Catalog of Personal Fascinations
Academic Book, Arthropods, Audubon Society Book of Insects and Arachnids, Bee, Bee Documentaries, Bee Hives, Bee Keepers, Bee Wilson, Bees, Book Review, Bugonia, history, honey, Human Beings Perception of Reality, Human Narcissim, Individual Will, Insects, Leo Tolstoy, Literature, Medieval Philosophy, mythology, Ovid, Philosophy, Science, Sexuality, The Hive, The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us, Virgil
I am unashamed whenever I confess that I am a nerd for bees.
My father’s a Pest Management Professional, which is the actual name for Exterminators just FYI, and so growing up I always had access to books about bugs, actual bug collections, and even slides (yes slides I am that old) that showed different types of arthropods and various facts about their anatomy. There was a brief period where my father worked for a small retail outlet and I remember the coolest part was spending hours just staring at the Mexican Red tarantula and the Emperor Scorpion. If it wasn’t these educational treats that made insects and arachnids so cool it was being the only kid in school who could identify different types of ants, spiders, and sometimes cockroaches that would stumble into the class rooms. I could tell the difference between a wolf spider and a brown recluse better than anyone and never understood why my classmates, who would often screech at the sight of a wolf spider the size of a dime, never took the time to learn the difference. There’s at least one book about insects and arthropods on every one of my bookshelves, and every night before bed I read a little bit from a DK book simply entitled Insects. This is just a long way of saying that there’s something about arthropods that I’ve always found fascinating.
Several months ago I went in for an official job interview at the library. I was technically interviewing for a job that I had been working as a temp for at least five months by then, and during the interview one of the questions was: “if you had to recommend a book to someone what would it be and how would you do it?” This was a bit of a joke since all of the supervisors knew me and knew that I was always reading something, or several
somethings, and I had actually brought two books with me to the interview. One of them, and I swear this isn’t me trying to be cute or clever, I’m never cute, was the Simon & Schustwer book of Insects, and the other was Bee Wilson’s The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us. I had picked the book up earlier in the week because one of my jobs in closing the place up is going around the second floor and looking over the shelves to find books people have left about. It’s far more common than the reader would think. People will often remove a book they have a passing interest in, and then rather than leaving it in designated places that are marked with signs they’ll just leave a book sitting on the shelf. I was looking through the hard sciences when I spotted a book I had seen in the card catalog before, and so being the bug-nut I decided to give it a try. I could honestly say to my bosses then, looking at the book, that I would recommend The Hive because I had never read a cultural history that was so well-written, so approachable, and a book that managed to pack every sentence and paragraphs with facts and never lose my interest.
I got the job and a week later I bought The Hive.
Wilson’s book is a cultural history which means rather than a chronological order or events, her method is to understand how the idea of bees has changed over time. Rather than just look at the methods ancient and modern peoples have used to raise and control bees her aim is deeper. Bees have evolved alongside human beings in a mutualistic relationship, and given the fact that human beings are meaning-making animals Wilson is able to show that bees have provided human beings with more than wax and honey. In fact, bees have inspired almost every level of society from politics, architecture, sexuality, food, agriculture, and economics. The bee has always been with mankind as a source of inspiration and so The Hive is an attempt to understand how that inspiration has worked and what ideas have developed from that inspiration.
And what better way to observe this than by looking at bugonia. Wilson explains this odd origin story for bees:
Perhaps the oldest of all the various theories about the origins of bees is the belief that, instead of generating themselves, bees were spontaneously fashioned out of the dead body of an ox. As the Latin poet Ovid (43 BC—AD 18) put it, ‘Swarms rush from the rotten ox; and one extinguished life produces a thousand.’ To us the theory that a dead ox could give birth to living bees seems frankly nuts. Yet this oddity did not prevent it from being an accepted explanation for existence of bees for more than 2,000 years. This was part of a reflection of the yearning of men to control these miraculous creatures, and thereby to control death itself. (71).
There’s obviously more to this, we’ll call it a notion because “bat-crap-crazy-idea” may be too harsh, but this paragraph is enough for me to demonstrate the appeal and strength of The Hive. This is one paragraph of the book and yet Wilson is able to name a concept, explain what it is, offer a quote which provides an examination of the idea, place it in contemporary perspective, and then offer the significance of the idea to humanity all while managing to write a paragraph that isn’t boring. Almost every paragraph of The Hive manages this same feat. And if it isn’t clear at this point that leaves me insanely jealous as a writer, but extraordinarily satisfied as a reader.
My regular reader may object, so what? Why should I bother reading a book that sounds like nothing but a lot of empty trivia about bees? I don’t even like bees, in fact I fuckin hate bees. They get in my soda and sting me. What’s relevant or useful about a pest?
It’s tempting then to suggest that the pure appeal of The Hive is the fact that the book is just an opportunity to collect lots of trivia about bees. For the record even if it was I would still recommend reading the book because as my opening suggests bees are fucking awesome. But more than just the empty trivia The Hive is a fascinating observation to observe how human beings have tried to understand their reality, and how knowledge develops.
One early passage in the book examines this as Wilson discusses early scholarship of bees:
The Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC) was the main source for more or less everything written about bees until Renaissance times. In his pastoral poem the Georgics he realized the charms of beekeeping and bees. Virgil noticed that, on a blossom-scented spring day, different bees spent their days in different ways—some ‘busy in the fields’ and others ‘indoors’ gluing up combs. His theme was taken up again in the Middle Ages, when bee writers really developed the theme of how bees ivied up their labor. If we were to attach a reason to this we might say that the hive echoed in the feudal structure of medieval Europe, in which there were those who worked, those who fought, and those who prayed—all of them sinners with an allotted role in God’s order which must not be questioned. In addition, medieval writers about animals were more unselfconsciously fanciful than their ancient counterparts. They were apt to see animals as hieroglyphs sent by God with moral lessons inside them for men. The whole world was composed of hidden messages, and everything held together as part of a single Creation. […] Everything meant something. (24).
I’ve observed in my writing lately that I keep repeating the same phrase over and over: humans are symbol making creatures. It’s becoming a theme, or maybe a running gag. Rather than worry about my developing mantra though I look at the quote I just provided and this statement feels perfectly relevant. If there is a message of The Hive it’s almost certainly that human beings are always looking around at their reality and trying to find some kind of self-reflective meaning in it. Whether it was the trees, lightning, flowers, mountains, or even something as minuscule as bees, humans observe their reality as something separate but at the same time as something that can inform them about their personal self and place in the universe.
Virgil was looking for the role of man in the universe as he pondered in the fields, and he found bees.
This passage says as much about human beings tendency to self-create as much as it does about scholarship though because as Wilson notes, the writers and scholars of the world were quite content to follow Virgil’s ponderings rather than try to observe new data. Now part of this has to be attributed to the incorrectly named “Dark Ages.” On one small tangent the only reason the Medieval period is referred to as the “dark ages” was because historians writing during the late renaissance and early Reformation period looked to the lack of political center and named it as such largely out of elitism. You can thank Petrarch mostly because he thought the period was not as “pretty” or “bright” as the classical ages. It’s important to note that because the Roman empire was crumbling internally at the time, and let’s be honest crumbling is a polite word for the steady festering that the empire suffered from, it became difficult for scholars to establish knowledge that could be widely, or as easily distributed.
It’s hard to get your new knowledge of bees out and about to the world when there is an absence of solid political authority and people are more concerned about the Vandals and the Goths.
Wilson’s brief observation here is a chance to observe however the way human beings tend to arrange and rely on data and information. Virgil’s original observations represent a real scientific method, and while his findings were off by several crucial details, the man was working with the best means he had available. There was nothing wrong in Virgil’s conclusions ultimately because he did begin the study, and much like Charles Darwin his writings would be, not abandoned completely, just corrected over time. Humans beings need original observations in order to build real knowledge and establish actual facts about the world around them. What’s important about Virgil’s observations is that they became accepted partly because of his direct observations, but more importantly because they reaffirmed the political and social philosophy of his world and the world beyond it.
