

Of course, any American should recollect the experience of the Puritans leaving their homeland for the New World,—at least, the version of the story related in classrooms and elementary-school history books. It seems that narrative contains a kernel of truth, except, of course, that the Puritans took over England a few decades later, botched the job, then returned the power to the monarchy in time for kings to invade New Amsterdam and eventually tax Americans to the point of starting a not-so-popular rebellion. But I’m jumpng ahead. The more central aspect of the narrative is that, throughout the so-called “Age of Reason,” the Church of England steered between the Scylla and Charybdis of Catholicism and Protestantism, subject to the capricious changes in the monarchy ruling over it. Although a certain amount of “tolerance” held sway over the country, the prohibitions against holding opinions counter to the state-sanctioned doctrine kept intellectuals silent (cf. the case of Newton’s antitrinitarianism) or even promoted the kind of violence that drove Priestley to leave England for America. Such unreasoning prejudice (particularly in the name of religion) feels all too recognizable right now.

But oddly enough, the troubles with the French Revolution feel more intellectually familiar to me: the Revolution gone mad, transformed into the Terror, with a subset of the intellectual elite manipualting the masses into an orgy of violence and bloodshed. (A new book on the Terror sounds remarkably interesting, but I can only claim to have fondled the hardcover and flipped through its pages, which hardly justifies a recommendation.) Perhaps because I visited France at an impressionable age and witnessed desecrated churches with statues cracked and broken and missing limbs. Perhaps because my courses in French language and literature imbued me with fragments of history at a time when they could more readily find purchase in my consciousness. In any case, French history from the Eighteenth Century also seems remarkably unworthy of the designation “Age of Reason.” One can reasonably argue that’s the age coming to a close, but what a finale!

Thus, in search of better nomenclature, I note that the aforementioned book by Bronowski and Mazlish refers to the epoch as the “Age of Reasoned Dissent,” which sounds only mildly more appealing. How ’bout the “Age of Reasoned Dissent, Punctuated by Ardent and Ruthless Insanity”? Starts to get a little long.

Given that Sterne worked as a vicar for most of his life, one might wonder what he has to say about such things. In a shockingly post-modern moment in Volume Two, Chapter XVII, of Tristram Shandy, Sterne presents one of his own sermons from 1750 for commentary by his characters. He takes the nature of conscience as his subject, and he questions sarcastically “that PASSION never got into the judgment-seat, and pronounc’d sentence in the stead of reason, which is supposed always to preside and determine upon the case”

Of course, when reading about Priestley’s house being ransacked and burned to the ground (admittedly some two score years after Sterne’s sermonizing), it becomes difficult to avoid taking the analogy even further: PASSION got into the judgement-seat, pronounc’d sentence, executed it ruthlessly, then looked for more opportunities to punish whomever it pleased. Admittedly, such actions don’t hold a candle (or a torch) to the Terror taking place across the Channel, but they were, in fact, spurred on by the chaos in France:—Royalists in England became sufficiently suspicious of dissenters such as Priestley to do their damndest to make life more difficult (if not actually shorter) for them.

How similar does this sound to contemporary America? Our king (or country) right or wrong, tempered poorly by reason, seems a dangerously familiar concept.

Further along in his sermon, Sterne can implore his readers: “Consult calm reason and the unchangeable obligations of justice and truth;—what say they?” I wonder if he could have said the same had he been writing (or preaching) some half-century later.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Satirical Terrarium

I treasure the Art of Satire, and in recent times, it seems that our most eloquent journalism adopts the satirical tone:—viz., the Onion and the Daily Show. I have found myself thinking that perhaps liberalism could find a voice (albeit with a disgruntled and somewhat apathetic tone) in such words. My experience reading Nicholas von Hoffman’s Hoax nearly convinced me otherwise.

Hoffman would have us believe that Americans exist inside a giant “terrarium, an immense biosphere which has cut it off from the rest of the world and left it to pick its own way down the path of history.” He says precisely that, as a matter of fact, on the cover of his book:—and if he were to stick to his guns and deliver us an honest-to-goodness terrarium-enclosed U.S. inside the covers of his book, we would be tremendously entertained.

