de Botton – How to Think More About Sex

How Think More About Sex How Think More About SexAlain de Botton; Picador 2013WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 

I read de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex on 1-2 November 2014. It was not quite what I expected; I also expected more. Then again, I gave a mixed review to The Architecture of Happiness, which suffers from some of the same issues.

But first, the contents:

I. Introduction

II. The Pleasures of Sex

     1. Eroticism and Loneliness

     2. Can ‘Sexiness’ Be Profound?

     3. Natalie or Scarlett?

III. The Problems of Sex

     1. Love and Sex

     2. Sexual Rejection

     3. Lack of Desire: Infrequency, Impotence, Resentment

     4. Pornography: Censorship, A New Kind of Porn

     5. Adultery: The Pleasures of Adultery, The Stupidity of Adultery

IV. Conclusion

Homework

My comments and excerpts:

de Botton writes in an overly generalized fashion, he considers few alternatives, he is quite probably contradicting himself on a couple occasions, he is often anthropomorphic and reifies to no end, and he seems to have written this book from a healthy, Euro-skinned, heterosexual of reasonably decent (or better) looks perspective. Gays, transexuals, asexuals, whatever do not appear. Do not get mention. Nor do the vast majority of people who are of mediocre appearance at best. Apparently, the only ones who should be thinking more (clearly/intelligently/humanely) about sex are healthy good-looking heterosexuals. Not.

I know this book is short but it leaves so damned much out. And that is perfectly fine and certainly expected. But if you are leaving out that much of the human experience of sex without even mentioning that you have no space for it then you do not deserve to name your book How to Think More About Sex. It really is that simple.

Based on this alone, one probably ought skip this book. But it is short and it has great moments. There are things of import to think about that he brings up. Some of his offerings for ways in and/or out of things are fine and some are bunk. But he is trying to intelligently discuss sex. I appreciate the hell out of that! But this only hits on occasion and it misses by so damned much in its general approach to ignoring much of the world’s population’s individual experiences.

Let’s dive in.

I. Introduction

I really liked this bit in the Intro. The end of that first paragraph is a bit over the top but I can’t argue really with that full one after it. He does a decent but succinct job of showing how messed up our “thinking” is about sex and, thus, why we may need to think/talk/act more intelligently about it.

“…. We [are] bothered by sex because it is a fundamentally disruptive, overwhelming and demented force, strongly at odds with the majority of our ambitions and all but incapable of being discreetly integrated within civilized society.

     Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be either simple or nice in the ways we might like it to be. It is not fundamentally democratic or kind; it is bound up with cruelty, transgression and the desire for subjugation and humiliation. It refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should. Tame it though we may try, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our lives: it leads us to destroy our relationships, threatens our productivity and compels us to stay up too late in nightclubs talking to people whom we don’t like but whose exposed midriffs we nevertheless strongly wish to touch. Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and values. Unsurprisingly, we have no option but to repress its demands most of the time. We should accept that sex is inherently weird instead of blaming ourselves for not responding in more normal ways to its confusing impulses.” 6-7

II. The Pleasures of Sex

He leaps right in trying to show that sex is messy and great and vengeful and loving and …. He does a good job showing that we truly are less in charge than we think when it comes to sex. This is also a bit thin for someone new to it (I am not) but he’s on the right track. Evolutionary biology can only explain so much (if it does at all) and one has to bring other theories to bear to explain more than mere biological sexual attraction for reproductive purposes. He does. Are they the right ones, or at least highly useful?

     1. Eroticism and Loneliness

          “It could sound disgusting — and that’s the point. Nothing is erotic that isn’t also, with the wrong person, revolting, which is precisely what makes erotic moments so intense: at the precise juncture where disgust could be at its height, we find only welcome and permission. The privileged nature of the union between two people is sealed by an act that, with someone else, would have horrified them both.” 22

          “Sex temporarily liberates us from the punishment dichotomy, well known to every one of us since childhood, between dirty and clean. Lovemaking purifies us by engaging the most apparently polluted sides of ourselves in its procedures and thereby anointing them as newly worthy.” 37

On fetishes:

          “In a clinical sense, a fetish is defined as an ingredient, typically quite unusual in nature, which needs to be present in order for someone to achieve orgasm.” 38

          “In this wider sense, fetishes are simply details — most often related either to a type of clothing or to a part of another’s body — which evoke for us desirable sides of human nature. The precise origins of our enthusiasms may be obscure, but they can almost always be traced back to some meaningful aspect of our childhood: we will be drawn to specific things either because they recall appealing qualities of a beloved parental figure or else, conversely, because they somehow cancel out, or otherwise help us to escape, a memory of early humiliation or terror.

          The task of understanding our own preferences in this regard should be recognized as an integral part of any project of self-knowledge or biography. What Freud said of dreams can likewise be said of sexual fetishes: they are a royal road into the unconscious.” 39

Tying our fetishes to issues of values and the good life which he’ll bring out later:

          “The pleasure we derive from sex is also bound up with our recognizing, and giving a distinctive seal of approval to, those ingredients of a good life whose presence we have detected in another person. The more closely we analyze what we consider ‘sexy’, the more clearly we will understand that eroticism is the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence.” 44

     2. Can ‘Sexiness’ Be Profound?

          “A consensus emerges about which sorts of faces we find most appealing. From these studies [cross-cultural], evolutionary biologists have concluded that a ‘sexy’ person of either gender, far from being an unclassifiable abstraction, is in essence someone whose face is symmetrical (that is, the right and left sides match precisely) and whose features are balanced, proportionate and undistorted.” 81

          “The discipline [evol biol] absolves physical attraction of the charge of being purely superficial. While conceding that we judge people by their appearance, it holds that appearances themselves are anything but trivial and indeed point towards some rather profound qualities.” 84

     3. Natalie or Scarlett?

          “Evolutionary biology confidently predicts that we will be drawn to people on the basis of their evident health, but it has not put forward any truly convincing theories about why we should prefer one specific healthy person over another.” 63

But what about people who clearly are not “healthy” who find love and are attracted sexually to others?

          Wilhelm Worringer’s theory on art appreciation; essay, “Abstraction and Empathy,” 1907 64-8

          Worringer’s theory applied to sexual attraction 69-72

          “We then declare people ‘sexy’ when we see in them evidence of compensatory qualities, and are repelled by those who seem prone to drive us further into our extremities.” 70

          “We need both art and sex to make us whole, so it is not surprising if the mechanisms of compensation should be similar in each case. The specifics of what we find ‘beautiful’ and what we find ‘sexy’ are indications of what we most deeply crave in order to rebalance ourselves.” 72

III. The Problems of Sex

This section attempts to offer possible remedies, or at least ways in, to mitigate some of the many problems with sex. Of course, only a few are covered in the short space allowed. I am not sure how effectively he deals with some of them either.

     1. Love and Sex

          “It’s time for the need for sex and the need for love to be granted equal standing, without an added moral gloss. Both may be independently felt and are of comparable value and validity. Both shouldn’t require us to lie in order to claim them.” 79

Amen! The data on this–and he does provide some; there is much more–show what a damaging idea modern love (and marriage) truly is. Maybe someday perhaps the two can be pulled apart in a more sane and sensible way but I have my doubts.