Humans beings looked to the bees as a validation that they were living their lives according to the will of nature and the will of god. Science, and ideas period, are received positively when the culture that supports it are ready for it or willing to accept it.
I realize that I’m waxing philosophic and not really digging into bees in general but that’s largely because The Hive has provided me with so much material and so many opportunities to reflect on what I have actually learned. Great books are supposed to leave the reader with more questions and aspirations and ideas to consider and even though it’s been somewhere around several months since I finished the book I’m still finding myself stopping and considering elements of the text. I’m still considering the image of the beekeeper and what role that figure plays in the culture.
It’s not too much to say that beekeepers are not revered in contemporary society, and in fact observing the animosity towards bees it’s a wonder that beekeeping still retains whatever grace and dignity as a profession that it does. The beekeeper is not a man in my eyes, but a timeless being who is aiding the community by collecting the honey. And it’s important to note that this image is not unique for even a man like Lev Tolstoy thought as much.
The last chapter of The Hive discusses beekeepers, examining their history as well as their contemporary place in society and between these two ends of the arrow Wilson manages to discuss Tolstoy and his penchant for beekeeping. She writes:
During Tolstoy’s youth, beekeeping was just one estate activity among many, and he himself was wedded more to the manly pursuit of hunting than to the slow ways of the bee-men. But, as time went on and he became more and more attached to the peasant ways, his hives came to have a special place in his life. (268).
Wilson continues this later by noting:
He accumulated followers—the Tolstoyans—many of whom kept bees. Tolstoy also turned to the bees of Yasnaya Polyana, both for honey and for wisdom. Hunting was now out of the question for him—it was too violent—whereas beekeeping seemed more natural. In his main religious work The Kingdom of God is Within You(1893), Tolstoy used the bees to attempt to bring men to God. Men in their current state, he claimed, were “like a swarm of bees hanging in a cluster on a branch’. But this was only a temporary state: men, like the bees, must find a new place to live—the place of God. The bees are able to escape their position on the branch because each of them is ‘a living, separate creature endowed with wings of its own’. Similarly, men should be able to escape their current toils because each is ‘a living being endowed with the faculty of entering into the Christian conception of life’. (269-70).
Now my regular reader will hopefully remember that I’m an atheist and therefore conclude that I cannot agree with Tolstoy’s final vision. They’re correct in this matter, but even if I disagree with the final conclusion I am willing to admit that Tolstoy’s philosophy of the bees is still a beautiful idea. Even if this passage is riddled with Christian sentiment, at its core Tolstoy is offering up some kind of hope for the individual human mind to find its own path. The path still leads to god, but it does at least offer some hope for the individual to overcome the chaotic mass of civilization.
Tolstoy’s assessment is just one of the many philosophies contained in Wilson’s The Hive and it reveals the overall thesis of the book which Wilson concludes beautifully, and because I lack her ability with prose I’ll just provide her final quote here:
However much human beings have projected themselves on to the hive, identifying themselves with drones, workers, and the queen, and idealizing the morals of the waxen community, there will always remain mysteries about the life of bees which men can never discover. And it is for this very reason that humans will continue to search for truths about themselves in the gold of the honeycomb. (271).
There were never any bees in my father’s bug collections, but they were found within his Audubon Society Book of Insects and Arachnids and I remember looking through the pages studying the differences between the sweet honeybees and the bulbous gluttons that were the bumble bees. I remember being stung as a child by honeybees and hating them for it, and being stung again just a year ago and hating myself for having to pull the bee off me knowing that it would die. In the last year I’ve helped my father set up new walls in his beehive, and found myself feeling a sensation that almost borders on the sublime as I look between the panels and see the live body that is the hive. Those little arthropods sometimes look like they’re made of soft gold and their buzzing, collected together, is almost a discernable song.
The Hive did not jumpstart my love and intellectual curiosity of arthropods, but it has rekindled my love of them. A book like The Hive is a real boon for the culture because it is a chance for real self-reflection and metacognition. After reading the book I’ve rediscovered again that human beings are always looking for something, some quality, some force, some outside body or organism to provide them inspiration for the way they are to live their life. While there is most certainly a narcissism in this task, there’s also a real chance for intellectual beauty.
Humans have written poems, constructed buildings, crafted structures and machines, and drafted philosophy just by watching the ways bees live and behave, and this is an encouraging thought. Insects are often seen as grotesque “others,” beasts that offer nothing but corruption and profit from death. The Hive takes another look at this attitude and shows the reader that insects are far more noble in fact. They can offer inspiration and even substance both physical and spiritual.
Humans will always look to the bees and while they’re sure to suffer a few stings, that discomfort will almost surely lead to the next great discovery.
All quotes taken from The Hive were from the hardback First U.S. Edition, by Thomas Dunne Books.
I’ve provided links to two book reviews originally published in The Gaurdian if the reader is at all interested:
Because I am a huge fucking nerd for bees, while I researching and writing this essay I found numerous documentaries on YouTube about bees. If the reader would like to learn more about the insect or at least try to find some kind of appreciation for the little bugs, they can follow the links below.
"He wishees to think!", Charles Darwin, Christianity, Courtroom Narrative, Dick York, Donna Anderson, Education, evolution, Evolution is not JUST a theory, Film, film review, Frederic March, Gene Kelly, Harry Morgan, Henry Drummond, history, Human evolution, Human Ideas are Grander than any Religion, humanity, Idealism, Individual Will, Inherit the Wind, Jerome Lawrence, John Thomas Scopes, Philosophy, Play, Political Discourse, Politics, Public Education, Public speech, religion, religious corruption, Robert E. Lee, Robert Osborne, Scopes Trial, Spencer Tracey, Spencer Tracy, Stanley Kramer, Turner Classic Movies
Honestly the most disappointing part of the film is the fact that Gene Kelly doesn’t tap dance. The man shines as a wisecracking journalist who always has something clever or witty to say, but after a while I kept wondering what was keeping the man from dancing right in the middle of the courtroom. I recognize that Inherit the Wind is based on an actual play and that drama typically avoids frivolities like dancing, singing, and general merriment, but I mean, it’s Gene Kelly.
One of the greatest pains about living with the cable package that I do is that I don’t get Turner Classic Movies. Though I get plenty of other channels I usually wind up watching only PBS or Cartoon Network for Adult Swim, although I will admit without shame that Steven Universe and Adventure Time are also some of my favorites. But I miss TCM because so much of my childhood was my parents turning the station on and then taking care of chores or other household tasks leaving me alone with Robert Osbourne who would introduce film after film with his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema history. On one side note when Robert Osbourne passed away earlier this year it the first celebrity death which really made me cry because so much of my childhood was tied with that man. TCM always promised wonderful movies, and it’s because of that channel that I eventually discovered films like Annie Hall, Spirited Away, The Seventh Seal, the original Scarface, The Great Dictator, and eventually Inherit the Wind.
Growing up in a private Christian school it’s nothing short of a miracle (though I despise using that poor word) that I ever came away knowing what evolution was, let alone what it argued. Fortunately, I had a biology teacher who was a scientist as much as he was a Christian and so he taught us the scientific theory without remorse or shame. When I got to college I eventually wound up tutoring biology and more or less teaching it for four years to freshmen and so in that time I managed to learn a great deal about the scientific principle, being able to argue against anyone who argued that it was “just a theory.” During that time I met my wife, who herself is a biologist, and so recently when I discovered that the library had a copy of Inherit the Wind on DVD, I checked it out and showed it to her.
To be honest, she didn’t really respond much to it, and this is probably because I forgot that Inherit the Wind is more of a film about lawyers and philosophy than it is about the principle of evolution.