Herein we encounter the Great Problem with the work. Satire, sadly, requires intellect of its readership, and indeed, respect for such intellect on the part of an author. As Jacob Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish write in The Western Intellectual Tradition from Leonardo to Hegel: “To hold something up to ridicule presupposes a certain respect for reason, on both sides, to which one can appeal. An Age of Reason, in which everyone accepts the notion that conduct must be reasonable, is, therefore, a general prerequisite for satire.”

An Age of Reason? Alas, our modern world (or perhaps simply the modern terrarium) has little use for such a construct, and we should possibly excuse Hoffman for his jaded perspective,—if nothing else, we must recognize that he has worked as a journalist for some decades, and such an occupation takes a heavy toll on its practitioners. To rail against the dying of the light causes one to grow hoarse after a while.

Of course, I would happily refer to the Age commonly called “The Age of Reason” as “The Age of Tristram,” for what other character so adroitly embodies the knowledge and wit of the Age as our Hero? Take, for example, a snippet from “The Author’s Preface” in Tristram Shandy, Volume Three, Chapter XX, “In the foreground of this picture, a statesman turning the political wheel, like a brute, the wrong way round—against the stream of corruption,—by heaven!—instead of with it.” Simple sarcasm, you say, and you’d not be incorrect, but I ask you to admire the enviable clarity of the Author’s droll tone.

One certainly encounters no such simple pleasures reading Hoax. Hoffman clearly has little or no regard for his audience, and in the process of attempting to inform, chastise, and entertain us, he switches voices with such rapidity that one is often at a loss to comprehend the seriousness or (supposed) levity of any given phrase. Take one of his more bizarre factual-sounding statements: “Certain laboratories are working to perfect a process for converting Arabs into crude oil. Scientists are hopeful that they will soon have a pilot plant making oil at a ten to one ratio, that is ten Arabs to produce a barrel of crude. Since Arabs have a high birth rate, this technology will make crude oil a renewable resource.” To my ear, this lacks Sterne’s pith, and although one’s mind leaps to Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public” as analogous in its potential to offend, Swift manages to amuse and persuade by persisting with his premise,—and furthermore, by elaborating on it and engaging in a few simple mathematical calculations to bolster his argument.

Hoffman would do better tp re-write his book as true satire, confining his informative or invective asides to footnotes, endnotes, or appendices. His readers could then enjoy his hard-earned acerbity with a measure of satisfaction, knowing that they can feel ever so slightly more erudite by exploring the marginalia. But here, perhaps, we reach the limits of satire:—for can we expect it to educate as well as entertain? In an Age of Unreason, can we hope to channel our apathy into understanding?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Ods Bodikins

Reading on in Tristram Shandy, past the Curse of Ernulphus described earlier, I encountered Tristram’s opinions on the lack of originality on the part of contemporary blasphemers. He claims Ernulphus as the source for all decent swearing, crediting his countrymen with no original imprecations “except St. Paul’s thumb,—God’s flesh and God’s fish, which were oaths monarchical, and,… as kings oaths, ’tis not much matter whether they were fish or flesh.”

Ruth Wajnryb makes a not unrelated point about the evolving nature of cursing in her book on the topic (Chapter 8, “In the Name of God,” as a matter of fact), although she finds little evidence for a lack of ingenuity on the part of successive generations of speakers. She lists euphemisms for taking the Name of the Lord in vain, including numerous references to body parts and other items in His possession,—including ’sblood, ’slid, ’slight, ’snails, ’sbody, ’sfoot, and so forth—with, sadly, no mention of His flesh or His fish (or ’sflesh or ’sfish, which come out of the mouth a little too awkwardly for casual use). Perhaps Wajnryb has no patience for oaths monarchical. Regardless, ’tis difficult to imgine why, in hoping to avoid the wrath of some higher being, one would resort to taking an oath by some divine body part,—particularly eyelids or fingernails. Evidently, one could see the humor in it even by the end of the Eighteenth Century.