     2. Sexual Rejection

          “We don’t have to take sexual rejection as a sure indication that another person has looked into our soul and registered disgust at every aspect of our being. The reality is usually much simpler and less shattering than that: for whatever reason, this particular individual just can’t get turned on by our body. We can take comfort in the knowledge that such a verdict is automatic, preconscious and immutable. The one doing the rejecting isn’t being intentionally nasty; he or she has no choice.” 82

If we could already use reason in regards to love and sex then this probably would be less of an issue than it is. Realigning our views on the issue, as he suggests, would be useful but quite unlikely to be of use to more than a handful of people, statistically speaking.

     3. Lack of Desire:

          i. Infrequency

               “The solution to long-term sexual stagnation is to learn to see our lover as if we had never laid eyes on him or her before.” 97

               “While going about their quite different types of business, the lover and the artist nonetheless come up against a similar human foible: the universal tendency to become easily habituated and bored, and to decide that whatever is known is unworthy of interest. We are prone to long for novelty, kitschy romanticism, drama and glamour.” 99

               “We should try to locate the good and the beautiful beneath the layers of habit and routine.” 102

          ii. Impotence

     Argues that this is a “symptom of respect.” Not buying that for a second, except in some percentage (I’m going with small) of all cases. And the reason why is all the bullshit he says about men in these paragraphs. Again, overly generalized beyond all possible acceptance. Gamergate and #teamharpy, along with way too many other things today show us that most men have not “evolved” as de Botton seems to think.

          iii. Resentment

               “By overwhelming consensus, our culture locates the primary difficulty of relationships in finding the ‘right’ person rather than in knowing how to love a real — that is, a necessarily rather unright — human being.” 121

Yes. This bit is quite valuable. Again, shows the utter destruction caused by the currently prevailing (by those in power) views of love and marriage in Western society.

     4. Pornography:

          i. Censorship

I. Just. He seems to accept, and argues, that pornography is extremely dangerous to society and that some form of censorship is necessary. He is writing in particular about the Internet. Yes, indeed, let’s let nanny-state governments censor the Internet so we can get back to work. Jackass! There are so many intermediate steps.

I should explain that my vehemence here is he because he made no real argument for pornography being an immense destructive force; just assumed via anecdata.

          ii. A New Kind of Porn

I. Just. Don’t. But now he wants a new kind of porn. “Virtue porn.”

“Yet is is possible to conceive of a version of pornography that wouldn’t force us to make such a stark choice between sex and virtue — a pornography in which sexual desire would be invited to support, rather than permitted to undermine, our higher values.” 139

OK. This might work for a few folks; he should go back and re-read his discussion of fetishes though, as a first caution. And some of his examples later on make some sense; again, for a few folks. But his discussion. Oy! His example to lead us into pornography that might support our virtues is Sandro Bottticelli’s The Madonna of the Book, c.1483.

Seems to be contradicting himself in these two sections also. Porn must be censored. Oh, look, a new kind of “virtue porn.” Make a choice or choose a middle ground, sir.

     5. Adultery:

          i. The Pleasures of Adultery

               “However, the real fault in the situation lies in the ethos of modern marriage, with its insane ambitions and its insistence that one person can plausibly hope to embody the eternal sexual and emotional solution to another’s every need.

               Taking a step back, what distinguishes modern marriage from its historical precedents is its fundamental tenet that all our desire for love, sex and family ought to reside in the selfsame person. No other society has been so stringent or so hopeful about the institution of marriage, nor ultimately, as a consequence, so disappointed in it.

               In the past, these very distinct needs — for love, sex and family — were wisely differentiated and separated out from one another.” 152

          ii. The Stupidity of Adultery

This section brought out how also very middle-class and above focused it is.

IV. Conclusion

     “When every contemptuous but fair thing has been said about our infernal sexual desires, we can still celebrate them for not allowing us to forget for more than a few days at a time what is really involved in living an embodied, chemical and largely insane human life.” 175-6

I can certainly agree with this view, but while he did a decent job arguing this, if it was what he truly meant to argue then I suppose it would have been a somewhat different book. Or perhaps not.

Homework

This is the sources section.

Conditionally recommended is what I am going to say. That is, if you want to think more about sex. Then again, if you want to think more about sex then I would recommend this book [any edition would be fine], even if the focus of each is not the same.

Administrivia:

I had to create a record at Open Library so I could use John Miedema’s OpenBook plugin. I had hoped I was done with adding so many records there but is good to be writing again. And it is a nice record.

DigiWriMo 2014

I have committed to participating in Digital Writing Month 2014, more commonly known as DigiWriMo, this November. I did it its first year in 2012 and made my goal of 50,000 digital words. Most people who know November as a writing month know it as National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo. There is also Academic Writing Month, AcWriMo. Wikipedia says there’s an Academic Book Writing Month, AcBoWriMo but that’s a new one on me. Well, on Twitter there is no #AcBoWriMo but there is plenty of #AcWriMo.

I have been driven to write lately—perhaps driven by the mysterious and as yet undiagnosed illness; which is neither here nor there. I have so many ideas and there are tons of old ideas not finished, or ever even fleshed out, to work with.

Preparation has involved recording these ideas as they occur and corralling old recorded ones too, prepping my Scrivener project file (my writing tool), and spending more time learning to use it well.

This year my goal is ≥ 1k words/day, with a total of ≥ 25k words/November. Yes. I am aware of the missing 5 days. I am trying to be gracious with myself. [If this illness can possibly help teach me that idea then, OK, I’ll take the rest. I’m not counting on this being an actual lesson, though.]

I do not know how much I will do with the, thankfully, re-expanded DigiWriMo folks’ official efforts but I will be “playing along at home” at a minimum. I certainly hope and plan to interact a fair bit. I just have to manage my stress triggers and adding a #digiwrimo twitter search window to my already overflowing two twitter accounts for a month ….

I also recently acquired a new phone making the leap from an iPhone 4S to a 6. I had been eligible for an upgrade for well over a year and $200 was the most they were ever going to give me anymore for my 4S. Or that anyone was going to give me. For a lot of hoops and a delay of several weeks, I got to pay roughly $100 and a $35 activation fee to move from a 16GB 4S to a 64GB 6. I took that deal.

It was particularly tempting as I use both TextExpander and 1Password on my computer. They have also both been on my phone but were basically useless. Finally iOS 8 allows them both to be useful. [Sadly, I will not be putting iOS 8 on my iPad 2. It is struggling already.]

The point of all this is that having those 2 programs actually doing good work on my phone may let me use it to do just a couple more tasks than I would’ve before. Also, the bigger screen isn’t to laugh at with my old eyes. They will also allow me to more productively write digitally even though what I “write” on my phone will still be pretty damned minimal.

Some of what I write will be public, much as now although even more will be. Much will be kept private. I really want to start doing a better job of journaling, in a couple senses of ‘journal.’ I hope DigiWriMo will spur me to do so, or at least take advantage of the illness’ urging me to do so. I hope to get a few more blog posts up here and definitely more written on By the barrel.

Poetry, 2015 goal planning, book reviews, tweeting, and all sorts of other writing endeavors are on the docket. Some of the topics I hope to address, whether public or not, include Facebook, gender labels (as language), gender on labels (as in depiction of on beer labels), sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, body image, altered consciousness, and many others. We will see what happens.

If any of you are participating in some kind of writing month in November let me know if you would like some support and hopefully we can find a mutual venue.

What’s up so far in 2014? Home buying, it seems

[N.B.: Mostly written 6 January with minor updates over next 2-3 days. Current follow-up follows.]

So what’s up in 2014 so far? 2014 got off to a great start. For one day.