Based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (no not the Civil War Era general, unless that man had a secret past historians
don’t know about) Inherit the Wind is based upon the Scopes Trial, sometimes referred to as the “Monkey Trial,” which took place in the early 1920s. The case in question centered around a man named John Thomas Scopes who dared to teach his high school students about the theory of evolution despite there being a state law which prohibited the practice. Inherit the Wind rewrites the case but insofar as it changes the names of the characters involves and loads the court proceedings with grand speeches about individual will and human initiative.
Most of these come from Henry Drummond the Clarence Darrow substitute played by Tracey in one of his most iconic roles. Tracey shines continually during the film offering one beautiful statement after the other about the human race. During one exchange he speaks with Matthew Harrison Brady whom he has called to the witness stand, and during his interrogation he offers this gem:
[challenged to say if he considers anything holy]
Henry Drummond: Yes. The individual human mind. In a child’s power to master the multiplication table, there is more sanctity than in all your shouted “amens” and “holy holies” and “hosannas.” An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral. And the advance of man’s knowledge is a greater miracle than all the sticks turned to snakes or the parting of the waters.
I regularly read the early essays that I wrote for White Tower Musings, and with some embarrassment, but not much, I recognize this exact sentiment dominates most of my writing. I was reading a lot of Christopher Hitchens at the time and so the humanism just infected my prose. But even after the embarrassing grammar errors have been corrected and I’m left with that rough early material I still find in my early arguments this exact position to be true in my heart. I’ve written regularly about atheism, but never outright about my humanism.
I’ve developed into my own self and am now comfortable with who I am and what I believe. My life is a godless one, and while there are some that would pity me for that I stand firm by the conviction that ideas are a far greater testament to humanity than any church or sermons preached therein. The ideas of Marx, Freud, Hobbes, Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus, Voltaire, Steinem, Trotsky, Bradbury, McCloud, Nietzsche, and yes even Darwin constitute a greater monument to the capacities of human beings. These ideas inspire and drive more personal ambition, innovation, discovery, and insight than any god could possibly do. Ideas offer up new visions of reality, and this to me has always been far more interesting than any Psalm or Prophet.
The ultimate conflict with religion, and this comes from having grown up in it and reflecting upon the experience, is that it offers only one vision of reality: god is the source of everything. Once one has accepted this worldview the achievements or discoveries of mankind becomes secondary. What is the origin of life, god. How did DNA develop, god. Why should man be benevolent to his fellow creatures, god. I could go on with this but I’m supposed to be writing about a film. I’ll settle on the fact that religion as an ideology is constricting because it limits the ultimate potential of man into one single reality rather than leaving him open to new ideas, and when Christianity festers into the realm of politics it has a limiting effect on free will or free thought.
Drummond’s regular speeches note this when he further questions Brady about Cates and faith:
Matthew Harrison Brady: We must not abandon faith! Faith is the most important thing!
Henry Drummond: Then why did God plague us with the capacity to think? Mr. Brady, why do you deny the one faculty of man that raises him above the other creatures of the earth? The power of his brain to reason. What other merit have we? The elephant is larger; the horse is swifter and stronger; the butterfly is far more beautiful; the mosquito is more prolific. Even the simple sponge is more durable. But does a sponge think?
Matthew Harrison Brady: I don’t know. I’m a man, not a sponge!
Henry Drummond: But do you think a sponge thinks?
Matthew Harrison Brady: If the Lord wishes a sponge to think, it thinks!
Henry Drummond: Do you think a man should have the same privilege as a sponge?
Matthew Harrison Brady: Of course!
Henry Drummond: [Gesturing towards the defendant, Bertram Cates] Then this man wishes to have the same privilege of a sponge, he wishes to think!
This line alone has become its own sort of icon in terms of the legacy of the film. Most of the “commercials” that saw on TCM would always have this one line, with Spencer Tracey making his grand and dramatic gestures. And the word “grand” seems the most fitting in describing much of the approach of Inherit the Wind because so often the film feels like one speech after the other. This can sometimes come at the expense of the narrative, but at the same time this doesn’t kill the film.
Ultimately Inherit the Wind is a courtroom narrative, and such stories tend to be limiting in terms of what a director can do in terms of narrative. Within such narratives the viewer is given a lawyer, maybe two if the director wants to develop both sides of the case, and so the viewer is usually left becoming a member of the jury as they try to decide who’s side is right. The exception to this would be To Kill a Mockingbird where the viewer is given no chance to see the opposing lawyer’s arguments because they know already that Atticus Finch is the “right” lawyer. But the courtroom narrative is classic in that its origin are in antiquity. The ancient Greeks are attributed with establishing most of the traditions and foundations of Western civilization, and the use of the courts and rhetoric is perhaps one of the most crucial developments of their culture. Though each city state was different in their application of the law, a policy existed in ancient Greece where, if a man found himself compelled to go to trial, he would be forced to act in his own defense or else serve as the prosecution. As such a study of rhetoric wasn’t just something for leisure, it was of paramount importance to the individual citizen. A man (because it was ancient Greece, don’t forget that) had to know how to arrange words so that he could defend himself. The setting of the courtroom is one as old as recognizable civilization, and so while Inherit the Wind can feel like one long series of speeches, in the film’s defense, that’s exactly what a courtroom is.
Stanley Kramer who directs the film would only a year later direct the movie Judgement at Nuremberg which also starred Spencer Tracey and as in both films he manages to construct real characters outside of the courtroom so that the viewer isn’t left simply listening to speech after speech that are devoid of personal character. The strength of Inherit the Wind isn’t just that it constantly sings the praises of humanism in defense of Darwinism, it is instead a film about a strained friendship that climaxes in a courtroom.
Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady are two old friends who have had a falling out because of their difference of opinion about religion. In one scene the pair of them are rocking on the front porch of their hotel and discussing the nature of faith when Brady asks his friend a question:
Matthew Harrison Brady: Why is it, my old friend, that you’ve moved so far away from me?
Henry Drummond: All motion is relative, Matt. Maybe it’s you who’ve moved away by standing still.
The success of this scene is largely on Tracey, but then again, I’m biased in this capacity. Tracey as an actor manages to convey a down-to-earth man who has ingested and processed the humanities and knowledge of mankind but not gone so far up his own ass that he’s lost the ability to shoot straight or be humble. Inherit the Wind as a film is often a film about Henry Drummond and his attempt to level the people around him who have gotten so concerned with the religious abstract and one quote in particular seems the best demonstration of this.
Matthew Harrison Brady: [to Henry Drummond] They’re looking for something that’s more perfect than what they already have. Why do you want to take that away from them when it’s all they have?
Henry Drummond: As long as the prerequisite for that shining paradise is ignorance, bigotry and hate, I say the hell with it.
I’ve written, some would say too much, about my upbringing in East Texas and my observation of religious people so I won’t go back over stories that are beginning to become adages rather than accurate memory, but I will defend this line because I’ve heard this argument before. “Even if god doesn’t exist it gives people hope,” is a line that reeks of false conviction and is in fact one of the most pathetic arguments I have ever heard. If I can stay on topic, the film Inherit the Wind portrays Christianity often as an antithesis to reason and moral virtue and so the reader who believes in god may shout harrumph and not bother seeing the film.
I would hope they would consider the opposite.
Rather than being a film that does nothing but damn Christianity, the film in fact is a call for sanity. I’ve seen by the example of a small handful, what can happen when those who are religiously inclined, open their minds and hearts to new ideas and allow their faith to deepen because of the challenges of science, technology, and discovery, and while I will continue to debate them about the foundation of their reality I will always respect their level head. Inherit the Wind is not a film that damns Christianity, it only damns those who would prostitute religion for political gain.
The Christianity that is on display in the film is not a sane ideology, it is a bullying, stunted cancer that eats away at the people of Tennessee by leaving them terrified and in a place where progress is associated with the devil.
Drummond answers this in what is quite possible the most beautiful lines of the film:
Henry Drummond: Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, “All right, you can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.”
