Monday, October 30, 2006

harpers! gawd and mars!

The highlight - well, no, maybe the most noteworthy thing? - about the latest issue of Harper's is an essay by Marilynne Robinson dealing with "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins.

As some of you may know, we here at stevereads deeply revere Robinson's great novel 'Housekeeping.' We find far more problematic her second novel 'Gilead,' which read like something an extremely intelligent novelist would write if, a couple of years after her first novel, she discovered a lump during a routine breast exam - it wafted of religious hysteria.

In her review of the Dawkins book, she comes close to trotting out Stephen Jay Gould's 'non-overlapping magisteriums' but doesn't quite do it - for her, I suspect, we're still in a demon-haunted world.

She chides Dawkins mainly for having a wobbly grasp of history, for having no keen ear for the outermost implications of his own arguments, and for seeming indifferent to the state of science today.

All of which would be to the good if Robinson knew how to write nonfiction. As it is, calling her prose turgid would be an insult to the turgidy memory of John Ruskin:

"I have never seen the suggestion anywhere that the threat of imminent catastrophe on a 'biblical scale' - a phrase favored by journalists - wich has hung over the world for more than half a century, might have consequenes for the stability of the global public mind."

"Yet the image of a deeper reality invoked by [Dawkins] here suggests a basis for the ancient intuition of the persistence of the self despite the transiency of the elemtents of its physical embodiment."

"When the Zeitgeist turns Gorgon, the impulses toward cultural and biological eugenics have proved to be one and the same. It is diversity that makes any natural system robust, and diversity that stabilizes culture against the eccentricity and arrogance that have so often called themselves reason and science."

If you listen closely to some of these utterances, especially that last one, you'll hear the whispered matins of a 14th century monk ...

However, the piece did have one good effect: it's prompted me to review the Dawkins book myself, right here at stevereads. Several of you have emailed me wondering what I thought in detail, and it's wrong for me to deprive you so! Expect it soon!

Also in this issue of Harper's, we're informed that a man in Upper Pradesh, India was born with two fully functional penises - and has asked to have one of them cut off.

This story is unbelievable for not one but two reasons. We can only assume it was garbled in transmission, that what the Upper Pradesh man was really asking for was a great deal of alone-time.

And the final item comes from James C. McLane, an associate fellow at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He's written a detailed proposal about the first manned mission to Mars.

He says the American public has an outdated and often tragic fixation with manned missions, especially missions with multiple passengers. He points out that a modern vessel capable of getting to Mars would only require one operator. And he suggests, for pratical as well as aesthetic reasons, that the trip be one-way.

We here at stevereads whole-heartedly agree. The only task left is to choose the exact right person for the job.

The person should be able to make vital decisions in a pinch - a real take-charge individual, somebody who's already a leader, a decider.

The person chosen will be travelling a very, very long distance into a total unknown - so they should be armed with the kind of religious faith that gains intensity from being embraced late in life, after many a foray into sin and depravity.

The person chosen will be alone for the long journey and then alone forever on Mars, so they should be extremely comfortable living in a mindset that not only doesn't require the input of others but actively seeks to avoid it. Our candidate should have a strong go-it-alone componant to their makeup.

Mars' environment is prone to extremes of harshness - conditions not for the faint of heart. Our candidate should have a bellicose - even glib - attitude toward these dangers, a real 'bring 'em on' mentality, even if - especially if - his equipment isn't equal to the task. Our heroes are larger than life, and/or they dress the part!

And the physical reality of Mars is awe-inspiring - gigantic mountain peaks, nearly bottomless gorges, wind-carved devil-faces, the works! In the face of all this majesty, our candidate should have a certain element of proper humility. So we should find someone who's been a failure at every job they've ever held, preferrably someone who's failed despite having everything handed to them without any work.

As soon as such a candidate is found, they should be shipped off to Mars without delay. As McLane says, this sacrifice "could well usher in a new age of international cooperation and respect for humanistic values." Which would certainly be an improvement over the world we live in now, wouldn't it?

As side note, since everybody else will be feeling the love except our lone Marsonaut, it would probably be best if the person we send HATES both international cooperation and humanistic values. That way they won't be missing anything.

So stand forth, O brave Marsonaut! Stand forth and do your duty! It's time for you to cut and run from planet Earth - as Mr. McLane so persuasively argues, once you're gone, once you're finally pried off the face of the feckin planet and hurled into space, the rest of us will find ourselves united, not divided. O what a glorious future!


lockep said...

[We can only assume it was garbled in transmission, that what the Upper Pradesh man was really asking for was a great deal of alone-time.]

Shhhh. Step in here a little closer, kids. What we have here, nestled among the weeds is a Steve Donoghue joke that is actually almost funny. No, no, don't laugh out loud -- you'll scare it away. Or worse, encourage it.

steve said...

what reeds? that Marsonaut stuff was GOLD, baby! GOLD!

Sam Sacks said...

I was formulating a defense of Marilynne's Robinson's nonfiction when I broke up laughing about our prospective Marsonaut and forgot what I was going to say.

Oh, right! I haven't seen this month's Harpers, but in general I do agree that Robinson's nonfiction prose can be roilingly dense; and often you read her screeds without being totally sure what the object is that the screed is directed against. But ultimately for me her passion and intelligence wins out. There's tons of great stuff to be found in her essay. Like, for example, this bit about religious fundamentalists, on a recent piece in the American Scholar:
"And here is the culminating irony. This movement, which calls itself fundamentalist, subscribes fervently to the principles of laissez-faire capitalism. It has helped to push American society toward what the English economist Herbert Spencer called 'the survival of the fittest." Darwin borrowed that phrase from Spencer to name the dynamic of natural selection in the evolution of species, otherwise known as Darwinism. In other words, our anti-Darwinists are social Darwinists."
"The Death of Adam" is brainy, provoking stuff and worth the work.

john cotter said...

Well, leave it to Sam to find a readable nonfiction paragraph from Marilynne Robinson. The bit you quoted just then wasn't bad, but I'm with Steve on the Dawkens review. I found myself waiting for a green-line train for what felt like forever the other day. I was unhappy, but I thought I had an ace in the hole: an unread review of the new Dawkens in Harpers to make the time go away. Jesus, was I disappointed. The prose was like curdled milk. I couldn’t even get through the thing. I ended up reading the ads on the side of the T.

Although I did dig the opening essay in the Harper's in question. Not the Editor’s note (which wasn’t bad), but the opening bit from N+1 about the joint rise in oversexualised youth culture and child-molestation paranoia. I thought it was pretty on-point, but I'd be anxious to hear what, if anything, stevereads has to say about it.

steve said...

you'll notice that, in reviewing the issue in question, stevereads had, in fact, NOTHING to say about the article you mention. In case you haven't read the bylaws lately, that means stevereads thinks it - and you - are CRAP


Jeff E. said...

He's so charming
oh so charming
It's alarming
how charming
is Steve

and for any
who aren't Steve
I grieve

Kevin Caron said...

I'm picturing Jeff dancing in tails and a bowtie as he sings that.

Hope nobody minds.

steve said...

I have to admit, I like those lyrics better than the originals.

Kevin Caron said...

Next Jeff will serenade you with "SteveReads - Man! Super Blog" to the music of "Jesus Christ Superstar". I've heard some of the rough cuts; it's quite good.