Euphemisms consistently present such challenges throught time, though, because their very purpose, of avoiding the direct (and presumably more offensive) statement in favor of a more genteel expression, is subject to the vicissitudes of meaning over time. One person’s “ods bodikins” is another’s “God damn” is another’s “fuck.”

Thus, a not completely (but increasingly) unrelated thought… In nearing the end of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, I encountered the following sentence, regarding the final victim of a pair of mass murderers (not Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, the book’s “protagonists,” as it were, but Ronnie York and James Latham, two other killers who ended up on the Kansas Death Row at the same time): “It was a girl, only eighteen; she was employed as a maid in a Colorado motel where the rampaging pair spent a night, during which she let them make love to her.” I stumbled on “make love” in this context, because although I imagine Capote uses the phrase in its most carnal sense (the book does, after all, concern murder and other prurient topics), I feel I cannot be entirely sure. After all, the current connotation of “make love” dates back to the 1950s, but at the time Capote is writing, a certain ambiguity hovers around the words.

Consulting the Oxford English Dictonary, I note that in 1950, we encounter the straightforward sentence, “One of the Carvers made love to her and she had a baby.” Seems obvious enough. But in 1966, we have Auden lumping together “stocktaking, horseplay, worship, making love.” Perhaps just because it’s poetry (or more likely because it’s Auden), one senses a slightly coquettish use of the phrase. And a year after Auden, we run smack into the current usage: “When you make love on a bunk,… the man has to bump his head.” Ouch!

So what did Capote intend? Probably the shade of meaning between the two, employing a euphemism that allowed him a double entendre of sorts, addressing audiences both urbane and popular. The nuance has dissipated over time, however, and a modern reader is left to wonder, to fill in details, to feel his or her unwholesome curiosity left unfulfilled. God’s fish! ’Tis a slippery one, that Truman.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Curse of Ernulphus

In my attempt to resume Tristram Shandy and see it to its completion (faltering as I previously did near the beginning of the Third Volume), I just finished a delightful portion that concerns swearing and oaths,—which immediately recalled an Artful Treatise that I just completed a few days ago. In the more recent tome, Ruth Wajnryb, whose name is redolent of Bosnian villages and queer folk singers, discusses the role of blasphemy &c. in cementing relationships as neatly as “expressing vexation or vituperation,” as one writer so eloquently puts it.

Wajnryb makes no specific mention of “The Curse of Ernulphus” in her book, but what better example of a mellifluous rant could one ask for? Written by a “gentleman, who, in distrust of his own discretion in this point, sat down and composed (that is at his leisure) fit forms of swearing suitable to all cases, from the lowest to the highest provocations which could possibly happen to him,—which forms being well consider’d by him, and such moreover as he could stand to, he kept them ever by him on the chimney piece, within his reach, ready for use.”

Of course, the Fear of God has left our sorry race, and we no longer shudder at the lines that may once (in, say, the Eighteenth Century) have given Readers pause. “We excommunicate, and anathematise him, and from the thresholds of the holy church of God Almighty we sequester him, that he may be tormented, disposed and delivered over with Dathan and Abiram, and with those who say unto the Lord God, Depart from us, we desire none of thy ways.” For example. Who knows these Dathan and Abiram fellows any more? Who lately has turned open their Bible to Numbers Chapter 16 to read breathlessly the story of the revolt against Moses? Whom would we choose today to replace the hapless insurgents? “We sequester him, that he may be tormented, disposed and delivered over with Jacko and Paris,…”

And then, somewhere in the middle of the tirade, it explodes into a Whitman-esque declaration of ill will:

“May he be damn’d where-ever he be,—whether in the house or the stables, the garden or the field, or the highway, or in the path, or in the wood, or in the water, or in the church.—May he be cursed in living, in dying.

