Wednesday, May 09, 2007
Sloppy seconds in the Penny Press!
Whenever we here at Stevereads are feeling a bit beaten up by life (interns peculating paper clips, the Reichmarshal's rise to power, late night drunken phone calls from Beepy, etc), we can now buck ourselves up with the following mantra: "at least we're not serving 30 years in a Nicaragua for a crime we didn't commit."
Unfortunately, young Eric Volz can't say the same. His horrifying story is reported in the latest issue of Men's Journal, and it doesn't exactly fill one with a burning urge to visit Nicaragua anytime soon.
Volz was an energetic young ex-pat soaking up the sun in the gorgeous seaside town of San Juan del Sur, a town he loved and was trying aggressively to promote, real estate-wise, as the next big 'undiscovered' piece of paradise. He was two hours away having lunch with a Nicaraguan journalist when he got a phone call from friends telling him that his beautiful ex-girlfriend had been found brutally murdered.
He rushed to the scene, made inquiries of the police (once they showed up - he beat them to the crime scene), and was amazed a few days later to find himself accused by those same police of having killed the girl. He was arrested, tried (a judge, no jury, and plenty of far more viable suspects), found guilty, and tossed into jail, where he languishes still, despite the efforts of his parents and colleagues to obtain an appeal (the U.S. government, aware of his situation from the start, comes off as curiously impotent).
So things could be worse for us.
A faint wiff of injustice lingers over the latest TLS as well (although without, it should be pointed out, the overtones of prison rape), where Douglas Hofstadter's new book "I am a Strange Loop" is given a review so forgiving and loving and nurturing it lacked only a bottle of warm milk to make its ministrations complete.
The reviewer, Uriah Kriegel, waits until the very end of the piece to confess that he was sympathetic to Hofstadter before he opened the book, but he needn't have worried: his predisposition is pretty obvious right from the start.
Hofstadter's book, as some of you may not know, is yet another manifesto of "the 'Homo Sapiens Only' club" (a free book - you hush, Kevin - to the first of you who can identify where the term comes from), musing on and on about the nature of consciousness and what it is that makes human beings so gosh-darn SPECIAL. All throughout the book, the rest of the living thing on Earth are summoned up only to use as paper lions, stalking horses, and judas goats.
Like book, like reviewer. When Kriegel isn't praising Hofstadter's 'approachable' prose, he's mirroring his subject's bland bigotry. He brings up, for instance, the celebrated 'mark test':
"But the dog's self-conception is very limited. For example, studies show that dogs do not recognize themselves in the mirror. In these studies, a mark is painted on the animal's forehead, and when a mirror is brought in, it is observed whether the animal makes any attempt to wipe the mark off. The number of animals who pass the 'mark test,' as psychologists call it, is surprisingly small: the chimpanzee, the orang-utan, the bottlenose dolphin, and the Asian elephant are the only ones on record. Even gorillas, baboons and African elephants fail, as do humans younger than eighteen months."
Given all the smug mis-apprehensions crammed into this one little example, we here at Stevereads are amazed Hofstadter didn't use it for his own book. The temptation to heave a heavy sigh over the whole of it is well-nigh imperative.
We could start with all the ways in which this 'test' is conceptually flawed (the central underlying question of whether or not some species wouldn't CARE that they had a mark on their forehead is of course never addressed or even raised; dogs, for instance, have been known not only to EAT EACH OTHER'S SHIT but also to ROLL AROUND in pretty much ANYBODY'S shit ... it's possible they're not the most fastidious beings on Earth), or we could open with the impossibility of actually performing the 'test' (we'd like the meet the psychologist who could paint a mark on an African elephant's forehead in the wild ... which means the dolphins, orangutans, elephants, baboons, and eighteen-month-old human babies all had this 'test' performed on them IN CAPTIVITY, which immediately invalidates the results, just as a psych-profile conducted right this minute on Eric Volz wouldn't have a scrap of validity except in that context), but as with Hofstadter's book, it's the underlying bigotry of the whole conception that irks us the most.
Humans self-reflect because it's a side-effect of language, which is a specialized skill they developed over millennia (although if Kriegel and Hofstadter think it's a universally-practiced skill among all of humankind, they really need to get out more often; your average adult raven or octopus or timber wolf conducts their life with a Hell of a lot more introspection than is ever used by the vast majority of humankind). And human beings are only just beginning to make tiny baby-steps into inquiring whether or not other language-heavy species (the birds and the bees, for instance) have also developed ... well, something. Something wondrous and complicated and truly alien, but something no less valid and validating than the specifically human style of self-consciousness.
These inquiries - into what it really means to be a humpback whale or a giant tortoise or, gawd help us, a basset hound - aren't helped by blinkered books like Hofstadter's, and they aren't helped by softball 'reviews' like Kriegel's.
Also of interest: in this issue's letters page, Professor Jonathan Bate is taken to task for a piece he wrote recently singing the praises of his new Royal Shakespeare Company edition of the collected works of Shakespeare. Jan Piggott writes:
"Jonathan Bates writes, 'When I was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Random House to prepare the first new complete Shakespeare of the new century ... I realized that there was a true gap in the crowded market: a modern-spelling and lightly corrected Folio-based edition.
But Nick de Somogyi's paperback series of individual plays (Nick Hern Book), begun in 2001 and now including most of the major plays, exactly fills that gap, and better, thanks to de Somogyi's scholarly, original and witty introductions and careful editing.
Surely someone at the RSC could have told Bate about this sterling precedent edition; a blurb on the back of the 'Hamlet' in the series (2001) reads: 'I would certainly use it, and I can imagine all of my colleagues doing the same - Adrian Noble, Artistic Director, Royal Shakespeare Company.' It is quite wrong of Professor Bate to write as if this series did not exist."
A hit! A very palpable hit!
Of course, both Bate's edition of the First Folio and Hofstadter's book are dealt with at great length over at Open Letters Monthly, as are a great many other matters literary and poetical. But then, the truly cultured among you will know that already ...