There’s a great number of reasons for watching a film like Inherit the Wind, the largest being that it’s a film that helped establish the courtroom drama as a narrative structure. But for my opinion Inherit the Wind is a beautiful film about humanism overcoming bigotry and the importance of individual integrity. Even if the reader disagrees with the theory of Evolution and what it argues about the origin of human life, they would hopefully agree that an individual person has the right to believe what they want to believe and think what they want to think. I believe that flat-earthers are idiots, but if they believe that the earth is flat and they have come to that decision on their own that I have no business telling them how to think.
It is when one uses violence or intimidation to justify their world view that action is necessary. Hiring lawyers and going to court will not provide the satisfaction that might come from punching somebody right back in the nose, but it will keep more violence and bigotry from occurring. The courtroom is a space where philosophy can be argued and defended against the cruel and fanatics. It is a space where the ideas and progress of humanity can be argued and defended and where a man can stand up and say firmly, “I think.”
This year will mark 92 years since the original Scopes “Monkey” Trial, and a film like Inherit the Wind is wonderful reminder that even close to a century later we’re still having the discussion of evolution, and whether or not teachers should be allowed to teach it. The clouds smell a little more like Gasoline, but there are far more people willing to stand up and say without shame or fear, that “I think.”
There’s also people like me who are still waiting for Gene Kelly to start tapdancing. But you can’t always get what you want.
Having more or less taught biology for four years it’s important to make sure the reader knows this: Evolution is not JUST a Theory. This unfortunate, bullshit line has been crafted by critics of evolution, however it demonstrates their ignorance of what a scientific theory actually is. In the humanities a “theory” is just an idea about reality than can be easily accepted or rejected. The reason for this is that in the humanities you are dealing with subjectivity of human experience. What I see and believe is different from what the reader sees and believes and so we could look at the same painting by Rembrandt and come to different conclusions about what it means or what its origins were.
The humanities are SUBJECTIVE, while science and mathematics are OBJECTIVE.
If something is a Scientific Theory that means it has been tested literally millions of times by scientists all over the world who are trying to refute the conclusions of the original hypothesis. This constant testing is not just an effort to disprove other people, it’s an effort to make sure that the facts that are being expressed by science are accurate. Human beings can observe evolution in lab settings as well as the wild, and the mountains of evidence in the fossil record only further demonstrate the fact of evolution. If something is a “theory” in science it is because scientists are firm in their conviction that it is a fact. There is a “chance” that it could be refuted by new evidence, but it is a “chance” the way there’s a “chance” that I could go out on a date with Matthew Shepard. It’s not that it isn’t possible, it’s just probably probably probably not going to happen, but, I can dream.
If the reader would like a more nuanced explanation of the difference between a scientific Law and Theory they can follow the link below to an article my wife found for me when I asked her about the difference:
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, animal cruelty, apathy, arthropoda, Arthropods, bacon is amazing and if you disagree you're a goddamn communist, biology, Birthdays, Boiling Lobsters, Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace, empathy, Essay, ethics, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Gourmet, Infinite Jest, Jason Segel, killing animals for food, Literature, Lobster, Lobsters are Bugs, Maine Lobster, Maine Loster Festival, metacognition, mortality, PC, Philosophy, preference, Science, segmented joints, self preservation, selfish acts of violence, Shogun's, suffering, will to survive, Writing
Is it right to boil lobsters? I’m seriously asking.
Four months back was the most wretched of holidays, a day of the year that I dread more than anything else: my birthday. This isn’t me trying to be cute, I legitimately hate my birthday. Part of this is because of my depression and self-loathing. I’ve trained myself to consider myself worth less than dog-shit, and so when you live in a culture that reinforces a narrative that birthdays are about taking a day to celebrate someone and extol their virtues and just celebrate their existence it becomes, difficult isn’t the word, fucking agonizing. Put it simply, how do you appreciate your existence when you often consider your existence to be a waste of other people’s time? Still I’m fighting this bullshit in my head, partly because last year’s birthday was quite possibly the worst day of my entire life. This year I wanted it to be different. Part of what helped was having to work on my birthday, it kept me occupied, but the other half was about a week later my family took me to one of my favorite restaurants, Shogun’s a Japanese Steakhouse. I’m sure places like this exist around the country, but if the reader doesn’t know what this is it’s a place where patrons sit around a stove and a chef comes out and cooks their food in front of them usually performing by lighting fires, throwing bits of food into their mouth, and performing incredible stunts with knives, spatulas, and other cutlery.
I asked originally about lobster because on this night I had what I usually do when I go to Shogun’s: chicken, steak, and lobster. The lobster, it should be noted, wasn’t boiled alive in front of us, the chef simply brought out two tails, coated them with butter and seasoning, and then baked it under a steel bowl while he cooked the chicken and made jokes about me and my sister both working in libraries.
He picked up the bowl, dropped the lobster on my plate, and started with the filet mignon. I ate the lobster, and I’ll admit it without shame, it was delicious. I also, on one small side note, got my wife to try lobster for the first time ever.
This may at first seem like an opening that will then switch over into a long monologue about how I regretted it later, and how I have since made a vow to never eat lobster again. Well, fortunately, this isn’t the case. I didn’t regret ordering or eating the lobster. The only guilt I felt was a remembrance of a documentary that aired a few years ago about lobster catchers in the Caribbean who are being manipulated by big seafood providers, but I ordered a Maine lobster so that didn’t even come into the equation. I honestly don’t feel any guilt about eating lobster, unless they’re boiled. And this development, like most things in my life, has to do with reading, specifically a wonderful essay by David Foster Wallace called Consider the Lobster.
My regular reader will remember that over the last year I’ve experienced an explosion of interest in the writing of David Foster Wallace, buying up most of the books he ever wrote. I’ve read Infinite Jest (and survived) and in-between reading that book and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again, I bought a hardback copy of another one of his essay collections Consider the Lobster. It’s impossible to forget this book with it’s pure white cover, and a red lobster raising its right claw up in a kind of grim welcome to the reader. I remember seeing the book before whenever I would encounter David Foster Wallace’s writing, and my amazon account was always recommending it to me. When I asked a professor friend of mine, who I originally consulted for Infinite Jest, about it her answer was an unequivocal, “Yes, I fuckin loved that book.”
I bought a copy and started reading it the moment it arrived.
The essay was originally a field piece Wallace was assigned to write by Gourmet magazine. I wonder briefly what they knew what they were getting into when they hired Wallace because the man never just wrote about his topic, he managed to write about the philosophy and spirit of whatever material he was writing about. Wallace is specifically writing about the MLF (Maine Lobster Festival), and while he explains the significance of the event in terms of food connoisseurs and Lobster enthusiasts, the essay eventually becoming a moral conversation about the nature of being a gourmet period.
And part of that is providing a taxonomic, biological background of the lobster which, if the reader honestly believes I won’t provide a quote for you clearly have never read any of my work:
Taxonomically speaking, a lobster is a marine crustacean of the family Homaridae, characterized by five pairs of jointed legs, the first pair terminating in large pincer fish claws used for subduing prey. Like many other species of benthic carnivore, lobsters are both hunters and scavengers. They have stalked eyes, gills on their legs, and antennae.
And arthropods are members of the phylum Arthropoda, which phylum covers insects, spiders, crustaceans, and centipedes/millipedes, all of whose main commonality, besides the absence of a centralized brain-spine assembly, is a chitinous exoskeleton composed of segments, to which appendages are articulated in pairs.
The point is lobsters are giant sea insects. (237)
Part of the joy for in including that quote is knowing that somewhere out there in the world someone who has just recently eaten lobster will start to gag as they realize that cockroaches, beetles, and centipedes are related to lobsters and that they, in principle, recently ate a sea-roach. But after I get over my juvenile habit of grossing people out with facts about bugs (it’s the main reason why I never get invited to parties), there is a purpose to including this quote because it’s also part of the reason Wallace includes this background material in his essay. Shortly after this he provides a brief historical account about how lobster was seen a lower-class food, how it was often fed to criminals, and after this he explains that the principle means of cooking lobster is to boil it alive. All of this ultimately moves towards his central thesis, or, really, the central question of Consider the Lobster:
So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is the whole thing just a matter of personal choice? (243).