Sara and I do a kind of annual review, along with a semi-annual review and weekly reviews using assorted tools such as calendars, OmniFocus and some text documents. Neither of us do resolutions but we do want to have goals for the year, and to check up on them now and again so that we might have a chance to actually accomplish most of them. We entered 2014 with this year’s annual review pretty much done. Mine was primarily complete except for final formatting as a document in Scrivener.

Then on the 2nd of January the mail was delivered. Our place was recently bought by some out-of-towners and we got notice that our rent was going up 15%! We are already stretched pretty thin and that is just ridiculous. We immediately jumped into “can we buy a house” mode. We have been considering that anyway but we figured it was at least 6 months to more like 2-3 years in the future for us. Nope. [We need to find out right now whether we can get a loan for enough to buy a house here in Bend or we need to find a cheaper place to rent until we can qualify for said loan. If we can get a loan then we need to be seriously looking for a house that meets all of [ok, much of, hopefully]  our criteria.

Either way, (update to follow)] almost everything I had planned for this year has now been indefinitely placed on hold. My 2014 annual review/plan has been scrapped by the second day of the year. Yay, me!

Thankfully a lot of stuff is still in boxes from when we arrived here in August 2012. That will make moving somewhat easier. But we also have not weeded out near enough stuff that we were supposed to have gotten rid of by now. And we have probably acquired more stuff than we have gotten rid of. My surgery in May put in a big damper on my weeding which I had hoped to do this past summer. Sara’s full-time job has prevented her from making any progress on her stuff.

I have jumped into weeding pretty heavy the last couple of days and hope to continue. We’re donating a bunch of stuff to the Humane Society Thrift Store, some of the better books to the public library, and recycling a crapload of stuff. There is, sadly, plenty more to go through though. As we free up a bit of room by getting rid of stuff I have a bit more room to get at and sort through even more. So I guess one can say it’s looking up.

It is, though, extremely demoralizing to have just committed to and documented one’s goals for the year and to then have to toss it all away on January 2nd.

So what were/are some of my plans for 2014?

  • Read 75 books http://marklindner.info/blog/2014/01/01/reading-goals-2014/
  • Wrangle our ebooks into some kind of order, usability, etc.
  • Do some more beer tastings
  • Help with Central Oregon Beer Week
  • Do another book talk this year for Central Oregon Beer Week
  • Meet some of the beer folks in Bend who I haven’t been able to yet
  • Do some beer trading
  • Finish my “article” on Prohibition in Bend
  • Perhaps work on my Cicerone certification
  • Blog some book reviews that I am way behind on
  • Learn to make better use of Evernote, OmniFocus, Scrivener, etc.
  • Meal planning
  • Get my new tattoo started
  • Track down a citation for that damned Paracelsus quote or show that it is not attributable to him
  • Exercise more and get back into some semblance of shape
  • Visit some places in Oregon: Broken Top, lava tubes, Crater Lake, etc.

23 January update:

We found a house, put in an offer, got their counter and accepted. We have the inspection set for Saturday a.m. and are meeting with the mortgage broker tomorrow morning to do more paperwork and get VA appraisal scheduled. If all goes well with those we’ll be moving late winter / early spring.

I have been in full-on moving prep mode for about a week now. I am so damned sore. But. I am much closer to being ready. I have a good idea of what is packed, more stuff was topped off and packed and many binders and articles were packed, it is mostly segregated from other stuff, and the inventory is updated. More books were weeded.

We should have a couple weeks to move in. It kind of comes down to when we close and the 30-day notice we give our landlord. Current estimated closing is March 17.

My only big concern is weather. Well, and will my aging body hold out: preferably for it to treat all the labor as weightlifting and other “good” exercise. Seriously though, moving in the rain or a snowstorm or having ice/snow on the ground are the worst for moving. So far our winter has included almost none of any of that, which is not good. We need snow, at least outside of town.

It is all moving so fast. Which, of course, has deepened even more the feeling of upended plans. Not all is a loss, though. I am reading some and not quite as slowly as I suspected. I am helping with Central Oregon Beer Week as a member of their team this year. If you need me for any Central Oregon Beer Week business feel free to email me at mark@centraloregonbeerweek.com. I am trying to figure out what I want to do as Bend Beer Librarian for COBW; not up for another book talk for this year. Considering things and talking with people but need to decide soon to save 15% as a returning sponsor.

I met a few more Bend beer people, including one I wanted to meet in person, but, intriguingly, we met them in Portland. We attended the 1st Big Woody put on in Portland and a boatload of Bendites were there as attendees, volunteers, brewery folks representing, and event organizers/staff. That was nice and I finally met Matthew Ward (Bend Brew Daddy) and his wife Lisa. Definitely hope to hang out more with them. We also got to spend some time with non-Bendite but extremely nice guy Christopher (PortlandBeer.com) at Hair of the Dog. So possibly future trading and/or nice bottle swaps as it sounds like his are the kind of quality we are looking for. Maybe we can get Christopher to Bend, although we explored so little of Portland last weekend.

Blogging and other forms of writing have been practically non-existent, book reading is way down, research for either major topic of current interest is on hold, and most other projects listed above or not are pretty much forgotten about.

I hope this place works out and we can get settled in quickly. I’d like to get back to some of my projects recently put on hold and others, many of which have been a long time coming.

It is an adventure, and so far easier than expected, but its timing seems a little sudden.

 

 

Hysteria (movie)

[This, too, is a late DigiWriMo post.]

Thankfully, later after watching The Tree of Life we watched Hysteria, which we have also been wanting to see after seeing the previews a couple years ago. It by no stretch came to conservative Sioux City so we missed it in the theater. We couldn’t even find it in Omaha, although we could be wrong on that count but we had looked repeatedly while it was in theaters. Ninety miles one way is a long way to go for a film but we would have.

After we watched it I tweeted,

Cleansed my movie palate with Hysteria, based on this most excellent book by Rachel Maines http://marklindner.info/blog/2011/02/02/maines-the-technology-of-orgasm/ [tweet]

The next morning, Karen Coyle tweeted to me:

@mrlindner One of my favorite books. See: bit.ly/UYGA8X [tweet]

Check out her review at that link. It is much better than mine.

We saw the preview for the movie in the cinema shortly after I read Maines’ excellent book and I knew that it was (somewhat) based on Maines’ book immediately. It looked hilarious and as The Technology of Orgasm is one of my favorite books of all time—which I had discussed a fair bit with Sara as I read it—we really wanted to see it. It did not come to Sioux City or environs and time went by. We moved and even more time went by. Sara got it from the public library finally and we watched it last night. The movie was as good as we hoped and we are in the process of watching the documentary (actually excerpts from Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm) that comes as an extra feature on the DVD. It is also pretty good and features a lot of Rachel Maines, along with a couple of others, so I am happy to be able to hear her talk about her research also.

The Technology of Orgasm The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual SatisfactionRachel P. Maines; The Johns Hopkins University Press 1998WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder  
Katherine Young (Ph.D. and author of Presence in the Flesh: The Body in Medicine) puts forth the idea that the Copernican Revolution was revolutionary in another way than is typically thought. She had been outlining some long time ideas on human sexuality in that males were thought to be of the elements of fire and air, thus hot and light, and that women were of earth and water, and thus heavy, cold and wet. When the Copernican Revolution replaced the Earth (female) as the center of the solar system/universe with the sun (male) then female sexuality as a topic disappeared from discourse.