“May he be cursed in eating and drinking, in being hungry, in being thirsty, in fasting, in sleeping, in slumbering, in walking, in standing, in sitting, in lying, in working, in resting, in pissing, in shitting, and in blood-letting.

“May he be cursed in all the faculties of his body.”

And that’s but one page out of nearly a dozen that constitute the entire chapter. I, for one, can think of a few people to whom such execration would be delightfully addressed. Perhaps one could (i.e., perhaps I could, if I were to take the time, stop blogging for a bit, and write a Perl script) create a web page that could take a few inputs and churn out personalized invectives, directed at whomever (e.g., the obvious choices of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Jerry Bruckheimer) one most despises. Options could exist to provide a bit of added fluorish — a roll of the die that might yield a “cumslut” in lieu of a “harlot,” offering both variation and nuance. Results could be compiled into a lengthy, repetitive, but hypnotic rant—the Blog of Ernulphus, anyone?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Our Shillings Take Care of Themselves

It occurred to me, upon posting the previous missive, that one might actually want to invest cold, hard cash in a copy of Tristram Shandy. You yourself may wish to purchase the very edition in my possession, which offers both extensive footnotes as well as numerous essays dating from the Eighteenth Century to the Twentieth (in one of which, for example, Edmund Burke comments that “the faults of an original work are always pardoned; and it is not surprizing, that at a time, when a tame imitation makes almost the whole merit of so many books, so happy an attempt at novelty should have been so well received,” an indictment that could just as easily concern contemporary cinema). Or perhaps you’re the cheap paperback type, in no need of annotations,—more power to you, if so, unheedful of others’ erudition as you may be. On the other (presumably third) hand, your pecuniary situation may permit you to invest your shillings in a remarkably pricy hardbound edition of uncertain merit. And for the visually-oriented among you, a graphically illustrated version of the tale may catch your fancy.

I have to admit a preference for a combiantion of the aforementioned Norton Critical Edition, along with one of the equally aforementioned online versions, which gives the quite sparse layout of the original volumes, as dictated by Sterne himself. One thus has the opprtunity to lounge about comfortably with one’s paperback, making only periodic treks to the computer to see what fiddling Sterne may have engaged in with the words on the page.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Hobby-Horses, as a Beginning

After reclaiming—or re-stealing, as the case may be—the Tristworthy moniker, I found myself inclined to take another look at the book that captured my attention lo these several years ago. I’d intended to pick it up again (having never finished it in the first place) in preparation for the aforementioned film, so the effort taxed me little,—especially insofar as the Norton Critical Edition lies on a shelf not two cubits from my bed. I must say, my dear, that the volume made as significant an impression as ever, for much like the inestimable Moby-Dick generations later, Sterne’s work flows mellifluously from the page, less like a gurgling brook or a heaving ocean, however, than a science-center water table, with streams directed by creative but somewhat hyperactive youngsters.

I can sense that you would relish the chance to share in the literary experience, so allow me to provide a few pointers. Editions of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. now show up online in both basic and graphically embellished versions, so you can indulge your curiosity without expending any cash. Or if your humours incline you more toward indolence, you may avail yourself of less tortuous resources summarizing the content, which may reveal the gist of the grist, as it were.

For those of a more scholarly bent, one can savour the annual publications of The Shandean, although you’ll end up shelling out a few pounds for the priviledge.

Whatever your choice in the matter, I hope you will find similar delights as I discovered,—or at least not become so annoyed with the text that you would begrudge my recommendation or me for giving it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006


So all I really wanted to do was reply to one of Dave’s posts, but then the little option popped up… Create my own blogger ID? Well, all right.

Now I’m typing a post before I’ve even finished my first cup of coffee, having selected a username I once went by on IRC (dating myself here) but now typically only employ for video games. And with a new movie out that uses the same name, I’m not sure whether to be happy that I was able to lay claim to it, or whether I should fear for poor Trist’s reputation being tarnished.

Time will tell.

Your Well-wisher, and most humble Fellow-subject,
The Author.