This question is an important one to ask, especially when you live in a society that has become more and more divorced from the reality of food. Individuals who live in the twenty-first century, specifically people who live in urban areas, tend to live in artificial environments where the reality of killing creatures for meat is a somewhat alien concept, actually, let’s be real here, it’s damn near abstract for them. Probably one of the best examples is the hog-killing scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall where Jason Segel has to kill the hog which is screaming and grunting and then spends most of the time on the way to the party crying.
Before I get into my analysis of Wallace’s argument though I do want to take a moment to just note the previous quote and observe the man’s ability as a writer. Part of a writer’s job is not just coming up with catchy hookers that grab people’s attention and then being cute and smart and funny until you reach your word limit. Which, you’ll note, is pretty good summation for everything I do on this shitty blog. The writer’s principle job, to sound archetypal for a moment, is simply to observe humanity’s character and behavior and then to show it right back. As Wallace observes his own question he notes immediately what the reaction will be, and having asked this question in real life I understand why he prepares for a reaction. I asked my wife one night the same questions and she responded with a quick and precise “no.” Now in her defense she’s a biologist; she’s been trained to study animals and that often includes capturing them, killing them, and then cutting them up to see how they work. I tried to make my argument but she threw back plenty of facts about arthropods in general the most obvious one being that, unlike humans, they lack a real nervous system, or at least one as centralized as human beings.
That brings me back to bugs and Wallace again.
No one is really sure whether or not bugs, or arthropods feel pain. I took a few weeks of an etymology course before I realized the class wasn’t for me (I don’t think the other students liked me) and while I was there the professor of the class noted that it’s difficult to measure “pain” in arthropods. Wallace himself observes the complications of pain when he writes:
Since pain is a totally subjective mental experience, we do not have direct access to anyone or anything’s pain but our own; and even just the principles by which we can infer that other human beings experience pain and have a legitimate interest in not feeling pain involve hard-core philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, ethics. (246).
Wallace also notes that the conversation itself is uncomfortable as he notes just a few lines later:
The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling. As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should also add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of Gourmet wish to think about it, either, or to be queried about the morality of their eating habits in the pages of a culinary monthly. (246)
This last point seems to be the most poignant element of the entire essay, and all the more important. Wallace’s essay really becomes what it is in this paragraph for me because it stops being about the experience of lobster and instead becomes an opportunity for meta-cognition. If the reader doesn’t remember that word it literally means “thinking-about-thinking,” or to put it another way “thinking about the way that you think about things.” I suspect many readers of Gourmet were rather pissed at Wallace for making them revaluate choices that he himself admitted he didn’t think about, but if I can dust off a platitude, the unexamined life is not worth living.
Now I know my reader’s objection immediately: You’re a hypocrite sir, you admitted yourself that you ate lobster recently and you felt no qualms about it, so why should I feel lousy for simply enjoying lobster?
The reader makes a good point, and the only sufficient rebuttal I have is that this essay, this reflection, is a not a condemnation of people who eat lobster in general. My only aim is to ask a question which can start a moral argument, which, by it’s nature, is never going to have a clear answer for each person’s morality is subjective.
For my own part I have no intention of stopping eating lobster, however I refuse to eat boiled lobster because it seems unnecessarily cruel.
My reader will almost assuredly rebut this point and again cite Wallace himself on the issue of pain, but Wallace provides a few moments of sobering clarity for me when he observes the actual process of boiling lobsters alive by noting their reaction to the process. He writes:
However stupourous a lobster is from the trip, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook it’s claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you usually hear the cover rattling and clinking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water. (247-8).
Some might continue to object, but allow me to offer one more quote before they negate this behavior:
To my lay mind, the lobster’s behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference, and it may well be that an ability to form preferences in the decisive criterion for real suffering. (251).
I tried, when I made the argument with my wife, to make this point, but I have a damn difficult time expressing my opinions and intellectual positions clearly in conversation. That’s the main reason why I write; it gives me control and a focus I lack in real life. To my wife’s credit she observed but stuck to her argument, and in fact I’m sure there are many who will do the exact same after reading my review and Wallace’s actual essay. Nobody’s going to really stop eating lobster if they don’t have any such qualms about the lobster’s potential suffering because it’s just, as I and Wallace noted before, a sea-bug. There’s no reason to observe much empathy because they’re an other.
But hopefully the reader has observed that Consider the Lobster is NOT about lobsters at all. In fact the essay is nothing more than a chance for Philosophic reflection about the way human beings act about their food. Wallace concludes his essay with two keen observations:
Why is a primitive, inarticulate form of suffering less urgent or uncomfortable for the person who’s helping to inflict it by paying for the food it results in? (252-3).
And then in closing paragraph he notes:
I’m not trying to bait anyone here—I’m genuinely curious. After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be sensuous? Is it really just a matter of taste and presentation? (254)
Empathy is a tricky a word to throw out because it’s so wrapped up in morality, and morality itself tends to be clouded in religious discourse that discussing empathy for animals makes one seem naïve or “soft” or even worse, a vegetarian. For the record, vegetarians are not the scum of the earth, those are vegans. No eating cheese my ass. I fuckin love cheese.
But all this reflection reminds of a moment years ago that gave me pause for thought. I was in a biology 1201 lab course and we were waiting to start our Mid-term Practicals. I looked down and crawling beneath my feet was a small field cricket. Without thinking I slammed my foot down, enjoying the hard crack and wet crunch. I had killed crickets before, dozens of times. My father was an exterminator so killing insects really wasn’t an issue for me, it was literally just business. But when I lifted my foot and looked at the carcass I felt instantly that I had done something wrong. The cricket hadn’t bothered me. It hadn’t bitten me. Crickets aren’t known for spreading disease. Nor do they usually bite. A cricket is about the closest thing you can get to a puppy in terms of insects. It’s ridiculous to fret about wantonly stepping on a bug, but is it?
It’s easy to negate another creature’s potential suffering for the sake of your own comfort, and it’s just as easy to establish rhetoric to justify that worldview. There’s nothing wrong with killing lobsters, and if you do believe there is that means you’re either just another insane animal rights activists, or else you’re just soft bodied and want to ensure that other people don’t have a good time. I worry about this, because narrative, as I’ve demonstrated in previous writing, matters more than anything. It’s easy to spin this rhetoric and just stop asking questions about the need for a moment of empathy and reflection and that can lead to consequences. It may start as lobsters, but then it may shift to cats, dogs, dolphins, whales, and even people.
I have no business with slippery-slope arguments. Humans aren’t going to eat people anytime soon (unless they taste good with butter I suppose, but then again what doesn’t?). But fostering a lack of empathy can lead to real problems because it negates that suffering can exist in multiple forms. Once one stops caring about whether lobsters may be experiencing pain it might be easy to forget that people are dying in Syria, that the state of Israel acts like a bully and gets away with it, that women across the globe face regular sexual harassment, that workers in the meat industry tend to be illegal immigrants who are used and exploited and then quickly tossed aside once they become injured on the job, that in the united states there is a 14% illiteracy rate, and the list can go on until one becomes with numb to tragedy.
Consider the Lobster is an important essay because it asks the reader to perform a simple task: consider. This act can make people uncomfortable because most of the time people would rather not consider that their actions may be wrong, or, more appropriately, that the way of life that they’re enjoying may be at the expense of another. But asking that question is a valuable endeavor because it can foster the behavior of self-reflection and empathy for other beings which is worth more than all the lobster in the world.
And besides, there’s always bacon.