It is an extremely interesting idea but I would really like to see some good supporting evidence. If anyone knows of any books or articles that address this idea I would be most grateful. My initial skepticism leans toward the shift having started well before and that the displacement of the Earth from the center was perhaps the final straw. And even if the idea as presented is true, then I imagine it is hingeing on a highly condensed version of reality, in that the Copernican Revolution involved an awful lot of historical, political, societal and religious changes that were highly intertwined and influencing each other in multiple ways. Symbolically this idea is highly interesting, but I imagine the reality of the shift away from a supposedly fairly prevalent knowledge of female sexuality and needs to one that pretty much discounted female sexuality would have to be far more complex than a shift in symbols.

I would love to have my skepticism discounted though so please do pass along any sources you may be aware of that address this issue. [I went back and re-watched that section and got her name and the name of the book she wrote, Presence in the Flesh: The Body in Medicine, which Sara has requested for me.] So, if you are aware of any other sources that address this intriguing topic please do pass them along.

Synopis:

Hysteria: Good romantic comedy based on an excellent and important book.

Follow-up: Tonight (3 December) we watched the full documentary, Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm, which we got through ILL. It was good but it was only 74 minutes vs. the 47 minutes of excerpts on the DVD of Hysteria as an extra. The additional material was interesting but probably not worth going out of one’s way to acquire. You can find more information about it here.

Young’s book has also arrived by this point in time and I look forward to having a go at it, but I am highly disappointed to say that neither Copernicus nor Copernican Revolution are anywhere to be found in the index. I want to know more about this symbological interpretation but am remaining highly skeptical as to its actual explanatory depth.

 

Got unglue.it?

My tl;dr point:

If only 1/10th of all the librarians attending ALA Annual this coming week pledged $1 to Oral Literature in Africa by Ruth H. Finnegan (1970) then it would be successful.

So, you may not have heard, but there’s this thing called unglue.it.  Or maybe you have but have yet to look into it. It officially launched May 17th.

unglue (v. t.) 4. For an author or publisher, to accept a fixed amount of money from the public for its unlimited use of an ebook. (From their main page)

I am MarkLindner there and am a very early supporter.

What you can do

You can support the ungluing of books so that the resulting ebooks rights are Creative Commons licensed so readers everywhere may enjoy free and legal access to these works. See this page as a good starting point for more info. The set of faq pages are also a great place to find more information whether you are a reader, an author or a rights holder.

As an account holder, you can add books to your wishlist, support books others have already added, and pledge to support the ungluing of specific works. Since the site just recently launched there are currently 5 active campaigns.

Each campaign includes assorted premium levels, much like Kickstarter. See, for instance, this page for Love Like Gumbo by Nancy Rawles. In all cases (so far), for only a $1 pledge you will get a copy of the resulting ebook if the campaign is successful. For increasing amounts you get other things on top of a copy of the book.

If you are on my actual blog (vs. feedreader, etc.) you can see in my right sidebar widget area that you can also embed widgets for books on active campaigns and those on your wishlist. I currently have two, one for the book I am currently pledged for and one for Patrick Wilson’s Two Kinds of Power which I so very much want University of California Press to … well, do the right thing by.

Why I am supporting unglue.it

I became a member as soon as I saw the official announcement for beta testers (I had been reading about the idea in advance) at Eric Hellman’s blog: go to hellman. There is, of course, now an unglue.it blog where you can read about each of the campaigns and other things.

I have no idea if this model can work but I want it to. Sara and I support a fair few projects via Kickstarter also and we think that crowdfunded projects are a great way to show artists, authors, and assorted rights holders that people do want to support them while getting a quality product for a fair price and that they are willing to put their wallets where their mouths (or computer clicks) are.

During the beta testing there was a call to help test the pledge mechanisms and payment processes (currently via Amazon Payments) and I helped out. I made a pledge for $5, I increased it to $25, and then I decreased it to $10. We were asked to do such wishy-washy things to stress test their systems. The primary premium was a copy of a chapter Eric Hellman wrote called “Open Access EBooks” for a book by Sue Polanka. Increasing premiums were things like unglue.it stickers, autographed stickers, and so on. I was able to provide some useful feedback and left my pledge at $10 so they might have a (very) small bit of operating funds.

When the site went live and first five campaigns were announced I must admit I was a little disappointed. I wasn’t deeply interested in any of those works. I mean they all looked interesting enough but with hundreds of books on hand and thousands more not immediately on hand that I know I want to read they weren’t intriguing enough to me to pledge for any of them. I justified my not contributing by my participation in the beta pledge.

Friday I changed my mind and pledged $7 to Oral Literature in Africa by Ruth H. Finnegan (1970)Why?

  1. I really truly want this model to succeed. To do so they need to be successful early on and this work currently has the most chance of being so.
  2. I am actually truly interested in this book even if it isn’t that high on the priority of the oh so lengthy to-be-read list.
  3. They bribed me. :P They offered some additional pledge incentives, one of which was the $7 level which would give me a copy of this ebook, if successful, and a choice of another ebook from the publisher. Oooh, this is the other book I’ll hopefully get myself.
  4. Did I mention that early success is critical to demonstrate to authors and rights holders that this model is a workable one?

What I would like you to do

Please have a look around the unglue.it site. Read the about page, poke at the faqs, look at the bios of the people involved, peruse the blog, check out the books in the active campaigns.

But most importantly, pledge something for one or more of these books. It shouldn’t really matter if you are even personally interested in any of these titles. If the campaigns are successful then these books will be free, as ebooks, for anyone. And surely you know someone you could give a copy of one (or more) of them to. $1 is all it takes!

If you are a librarian, a reader, or an ebook reader, then imho you really ought be contributing to the success of this model. It isn’t the only way forward but it can be a great start. But only if people like us make it one!

If only 1/10th of all the librarians attending ALA Annual this coming week pledged $1 to Oral Literature in Africa by Ruth H. Finnegan (1970) then it would be successful.

We have only 5 days left to make this a success. Won’t you be a part of something this important?

Two-Thirds Book Challenge Update 6

This is update 6 in the Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

Helen

Helen has been quite busy this month … catching up on blogging things that she has read over the last few months.

Trinity by Leon Uris

She gave this one 5 stars in goodreads. “It is a dreary & beautiful slog through fictionalized history of a conquered people.” See her review for more.

The Littlest Hitler by Ryan Boudinot

This collection of short stories garnered 3 stars from her. While the “stories were all technically very well written” she “just kept thinking over and over that it was all trying too hard. The writing was effortless and a pleasure to read, but the story was always a little too hip, a little too cool, a little too ‘look how shocking.'” She hopes to try some of his more recent stuff before writing him off.

Pure Drivel by Steve Martin

“Usually I love Steve Martin’s writing, but this one was a miss for me.” 3 stars. See her review for why this one just didn’t work for her.

Scenes From An Impending Marriage by Adrian Tomine

Another 5 star book. “I hear that this comic isn’t his best work from lots of folks, but since a) I’ve read and loved all his work and b) I feel a kinship to his attitude about most things, I feel qualified to say this book was awesome.” As someone ‘recently’ married, she has convinced me to read it.

Murder Unleashed by Rita Mae Brown

“This story is a murder mystery that encompasses a wide variety of topics including but not limited to: the mortgage crisis, squatter’s rights, hunger both human and animal, coyote’s and ranch politics, cattle farming, campaign finance, school buses, and sex industry workers. I’m sure there was more, plus the everyday lives of regular characters. The story is easy and RMB has a gift for packing a lot of content into a weekend read without making it laborious.”

She thinks the series is improving but read her review to find out why she only gave it 3 stars.

 Jen!!

After a drought, two books down

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

“This is the fourth book in the Dresden series and I loved it. It lived up to Butcher’s standards for adventure, inventiveness, and fun.”

Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes

“[I]nspired by a reference in The Violets of March” she was led into the Stacks at UIUC and was “glad that I followed through on reading it. … Indeed, I found it a thoughtful telling of a life, the choices made, and the results that come from those choices.”

Sounds like a good read. And Brava, Jen, for daring the Stacks! I miss them so very, very much!

The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer

Past, present, Vienna, World War II, art, death and lovers. Wow. “The book drew me in almost instantly, making want to know more about the characters–their past, their future, how they would deal with the present. … This book is a wonderful get-a-way from the day to day and I especially like the time shifting of it and getting to witness the impact that the choices made in one’s youth had on the future.”

Sara

Quiet Renaissance Power

Sara reviewed two books “that were very different but struck similar chords” for her, which she read during the same time period as part of her Creativity theme for the 2/3rds Book Challenge: Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain, and The Renaissance Soul: life design for people with too many passions to pick just one by Margaret Lobenstine.

“In the end, I benefited from reading both of these books and I think reading them at the same time worked out really well. From Renaissance Soul, I have a list of specific goals and a timeline which actually feels realistic. From Quiet, I have several other book recommendations (I think I’ll finally get around to reading Flow now) and better ways of articulating what I need to myself and others.”

She does caution readers about an “us and them” premise which is present in both books, though.

E

The Wild Palms (If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem) by William Faulkner

This was a tough one for E but it will be with her for a long time. Life often puts these complex and difficult texts in front of us during times of stress, whether we need them or not, and they change us; often for the better, more often not appreciated until much later.

Read her powerful review.

“Do I even need to tell you that there can’t possibly be a happy ending? “That story ends very badly for all involved, you know.” “Don’t all the good ones?” And then there’s this, where I am right now, drinking bourbon in the back room of my new apartment in Pilsen, listening to the whistle of trains in the distance, scanning for the moon against the night sky.”

Keep scanning for the moon, my friend. She’ll always be there for you. Day or night, day and night, she has always been there for me.

Mark

In Defence of the Enlightenment by Tzvetan Todorov

I really wanted to like this book but it let me down. Sure, my review is far more nuanced than that, and I am glad I read it, but that is the gist of my reaction to it.

See you next month.

Todorov, In Defence of the Enlightenment

In defence of the EnlightenmentTzvetan Todorov ; translated from the French by Gila Walker.; Atlantic Books 2009WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

I almost bought this book when it came out in December 2009, but I had read at least one review which was not very positive. I wish I could find whatever I had read to see whether I agree with it. I have tried but I failed.

I have read at least three other Tzetvan Todorov books that I am certain of: Facing the Extreme, Imperfect Garden, and Hope and Memory. I have enjoyed them all, even when I have not entirely agreed with him.

I decided to pick this up now as I am taking a class this semester in Enlightenment Literature, or, more specifically on Anglo-American Enlightenment literature. Todorov focuses on the French Enlightenment, understandably; he has lived in France since 1963. Certainly, a few other thinkers from Germany, England, and America crop up but the vast majority of references are to French thinkers.

I read this book, in essence, twice between 3 February and 5 March 2012. I read a chapter or two and then I went back and reread and took my notes, leapfrogging slightly ahead with my reading over my note taking.

I have decided to count it as a Two-Thirds Book Challenge book as it is directly applicable to my current interests, it is a fairly meaty book for its length, and, as I said, I read it twice.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. It’s not bad but it seemed a little narrow-minded, or defensive, perhaps. And, yes, I am fully aware that it is supposed to be a defense; but, there is a fine line between making a defense and being defensive.

Contents:

  • Introductory Note
  • 1 The Project
  • 2 Rejections and Distortions
  • 3 Autonomy
  • 4 Secularism
  • 5 Truth
  • 6 Humanity
  • 7 Universality
  • 8 The Enlightenment and Europe
  • A Note of Conclusion
  • Notes

The physical book (hardbound) is a nice artifact, well edited, no typos, with good margins, but no index.

§ Introductory Note

“… I set out here to outline the key points of Enlightenment thought, without losing sight of our times, in a continual back-and-forth movement between past and present” (2).

§ The Project

Trying to define the Enlightenment project is difficult for two reasons: (1) It “was a period of culmination, recapitulation and synthesis, not one of radical innovation”; and (2) “Enlightenment thinking was formulated by a great many individuals who, far from agreeing with one another, were constantly engaged in bitter discussions, from one country to another and within each country” (3-4).

Three ideas form the basis of the Enlightenment project, according to Todorov:

  1. autonomy
  2. the human end is the purpose of our acts
  3. universality (4-5)

“[W]hat we need today is to re-establish Enlightenment thinking in a way that preserves the past heritage while subjecting it to a critical examination, lucidly assessing it in light of its wanted and unwanted consequences. … [I]t is through criticism that we remain faithful and put its teaching into practice” (23).

§ Rejections and Distortions

Enlightenment thinking was the subject of much criticism, particularly from the civil and church authorities that were being challenged (25). Many criticisms were directed against caricatures of Enlightenment thought, while some simply misread its spirit, Todorov tells us.

But this is one of the weak points of the book; Todorov told us earlier that many different and disparate voices vehemently disagreed about what exactly was the Enlightenment project but throughout the rest of the book he gives us a pretty straightforward account, claiming that such-and-such is the Enlightenment view of each topic that he covers. But it simply is not that easy. While I agree with him in general outline most of the time, the discussions he provides really need to be more complicated and nuanced. Perhaps that would lengthen the account but if one is going to defend the Enlightenment then one should do it well and not use an oversimplified caricature of Enlightenment thought.

I do think he does a decent job of showing how various ideas that pass for a fairly mainstream view of the Enlightenment are actually distortions of it, and how these ideas were often bastardized in the employment of dubious, and much worse, ends.

§ Autonomy

Twofold movement: “a negative movement of liberation from norms imposed from the outside and a positive movement of construction of new norms of our own devising” (41).

Discusses various forms and kinds of autonomy, such as collective vs, individual, of thought, opinion, etc., and its abuses by thinkers such as de Sade. Some of the possible conflicts between demands for collective autonomy and individual autonomy discussed include:

  • education as indoctrination (50)
  • economic globalization (51)
  • international terrorism (51-2)
  • mass media (53)
  • influence of fashion / spirit of the age/place (53-5)
  • public opinion (54-5)
  • advertising (55)

 § Secularism

Discusses various forms of temporal vs. spiritual power and what exactly secularism is. Other threats discussed are the family, Communism, Nazism and fascism. As Todorov tells us, “The enemies of a secular society are many” (70). Several pages discuss the role of the sacred in a secular society, and it does have one.

§ Truth

Distinguishes between two types of acts and discourses, those that aim for the good and those that aim for truth (77). Also discusses dangers to truth.

“The political life in a republic and the autonomy of its citizens are threatened by two symmetrical opposing dangers: moralism and scientism. Moralism reigns when the good prevails over truth and, under the pressure of the will, facts become malleable materials. Scientism carries the day when values seem to proceed from knowledge and political choices are passed off as scientific deductions” (82-3).

The scientism that arose, and is still with us, was opposed by some Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu, Rousseau (85). Some of the dangers of scientism discussed include:

  • 20th-century totalitarianism and the elimination of ‘inferior’ races and/or reactionary classes (86)
  • the temptation to rely on ‘experts’ to formulate moral norms or political objectives (86)
  • the sociobiological’ project (86)
  • heterogeneity in the paths to knowledge (87-8).

