Faking fluency.

A couple years back Martin Amis described re-reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a book he’d admired as a younger man:

I looked at Catch-22 not long ago and I was greatly embarrassed – I thought it was very labored. I asked Heller when I interviewed him if he had used a thesaurus. He said, “Oh yes, I used a thesaurus a very great deal.” And I use a thesaurus a lot too, but not looking for a fancy word for “big.” I use it so I can vary the rhythm of what I’m writing – I want a synonym that’s three syllables, or one syllable. It’s a terrific aid to euphony, and everybody has their own idea of euphony. But the idea of plucking an obscure word out of a thesaurus is frivolous, I think. [1]

Nicholson Baker is even more fastidious. In U and I he objects to the “deracinated adjacency of the thesaurus” and says he refuses to touch one; but he concedes that this prejudice is snooty and absurd, and admires John Updike and Donald Barthelme for forthrightly admitting that, yeah, sometimes they dig impressive-sounding words out of the thesaurus. [2]

Me, I consult my thesaurus not to find new and astonishing ways to say “big” but to recover unflashy middle-school vocabulary words that, when I summon them for occasional use, get bogged down on the journey between memory and forebrain. It happens to everyone. Here’s Charlie Citrine, narrator of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, suffering what we would today call a brain fart (though brain constipation would be a better image):

My brain was disintegrating. The day before, in the bathroom, I hadn’t been able to find the word for the isolation of the contagious, and I was in agony. I thought, whom should I telephone about this? My mind is going! And then I stood and clutched the sink until the word “quarantine” mercifully came back to me. Yes, quarantine, but I was losing my grip.

At one time I would, like Charlie Citrine, fume and grind my teeth when a word like “quarantine” failed to arrive at my command. Then I realized that there was no shame in going halfway to meet it; that’s what the thesaurus is for. It’s not a Wunderkammer for browsing exotic words, but a filing cabinet for storing everyday ones, so that you can find them when you need them, and get on with your writing.

Citrine has little cause to worry about his “disintegrating” brain. A lauded author, playwright, and journalist possessed of a preposterously, even aggravatingly high degree of verbal fluency, he’s happy to oblige when visitors challenge him to demonstrate that he has actually absorbed the contents of the dense tomes he leaves on his coffee table:

“Take this monster – The Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics – Jesus Christ, what the hell is that! Now Charlie tell us, what were you reading here?”

“I was checking something about Origen of Alexandria. Origen’s opinion was that the Bible could not be a collection of mere stories. Did Adam and Eve really hide under a tree while God walked in the Garden in the cool of the day? Did angels really climb up and down ladders? Did Satan bring Jesus to the top of a high mountain and tempt him? Obviously these tales must have a deeper meaning. What does it mean to say ‘God walked’? Does God have feet? This is where the thinkers began to take over, and–”

“Enough, that’s enough. Now what’s this book say, The Triumph of the Therapeutic?”

For reasons of my own I wasn’t unwilling to be tested in this way. I actually read a great deal. Did I know what I was reading? We would see. I shut my eyes, reciting, “It says that psychotherapists may become the new spiritual leaders of mankind. A disaster. Goethe was afraid the modern world might turn into a hospital. Every citizen unwell. The same point in Knock by Jules Romains. Is hypochondria a creation of the medical profession? …”

…And so on. I assume that Citrine, like Bellow’s other first-person narrators, is a barely veiled version of Bellow himself: did Bellow talk like this? It’s easy for writers to create the illusion of fluency by polishing, double-checking, reaching for the thesaurus: characters therefore are nearly always more articulate than their creators.

It’s much harder in real time. With practice you can learn to fake fluency by speaking confidently and grammatically – which is already more than most of us can manage – and, when you find yourself out of your depth, by edging around to a topic you do know well. Honest-to-god verbal fluency requires high intelligence, which is rare.

Those of us who have a brain for certain kinds of trivia – who remember names or dates or numbers – have an unfair edge, when faking fluency, over those who forget such details: but it can hobble us, too. We become overconfident, imagining that because we can name something, we’ve mastered it. I do the Sunday crossword puzzle with a friend sometimes, and she’ll quiz me, when I’ve impressed her by hauling out some unfamiliar name:

“And who is Thomas à Becket?”

“He was Archbishop of Canterbury. He was murdered by…somebody…because…because some English king, can’t remember which, said, ‘Will someone’…no, ‘Will no-one rid me of this troublesome priest?'”

“Why’d he say that?”

“Come to think of it, I’m not really sure. Wait, meddlesome priest. Meddlesome.”

The other day I found myself trying to describe to this same friend the events of the English civil war. I got the names and order of the kings right, and correctly named the decade of Cromwell’s rule. But checking my facts afterward, I was wrong about nearly everything else: the various parties’ motives, the sequence of events, the religious underpinnings of the conflict. All the stuff, in other words, that would demonstrate actual comprehension.

Looking at the various nonfiction books on my shelves, I wonder – if my friend plucked up one of these books at random, and asked me to summarize its contents in the manner of Charlie Citrine, how well would I do?

Suppose her hand fell on C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a slender book which I’ve read at least twice, most recently a couple years ago, and which influenced my thinking during the writing of my own novel.

I remember Lewis’s starting point being some contemporary government report – or was it a newspaper article? – on reforms to the British educational system.

I remember him using the word Tao in a non-denominational way to refer to, uh, our innate universal sense of morality, I think.

And of course I remember “men without chests”, Lewis’s phrase for the regrettable products of modern education, although I couldn’t say now how he introduces the phrase or exactly what it means. [3] [4]

That’s about it. Given a half hour I think I could, even without access to my library or the internet, spin around these fragments an extremely vague but passably coherent précis of Lewis’s argument. Off the top of my head? Fat chance.

Whenever I come across a reference to The Abolition of Man I’ll nod knowingly: Ah, yes, a text I too have mastered. Carry on, fellow educated person. But in fact my multiple readings of that book have left only a series of faint impressions, like the ghostly roadways of an extinct jungle civilization, detectable only in satellite photos.

Which brings up the question, why do I read at all? But that’s a subject I’ve delved into already…in an essay that, I find upon revisiting it, also references C.S. Lewis. One of the symptoms of declining intelligence is that you start repeating yourself.

M.

1. In a review in his collection The Moronic Inferno, Amis eviscerated Joseph Heller’s God Knows for “[w]riting that transcends mere repetition and aspires to outright tautology.” A sampling: “‘lugubrious dirge’, ‘pensive reverie’, ‘vacillating perplexity’, ‘seditious uprising’” …etc.

I identified the same tic re-reading Catch-22 nine years ago and complained that Heller’s prose “clops along like a three-legged horse”.