All quotes from Consider the Lobster in this essay were quoted from the hardback Little, Brown & Company edition. However, if the reader is interested, I have also provided a link to the original article published on Gourmet’s website. Enjoy:
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A Small Mountain of godlessness
19 February 2017
American Gods, Ananssi Boys, Art, Book Review, Daytripper, Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba, graphic novel, How To Talk to Girls At Parties, masculinity, myth, Neil Gaiman, Neil Gaiman's Guide to Getting Girls to Like You, Novel, Sandman, Science, science fiction, Sexuality, Short Story, speculative fiction, Take a chance and ask that girl to dance you won't regret it, teenage boys, The Doll's House, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
It’s a lesson I’m not sure if I’ve learned yet, which might explain why I bought the book. It’s not that I have problems talking to women, I’m married so obviously I have some skill (though my wife might say otherwise to spite me) it’s just that I never really learned how you actually talk to girls when you’re at a party. Because of this I figured I would learn from Neil Gaiman how exactly you do this, and instead I got a rather odd, wonderful, beautiful book about a boy who meets goddesses, suns, and universes.
Amazon is the ultimate temptation for me, and minutes, sometimes hours, that should be spent reading or writing are instead spent following the trails of recommendations of books I was just looking at. The Sandman: The Doll’s House leads to the graphic novelization of The Graveyard Book which leads to American Gods which leads to Anansi Boys which leads to Coraline which leads to Endless Nights which leads eventually to an odd book with three beautiful women on the cover (more about them later) beneath the title How to Talk to Girls at Parties. As I said, wrote, before, I wasn’t a social creature growing up, and the only reason I acquired any confidence was because I had to get out of my shell for a job, also I got a girlfriend that tends to help. Still despite when I was looking at the cover I had an odd moment of reincarnation when I began to recognize I had become a teenage boy again. Not only that, one of my favorite authors had written a guide for me so that, should it occur, if I was invited to a party I could now just follow a guide.
I bought the book and read it mystified by the experience because it was nothing of what I thought it was.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a story about a young teenage boy named Enn who is dragged to a party by his friend Vic. Enn is the kind of boy that is obviously just the younger avatar version of the writer, or else the every-man nerd that eventually grows up and becomes an accomplished author who writes about every-man nerds growing up to become accomplished authors. I recognize that that sounds like I’m being bitter and that the work is good but you misunderstand me, I write out of hope. If Neil Gaiman was the nerdy loser who got lucky there’s still a chance for me. Enn and Vic arrive at a house that isn’t the party they’re going to, but when the door opens a beautiful girl answers the door, and when she invites them inside the party is nothing but beautiful women. Vic is the go-to suave, confident jock who immediately hits it off with one of the girls and Enn is left to himself wandering through the house where he meets and “talks” to three women who, while they talk, speak as if they aren’t really women, or human for that matter. The exact word one of the girls uses is “tourist.” As the book goes on it’s clear that these women are either aliens, goddesses, or even universes made manifest into human form. Enn eventually talks to one and begins to kiss her, realizing that the girl is using him as a conduit so that her “story” will live on when Vic grabs him and tells him they have to leave. The girl he was going to sleep with glares after them, her head become an exploding sun, and as soon as they’re out of the house it’s clear that Vic became terrified once it was clear that the girl was using him and not the other way around. As for Enn, he forgets the “poem” almost as soon as they leave the house, and as they walk away it disappears slowly becoming as fleeting as music.
This plot description is important because anyone who buys the book thinking what I thought originally should know what they’re really buying, and while this isn’t just a lecture series by Gaiman (“Neil Gaiman’s Guide to Scoring Babes” is currently in development as a Great Courses series by the way) by the end the book had taught me exactly how to talk to girls.
You don’t talk, you just listen.
In hindsight I wish someone had just told me that when I was thirteen that this is the way you talk to girls, it would have made high school a far easier experience than it was, but we all must fight through the slough of despond that is puberty and emerge victorious. Part of that struggle is finding your own path through it.**
Most, if not all, of Gaiman’s books on some level tackle the nature of stories and narratives, and you could make the argument that his entire creative ethos is simply an effort to tell one really long story about stories period. Whether it’s the stories of myth in American Gods, the stories of old houses and children who find themselves caught in them in Coraline, or whether it’s the very story of the narrative existence in his Sandman series, Gaiman’s creative writing, and even his non-fiction, all seem dedicated to telling, unravelling, and then recreating the structure of narratives period while telling amazing stories.
At this point my reader will interrupt and ask what’s so damn special about How to Talk to Girls at Parties then? If Gaiman isn’t bringing anything new to the table, why bother with the book at all? And what if I already know how to talk to girls at parties, what then smarty-pants?
To begin with let’s avoid the name calling. Greg.
Second there are at least two significant reasons for reading this slim graphic novel and the first is Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon. My regular reader may recognize those names, and if you have never read any of my work you still might have heard about them. Moon and Ba are the creative team behind the book Daytripper, a graphic novel which has won several Eisner awards (basically the Oscars of graphic novels) and a wonderful story about a man who wants to be a writer. Apart from the spectacular writing of Daytripper the lingering impression of the book is art which, and I know I’ve used this word several times already but it’s the best word that works, is simply beautiful. Daytripper is illustrated and colored with the stuff of dreams, and while reading that book I was struck by the thought that such work couldn’t possibly be replicated, I found myself fortunately corrected in How To Talk to Girls at Parties.
Gaiman’s words make the Moon and Ba’s colors, lines, and girls become some of the most radiant images collected into one small book. As Enn travels from room to room listening to the three women tell their story I felt as if I had left the world I knew, and as the women told their story I carried their words, and beings, long after I had closed the book. Ba and Moon are what helps make the book what it is, because their colors make each woman unique, and quite possibly the most beautiful women in comics I have ever seen.
As for my second response to my contester I would remind my reader that even if Gaiman is continuing his process of anthropomorphizing stories, gods, feelings, emotions, or non-living beings like stars or the internet, this is no reason not to read his work. In fact, given the fact that it’s Neil Gaiman this should only provide more impetus to actually read it. Gaiman is a writer who does not half-ass his reader, and even in his most esoteric (Sandman Overture was about something, I’m still working on not drooling while staring at the art) he manages to write characters and settings, and events into being that feel true. Normal human beings with their own lives, who are trying to figure out the oddity of mundane reality become swept up by supernatural events or creatures. Ultimately his characters are forever impacted by these experiences, and while most forget the sights and wonders the way a person might immediately lose a dream when they awake, they still feel the experience long after. His prose is where this wonder takes place, and as he wraps his reader in their dream he leaves the lasting impression.
Looking at the exchange between Enn and the last girl, a Grecian red-head named Triolet, the reader hears her story and is carried away to a different realm:
“We knew that it would be soon over. We knew…so we put it all into a poem…to tell the universe who we were and why we were here and what we said and did and thought and dreamed and yearned for. We wrapped our dreams in words and patterned the words so that they would live forever, unforgettable. Then we sent the poem as a pattern of flux, to wait in the heart of a star, beaming out its message in pulses and bursts and fuzzes across the electromagnetic spectrum, until the time when, on worlds a thousand sun systems distant, the pattern could be decoded and read, and it would become a poem once again.” (43-45)
If I can break the fourth wall for a moment, while transcribing this passage I have a video playing titled “underwater whale songs.” Humpbacks and the sound of the ever roaring waves echoing through the infinite abyss of the ocean just seemed to make the words feel real.
Aside aside, moving on.
This small exchange, rendered magnificently by Moon and Ba, is the typical anthropomorphizing that Gaiman fans are used to, but looking deeper into the passage I realized at this moment that Gaiman had achieved a miracle for blending science fiction with myth. Myth as a term has fallen on hard times, and shows like Mythbusters have only perpetuated this tragedy (and it is a tragedy because the show is great and a wonderful way for people to become interested in science), but at its core myth is about explaining reality through narrative rather than empirical means. Triolet may be a goddess, or a star, or an alien, but ultimately it doesn’t matter because at this moment what matters is that she’s telling the story of her people, what they used to be and were and what they believed. The act of speaking to Enn, and having him listen, is in essence recording her culture. And while the reader may immediately question why that is so important I would remind them of the necessity of recording history, myth, culture, philosophy, history, science, and stories. It’s a romantic thought, but crucial to remember, that nothing in this world ever really matters until someone has written it down.