Moralism is, of course, much older than the Enlightenment and its dangers are also discussed.

Todorov writes, “Truth cannot dictate the good but neither should it be subjugated to it. Scientism and moralism are both alien to the spirit of the Enlightenment. But a third danger exists, and that is that the very notion of truth be considered irrelevant. … [The challenge to truth in totalitarian regimes] is that the very distinction between truth and falsehood, between truth and fiction, became superfluous in light of the purely pragmatic considerations of usefulness and convenience” (91-2)

He then goes on to show several examples in the US where truth is subjugated to “usefulness and convenience” in the very late 20th-century/early 21st (92-4). We would do well to think about these kinds of issues. And, yes, he slams present day France repeatedly throughout the book, too.

§ Humanity

Discusses how the shift of the human to the center was practically Copernican; “Not surprisingly this reversal elicited strong opposition from those who defended the existing hierarchy, from Bonald to John Paul II” (103).

de Sade is again mentioned in this chapter for his distortions of Enlightenment views.

§ Universality

Discusses equality and human rights, along with challenges to them such as the death penalty, political correctness, and relativism.

§ The Enlightenment and Europe

Discusses why the Enlightenment happened where and when it did considering that none of its ideas were particularly new, and some went back thousands of years.

“The lesson of the Enlightenment consists in saying that plurality can give rise to a new unity in at least three ways: it encourages tolerance through emulation; it develops and protected a critical spirit; and it facilitates self-detachment, which leads to a superior integration of the self and the other” (143-44)

§ A Note of Conclusion

On why the Enlightenment still holds relevance today:

“The reason for its topicality is twofold: we are all children of the Enlightenment, even when we attack it; at the same time, the ills fought by the spirit of the Enlightenment turned out to be more resistant than eighteenth-century theorists thought. They have grown even more numerous. The traditional adversaries of the Enlightenment — obscurantism, arbitrary authority and fanaticism — are like the heads of the Hydra that keep growing back as they are cut. This is because they draw their strength from characteristics of human beings and societies that are as ineradicable as the desire for autonomy and dialogue. … Added to this are modern distortions of the Enlightenment, in the form of scientism, individualism, radical desacralization, loss of meaning and wholesale relativism, to name a few” (149-50).

The Enlightenment may be history but it is still extremely relevant today. Enlightenment thinking was highly complex, and it was disputed by those within and without the project. It deserves not to be oversimplified.

This is a decent book and it was worth reading, but it is flawed by simplification where there should have been complexity.

Two-Thirds Book Challenge Update 4

This is the 3rd update to the Two-Thirds book Challenge.

2/3 Book Challenge: A Visit from the Goon Squad

E read this for her book club back in November but didn’t get the review posted until early January. She has been having a legitimately busy life the last several months. Hopefully things will calm down for her soon.

“I can say definitively that [Jennifer] Egan is a master storyteller. A Visit from the Goon Squad weaves in and out of time, with a number of stories told in layers, folding and unfolding onto themselves.”

“I wish I’d written this review closer to finishing the book – or to my book club’s discussion – as there are aspects of it that we found problematic that I’ve since forgotten.”

“And in that exchange lies the weight of the book, the way we measure the passage of time, all of the things we want to say but can’t, all of the things we try to say but fail to communicate, all of the moments in time that slip through our fingers.”

Sounds intriguing; see her review for more details.

Jen

Eleven Minutes, Paulo Coelho

“I read his book The Alchemist sometime in the last year or two and liked it. His writing is simple in quite a beautiful way. I like simplicity. I get lost in lyricism and can’t uncover deeper meanings. Coelho is right up my alley, but I don’t think that I could tear through his books one after the other. … In Eleven Minutes Coelho delves into love and prostitution, through the eyes of the young and beautiful Maria. Ah, love.”

Jen says she is too jaded for the love story here but I wonder if it wasn’t perhaps the storytelling. There are many ways to tell of love, and only a very few approach the sublimity of being in love.

The Violets of March, Sarah Jio

The Violets of March, …, is a delicious meal laid out stunningly on the table.”

“What a wonderful book. Romance and mystery (not a murder mystery–an historical mystery), beautifully woven together.”

“It’s the characters, not the romance, that will stick with me for a while. I’ll wonder about them and what they’re up to, the way I do with old friends I haven’t spoken with in a while.”

Jen references her comment in her previous review about being jaded, which has, perhaps, not been mitigated by this book but temporarily overcome.

Yes, Jen, some of us do use our amazon wish lists like that. By the way, you can put a comment, link, etc. in the notes for each item on your wish list to help keep track of just that issue. I try to do so when I read a review somewhere; it helps if I can go back 6 months or 2 years later and see why I once thought I wanted a title and to get some additional (original) input into whether it still speaks to me.

Mark

Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

“This is the 4th book that I have finished in my Two-Thirds Book Challenge. I started it 6 October 2011 and finished it 15 January 2012. I had not intended to take so long but it is somewhat complex and, in all honesty, the rampant Freudianism/psychoanalysis is simply too much at times.”

But it is a classic text and I do believe it is worth reading.

Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return

“The gist is a comparison of how primitive or archaic humans viewed history versus how historical man views history. For archaic human, Eliade claims, everything that mattered—that had meaning—was a repeat of an archetype of some previous event or action in ‘primordial’ time, and that these things were endlessly repeated as the world was, in fact, repeatedly re-created anew.”

Modern, historical, humans have lost that which then leads us straight into the “terror of history,” a form of existential crisis.

I found this an excellent and engaging book, which, for me, generated as many questions as it may have answered. I like that.

Stay tuned for next month’s installment and good reading, whatever that may be for you!

 

 

 

Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return

This is the 5th book that I have read for My Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

I stated at the end of my review of Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces that I hoped that this might be a good follow-up book to Campbell and I have to say that I think it was. It is certainly a different project than Campbell’s but it dovetails nicely.

Contents:

      • Introduction to the 2005 Edition by Jonathan Z. Smith
      • Foreword
      • Preface
      • Chap. 1: Archetypes and Repetition
        • § The Problem
        • § Celestial Archetypes of Territories, Temples, and Cities
        • § The Symbolism of the Center
        • § Repetition of the Cosmogony
        • § Divine Models of Rituals
        • § Archetypes of Profane Activities
        • § Myths and History
      • Chap. 2: The Regeneration of Time
        • § Year, New Year, Cosmogony
        • § Periodicity of the Creation
        • § Continuous Regeneration of Time
      • Chap. 3: Misfortune and History
        • § Normality of Suffering
        • § History Regarded as Theophany
        • § Cosmic Cycles and History
        • § Destiny and History
      • Ch. 4: The Terror of History
        • § Survival of the Myth of Eternal Return
        • § The Difficulties of Historicism
        • § Freedom and History
        • § Despair or Faith
      • Bibliography
      • Index

This is a fairly complicated book but I found it in no way tiresome to read, as I often did Campbell. Is it more “true” than Campbell? I don’t think we can ever know that but most of it is certainly plausible. My biggest concern, as it is in many areas, is can we really get into the head of archaic man? So many things were so different then than how they are, or have been for a good while, for any of us that can read (or could have written) this book.

The gist is a comparison of how primitive or archaic humans viewed history versus how historical man views history. For archaic human, Eliade claims, everything that mattered—that had meaning—was a repeat of an archetype of some previous event or action in ‘primordial’ time, and that these things were endlessly repeated as the world was, in fact, repeatedly re-created anew.