2. U and I, written in 1991, is about Nicholson Baker’s “obsession” with, and debt to, his literary hero and fellow psoriasis-sufferer John Updike. The digression about the thesaurus now inevitably and unfortunately summons to mind the anonymous slur quoted by David Foster Wallace in a harsh review a few years later: that Updike was nothing more than “a penis with a thesaurus”.

3. To return to U and I, one of the charms of that book is that Baker resolved when writing it to forgo the “artifice of preparation”: in order to preserve his pure, spontaneous, un-fussed-over impressions of Updike’s work, every line he quotes, every story he describes was retrieved from his own, frequently faulty memory. (“I remember almost nothing of what I read,” he admits.) Where Baker misquotes he appends the correct quotation in square brackets.

4. Checking my memories of The Abolition of Man: Lewis begins with a discussion of a newly-published elementary school text; Tao is the term he uses for the alignment of one’s desires with objective reality, necessary to human thriving; and men without chests refers to people governed by reason alone, lacking the guidance of sentiment or magnanimity, which, according to the Medieval theologian Alanus, is seated in the chest.

Speaking of Nicholson Baker, in September I quoted a whimsical suicide fantasy in his A Box of Matches and last year I talked about his “intensely fine-grained” debut novel The Mezzanine.

Advertisements

Music for pigeons: A taxonomy of noise pollution.

Years back I wrote a blog post called “Noise pollution and negative externalities” where I made the point that noise is unlike other pollutants: many noise polluters actually enjoy their noise; which makes it harder to shame them into curtailing their pollution.

But I had an experience the other day that reminded me that there are at least three different types of noise pollution, each of which must be combatted differently.

***

Nearly every day I walk to one of the handful of coffeeshops in my neighbourhood to read the paper and do the crossword. A few years back a new place opened up and I added it to the rotation. It’s spacious and tastefully appointed, with glass on two sides looking out on a busy intersection. Due to all the windows and its south-facing orientation it gets ridiculously warm when the sun is shining, but on rainy days it’s comfortably cool and flooded with grey Vancouver light.

How this place stays in business, I don’t know; maybe it’s a money-laundering operation. Most of the time when I drop in I’m the only customer there. It’s run by a Chinese immigrant family; when I walk in the teenage daughter, who’ll be sitting at one of the tables doing her homework, will hop up to man the counter. When the daughter is absent I’ll find the shop completely empty, and half a minute will pass before her middle-aged mother emerges from an office at the back.

What I like best about the place is that there’s no pop music. Sometimes elevator-style classical music will be playing quietly. Other times, nothing at all. I’ll order my $2.75 Americano – they don’t have drip coffee, I suppose because there are too few customers to make it worthwhile – and sit by the window skimming the news, watching the umbrellas bob by.

On this occasion I found the place empty and silent, and as usual I had to wait a moment before the mother appeared. She knows me: “Americano?” she said. Things get a bit sloppy when the daughter isn’t around: the mother had to dig in a supply closet when I pointed out that only low-calorie sweetener packets were left in the sugar basket. Then she had to double back to the fridge to retrieve the cream, which the daughter knows to bring out when I appear.

Daughter and mother are both friendly and accommodating, but I feel a bit guilty making them bustle around to serve me; as though I’m interrupting their real business – homework in the daughter’s case; in the mother’s, whatever she gets up to in the back office. My occasional $2.75 can’t be making much of a dent in their operating costs.

It was this feeling of guilt, plus my natural slow-wittedness, that made me hesitate when the mother, after restocking the sugar supply and plopping the cream carton on the counter, hit the button to turn on the stereo. The silence was marred by a plinky, PlaySkool-mobile instrumental version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”. After a moment’s consideration, she upped the volume by a couple notches, and vanished back into her office before I had a chance to raise an objection. I imagine she thought she’d done me a favour: white people love Christmas music, don’t they? Luckily she didn’t have to sit out there and listen to it.

If she’d set off a stink bomb it wouldn’t have done more to wreck my visit. “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” was succeeded by “Jingle Bells” then “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. I soon gave up trying to concentrate on my paper. Somewhere in the middle of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” I slurped down the last of my coffee and fled. I’d been there barely twenty minutes; hardly worth the walk.

Now, I realize that people expect different things from coffeeshops. Some lead busy lives and need to get their caffeine fix on the go. I can make perfectly good coffee at home, at a price far more reasonable than $2.75 per cup. What my apartment lacks is a cozy chair by a window where I can watch pretty girls and funnily-dressed dogs go by.

I’ve tried out a lot of coffeeshops over the years – I’ve explored all over Metro Vancouver – and among all those businesses I’ve found only this one where the stereo wasn’t constantly playing. I don’t know why music is considered a necessary accompaniment to coffee drinking, dining, shopping, bowling, everything, but I’ve come to accept that I’m a bit of a weirdo on this subject.

I’ve learned from experience which places play musical genres that are less likely to annoy me, and can be relied on to keep the volume at a reasonable level. I look forward to spring, when once again I can sit on patios where there’s no music at all – though such refuges are becoming rarer and rarer. Often on cool summer days I’ll walk by empty patios blasting pop music for an audience of pigeons and crows.

***

But the title of this post promised a taxonomy of noise pollution. As I see it, there are three categories.

First there is what you might call extrinsic noise pollution. This is the type that best fits our stereotypical idea of pollution. Think of smog, toxic waste, microplastics: accidental byproducts of modern convenience. No-one is excited about spewing poison or scattering garbage, but stopping it would cost us money or effort.

Traffic noise, power tools, and construction all fall under the category of extrinsic noise pollution. Everyone, including the polluters, would agree that these noises should be reduced: the challenge is that no-one is willing to put themselves to any trouble to do it.

The second category is the opposite of the first: intrinsic noise pollution, where making noise is the whole point. Loud motorcycles, obnoxious car stereos, and teenagers whooping it up outside your window at night would all fall into this category.

With intrinsic noise pollution, the challenge is that citizens disagree about what constitutes an acceptable level of noise. One person’s unbearable racket is another’s harmless high spirits. Even if you can get a bylaw passed that sets out noise limits, cops will often shrug off violations; they’re as likely to see the complainer, and not the polluter, as the nuisance.

The third category I’ll call unconscious noise pollution, as exemplified by the stereo blasting on an empty restaurant patio. The polluters in this case aren’t making noise for fun: they’re either literally unable to hear it – because they’re not physically present – or they’re so inured to the noise that it doesn’t even register.

Much of the music we hear in public falls into this category: business owners who click on the stereo out of pure habit.

Unconscious noise pollution is annoying, but it actually offers the easiest target in the battle against excessive noise: the polluters are unaware that they’re polluting, and it would be very little trouble for them to curtail their pollution.

All I had to do the other afternoon was work up the nerve to ask the coffeeshop proprietor to shut off the Christmas music. It would’ve cost her nothing while gaining her the goodwill of at least one customer.

Of course, it’s often hard to tell the difference between intrinsic and unconscious noise pollution. The restaurant proprietor may sincerely believe that blasting music onto an empty patio draws in more customers; this would be difficult for an outsider to disprove.

But the first step, for those of us bothered by the noise, is to say something about it. We may be suffering unnecessarily.

M.

Speaking of unconscious noise pollution, a lot of people seem to think it’s acceptable to watch videos on their phone, in public, without headphones. If we don’t complain, how will they ever know better?

Surrey’s reluctant rapid transit lab rats.

I have mixed feelings about the decision by Surrey’s new mayor and council to scrap the city’s planned light rail project.

The old plan was for an all-new $3.5 billion surface-level light rail network connecting downtown Surrey with Guildford, Newton, and Langley. $1.65 billion of funding was already secured for the Guildford-Newton section of the route, bids were being taken, and pre-construction was underway.

The new plan is to take the $1.65 billion and apply it instead to a continuation of the elevated SkyTrain from downtown Surrey to Langley. Beyond that it’s sort of fuzzy.

surrey rapid transit lrt skytrain

On the one hand, I agree with incoming mayor Doug McCallum and the majority of Surrey voters that the light rail proposal was a dud. At vast cost it would have done nothing to improve travel time between the four centres that couldn’t be achieved far more cheaply with designated bus lanes and traffic signal priority.

This isn’t merely the opinion of some random internet chucklehead: Metro Vancouver’s regional transit authority, TransLink, arrived at the same conclusion back in 2012 when it studied a variety of Surrey rapid transit scenarios.

surrey rapid transit lrt skytrain

From TransLink’s Surrey Rapid Transit Alternatives Analysis, archived at skytrainforsurrey.org. (Graph has been modified to highlight relevant columns.)

Comparing the “LRT1” option (the now-rejected light rail plan) with “RRT1A” (SkyTrain to Langley, plus Bus Rapid Transit on the King George-104th Avenue corridor), the latter was rated as superior in the categories of “Transportation” and “Financial”.

Surrey’s outgoing councillors apparently had other priorities than speed, capacity, and return-on-investment. As they saw it, a light rail network could be built more cheaply than SkyTrain, bringing slightly-more-rapid transit to more neighbourhoods more quickly.

I get the sense, reading some of the arguments against SkyTrain, that they’re being made by people who either never take transit, or if they do, aren’t in much of a hurry to actually get where they’re going.

For example, some Surrey boosters perversely make it a demerit against SkyTrain that commuters would be able to ride all the way from Langley to downtown Vancouver without changing trains. As they see it, a forced transfer at Surrey Central Station would discourage some riders from travelling onward, keeping their business in Surrey.

But the main anti-SkyTrain argument was summarized in that TransLink study, where the light rail option won out in the “Social & Community” and “Urban Development” categories.

What it boils down to is the widely held perception that SkyTrain’s elevated guiderails are a “blight on the urban landscape”.

I have a hard time imagining how guiderails could make Surrey’s mile upon mile of strip malls and low-slung office buildings any uglier. But thanks to the Photoshopping skills of the Fleetwood Business Improvement Association, I don’t have to imagine:

surrey fleetwood skytrain guiderail visualization

Fraser Highway and 160th Street, Surrey, with superimposed SkyTrain station.

surrey fleetwood skytrain guiderail visualization

Fraser Highway in Surrey, with superimposed SkyTrain guiderails.

Grim indeed! But it doesn’t really conform to my experience of Vancouver’s SkyTrain-centred suburbs, which I find quite congenial:

beresford street patterson station burnaby

Beresford Street near Patterson Station, Burnaby. From Google Street View.

rumble street edmonds station burnaby

Rumble Street near Edmonds Station, Burnaby. From Google Street View.

For some people high-rises and raw concrete are the workings of Mordor, to be opposed without compromise. I sympathize with their quaint tastes but also wonder why they go on living in a big city. To me the guiderails, footpaths, and glass towers give these neighbourhoods an endearingly retro-futuristic look:

pinetree way lafarge lake station coquitlam

Pinestreet Way near LaFarge Lake Station, Coquitlam. From Google Street View.

boundary road joyce station vancouver

Boundary Road near Joyce Station, Vancouver. From Google Street View.

The writer of the Georgia Straight op-ed linked above points to Lougheed Highway in Burnaby and No. 3 Road in Richmond as exemplars of ugliness. But they’re really not that bad…and most of the ugliness is a hangover from the decades of auto-centred sprawl that rapid transit is meant to curb:

lougheed highway gilmore station burnaby

Lougheed Highway near Gilmore Station, Burnaby. From Google Street View.

number 3 road richmond brighouse station richmond

No. 3 Road near Richmond-Brighouse Station, Richmond. From Google Street View.

I guess the deposed council had a different vision in mind for Surrey. Who knows, maybe it would have been great: as a non-Surreyite, I was keeping an open mind.

Since I rarely travel south of the Fraser River, King George Boulevard would have been a handy spot to experiment with a form of rapid transit that hadn’t been tried in Metro Vancouver. If light rail were successful there, it might have opened up new possibilities for expanding the network in other parts of the region.

And if, as I anticipated, it flopped, it wouldn’t inconvenience me that much.

Despite overblown warnings that killing light rail would mean losing the $1.65 billion designated for the first phase of the project and returning to square one in the planning process, the various levels of government seem to be on board with reallocating the money to SkyTrain. But it’s not clear yet how much SkyTrain can be built with $1.65 billion.

Assuming the whole $3.5 billion intended for both phases is still available for Surrey’s rapid transit plans (no-one knows yet where the remaining $1.9 billion will come from), how much will be left after the Langley SkyTrain extension?

Mayor McCallum claims that the SkyTrain cost estimates have been inflated, and that it can be built for the same price as light rail. In which case the Guildford-Newton section could be done using SkyTrain as well. But that’s almost certainly balderdash.

The SkyTrain For Surrey campaign, which steadfastly opposed the light rail plan in the days when resistance appeared futile, has been pushing for both components of the RRT1A option from that TransLink study: SkyTrain to Langley, plus Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) from Guildford all the way to White Rock.

surrey rapid transit options skytrain brt

BRT is a step up from a mere express bus route. It refers to a combination of designated bus lanes, traffic signal priority, and fare-gated stations with raised platforms for quick all-door boarding. A BRT route can’t carry as many passengers as light rail, but it’s way more flexible to build and operate:

  • It doesn’t require specially trained drivers. Its buses can be operated by anyone from the regular pool of drivers.
  • It doesn’t require its own operations and maintenance centre. The buses can be serviced along with the rest of the fleet.
  • It doesn’t need to be constructed all at once. Buses can easily switch back and forth from designated bus lanes to regular traffic lanes. (Also, unlike trains, buses can steer around accidents and obstructions.)

It would be great to have SkyTrain lines extending all over the region, but sadly SkyTrain costs a fortune to build, and it’s not getting any cheaper.

Light rail is more affordable, and offers a smooth and comfortable ride, but the speed advantage over an express bus isn’t enough to make the upgrade worthwhile.

BRT seems like a good compromise on routes where SkyTrain is unrealistic. At a moderate cost it offers moderate capacity, moderate speed – and maximum flexibility.

Or maybe I’m wrong. At any rate, I’d like to see BRT tried out somewhere in Metro Vancouver – ideally, somewhere out of the way, like Surrey, where I won’t be affected if it turns out to be a flop.

M.

In the wake of Metro Vancouver’s 2015 transit referendum I made the case for spending more on buses and less on pricey rail projects. A couple years later, worrying that “cost disease” would soon make rail projects unaffordable, I said: hmm, on second thought, better start building them now. More recently I argued that the character of Vancouver’s low-density, family-friendly neighbourhoods could best be preserved by stacking singles and seniors in high-rise clusters.

What’s above the text.

There’s a funny exchange in Whit Stillman’s Barcelona. An American with time on his hands in a foreign city tells his friend that he’s been doing a lot of reading, and:

Fred: One of the things that keeps cropping up is this about subtext. Plays, novels, songs, they all have a subtext, which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what’s above the subtext?

Ted: The text.

Fred: [Pause] Okay, that’s right. But they never talk about that.

Fred is right, we use the term subtext a lot without really considering its topological implications. If we think of a story or narrative as a series of layers – at the bottom, the subtext; above that, the text – is there another layer, still further out?

If the subtext is the “hidden message” which can be accessed only at one remove, through the mediating layer of the text – does this hypothetical outermost layer mediate our interpretation of the text in the same way? What might this layer consist of?

I’m not going to pretend to know anything about French critical theory, specifically the branch of it known as Structuralism. But while poking around last week for terms to help me refine Josephine Tey’s concept of Tonypandy I kept coming across references to Gérard Genette’s theory of transtextuality, which gives us a bunch of fancy words for classifying the ways texts interact with and are interpreted through their connections to the world outside the text:

  • Intertext is when a text is quoted in other texts.
  • Metatext is critical commentary on a text.
  • Archetext is the way a text conforms or doesn’t conform to the conventions of whatever genre it belongs to.
  • Hypo- and hypertext refer to a source material and its later adaptations; so, the script of the 2002 movie Spider-Man is a hypertext based on the hypotext of the character’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy issue #15.
  • Paratext is all the text surrounding a text, including the title, back-cover blurb, and introduction; and at a further remove, author interviews, publicity materials, and ads intended to guide how readers should interpret the text.

For a good summary of how paratext can shape readers’ interpretations (written in 1963, and therefore unsullied by French critical jargon), consider the opening lines of Eric Havelock’s Preface To Plato:

It sometimes happens in the history of the written word that an important work of literature carries a title which does not accurately reflect the contents. A part of the work has become identified with the whole, or the meaning of a label has shifted in translation. But if the label has a popular and recognisable ring, it can come to exercise a kind of thought control over those who take the book in their hands. They form an expectation which accords with the title but which is belied by much of the substance of what the author has to say. They cling to a preconception of his intentions, insensibly allowing their minds to mould the content of what they read into the required shape.

Havelock is referring to The Republic, which he claims isn’t really the book of political philosophy its title would suggest; it’s really about the shift, still ongoing at the time Plato wrote, from a primarily oral to a literary culture.

Last year I wrote about how nearly all of the events we think of as the Odyssey – Polyphemus, the Lotus-Eaters, Scylla and Charybdis, and so on – are related in flashback in a few chapters in the middle of the epic. Knowing that odyssey means “a long, adventurous journey”, we read the work expecting a journey – just as readers of Plato’s Republic expect a book about politics. Someone who’d never heard the word odyssey, encountering the epic for the first time and asked what it was about, would answer not “a journey” but “a homecoming”.

***

There’s an old standup bit by Father Guido Sarducci where he talks about launching a Five Minute University, where “in five minutes, you learn what the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is out of school.”

So for economics class, you’d learn the phrase supply and demand; for Spanish you’d learn ¿Cómo está usted? ¡Muy bien! …And so forth. The $20 fee would cover “tuition, cap and gown rental, graduation picture, snacks…everything.”

Father Guido doesn’t mention it, but we can assume that the Five Minute University would include a literature department. What would its scholars be taught about, say, Robinson Crusoe?

An island…a footprint…Friday.

FMU grads who subsequently peek into Crusoe will discover there’s a lot of unfamiliar stuff in there. In hindsight it seems inevitable that the story should be reduced to the thirty or so pages of Crusoe and Friday dwelling peacefully amid the palms – just as it seems inevitable that the Odyssey should be reduced to some sailors fighting a cyclops. But why should those thirty pages of island idyll have attained such fame, relative to what comes after – a breathless cascade of cannibals and mutineers leading to our heroes’ escape? Or what about the preceding 150 pages of Crusoe’s solitude? I have no evidence to support this, but my impression is that what people who’ve actually read the book remember best is Crusoe’s gradual conquest of his environment – fitting out his cave, taming the wild goats, shaking some loose grains out of an old sack and delightedly seeing barley sprout up a few days later. Crusoe alone seems to me inherently more intriguing than Crusoe plus one other guy; but the popular imagination disagrees.

In the 1980s J.M. Coetzee wrote Foe, a feminist, postmodern retelling of the Crusoe story. In this version, it won’t surprise you to learn, Crusoe is no longer a self-improving Christian but a slovenly misanthrope; Friday is an abused slave; and a third castaway, a woman, is written out of the narrative by the villain, Daniel Defoe himself. In Gérard Genette’s terms we would call Foe a hypertext based on the hypotext of Defoe’s classic. But in fact it’s not the text of Robinson Crusoe that Coetzee is deconstructing, but the Five Minute University summary – the hazy, somewhat inaccurate version picked up second- and thirdhand from Looney Tunes and variety show skits. [1]

looney tunes robinson crusoe jr.

Robinson Crusoe Jr., 1941, starring Mel Blanc. Image source.

Nowadays Robinson Crusoe, the novel, is a small and, perhaps, not terribly essential component of the wider Crusoe mythos. Defoe clearly identifies Friday as a copper-skinned Caribbean Indian; in the hazy popular mind he’s usually an African; the South African Coetzee found this variation more fruitful to his creative efforts, and in making it central to Foe, helped thicken the haze.

Genette’s transtextualist lexicon goes some way toward defining this haze – the insubstantial yet opaque Venerian atmosphere we have to dive through to get a clear view of the planetary surface. Most of us never get anywhere near the surface: we accept the smudge of cloud immediately in front of our viewscreen as representative of the whole thing.

But we’ve been presuming that there is a solid body at the centre of every cloud mass: a text, more or less stable: an Odyssey or a Robinson Crusoe, a comic book or a film. Whereas in fact, many of our stories are like Jupiter – clouds all the way down.

***

A few years back I came across this article by Scott Beggs endorsing the then-current internet crusade to get Spider-Man recast as a black guy. I copied this excerpt into my “Future Essay Ideas” folder:

I don’t care whether Hamlet is a Danish prince from Mexico or Mauritius or Mongolia. More than that, the central premise that leads anyone to deny that a character like Hamlet can be another race (beyond the apparently all-encompassing “white”), is a faulty one that should be dismissed with great prejudice. Which is why it’s infuriating to see people – especially decision-makers – clinging to it like it’s some kind of Get Out of Racism Free card. It’s the same argument some fans made when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor. “Viking Gods aren’t black!” they cried, as if the statement didn’t deserve to be tossed instantly on the tall pile labeled Who Gives a Luxurious Fuck?.

I had to chuckle, because the author seemed unaware he was writing a 3000-word article proving just how luxurious a fuck he gave about the skin colour of his superheroes.

In the end, Sony and Marvel hired a young English actor named Tom Holland, who conformed to previous representations of Peter Parker as white, slim, and nerdy. Then to play Peter’s Aunt May – in the comics a white-haired old lady – they cast the forty-something and still sexy Marisa Tomei. Then in Spider Man: Homecoming they gave Peter an A.I.-enabled super-suit.

What is a character? The concept we call “Spider-Man” is a diffuse cloud of story points; it’s impossible to draw a distinct line separating the essential from the inessential. In the comics he starts out as a skinny white high school kid who lives with his aunt in Queens. He’s bitten by a radioactive spider. He feels responsible for the murder of his beloved uncle. He slings webs. He crawls on walls. He has spidey-sense. His costume is red and blue. He has money problems. He gets a job as a news photographer.

I could go on like this for a page or two. None of the above is essential. Even the most faithful adaptation will change or omit many of these details. On the other hand, if you don’t have some of these things, maybe most of them, you’re no longer doing Spider-Man.

Some story points seem more essential than others. How much does it matter that Peter Parker is a New Yorker? Couldn’t we set the story in Los Angeles instead? The radioactive spider, Uncle Ben, the Daily Bugle, all those could take place just as easily in L.A. Shouldn’t matter, right? But it does matter, if for no other reason than because our hero needs tall buildings to swing from. A West Coast Spidey might find a new and interesting means of locomotion – car-hopping on the Pomona Freeway, say. But even if Los Angeles suddenly sprouted a Manhattan-sized complement of skyscrapers I doubt any filmmaker would risk the switch. We intuit that New York means something to the Spider-Man mythos. What it means depends on our distance from and familiarity with New York. I’m sure Chinese audiences couldn’t care less which American city Spider-Man swings through, any more than we worry about where exactly in China the Monkey King‘s adventures take place.

Peter Parker’s (or Hamlet’s) whiteness means something too. The meaning is different for every audience; and every day brings a new and slightly different audience.

In the West, our most famous stories originated in a milieu where the overwhelming majority of storytellers and readers shared a common racial identity. Dr. John Watson doesn’t feel it necessary, when delineating his new roommate’s excessive leanness, piercing eyes, hawk-like nose, etc., to specify the fellow’s skin colour. In a few of his sci-fi novels Robert Heinlein plays with this assumption by offhandedly mentioning near the end that a main character is black, or Filipino, or whatever; but Heinlein was writing in the optimistic age when it was assumed that skin colour would soon recede into unimportance. It looks instead like in the future storytellers will be expected to think deeply about the meaning of the racial identities they assign their characters. Every story inherited from the old monochrome era will be re-examined under the Social Justice spectrograph: racial identity, dismissed by past generations as a trace element, will be declared the essential component of the atmosphere; and stories will present new and unexpected lucencies, while homely old patterns are lost to view.

***

I’ve been tinkering with this essay for ages, wondering whether I would ever arrive at something that could be passed off as a conclusion.

I guess I have two conflicting insights, each captured in a famous quote. The first is from James M. Cain, author of Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, among other novels and stories less successfully adapted by Hollywood. Cain shrugged:

There are some foods some people just don’t like. I just don’t like movies. People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. [2]

Maybe Cain’s right. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much haze accumulates around a novel. Barring total civilizational collapse, future readers will always be able to go to the shelf and pull down the original text of Robinson Crusoe.

On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night that:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

While Robinson Crusoe might not change, all that semi-opaque stuff swirling above the text determines how we read it, and whether we bother to read it at all. Or to put it in Vonnegut’s terms: Our stories become what we pretend them to be.

Is The Merchant of Venice a tragedy about anti-Semitism or a comedic cross-dressing romp? Is Satan the villain of Paradise Lost, or the hero? Is Huckleberry Finn an appropriate book for kids or should it be held back till university and swathed in trigger warnings? What if Sherlock Holmes is black? What if Friday isn’t?

You can’t blame people for getting worked up about these questions. It’s true they’re punching at clouds. We live in the clouds.

M.

1. I suspect Friday became famous in part because Defoe gave him such a memorable name. Why is the Lilliput episode of Gulliver’s Travels so much more famous than his stay among the Houyhnhnms? Probably for the same reason my spell-checker accepts Lilliput while being stumped by Houyhnhnm.

2. Thirteen years ago I quoted the comics writer Alan Moore misattributing this comment to Raymond Chandler – apparently a common error.

Earlier this year I tried (and failed) to apply some numerical analysis to questions of race and representation in Hollywood. I mentioned Gulliver’s description of the immortal Struldbrugs in my 2014 review of the artsy vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive. And way, way back in 2001 I read Robinson Crusoe for the first time and was put off by the hero’s frequent theological digressions.

Proportional Representation and the hard work of coalition-building.

bc pro rep referendum ballot

My ballot has arrived for the mail-in referendum to change British Columbia’s voting system. I have no plans to return it.

Most of what follows I wrote months ago. I hesitated to publish it, on the grounds that if I didn’t care about the outcome, why jump into the debate?

On the other hand, since I’m pretty sure adding one more bag of hot air won’t tip the scales – why not?

***

As a grumbler who disdains BC’s three main poltical parties about equally, the tactical consequences of switching to Proportional Representation don’t matter much to me. As I argued before, any partisan advantage would be short-lived anyway. Over the course of a few elections, ideological alignments would shift in hard-to-foresee ways as parties adjusted to the new landscape. By the time things settled down, the debate would be about switching to whatever the next sexy new model of democracy might be: some kind of instant Twitter polling, maybe.

In his column a while back, the Vancouver Sun’s Douglas Murray (whom I respect a lot) interviewed UBC poltical scientist Max Cameron, who denigrated governments elected with sub-50% popular-vote totals – which would be nearly every government in Canadian history – as “false majorities”.

Cameron argued that Pro Rep, by forcing politicians to build coalitions across party lines, would reduce “hyper-competitiveness” and lead to a more consensual style of government.

I haven’t read Cameron’s new book and have no plans to, as it sounds super boring. That said, I’m not sure his premises are true: that current levels of competitiveness are unusually “hyper”, or that competitiveness is detectably less in jurisdictions with Pro Rep.

If competitiveness has increased of late, the increase must be unrelated to the voting system, which in Canada and the USA hasn’t changed; so it’s not clear why changing it would reverse the trend.

My main objection to his argument is that it confuses process – working across party lines – with outcome – reflecting majority opinion.

Suppose Party A and Party B, each supported by 40% of voters, form a coalition, the resulting government being half-A, half-B. Pro Reppers would argue that this government represents 80% of the voters. But couldn’t you equally argue that the A-B hybrid, never having been on the ballot, represents no-one?

To do the math another way: it’s not obvious that an outcome where 80% of the voters get 50% of what they want is fairer than one where 40% of the voters get 100% of what they want.

But in fact no voter ever gets 100% of what he wants because parties are already coalitions.

***

In BC it’s the 10-20% of Green supporters who are the noisiest fans of Pro Rep. They feel hard done by because their votes, being thinly distributed across a large number of districts, often fail to elect a single member.

I can relate to their sense of alienation: I feel, as they do, that my point of view is unrepresented in the legislature. In fact I’m even more alienated than Green supporters: I don’t even have a no-hope third party to voice my obsessions.

Therefore I find myself wondering of Greens: if they care so much about winning, why not just throw in with the NDP? To an outside observer, their platforms seem mostly identical anyway.

“To you those minor policy differences might seem irrelevant,” you retort. “But they mean a lot to Green voters.”

Well, sure. I get it. Given the choice of a party that more reliably presses their buttons, Green voters rally to that party. Fair enough.

But in a representative democracy, it’s rare for your opinions to line up perfectly with the party or candidate you support. Most voters have to balance their own policy priorities against the need to win over other voters whose priorities will differ.

Do Green voters imagine that right-wingers are gung-ho for every clause of the BC Liberal Party platform? No: as former Liberal premier Christy Clark put it in a recent interview, the provincial party is “a marriage of convenience between federal Conservatives and federal Liberals” – though that understates the divisions among free market fundamentalists, rural fogeys, and suburban working stiffs, unified by nothing except a dislike for high taxes.

Yet when election time rolls around, they all swallow their reservations and line up behind the local BC Liberal candidate.

The Liberals have done the hard work of putting together a coalition that is broadly attractive to a large number of voters all over the province. Their opponents have failed to put together such a coalition.

If left-leaning voters could get behind a single candidate in each district, which in our voting system is the way you actually win, they would have a lock on power forever.

Why don’t the NDP simply retool their platform to address the concerns of Green supporters?

Because they know that by coming out explicitly against the exploitation of the province’s natural resources, they would lose a significant number of blue collar voters to the Liberals.

Why, then, don’t the Greens retool their platform to attempt to steal votes from the NDP?

Well, that’s what they’ve been doing; and it’s been working, albeit gradually. The Greens are up to three MLAs now, and hold the balance of power in the legislature. With careful organizing and a few lucky breaks, in a couple election cycles they could supplant the NDP as the left-wing alternative in BC, just as the Liberals supplanted Social Credit a generation ago.

However, to vie for power the Greens would have to water down their environmentalist bona fides, opening up the danger of a purist party stealing votes on their left, handing victory back to the Liberals.

Since the Greens and NDP have figured out that under the current system there’s no room for two mainstream parties on the left, they’ve concluded that their best bet is to change the system.

Okay. That’s allowed. But forgive me if I’m unmoved by their moral posturing. Democracy is not “broken”. Nobody’s votes are “wasted”. All the parties get to play by the same rules, and some parties persistently lose.

***

Re-reading my earlier post on this topic, I got as far as the paragraph beginning:

Paradoxically, lefty media bias might be one of the factors helping the [BC Liberals’] right-wing coalition hang together.

…And it took me a moment to remember why I’d thrown that “paradoxically” in there. So let me spell it out, because I think it’s a mildly interesting observation.

When I talk about media bias I don’t necessarily mean deliberate coordination. Young journalists, freshly escaped from the progressivist petri dishes of the North American higher education system, might sincerely intend to give conservatives a fair shake; but they unconsciously communicate their disdain and disbelief through their word choices, their headlines, the photos they choose to illustrate their articles, and of course, through which stories they cover, and which they ignore.

In a multi-party system like Canada’s, this bias affects which parties get taken seriously. Populists and social conservatives, in order to avoid the taint of association with icky “far-right” ideas, self-protectively cluster with libertarians and Bay Street types under a single big conservative tent; while politicians from the lefty fringe, emboldened by their friendlier media coverage, feel free to flake off into purist micro-parties which splinter the left-wing vote – helping the unified conservatives take power.

That’s the paradox: that left-leaning media might, in clumsily putting their thumb on the scales, accidentally be tipping elections to the right.

Does the theory apply to the real world?

I mentioned already how, here in British Columbia, vote-splitting between the NDP and Greens helped the centre-right Liberals to stay in power for most of the 21st century. The last attempt at a BC Conservative party, which polled in the double digits for a few weeks back in 2011, was portrayed as a clown car of kooks and crypto-Nazis, and soon collapsed amid infighting by its not-ready-for-primetime leadership.

Contrast with last year’s election, in which the evidence was at hand to paint BC’s Green Party leader as touchy, paranoid, and litigious, but the media settled instead on Andrew Weaver, principled man of science; the left-wing vote was once again split; and the Liberals came within a hair of winning their fifth consecutive term. [1]

I also mentioned the UK where, if UKIP hadn’t been depicted as a gaggle of swivel-eyed loons they might have thwarted the Tories in a few vital seats, allowing Labour to win the very winnable 2015 election; in which case, the Brexit referendum would never have occurred. I don’t know enough about the British political scene to say whether the separatist, social-democratic Scottish National Party – who sealed Labour’s defeat by wiping them out in Scotland – were given an easier ride by the British media than UKIP; I’d wager they were.

It’s just a theory. It’s not really testable; there are too many other factors that decide elections, from scandals to stock market crashes to leaders’ winning smiles, for the effects of media bias to be isolated; and half my readers will argue that the bias I’m describing doesn’t even exist.

They might be right. Media bias is visible only when it’s going against you; when it supports you, it looks like clear-eyed acknowledgement of reality.

***

Incidentally, I find it hilarious that when someone frets that Pro Rep might lead to the election of “extremist” parties – by which they usually mean right-wingers – the Pro Reppers reassure us that, don’t worry, there will be a 5% popular vote threshold to prevent those cranks from sneaking into the legislature.

Apparently if the Green Party’s 15% vote share translates into a mere three seats, it’s a crisis of democracy requiring that the voting system be completely overhauled. If the Trump-Brexit-Rob-Ford Party of Canada garners 4.9%, it’s perfectly fair for those dangerous votes to be tossed directly into a dumpster.

I’m not sure what happens if the extremists ever squeak up to 5%. Do we have to change the voting system again?

M.

1. Vaugh Palmer, post-election: “[Andrew] Weaver promised to usher in a new way of doing politics – more dignified, more respectful. Instead, with his recent bad-tempered and overbearing outbursts, he risks becoming the latest example of the bad old way of doing things.”

In 2016 I declined to join the mass freakout over Trump and Brexit. A couple weeks back I wondered why people with strong political opinions are so irritated by undecideds and abstainers. And as always when electoral reform comes up, I have to link to my discussion of Nevil Shute’s wacky multiple voting scheme.

Tonypandy.

For grumps like me, one of the pleasures of reading Josephine Tey is her tart little asides about the woolly-headed intellectual fads of her era…which, as often as not, are the fads of our own. In Brat Farrar a progressive boarding school is described:

“No one is forced to learn anything at Clare. Not even the multiplication table. The theory is that one day you’ll feel the need of the multiplication table and be seized with a mad desire to acquire the nine-times. Of course, it doesn’t work out like that at all.”

“Doesn’t it?”

“Of course not. No one who could get out of the nine-times would ever dream of acquiring it voluntarily.”

In The Singing Sands a grievance-mongering Scottish nationalist is presented for ridicule:

“So you’ve met Archie Brown, have you?” Tommy said, clapping the top half on his hot scone, and licking the honey that oozed from it.

“Is that his name?”

“It used to be. Since he elected himself the champion of Gaeldom he calls himself Gilleasbuig Mac-a’-Bruithainn. He’s frightfully unpopular at hotels.”

“Why?”

“How would you like to page someone called Gilleasbuig Mac-a’-Bruithainn?”

And in Tey’s most famous work, 1951’s The Daughter of Time, she introduces a term that these days, amid contending accusations of newsfakery, seems ripe for revival:

“If you go to South Wales you will hear that, in 1910, the Government used troops to shoot down Welsh miners who were striking for their rights. You’ll probably hear that Winston Churchill, who was Home Secretary at the time, was responsible. South Wales, you will be told, will never forget Tonypandy!”

The speaker is Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard. Confined to a hospital bed after sustaining an injury on the job, to kill time he buries himself in historical research, attempting to absolve Richard III of the charge of having murdered the Princes in the Tower – a charge, he concludes, as baseless as the widely believed story about Tonypandy.

The facts of that riot, or massacre, or what-have-you – as a visit to the relevant Wikipedia page will confirm – are still far from settled. But in Inspector Grant’s version, Churchill was so sensitive to the danger of inflaming the Welsh strikers that he dispatched only a body of unarmed police, and “[t]he only bloodshed in the whole affair was a bloody nose or two.” This sordid scuffle was exaggerated for purely political purposes:

“The point is that every single man who was there knows that the story is nonsense, and yet it has never been contradicted. It is a completely untrue story grown to legend while the men who knew it to be untrue looked on and said nothing.”

Elsewhere Inspector Grant applies the term to the retrospective elevation of the Covenanters – vicious terrorists in his telling – to Scottish national martyrs.

To summarize, Tonypandy in the Josephine Tey sense refers not to politically motivated propaganda, but to the falsified version of history that, thanks to propaganda or lazy reporting or romantic oversimplification, supplants the facts in the public consciousness. Once established, Tonypandy can be very hard to displace:

It’s an odd thing but when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller with you. They don’t want to have their ideas upset.

Though sorely tempted, I won’t unsettle the reader by providing modern examples of Tonypandy. I’m sure whatever your political sympathies you can think of a few…which would be guaranteed to upset your political foes.

M.

Back in April I observed that newsworthy events are, by definition, out of the ordinary, so that the news inevitably gives us a distorted picture of the world. Last year I discussed the related concept of Gell-Mann Amnesia and pondered the insoluble problem of truthfulness in fiction.

Dwarf descending.

I’ve been writing a lot lately, more than I have since wrapping up my novel a couple years back, but my blogging frequency hasn’t increased. I’m holding in reserve a dozen or so essays on contentious topics: immigration, electoral reform, Vancouver transit planning. A couple of them, I think, are pretty good; yet I hesitate to share them.

It’s not that I doubt whether my opinions matter: I know very well they don’t. I don’t keep up this blog in the hope of influencing anyone else’s opinions. The possibility that I might accidentally change someone’s mind about something makes me more reluctant to post, not less.

In an 1822 essay entitled “On Effeminacy of Character”, William Hazlitt scorned wishy-washy writers like me:

They alter what they write, not because it is, but because it may possibly be wrong; and in their tremulous solicitude to avoid imaginary blunders, run into real ones. What is curious enough is, that with all this caution and delicacy, they are continually liable to extraordinary oversights. They are, in fact, so full of all sorts of idle apprehensions, that they do not know how to distinguish real from imaginary grounds of apprehension[.]

By contrast, says Hazlitt,

There is nothing more to be esteemed than a manly firmness and decision of character. I like a person who knows his own mind and sticks to it; who sees at once what is to be done in given circumstances and does it.

But what about the well-meaning fool who sees at once what is to be done, does it, and discovers too late that his action was ten times more destructive than inaction would have been? What percentage of our gravest problems have been made graver still by the interventions of manly characters who insisted that the time for debate was over, that circumstances required a bold and immediate response?

Which isn’t to deny that inaction, too, has led to grave results. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that inaction is action: that the decision to forbear is as consequential as the decision to act.

Most people find such haverings contemptible. They’re certain that they can distinguish right action from wrong, truth from falsehood, wisdom from folly. In my youth, before I knew much of anything, I too had such confidence. The way forward was so obvious! How could these idiots not see it? How could they be taken in by such transparent nonsense?

I understand, therefore, the impulse to choose a side. What I don’t understand is why so many people, having made their choice, seem so much angrier at squishes like me than they are at their declared opponents.

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

Granted, that’s stern, sword-in-his-mouth Revelation Jesus, not easy-going Sermon on the Mount Jesus. But you’d think even Revelation Jesus, while chastising the lukewarm, would still rank them higher than the downright cold.

No doubt my inability to grasp this paradox is connected with my lack of religious feeling. But speaking as a chilly-hearted atheist, wouldn’t Jesus rather have the spiritual-not-religious types sitting by neutrally, instead of actively working against him? Doesn’t his vituperation risk turning them from neutrals into hostiles?

In a somewhat less exalted vein:

monty jim meddick

Monty, by Jim Meddick.

In this case, Dehlia has correctly diagnosed Moondog as not so much undecided as apathetic. But why is she so confident that if she can get him into the voting booth, he’ll pull the right lever? [1] He has only the bleariest grasp of the issues. If he has a preference at all it’ll be due to something trivial, like a candidate’s gaffe, or more likely a campaign ad misrepresenting a decontextualized comment as a gaffe.

Suppose by some infinitesimal chance the election came down to Moondog’s single vote. Does Dehlia really want questions of life or death, war or peace, prosperity or ruin, to be determined by which memes happened to be in her lowbrow friend’s Facebook feed on election day? Is it fair to pile so much responsibility on his sloped shoulders?

Thankfully, there’s practically no chance of it being decided by one vote, so it’s safe to throw Moondog’s half-assed opinion into the mix. If Dehlia really feels so strongly about getting undecideds to vote, a better strategy may be to reassure them that their participation won’t make the slightest difference.

***

I used to make certain assumptions: that high intelligence correlated with good judgement; that I was highly intelligent; that therefore I could trust my judgement.

Where did those assumptions come from? Before I was old enough to reason, I absorbed from my elders, my friends, and the media certain preconceptions about what intelligence looked and sounded like. I accepted the arguments made by the people who looked and sounded that way, and sneered at the arguments of those that didn’t. I taught myself to act and talk and write like the people whose arguments I’d accepted. I knew I’d chosen the right side because, after all, wasn’t I highly intelligent? I must be, because the intelligent people all agreed with me.

One of the things intelligent people did, I gathered, was read books. So for a while I pretended I’d read a lot of books, even though I hadn’t. I knew this was fraudulent, but I figured I could scrape by on my natural intelligence, which as yet I’d seen no reason to doubt. But since my pretense occasionally exposed me to the danger of being shown up by people who actually had read the books, I thought I’d better start reading them for real.

Immediately I noticed two things. The first was that I forgot ninety-nine percent of what I read within a day or two of having read it. This made me question whether I was as intelligent as I’d previously thought. It also made me wonder whether all those other intelligent people, who made such a big show of having read so many books, had absorbed much more of them than I had.

The second thing I noticed was that the authors I read, particularly those from different cultures and eras than my own, had very different ideas about what constituted good judgement. In fact, many of the ideas they lampooned as transparently foolish were the very ideas that the intelligent people of my own time and place lauded as unquestionably correct.

Not that there was much uniformity of belief among the authors. Hazlitt and George Eliot and George Orwell and C.S. Lewis all started from different assumptions and arrived at different conclusions. Yet they were clearly as smart as any modern writer; in fact, judged solely by the quality of their prose, far smarter. As for the quality of their reasoning, it appeared to be at least equal to, probably superior to my own. Beyond that, how was I to say?

If any two thinkers who in my shaky estimation seemed equally intelligent could reason their way to opposite conclusions about the truth; if their opposite conclusions could appear equally plausible; then on what basis could I choose between them?

I began to suspect that my judgements were no better than a coin flip, and that I should probably refrain from taking any action where there might be a danger of negatively affecting other people.

If I this was as stupid a conclusion as it seemed, then my reasoning must have broken down somewhere – which meant that I was even less intelligent than I thought, and even less qualified to judge.

***

I can imagine how my intelligent peers, if confronted with such doubts, would reassure me. Yesterday’s geniuses, while enlightened by the standards of their times, simply couldn’t have known what we know now. Had Nietzsche seen the workings of a modern welfare state he would have chucked all that will-to-power stuff. Had H.G. Wells witnessed the condition of modern Venezuela he would have been more skeptical of centralized economic planning. Had Chesterton had access to the Sayings of Justin Trudeau he would have realized that all faith traditions contribute equally to our wonderful multicultural mosaic.

Though ignorant in their various ways, these authors all did their part to raise us to such intellectual heights. We are dwarfs standing on giants’ shoulders, standing in turn on other giants’ shoulders, stacked giant-atop-giant all the way back to the first groaning behemoth sunk nostril-deep in the ancestral mire. We honour those giants – who couldn’t possibly have dreamt how far and how clearly we’d someday see – by pulling their books off the shelf occasionally, revisiting their obsolete arguments, chuckling fondly at their innocent errors; but not by taking them too seriously. No doubt they’d find our current beliefs strange and disorienting. Well, wouldn’t we be disoriented if we were somehow raised to the dizzying level of some far-future dwarf poised a thousand giants above us? Wouldn’t the habits of that future dwarf seem to us foreign, inexplicable, even horrific? Our vision is as yet too narrow to take in such galaxy-spanning vistas!

Could be. But here’s how unintelligent I am: while struggling through, for example, The Republic, I never once found myself thinking, “Ah, Plato, poor simpleton. If only he could have lived to see how successfully we moderns had answered all his primitive fears.”

I thought instead: “Uh-oh. What if this old kook was right?”

What if democratic rule devolves inevitably into tyranny? What if certain stories, melodies, and rhythms breed effeminacy of character? What if common myths are essential to preserving social stability?

Our common myth is that all the above propositions are untrue; and maybe it’s irresponsible of me to dabble with them. As Plato’s hero Socrates modestly admits:

[T]o carry on an argument when you are yourself only a hesitating enquirer, which is my condition, is a dangerous and slippery thing; and the danger is not that I shall be laughed at (of which the fear would be childish), but that I shall miss the truth where I have most need to be sure of my footing, and drag my friends after me in my fall.

Suppose that in the dwarf-on-dwarf quarrel on the giant’s shoulder, the wrong dwarf prevailed? Suppose that rather than stretching up to the stars, that dwarf stepped blindly into the void, dragging the others after him? Suppose this has happened any number of times in our intellectual history, that it’s happening right now, and that instead of a triumphant climb heavenward, all we really have is a vast swamp littered with heaps of dead dwarfs?

M.

1. In a subsequent installment of Monty, Dehlia confronts the likelihood that Moondog’s vote will cancel hers out.

Fourteen years ago, when I was still full of whimsy, I wrote this short dialogue between Plato and his pupil Dion. Last year I described first encountering the famous line about standing on the shoulders of giants in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. In April I undertook a preliminary survey of the domain of epistemic muddle that is now my permanent home.