Record seals memory and so Gaiman achieves something really interesting by not only telling a story about an alien race keeping themselves alive by telling their stories to young men looking to get laid, there’s also a fascinating possibility for the future.
In the introduction to her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin writes about science fiction as a genre and what is the ultimate creative goal. She also tries to clarify the idea that science fiction is a genre trying to “see into the future.” She writes:
This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed. The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to shwo that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted- but to describe reality, the present world.
My reader may be getting impatient at this point, but hopefully this quote will explain one of my lasting impressions of reading How to Talk to Girls at Parties. Science fiction isn’t about predicting future technology, or predicting how the world will eventually die. As Le Guin says, the entire genre is built upon the concept of the “thought-experiment.” Imagine a set of conditions and let it just go. Explore an idea through imagination. And so listening to Triolet’s story I see a beautiful science fiction possibility. Already humanity is moving more and more towards a paperless system of record keeping, in which every action, thought, belief, and art product is contained in formless data streamed through wires and eventually through waves. Ba and Moon’s art shows the species collecting their culture into a “poem” before containing it in a sun and sending the signal out to be discovered by some new race that might study their species and carry their memory on.
How to talk to Girl’s at Parties isn’t just about learning how to speak to that girl across the room who keeps smiling at you, it offers a deeper understand of what such an interaction actually is. Walking across the room, feeling your tongue swell up and your palm getting sweaty as you think of something to say to the girl you’ve seen everyday in Algebra I for the last year is like encountering a new world. You’ll never be the same after you ask her a question, and you’ll never be the person you were when you see her smile and listen to her talk about finding her blouse at Goodwill. The small act of listening to a girl tell you about her clothes or day may not be the grand thought experiments of writers like Le Guin, Clarke, Dick, Adams, Asimov, or even Gaiman but in its own way it does forever leave what you knew behind.
So long story short, take the chance, talk to the girl, and just listen carefully. You’ll find yourself in a different world.
The quote from Le Guin’s introduction can be found ACE Science Fiction paperback copy, as well as by following the link below:
Upon finishing the essay I remembered that my father had actually taught me this lesson, but like most young men receiving advice from their dad’s I didn’t listen to it. So thanks dads, and sorry I didn’t pay attention.
"arrow of time", 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Brief History of Time, A Brief History of Time: From The Big Bang to Black Holes, Abram Adams, Alan Moore, Back to the Future, Bender, Bender's Big Score, Book Review, clocks, Comics, Cube, Dave Gibbons, Divinity, Dr. Manhattan, evolution, Film, film review, Fourth Dimension, Futurama, geometry, graphic novel, H.G. Wells, Human evolution, Literature, Math, Novel, Perception of Time, Philosophy, Reality, Role of Science Fiction in society, Science, science fiction, Space, Stanley Kubrick, State of Being, Stephen Hawking, The Monolith, The Time Machine, The Time Traveler, Third Dimension, time, Time Travel, U.S.S.R., Watchmen
I’ve tried once to explore the fourth dimension, but only in writing. I was taking a creative writing course and riding the high of being one of the few top writers in the class. This wasn’t ego on my part, because if it hasn’t been made apparent at this point in my life my fatal flaw is my inability to sing my own praises. Whatever the case most of the students in the class would confide in me and tell me that they thought I was a great writer and the teacher seemed to support this sentiment, and riding that high I thought about Stanley Kubrick.
Kubrick is a bit of an acquired taste, and sometimes I do honestly believe some critics sing the man’s praises because they want to make other people think that they understand his creative ethos, but being a teenager I suffered the delusion that I would be a film director and so I began watching interviews with film makers who would often drop the man’s name. On a small tangent my desire to be a director shifted after reading Slash’s autobiography and so for a number of years I suffered under the delusion that I could be a rock star. This faded when I remembered I had little to no musical talent. Kubrick was a film maker that I enjoyed because his narratives were so eclectic. Looking at just few years he made in respective order: Paths of Glory, Sparticus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon, and to put this in perspective he moved from a World War I epic to a gladiator rebellion, to a Pedophile capturing a young girl, to the Nuclear apocalypse, to a science fiction philosophy opera, to a dystopian nightmare, and finally to a period piece about an Irish peasant ascending to the British Nobility.
2001: A Space Odyssey is probably one of his best known films, though often because many people in the 70s got stoned and watched it with their kids. What they missed in their induced state was that in his own way Kubrick was attempting to do what I tried in my own small essay about how we tell stories.
Human beings exist in the third dimension, and if I can remind you of your brief high school geometry class the third dimension’s quality is that it allows figures to move through space. In the first dimension objects and organisms could only move to the left or right, whereas in the second objects could then move up and down left and right. The Third dimension allows objects and organisms to move forward and back and they do this by moving through space. Human beings exist and interact with a three dimensional reality, and it needs to be made clear this is a simplistic breakdown of a complicated philosophical, mathematical, and psychological problem. Many scientists turned philosophers have mused about our three dimensional reality, and looking to inspiration from science fiction authors, the next frontier seems to be to understand if it possible to break into the reality of the fourth dimension who’s defining quality and nature is time.
Steven Hawking, the noted theoretical physicist and part-time Simpsons character, explores this in his book A Brief History of Time. When I first read the book I was fresh out of high school and it should be noted that at the time I understood little if any of the actual text, however over time this changed. That’s a bad joke so I’ll move on. In a chapter dealing with wormholes, pockets of space in which it is believed human beings might, and a big emphasis on might there, be able to move through large stretches of the galaxy relatively quickly Hawking writes:
Because there is no unique standard of time, but rather observers each have their own time as measured by clocks that they carry with them, it is possible for the journey to seem to be much shorter for the space travelers than for those who remain on earth. But there would not be much joy in returning from a spae voyage a few years older to find that everyone you had left behind was dead and gone thousands of years ago. So in order to have any human interest in their stories, science fiction writers had to suppose that we would one day discover how to travel faster than light. (161-2).
It’s important to note that, while Hawking is an unapologetic science fiction fan even once appearing on an episode of Star Trek, the passages immediately following this quote explains why these writers’ descriptions of travels through space and time were rather inaccurate or else impossible. The problem of human beings entering or attempting to move through the fourth dimension is either plagued by the actual science, or the fact that actually passing into that dimension requires individuals who are willing to do so without concern of what they’re leaving behind. As such I look back to Kubrick, but before I do I look to H.G. Wells.
Hawking actually bothers to mention Wells at the beginning of the chapter from which I received the previous quote, and the reason for this is Wells’s small novel The Time Machine. The book is a slim narrative but contained within its pages is in fact some of the earliest inclinations of the science that men like Steven Hawking would write into reality. Wells, it should be noted, is often considered one of the “founding fathers” of science fiction, and while it should be noted that there were other writers writing into similar territories and ideas, Wells work boosted the aesthetic of science fiction into something concrete and often inspired future engineers and scientists. Looking at just the opening pages of The Time Traveler it’s incredible to see the man’s foresight:
“Can a cube that does not last for any time at all have a real existence?”
Filby became pensive. “Clearly,” the Time Traveler proceeded,” any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have length, breadth, Thickness, and—Duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh, which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook this fact. There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives. (4).
The” arrow of time” is a concept that is explored even outside the studies of physicists and mathematicians for poets and writers have been relying on that damned symbol almost since the first arrow was painted on a wall. It should be noted that part of the reason for this is that the shape is incredibly phallic, but I don’t have the time to explain that all of history is just men measuring dicks.