“The essential theme of my investigation bears on the image of himself formed by the man of the archaic societies and on the place he assumes in the Cosmos. The chief difference between the man of the archaic and traditional societies and the man of the modern societies with their strong imprint of Judaeo-Christianity lies in the fact that the former feels himself indissolubly connected with the Cosmos, whereas the latter insists that he is connected only with History. …” xxvii-xxviii

“The reader will remember that they [traditional civilizations] defended themselves against it [history], either by periodically abolishing it through repetition of the cosmogony and a periodic regeneration of time or by giving historical events a metahistorical meaning, a meaning that was not only consoling but was above all coherent, that is, capable of being fitted into a well-consolidated system in which the cosmos and man’s existence had each its raison d’être.” 142

The Hebrews, with their faith in Yahweh and their interpretation of events being a manifestation of His will, gave us ‘history.’ This view evolves over time, eventually leading to historicism.

“Thus, for the first time, the [Hebrew] prophets placed a value on history, succeeded in transcending the traditional vision of the cycle (the conception that ensure all things will be repeated forever), and discovered a one-way time. This discovery was not to be immediately and fully accepted by the consciousness of the entire Jewish people, and the ancient conceptions were still long to survive.” 104

“It may, then, be said with truth that the Hebrews were the first to discover the meaning of history as the epiphany of God, and this conception, as we should expect, was taken up and amplified by Christianity.

We may even ask ourselves if monotheism, based upon the direct and personal revelation of the divinity, does not necessarily entail the “salvation” of time, its value within the frame of history.” 104

“From the seventeenth century on, linearism and the progressivistic conception of history assert themselves more and more, inaugurating faith in an infinite progress, a faith already proclaimed by Leibniz, predominant in the century of “enlightenment,” and popularized in the nineteenth century by the triumph of the ideas of the evolutionists. We must wait until our own century to see the beginnings of certain new reactions against this historical linearism and a certain revival of interest in the theory of cycles; …” 145-46

The problem for modern man is one of existentialism, although that term is never used. It is, though, described in the text in places.

“For our purpose, only one question concerns us: How can the “terror of history” be tolerated from the viewpoint of historicism? Justification of a historical event by the simple fact that it is a historical event, in other words, by the simple fact that it “happened that way,” will not go far toward freeing humanity from the terror that the event inspires.” 150

What is interesting, and Eliade points towards it even in 1949, is that there is a nostalgia, a return even, towards the archaic view of history.

“Some pages earlier, we noted various recent orientations that tend to reconfer value upon the myth of cyclical periodicity, even the myth of eternal return. … …, it is worth noting that the work of two of the most significant writers of our day–T. S. Eliot and James Joyce–is saturated with nostalgia for the myth of eternal repetition and, in the last analysis, for the abolition of time.” 153

I think this kind of thinking is also reflected in the current interest in the Mayan calendar and 2012, in various forms of magical thinking like that involved in the Singularity, and other views and ideas floating around in early 21st-century consumer culture. I would really love to have Eliade’s take on this.

Eliade’s analysis leads him to claim that Christianity is the answer modern man has arrived at to combat the “terror of history.”

“But we are able to observe here and now that such a position [historicist] affords a shelter from the terror of history only insofar as it postulates the existence at least of the Universal Spirit. What consolation should we find in knowing that the sufferings of millions of men have made possible the revelation of a limitary situation of the human condition if, beyond that limitary situation, there should be only nothingness?” 159-60

“In this respect, Christianity incontestibly proves to be the religion of “fallen man”: and this to the extent which modern man is irremediably identified with history and progress, and to which history and progress are a fall, both implying the final abandonment of the paradise of archetypes and repetition.” 162

Personally, this leaves me unsatisfied. I am not sure that this is simply an objective (or as objective as possible) analysis or whether it is the answer Eliade wanted. Throughout most of the book, and even in the final clause above [the final sentence of the book], he seems to be more positively drawn towards the archaic human view than that of the modern, historical human.

I wonder whether the existential crisis is not simply overstated here, as it is in many places. Or perhaps it was more of a crisis when this book was written; it was certainly more of a ‘movement’ then than now. Perhaps 21st-century humans, at least those of us living our lives in our blogs and on twitter and so on, are simply too busy to feel the ‘crisis’ as deeply.

Something from the foreword which I fully agree would be a good thing:

“Our chief intent has been to set forth certain governing lines of force in the speculative field of archaic societies. It seemed to us that a simple presentation of this field would not be without interest, especially for the philosopher accustomed to finding his problems and the mean of solving them in the texts of classic philosophy or in the spiritual history of the West. With us, it is an old conviction that Western philosophy is dangerously close to “provincializing” itself … by its obstinate refusal to recognize any “situations” except those of the man of the historical civilizations, in defiance of the experience of “primitive” man, of man as a member of the traditional societies. … Better yet: that the cardinal problems of metaphysics could be renewed through a knowledge of archaic ontology.” xxiv

There are some interesting comments in a couple of places regarding the views of the elites (particularly the educated/intellectual elite) vs. the common person that I found intriguing, and that speak to related issues of today.

I imagine that I will revisit this work in the future. I am not entirely sure I understood everything Eliade claims; in fact, I know I didn’t. Another read might not fully solve that issue but it would help immensely I imagine. And I do think some interesting work on current culture could be done with the framework he has outlined here.

Recommended.

Scholes, English After the Fall

Disclaimer: I received an uncorrected proof copy of this book as part of the Library Thing Early Reviewer Program.

I read this book from 23 Nov – 13 Dec 2011 and the bottom line is that I enjoyed it and recommend it.

Contents:

  • Prologue: English after the fall
  • Ch. 1: Literature and its others
  • Ch. 2: The limiting concept of literature
  • Ch. 3: Textuality and the teaching of reading
  • Ch. 4: Textual power—sacred reading
  • Ch. 5: Textual pleasure—profane reading
  • Epilogue: A sample program in textuality
  • A Note on Sources
  • Works Consulted
  • Index [missing in this uncorrected proof copy]

This book is a follow-on to his previous book, The Rise and Fall of English, which he claims “came about because of the alluring but ultimately fatal choice of literature as the central object of the English curriculum” (xiii). I have not read that book but will probably do so now; I will certainly be looking into other books and writings by Robert Scholes.

I have included a fair few quotes from the book to give you an idea of his style.

Prologue: English After the Fall

The Prologue gives us an overview of how the book came about, what the Fall of English is, provides a quick overview of the argument for “textuality,” provides Scholes’ qualifications and interests in this arena, and outlines the rest of the book.

“This book is simply a profession of faith in that fallen field of studies and an attempt to suggest a direction for its future” (xiii).

“The fall of English is actually part of the fall of all the humanities in a world that is driven by technological progress and the bottom line” (xiv-xv).

“In the case of English, the more obviously useful features of the field have been relegated to the bottom of the reward system, …. What is needed, as I understand the situation, is a broader reconsideration of the purpose of English studies. We need to see the main function of English departments as helping students become better users of the language—basically, better readers and writers. Literary works have a role to play in this function, but they are a means to, not the end of, studies in English, though they have often been treated as the end. In this book, I want to make the case for a shift in the field—from privileging literature to studying a wide range of texts in a wide range of media—so that what I call “textuality” can become the main concern of English departments” (xv, emphasis mine).

English as an academic field and the rise of such departments is about a century old. They replaced departments of rhetoric and took students from classical studies (xv-xvi) and this change coincided with the rise of modernism in literature and other arts (xvi).

Outline:

  • history of ‘literature’
  • how a constricted notion of literature contributes to the fragmentation of the field
  • expanded field of textuality
  • illustration 1: the sacred
  • illustration 2: the profane

The prologue is quite understandable and provided me a bit of enthusiastic anticipation for what followed.

Ch. 1: Literature and Its Others

This chapter provides a rapid-fire intellectual/conceptual history of the concept of ‘literature.’ While it was interesting, it was not at all as clear as I had hoped it would be. This is definitely the weakest link in the book and its argument. Thankfully, it really isn’t required for the argument in any serious way; although it could certainly strengthen the argument if done well.

Intellectual history, and its close kin conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte), are my favorite kinds of history and I was highly interested in learning about the concept and idea of ‘literature’ as it has developed. Sadly, I am still pretty much in the dark after reading this romp of a chapter. I do understand Scholes giving just under 10% of the text to this chapter, seeing as it isn’t really fundamental to his argument, but I am still disappointed. Thankfully, this is really my only disappointment with the book.

Ch. 2: The Limiting Concept of Literature

Discusses the limits put on the concept of ‘literature’ within English departments and how that constrains what is taught.

“At the simplest level, as we have seen, this literary designation may rule excellent written texts out of consideration in our basic courses in reading, writing, and thinking. And that is one reason why we need to free ourselves from a restricted notion of literature” (23).

“We would not deny that certain kinds of texts, like instructions, are usually very low on the literary scale, but we all believe that there is a scale, and that there are poems, plays, stories, and expository texts all along that scale. This scale is a measure of a quality we may call “literariness” (which I would define as a combination of textual pleasure and power), but it is neither easy nor right to draw a line across the scale at some point and call everything on one side of the line literature” (24-5).

Provides a couple examples of the literary used for other forms of teaching and of the ‘nonliterary’ as examples of the literary.

Ch. 3: Textuality and the Teaching of Reading

(Some) problems with the restricted notion of reading:

  • “you can read it but you can’t write it”
  • “led to the separation of the study of reading/literature … from the study of writing/composition”
  • led to hierarchical structure of faculty
  • “further split between those kinds of writing that can be designated as ‘creative’ and those that cannot.”
  • “now have programs claiming creative status for certain sorts of writing not included in the restricted notion of literature, like the personal essay.”
  • “tied too tightly to the book”
  • “tied to a narrow view of what makes a text creative or literary”
  • “prevents us from demonstrating in our classrooms the relevance of the texts we cherish to the actual lives of our students” (33-34)

To solve these problems we need to redefine English as the study of textuality rather than literature. Such a redefinition has a number of aspects, but it begins with the recognition that English is all about teaching—not research—and that this teaching has two main branches: reading and writing. That is, the business of English departments is to help students improve as readers and writers, to become better producers and consumers of texts” (34, emphasis mine).

Scholes claims that “textuality has two aspects:”

  1. “broadening of the objects we study and teach to include all of the media and modes of expression.”
  2. “changing the way we look at texts to combine the perspectives of creator and consumer, writer and reader” (35).

“The basic purpose of humanistic education is to give students perspectives on their own cultural situation, opening the past so that they can connect it to the present” (35-6).

“…, we must find ways to make what students actually want and need more rewarding for their teachers, and we must find ways of making what teachers wish to teach more interesting and useful for those who may come to them for instruction. The solution, in my view, is to put these two aspects of English education back together. That is, teachers must not simply advise students how to consume texts but help them understand how these texts were constructed in the first place. The study of textuality involves looking at works that function powerfully in our world, and considering both what they mean and how they mean” (37).

“Cultural studies have actually been a part of the English curriculum for a while now. I am suggesting that English departments move these studies to the center of the historical dimension of their enterprise, using the connections between contemporary audiovisual media and the earlier print media as a way into our cultural past. This action also means historicizing cultural studies, …” (47).

“If English teachers can accept the responsibility to teach all aspects of textuality—the production, consumption, and history of texts in English—we will have a curriculum that can be competitive in an academic world in which the humanities have been marginalized.
In what follows in this book I take up some of these issues and pursue them to greater depths, concluding with some attempts to illustrate the kind of cultural work I think we should be doing, using the full range of texts available to us in the realm of textuality” (48).

He lays out and considers 3 levels or phases of reading, which are also further considered in rest of the book:

  1. Reaction – personal response
  2. Interpretation
  3. Criticism (50-2)

Ch. 4: Textual Power—Sacred Reading

“… we should treat all texts held to be sacred with interpretational respect. That is, we must see them as attempts to present a true version of events or a valid way of life, even if they seem to contradict our own views. Which does not mean that we need to believe any of them—even our own. Respect is different from belief” (53, emphasis mine).

Sacred reading includes both main sources of sacred texts: religions and governments.

Several sections are included in this chapter:

  • The Nature of Sacred Texts
  • A Fundamental Problem
  • A Failure to Communicate
  • Lots of Folks Forget That Part of It

Nature:

“To simply make sense of it [notion of ‘sacredness’] in a basic way, however, we must perform an imaginative act, which tells us, I believe, that no text can be perfectly sacred in actuality—precisely because it is a text” (57)

US political sacred documents are “ideal for the study of interpretation” because we do know a lot about who wrote them and how they were composed (59).

Fundamental:

“One of the main functions of textual education is to help people learn how to see things from more than one perspective, and to understand that these perspectives are not exactly matters of choice for many people, but ways in which they have been conditioned to see the world. ‘To see ourselves as others see us’ is important, but so is the ability to see others as they see themselves” (61).

“The textualist reader, then, must acknowledge the seriousness of fundamentalist readings, while resisting and criticizing the zeal that often results in interpretive leaps to an unearned certainty of meaning, achieved by turning a deaf ear to the complexity of the texts themselves, their histories, and their present situations” (63).

“them, there, then” ==> “us, here, now” “… “we must try to determine the text’s proper bearing on our own values and our conduct in the world” (71).

Ch. 5: Textual Pleasure—Profane Reading

“All texts that are not accorded sacred status may be considered profane—especially if we can do away with the semi-sacred category of literature” (89).

Focuses on musical drama and, in particular, opera in this chapter.

“Because performative works depend on audiences, the question of what they mean to “us, here, now” gains in importance. We live in a performative world, which is another reason why we should pay special attention to enacted stories in our classrooms” (92).

This chapter also has several sections:

  • Sacred versus Profane on Screen and Stage in the Twenties
  • Can’t Help It
  • Nobody’s Perfect
  • I’ve Become Lost to the World
  • The Pleasurable Pains of Opera
  • Send in the Clowns
  • Put on the Clown Suit
  • It Ain’t Over ‘Till the Fat Lady Sings

This chapter focused a lot on performance and roles.

Epilogue: A Sample Program in Textuality

“The essential matter for teachers of textuality is to get the interpretation of sacred texts into the curriculum, and to help students take pleasurable texts seriously—and to care about both the texts and the students” (142).

He ends with a “suggestion for a core of courses to be followed by advanced work drawn from whatever curriculum is already in a given institution” (142).

Most of these courses probably already exist, at least in title and with some applicable content. They would need to be restructured to focus on the textuality of the, hopefully, broadened range of texts used to comprise the content. I do see this as a totally doable venture, though.

Recommended! In particular, I feel that, at a minimum, the following folks could benefit from reading and thinking about this text: Lit majors [all languages], writing majors, and humanists of all stripes including digital humanists. This includes everyone from undergrads and their parents, through grad students on up to professors, department chairs and anyone else involved with or concerned with curriculum of literature(s) and writing.

This is a short but, nonetheless, important book. It is a quick read but supplies plenty to think about and act on.