The Time Machine made its first appearance in 1895 and, according to some, effectively established the genre of science fiction though this last point is debatable. What’s still incredible about the book is how well Wells managed to explain out the idea of dimensions in just one paragraph. Employing the “arrow of time” in order to convince his companions about his ideas concerning the fourth dimension, The Time Traveler, who is never named by the narrator thus launching him into the territory of archetype, manages to begin the first question: can man step out of his comfort in the third dimension in order to see his potential.
That last word has been chosen carefully as I get closer to my later conclusions.
But along with his observations of the abstract concept of time the Time Traveler also makes a fascinating observation about human beings:
“Well, I do not mind telling you I have been at work upon this geometry of Four Dimensions for some time. Some of my results are curious. For instance, here is a portrait of a man at eight years old, another at fifteen, another at seventeen, another at twenty-three, and so on. All these are evidently sections, as it were, Three Dimensional representations of his Four-Dimensional being, which is a fixed and unalterable thing. (6).
From here the Time Traveler makes his argument that it would be possible for man to break free from the “arrow of time” from which he is forever caught by his perceptions, and, given the supposed hypothetical conditions, almost anything could be possible, specifically time travel. Because this is the late Victorian period and science had only proceeded so far The Time Traveler produces the Time Machine, and it’s important to note how that dates the book, but not necessarily in a bad way. It’s through an external device or machine that man is going to be able to achieve his destiny and this idea of man riding a kind of time traveling vessel is not outdated for the Back to the Future movies proved that this concept is still alive and well. What changed over time is revealed in this second quote.
The Time Traveler notes that human beings are three-dimensional beings but that is only because they haven’t unlocked the ability to see and observe their true potential. This is actually a brilliant idea being expressed that, while it has enormous philosophical implications, seems to counter act the very necessity of a time machine. Simply put, human beings are Fourth-Dimensional creatures they just haven’t realized how to actually tap into that reality. Human beings typically perceive their existence like a three dimensional cube. They recognize the length, width, and girth of the physical space they occupy, but because they can only perceive time as an arrow moving through time they don’t recognize that they are actually able to be a four-dimensional cube, a shape that, in its true form is malleable and constantly regenerating itself. I don’t want to suggest that this is immortality, but the direction two science fiction narratives have taken seems to be just that.
I had no real intention of reading Divinity because before I saw the advertisement in the back of Faith Vol.1 I had no idea that it actually existed. The image of an astronaut, later revealed to be a cosmonaut, caught me because despite my trepidation I do actually enjoy science fiction stories they just have to be grounded in or around planet Earth or its history. I asked my friend Michael (one of the three Michael’s I know and talk to regularly) what the book was about seeing as how he is the go-to Valiant expert. His exact description was: “I mean, I liked it. If you ever watched 2001 and were like “man, this sure would be better as a superhero comic”, well, that’s Divinity in a nutshell.” Given the fact that I loved 2001: A Space Odyssey (though let’s be fair I really like the idea of it far more than the actual film) I was intrigued and so I bought the book a week later and devoured it in four days. The only reason it took four was because I tend to read books one chapter at a time per day; it helps me get through a lot of books.
Divinity is about a cosmonaut named Abram Adams who assigned a top secret task of being launched into space. The U.S.S.R., desperate to defeat the Americans launches Adams to the very edge of the galaxy and when he arrives at his destination after years of isolation and Cryogenic stasis he encounters an energy force, a plane of white light that some would call god and other might refer to as the ground of being, that enters his body and alters his consciousness. Abrams effectively becomes a god but what’s most important is the fact that the story is told is a splintered fashion. Rather than follow Adams and then show MI-6 sending in The Eternal Warrior and X-O Manowar to take him down, Matt Kindt writes the book so that events are taking place in the past, in the present, in the future, in individual’s imaginations, and in people’s memories all at the same time.
Abram Adams hasn’t just become just a superhero, his has accessed his fourth dimensional being.
Reading Divinity I was struck by how much I thought of the graphic novel Watchman and my favorite character from that book Dr. Manhattan.
Watchmen was published through the years of 1986 through 1987 in twelve installments, which is rather fitting given the clock imagery deliberately inserted throughout the book. If the reader has never read it before that’s a terrible shame because there really are few great books in existence and Watchmen most certainly fits that category. The graphic novel follows a group of superheroes in the year 1985 right after one of them, the sociopath ex-government agent The Comedian, is thrown from his apartment window and killed. From there the characters Rorschach, Silk Specter, Night Owl, Ozymandias, and Dr. Manhattan each in their own way try to discover who is trying to kill former superheroes and why, while in the background a nuclear war is looming against the U.S.S.R. and President Richard Nixon seems only to be baiting and encouraging it. There’s also a pirate comic book that’s being read throughout the text but that’s for another essay. While each hero has at least one issue dedicated to them, it was the Dr. Manhattan chapter that always intrigued me (Rorschach’s is really fun too, though I use the word “fun” loosely) because it’s written from his perspective after he retreats from planet earth to live on Mars. Dr. Manhattan is more or less a god and became so after he was working on a particle physics experiment that went horribly wrong and ripped every atom of his body apart. He eventually pulled himself back together and became Dr. Manhattan, but what’s most important about his character’s chapter is its narrative structure.
Like Divinity, Dr. Manhattan is experiencing the past, present, and future seemingly all at the same time and looking at just a few passages from the book it becomes clear that his perception of time far exceeds human understanding.
I should finally address my contester however, for they remind me that most people cannot or will not perceive anything outside their own dimension. What the point, or why should I care about books that are written about people outside of my own perception? It’s impossible for human beings to break free from the “arrow of time” and spending your life trying clearly will only leave you isolated or destroyed or alienated from society, so why not try and enjoy your life?
These are all excellent points, and to be fair I’m not sure I have a satisfying answer to them. Carpe Diem, or seize the day, may be a platitude but it’s one that leaves average people generally satisfied and happy with their lives. Human beings have yet to reach a point in their evolution so that they would be able to access the Fourth-Dimensional being that they are, and it’s likely that such a stage is hundreds, if not thousands, of years away anyway, but books and films like Divinity, The Time Machine, Watchmen, and even 2001: A Space Odyssey try to offer up ideas of how human beings might access that next level. For the most part it seems that humans will have to wait until a supernatural entity, whether it’s the black monolith or the white plane, arrives and bestows knowledge of being to them, but at least in the case of Watchmen and The Time Machine there’s an idea that, through their own devices, humans might make the next step themselves. Even if it is through technology, humans might be able to expand their awareness and being and that’s an important idea, because in many ways we’re already trying to do just that.
Steven Hawking ends A Brief History of Time with a thought concerning the future of physics, philosophy, and possibly that of mankind:
Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why. On the other hand, the people who business it is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advancements of scientific theories.
He concludes then:
However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question why it is we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason-for then we would know the mind of God. (191).
The purpose of science fiction is largely to ask questions either about the nature of human beings, or their future. While many have taken the opportunity to explore thought experiments and the more morbid conclusions concerning the future of humanity a few select have decided to question what if human beings could become more and explore a new dimension of being? A while the general conclusion is that the result of this experiment would result in alienation or some kind of self-destruction I would argue that that reaction is rooted more in those left behind than those moving forward.
The closest success human beings have made in understanding this new state of being is fiction, and that’s perhaps the most telling but also the most encouraging. Scientific enterprise depends upon imagination, and as more and more writers explore the notions of time travel and accessing new states of being, so too will scientists who will change our world in ways we can’t possibly even imagine.
Though if we ever get to the point where we start sending Bender back in time to steal precious masterpieces, we may have taken it a step too far.
While I was working on this review I found this essay on The New Yorker Website. Enjoy:
I’ve included links to three videos below. The first is the “star gate” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey
The second link is the final three minutes of the film in which the astronaut Dave ascends to a new state of being:
I’ve also found a small documentary a YouTuber produced in which he explains the Monolith. This interpretation, as he notes, created a bit of a controversy because many fans loved the idea but certain film scholars didn’t. I’ve posted Part 1 here: