Saturday, July 31, 2010

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas -- Mauna Kea Observatory

Mauna Kea Observatories

In "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After," the middle story of Cloud Atlas, we find the protagonist, Zachry, a tribalist on the Big I of Ha-Why (Big Island of Hawaii), accompanying the more knowledgeable 'Prescient' woman Meronym to the top of Mt. Mauna Kea, where they find the observatories of the "Old Ones," which he describes:
Describin' such Smart ain't easy. Gear there was what we ain't mem'ried on Ha-Why, so its names ain't mem'ried neither, yay, almost nothin' in there could I cogg. Shimm'rin' floors, white walls 'n'roofs, one great chamber, round'n'sunk, filled by a mighty tube wider'n a man an' longer'n five what Meronym named a radyo tel'scope what was, she said, the furthest-seein' eye Old Uns ever made. Ev'rythin' white'n'pure as Sonmi's robes, yay, not one flea o' dirt 'cept what we tromped in. Tables'n'chairs sat round waitin' for sitters on balconies made o' steel so our foots gonged. (Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, page 276)
Meronym calls that "mighty tube wider'n a man an' longer'n five . . . a radyo tel'scope," but the description of the "tube" as some 25-30 feet in length sounds more like an optical telescope to me. Is Meronym wrong, as is certainly possible, given the collapse of civilization? Or have I misunderstood something about radio telescopes?

I'm sure that there are readers who would know, and perhaps even be able to use the link to identify which of the Mauna Kea telescopes is meant, so speak up, please, in the comments.

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Friday, July 30, 2010

Christian Convert Nagla al-Imam: Disappearance after 'Questioning'

Nagla al-Imam
(Image from Mark Durie)

Readers may recall a post on Nagla al-Imam nearly two years ago. In that post, I was concerned about some strange views on rape that she had expressed while still a Muslim and wondered if she continued to hold to those peculiar views after her very public conversion to Christianity. Well, I still don't have any word on that, but I recently noticed that she has undergone some rigorous 'questioning' by an official in the Egyptian security forces despite her very public conversion and her status as a human rights lawyer.

The Australian Anglican minister Mark Durie, a linguist with expertise in Arabic, offers details of the questioning, which is reported upon in the original Arabic in a video showing Nagla al-Imam with clear facial bruises:
[The official] went to take hold of the cross [on my necklace] . . . . He held the chain and tightened it around my neck. He was showing that he was threatening to cut the chain, or to hurt my neck, or do anything . . . . Holding my hair, he bashed my face against the desk. He slapped my face more than once, and punched me in the ribs, and on my arm. By this time I was bleeding from the side of my mouth . . . . When I went back [home] I couldn't sleep. My ribs and my body were hurting, my neck and my shoulders . . . . But my real hurt was not the [physical] pain. My real hurt was that there was no real reason for them to do this. I was simply a piece of flesh, an object of defamation and slander. I was always damaged goods.
The facial bruises visible in the video lend a degree of credibility to this testimony, so despite speculations by commenters and me that Ms. al-Imam might have undergone a very public conversion to Christianity out of a sense of self-preservation, possibly aimed at "generating notoriety to protect herself," that seems not have been the result, regardless whether it was her motive.

Ms. al-Imam has since disappeared . . .

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sick Cat: Angi (Caution: Disgusting Descriptions)

Intravenous Therapy
(Image from Wikipedia)

I woke up Tuesday morning, late (nearly 9:00!), after an evening discussing Korean issues over a bit of makgeolli, beer, and wine (though not too much) with my old friend Yang Seung-Tae (Ewha Womans University, Political Science), who has very recently published a book on Korean identity (first volume of a trilogy).

I met Professor Yang way back in 1992, in Tuebingen, Germany, in a laundry room (and assisted him in operating one of the Teutonic cleaning machines there), only a few months after meeting my wife. Of course, Sun-Ae wasn't yet my wife when I met her, nor even by the time that I met Professor Yang some months later -- and in fact, I asked Professor Yang's advice on how best to deal with Sun-Ae's father in asking for her hand in marriage. He must have offered effective advice, for Sun-Ae and I got 'hitched' and have remained happy ever after since 1995 (and, indeed, since 1992).

But as I was saying, I woke up late.

Only to discover that one of our two cats -- Angi, the younger, male feline -- was deadly ill. Not necessarily fatally . . . but deadly if I didn't do something soon. I didn't know this for a fact, but I strongly suspected it. Angi had been off his feed and had thrown up several times the day before, which had worried me, but was now -- to my alarm -- leaking bloody urine! (Warned you this would be disgusting.)

After checking by email and phone with my wife, currently in Arkansas, I called a student whom I tutor and the two of us took Angi to a local veterinarian within walking distance. The place was closed. My student's mother drove over to pick us up and take us to another place. Closed. Then to another place. Also closed. My arms were getting tired holding Angi in a swaddling bath towel that was growing ever more bloody . . . with blood-infused urine.

We drove back to the original vet. Open for business! (Should've stayed there first time.)

The animal doctor spoke little English, and when my student had to leave, I was on my own, but my history of biology courses proved of some practical benefit after all as I deciphered his medical terminology and agreed to various proceedures. We (he) squeezed Angi's bladder to squirt the bloody pee from that swollen organ. We (he) then clipped Angi's claws, shaved a foreleg, and inserted a needle for an IV (that's "eye-vee," not the Roman numeral "four") -- all after first diagnosing "acute renal failure."

Eventually, everything was fixed, including a plastic cone 'fixed' to Angi's neck like "King Elizabeth's collar," according to the vet. I walked home carrying Angi, the IV-Drip, and a bag.

That was all done by 11:00 a.m., and I was already tired . . . but my day was in fact just beginning, for the remainder of the time in my apartment was occupied in cleaning up after Angi the suffering cat.

The entire day revolved around wiping his floor, wiping his fur, and wiping his private parts -- and constantly checking the IV-Drip.

This will go on again today . . .


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" -- An Error by David Mitchell?

Island Mosaic
(Icon from Wikipedia)

There's a baffling remark by the 'Hawaiian' character Zachry in a passage from "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" in David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas. I can't reconcile it with the rest of the story, but perhaps someone can help. Here's the passage, which has Zachry narrating his first visit to the inner sanctum of his tribe's religious center, known as the Icon'ry because it housed the 'icons' that represented each person who had died:
First time I went inside the Icon'ry was with Pa'n'Adam'n'Jonas when I was a sevener. Ma'd got a leakin' malady birthin' Catkin, an' Pa took us to pray to Sonmi to fix her, 'cos the Icon'ry was a spesh holy place an' Sonmi was norm'ly list'nin' there. Watery dark it was inside. Wax'n'teak-oil'n'time was its smell. The icons lived in shelfs from floor to roof, how many there was I cudn't tell, nay, you don't go countin' 'em like goats, but the gone-lifes outnumber the nowlifes like leafs outnumber trees. Pa's voice spoke in the shadows, fam'liar it was but eerie too, askin' Sonmi to halt Ma's dyin' an' let her soul stay in that body for longer, an' in my head I prayed the same, tho' I knowed I been marked by Old Georgie at Sloosha's Crossin'. An' then we heard a sort o' roaring underneath the silence, made o' mil'yuns o' whisp'rin's like the ocean, only it wasn't the ocean, nay, it was the icons, an' we knew Sonmi was in there list'nin' to us. Ma din't die. (Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, page 245)
The puzzling point, so far as I can make out, is that the speaker, Zachry, was "marked by Old Georgie at Sloosha's Crossin'" when he was a niner (nine years old), as we discover early in the story (page 240), but this passage takes place when Zachry "was a sevener" (seven years old).

Have I missed something? Can anyone who's read the story harmonize these details for me?

Or is this an error by the author, David Mitchell?

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ozark Crawdad Hunting

En-Uk and Sa-Rah

I finally received pictures confirming that my wife and kids truly are in Ozark hillbilly country, for you see above an image of Sa-Rah and En-Uk wading in the Town Branch of the South Fork River. If I'm not mistaken, that hill sloping gently upward from the photo's upper righthand corner is the Salem Knob, which ultimately rises some 500 feet above the nearby baseball field that the creek flows alongside. Be that as it may, here's Sun-Ae's brief report, which mentions my mother (Gaye), one of my brothers and his wife (John and Sandy), and our children (Sa-Rah and En-Uk):
It's Sunday evening. After evening service at church, we came home. Gaye is gone home, and John and Sandy and we all went to a little creek near the house. It's not so hot in the evening, so we could enjoy the short outing. Sa-Rah and En-Uk went into the water and tried to catch some fish and crawdad, and En-Uk got one eventually!

He was proud of himself. It was a short visit but they enjoyed it. I appreciate John and Sandy taking us down to the creek.
And well should he be proud! Not every kid has fingers nimble enough to capture such a piddly little crawdad! I alway found the big ones easier to catch because they had big pinchers with which to cling long and hard to my hand. Ouch! Anyway, for such a display of crawdad-grabbing skills by the talented En-Uk, the people who should be appreciative are John and Sandy! How many opportunities does one have to observe true artistry in crawdad snatching?

My wife, by the way, is having a working vacation this trip, so we might not see as many photographs as we enjoyed last summer, but I'll be joining the three of them on August 7th, and I might hazard my luck with the camera.

Until tomorrow . . .

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Ibn Warraq: Distinguishing Islams (and Christianities)

Ibn Warraq

In "Modernity and the Muslims," a panel discussion whose transcript is published in City Journal (Vol. 20, Nr. 3, July 15, 2010), ex-Muslim Ibn Warraq offers an interesting threefold distinction of Islam, which he borrows from the great scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis:
I like to make a distinction that I actually owe to Bernard Lewis; oddly enough, Lewis, to my knowledge, has never made use of it. It’s a very useful distinction that he made between Islam One, Two, and Three. Islam One is what's in the Koran, what the Prophet Mohammed did and enjoyed. Islam Two is the sharia and the theological construct that we call Islam, as developed by the theologians over the centuries. Islam Three is Islamic civilization, which is what Muslims actually did do as opposed to what they should have done, what actually happened in Islamic history. Often Islam Three -- that is, Islamic civilization -- was far more tolerant than what Islam One and Two demanded. For example, until very recently, Islamic society (Islam Three) was far more tolerant about homosexuality than the West was, whereas Islam One and Islam Two more firmly condemned it. There are several ambiguous passages in the Koran, but certainly Islam Two, the sharia, condemns homosexuality.

Islamic history has never been a relentless series of theocratic governments; it has varied from century to century, ruler to ruler. Sometimes it has been very intolerant, and sometimes it has been very tolerant. Just look at some of the poets who were given free rein -- for example, al-Mahawi, an Iraqi who was certainly an agnostic and very probably an atheist, but he was very critical. He was left alone; no one bothered him, so this is witness to the period of tolerance. This is, for me, the best way to approach the situation. For example, some of the terrorists are taking literally what is in the Koran. There are all sorts of intolerant passages in the Koran about killing infidels and not taking Jews and Christians as friends. It’s undeniably there, and you can't get away from it. Chapter four in the Koran: you can't get away from the fact that it gives men the power to beat women. It's no good pretending that somehow the real Islam is tolerant, the real Islam is feminist, and so on. There is a great deal of confusion because people do not want to tarnish with the same brush a billion believers. We don't want to be too crude in our defamation. We don't want to call all Muslims terrorists, so the best way is this distinction between Islam One, Two, Three.
This is a useful analytical distinction offering a schema for understanding the reputed tolerance of Islam. It truly has been tolerant, at times, if one is speaking of "Islam Three," Islamic civilization.

Civilizations are broader than the religions upon which they are founded -- to draw upon Samuel Huntington's theory for a moment --and can be far more tolerant as a consequence. Western civilization, for instance, is broader than Christianity, for it has integrated Graeco-Roman thought and culture with biblical faith.

By analogy to Ibn Warraq's use of a threefold distinction, one could do the same with Christianity:
Christianity One: Bible

Christianity Two: Theology

Christianity Three: Civilization
This is useful for comparison to the threefold distinction of Islam:
Islam One: Qur'an

Islam Two: Shariah

Islam Three: Civilization
By comparing these two schemas, we notice a striking difference. Islam Two, which is shariah, i.e., Islamic law, plays a different role in Islamic civilization than Christianity Two, i.e., theology, does in Western civilization. Ideally, for the Muslim, shariah ought to be the law of Islamic civilization. By contrast, theology does not specify a system of law for Western civilization, which draws instead upon pagan sources, whether one considers Roman law or common law.

Theology concerns what one ought to believe, and proper belief cannot be imposed but relies on persuasion. Law concerns how one ought to behave, and proper behavior can be imposed through force.

Huntington speaks of the clash of civilizations, and he finds clear evidence especially of the clash between Islamic civilization and those non-Islamic civilizations that share its "bloody borders." Others, such as Judith Miller, speak of Islamic civilization being at war with itself, a sort of civil war taking place before our eyes. These are not mutually exclusive views. Islamists, taking the Qur'an and shariah very seriously, will always work to impose Islamic law upon Islamic civilization -- even as they will also advocate Islam's dominance over non-Islamic civilizations.

An identical dialectic is at work in both struggles, for most Islamists consider force legitimate where persuasion does not work.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Halforism 146: Friedrich Nietzsche, David Mitchell, and John Milton

Nietzsche, 1882

I've long rather liked this aphorism from Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil (Jenseits von Gut und Böse, 1886):
[W]enn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.

[I]f you peer long into an abyss, the abyss peers back into you.
Actually, it's merely half the aphorism, the first half being the famous line about fighting monsters. Anyway, I'm picking up on it today because I wonder if it lies behind a line from Mitchell's story "Letters from Zedelghem," in Cloud Atlas. The story's main character, Robert Frobisher, is reading Nietzsche's famous work Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra):
After ten pages I felt Nietzsche was reading me, not I him. (Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, page 63)
Ten pages might seem like little, but with Nietzsche, those are a long ten pages, and if Nietzsche is reading him, then he's peering back into Mr. Frobisher to do so. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, though. A perhaps more likely connection to Nietzsche's aphorism are two lines from John Milton's Paradise Lost:
Into this wild Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look'd a while . . . [PL 2.917-8]
The "warie fiend" is Satan, who peers into the "Abyss" so long that it really does look back into him, transforming his interiority, and has done so since his first fallen moment, for which this moment on the edge of the abyss is perhaps a metaphor. I wonder if Nietzsche was thinking of these lines in Milton as he penned his aphorism.

But if he were thinking of them, he would likely apply them to Milton himself, for in writing Paradise Lost, Milton fought with monsters and peered long into the abyss, so we'd perhaps best quote the entire aphorism:
Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.

One who fights with monsters should beware, lest he himself become thereby a monster. And if you peer long into an abyss, the abyss peers back into you.
Was that Milton's fate? Did Nietzsche have an opinion on the matter? Nietzsche, at any rate, was aware of Milton and may have read some, for Joshua Brazee, of the Milton List, has thoughtfully noted Aphorism 150 from Human, All-Too Human (Menschliches, Allzumenschliches), written between 1878 and 1880:
Über seine Grenze hinaus. -- Wenn ein Künstler mehr sein will als ein Künstler, zum Beispiel der moralische Erwecker seines Volkes, so verliebt er sich, zur Strafe, zuletzt in ein Ungetüm von moralischem Stoff—und die Muse lacht dazu: denn diese so gutherzige Göttin kann aus Eifersucht auch boshaft werden. Man denke an Milton und Klopstock.
Mr. Brazee offers a quick translation, which I've slightly edited:
Beyond his limits. -- When an artist wants to be more than an artist, for example the moral Awakener of his people, then he falls in love, as punishment, with a monster of moral materials -- and the muse laughs at that: then this so kindhearted goddess can also become spiteful with jealousy. One need think only of Milton and Klopstock.
By Klopstock, Nietzsche meant Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803) and his main work, The Messiah (Der Messias), which has been judged by some critics an uneven work, the earlier cantos being superior. Klopstock had been inspired by Johann Jakob Bodmer's 1732 prose translation of Milton's Paradise Lost, and Nietzsche may have known this fact, though why he would think Milton's masterwork a failure puzzles me (though, admitedly, some critics find the last three books of Paradise Lost inferior). The aphorism might even be applied to Nietzsche himself, for what is Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885) other than Nietzsche calling out as a "the moral Awakener of his people"?

Anyway, I suspect that there's something to be mined here in Nietzsche concerning Satan -- and Milton -- peering into the abyss.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Carl Honoré: Request on 'Gaming' and Creativity in South Korea

(Image from Homepage)

Last February, the well-known journalist and award-winning author Mr. Carl Honoré contacted me about education in Korea, for he was thinking of doing some research on excellence in education, particularly on creative thinking, and was curious about South Korea's high standing in the PISA ranking. My words of caution about the Korean educational system may have had some influence, for he's now contacted me concerning a different approach to his research on creative thinking. I'll let him to the 'talking':
Hi Jeffery,

Hope you are well -- and that you remember our earlier exchange about my book on problem-solving and the Slow Fix.

I am wondering if you might have some suggestions or contacts for something I'm looking into. Below is the email that I have just sent to the Haja Centre asking for assistance. It should give you a clear idea of what I'm looking for: ie. the best way to spend time with gamers and gaming experts in South Korea.

Many, many thanks!!

Being no gamer, I -- of course -- had no suggestions . . . and fewer contacts. I had never even heard of the Haja Center! But I can alway post a blog entry, so here is Mr. Honoré's email to the Haja Center, explaining himself, his research, and what he needs:
I am an award-winning journalist and international bestselling author. My first book, In Praise of Slowness, examines the modern compulsion to hurry and chronicles a global trend toward putting on the brakes. My second book, Under Pressure, explores the good, the bad and the ugly of modern childrearing. The books have been translated into more than 30 languages (including Korean!) and landed on bestseller lists in many countries. In Praise of Slowness was recently the inaugural choice for the Huffington Post's new book club.

You can read more about me here.

My next book will examine how we might solve the big problems of today. To that end, I am profiling people and projects from around the world that are bringing fresh thinking to the art of problem solving. I have already spent time with a former mayor of Bogotá who pioneered a bus system that is now a model for cities around the world; the governor and inmates of an amazingly liberal prison in Norway; an entrepreneur who is reinventing politics in post-meltdown Iceland.

I also want to investigate what we can learn about solving problems from the people who spend an astonishing amount of time doing so for fun: ie. gamers.

Given the South Korea is the world capital of gaming, and that the Haja Centre does a lot of work with young people, I'm wondering if you might have some suggestions on the best way to tackle this. I will be visiting your country to give a keynote speech at the World Leisure Congress in Chuncheon City on August 29th and wish do some interview and research on the same trip.
1. Is there a gaming competition on in South Korea in late August/early September?

2. Is there a national body that speaks for gamers?

3. Are there regular tournaments or events where gamers come together?

4. Is there a physical space (club, cafe, etc) where top and/or avid gamers

5. Has anyone done any research on the effects of gaming on South Koreans' ability to solve problems or perform other mental tasks?

6. Is there a guru of gaming in South Korea?

7. Is there a leading academic expert on all things gaming in South Korea?
If you have any questions about me or my book, do please let me know.

On a more general note, I am a very scrupulous interviewer and writer. If something is shared off the record, it remains off the record. I always acknowledge my sources. I will run all quotes past the interviewees before publication. In other words, no one will open up my new book a year or two from now and get a nasty shock. Promise . . .

Many thanks for hearing me out. Hope to hear back from you soon.

Very best wishes from sunny (yes, it happens) London,

Well, Mr. Honoré sounds quite professional to me. I'd like to help but know nothing about gaming . . . so I turn to my readers, and anyone who chances upon this blog entry.

Does anyone have answers or advice for Mr. Honoré on gaming and creativity in South Korea? If so, contact him at this address:
Messages can also be posted as comments here since Mr. Honoré will undoubtedly check this blog entry since I informed him that I would post his request.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Shallow Reflections on Deep Faith

Triumph of Faith over Idolatry
Jean-Baptiste Théodon
(French, 1646–1713)
Church of the Gesù
Rome, Italy
(Image from Wikipedia)

I'm re-reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, so I have encountered for the second time an aphorism on religious belief:
"Faith, the least exclusive club on earth, has the craftiest doorman." (David Mitchell, "Letters from Zedelghem," Cloud Atlas: A Novel, page 75)
This remarkable, offhand remark is penned by Robert Frobisher, would-be composer -- and son of a sinecured Anglican minister -- as he later records the thoughts first entertained while sitting in a Catholic church in Bruges envying the believers kneeling in prayer . . . and also envying God for being privy to their secrets.

Whatever what Frobisher might mean by "faith" -- and I'll reflect on that in a moment -- the Hebrew terms are "'emeth" (firmness), "'emuwn" (faithfulness), or "'emuwnah" (firmness), etymologically related to the more familiar term "amēn," meaning (according to the Blue Letter Bible):
1) firm

a) metaph. faithful

2) verily, amen

a) at the beginning of a discourse - surely, truly, of a truth

b) at the end - so it is, so be it, may it be fulfilled. It was a custom, which passed over from the synagogues to the Christian assemblies, that when he who had read or discoursed, had offered up solemn prayer to God, the others responded Amen, and thus made the substance of what was uttered their own.
None of these quite captures Frobisher's use of the term "faith," which seems to imply a trustful emotion that runs deep in the believer. Nor does any of these clearly express what I've sometimes been told about the Hebrew understanding of faith, that it means belief expressed in action.

When I was growing up in the church, I understood the word "faith" to designate dependence, a deep trust in God that whispered not even a single doubt . . . but I've long since come to deeply distrust that understanding because I've seen that it often means trusting in some other person's subjective insistence on God's will.

I've gone through a pretzel's tangle of different positions on this faith issue, but I've ultimately come to the conclusion that God wouldn't demand an irrational faith, for the character of God, properly and correctly understood, would have to be -- as Pope Benedict maintains in his Regensburg lecture, "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections" -- eminently reasonable:
At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the λόγος [logos]" . . . . God acts, συν λόγω [syn logō], with logos. Logos means both reason and word -- a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" (cf. Acts 16:6-10) - this vision can be interpreted as a "distillation" of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.
One need not be Catholic to appreciate an insistence that God is essentially reasonable. If God's not, we're all in big trouble, for if God's character is not reasonable, then faith itself must be unreasonable, even irrational, never truly engendered by trustworthy persuasion but always imposed with the threat of violence. We see this most explicitly in the faith of religious terrorists, but the threat is more often implicit, especially when obscured through the manipulative cunning of some who would set their own subjective faith up as the objective standard by which to judge everyone else's. Not that I'm thinking of anyone in particular . . .

The Greek term for "faith," incidentally, is pistis, which has the following meanings in the New Testament (borrowed from the Blue Letter Bible):
1) conviction of the truth of anything, belief; in the NT of a conviction or belief respecting man's relationship to God and divine things, generally with the included idea of trust and holy fervour born of faith and joined with it

a) relating to God

1) the conviction that God exists and is the creator and ruler of all things, the provider and bestower of eternal salvation through Christ

b) relating to Christ

1) a strong and welcome conviction or belief that Jesus is the Messiah, through whom we obtain eternal salvation in the kingdom of God

c) the religious beliefs of Christians

d) belief with the predominate idea of trust (or confidence) whether in God or in Christ, springing from faith in the same

2) fidelity, faithfulness

a) the character of one who can be relied on
The correspondence of pistis to the Hebrew terms "'emeth," "'emuwn," and "'emuwnah," as well as to "amēn," is clear, though this Greek term seems to carry a good deal more theological content.

Just to satisfy curiosity, mine anyway, here's the etymology for the English word "faith," borrowed from the Online Etymological Dictionary:
mid-13c., "duty of fulfilling one's trust," from O.Fr. feid, from L. fides "trust, belief," from root of fidere "to trust," from PIE base *bhidh-/*bhoidh- (cf. Gk. pistis; see bid). For sense evolution, see belief. Theological sense is from late 14c.; religions called faiths since c.1300.
All of this is very interesting, I suppose, though I'd need to reflect on it a lot before I'd have anything interesting to write, but why did Frobisher say that faith has the craftiest doorman? We have to read the aphorism in its context:
"Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman. Every time I've stepped through its wide-open doorway, I find myself stepping out on the street again." (David Mitchell, "Letters from Zedelghem," Cloud Atlas: A Novel, page 75)
That sounds a bit like disappointment, but perhaps Mr. Frobisher is simply directed to where, deep down, he really wants to find himself, and the doorman's craft thus consists in recognizing this innermost desire, but you'll need to read the larger context, the entire "Letters from Zedelghem" story, to find out for sure.

After all, why trust me?

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

David Mitchell foresees "Twitter"?

(Image from Wikipedia)

In 2004, fully two years before Jack Dorsey came up with the concept of using a short message service to intercommunicate with a small network of individuals, David Mitchell wrote of a 'twitter' service dating back to the the mid-19th century, as evidenced by Dr. Henry Goose's grateful response to Adam Ewing's empathy for his destitute plight:
"I thank you, sir, I thank you . . ."
Destitute? Why? Apparently, the Marchioness Grace of Mayfair had blackened Dr. Goose's reputation, but the good doctor would have his revenge and was occupied with collecting in his handkerchief human teeth spat out by cannnibals, which he would supply to a certain medical "artisan of Piccadilly who fashions denture sets for the nobility [and] pays handsomely for human gnashers":
"[T]hese ivories" -- he shook his 'kerchief -- "are my angels of redemption. Permit me to elucidate. The Marchioness wears dental fixtures fashioned by the afore-mentioned doctor. Next yuletide, just as that scented She-Donkey is addressing her Ambassadors' Ball, I, Henry Goose, yes, I shall arise & declare to one & all that our hostess masticates with cannibals' gnashers! Sir Hubert will challenge me, predictably, 'Furnish your evidence,' that boor shall roar, 'or grant me satisfaction!' I shall declare, 'Evidence, Sir Hubert? Why, I gathered your mother's teeth myself from the spittoon of the South Pacific! Here, sir, here are some of their fellows!' & fling these very teeth into her tortoiseshell soup tureen & that, sir, that will grant me my satisfaction!"
Doctor Goose's revenge will be sweet . . . or, rather, 'tweet':
"The twittering wits will scald the icy Marchioness in their news sheets & by next season she shall be fortunate to receive an invitation to a Poorhouse Ball!"
See? Twitter already, around 1850. Don't believe me? Go then to pages 3 and 4 of Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, and read therein these very words from "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing."

Reading is believing.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Clever Puns in Mitchell's Cloud Atlas

Honolulu Fort, 1853
Paul Emmert
(Image from Wikipedia)

David Mitchell reveals his linguistic skill by using subtle puns throughout Cloud Atlas, as with the following sentence describing Honolulu in a setting sometime after Herman Melville's "recent account of the Typee" (Mitchell, page 492), which was published in 1846, and thus putting Mitchell's Adam Ewing character in that Hawaiian port around the time of Emmert's 1853 painting above:
In Honolulu's lawless hive, where vessels of all flags & nations arrive & depart daily, a man may change his name & history between entrée & dessert. (Mitchell, "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing," Cloud Atlas, page 506)
I love that wordplay twixt "arrive & depart" and "entrée & dessert" -- the latter clearly 'readable' as "entering" and "deserting" Honolulu. This is merely one example of many, some even more obscure, as perhaps that between "slooshes" and "Sloosha's":
She pours herself a heavy blue glass and slooshes the liquid around every nook of her mouth. (Mitchell, "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery," Cloud Atlas, page 414)

Evenin' catched us up early, so we tented on the southly bank o' Sloosha's Crossin', 'cos Waipo River was furyin' with days o' hard rain an' swollen by a spring tide. (Mitchell, "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After," Cloud Atlas, page 239)
I cannot soundly affirm that these latter two terms, "slooshes" and "Sloosha's," genuinely constitute a pun . . . but I suspect one. My doubts, however, stem from being unable to make good sense of any supposed wordplay.

I therefore leave speculation up to closer readers than I . . .

UPDATE: Over a year ago (July 13, 2009) in her annotations to Cloud Atlas on Annotation Nation, Diane Sherlock noted the connection between the "unusual words" that I wonder about above, "slooshes" and "Sloosha's," but she also cites no specific meaning and perhaps considers the pun simply another instance of "joy in the use of language" -- though she does state that "Mitchell uses this [sort of wordplay] to illustrate that even over time, we are all connected by language, by habits, by biology."

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"Another war is always coming . . ."

Korean War
(Image from Wikipedia)

I was reminded yesterday of a lesson from history, though encapsulated in a story from a novel, through the words of a minor character, Morty Dhondt, to a main protagonist, Robert Frobisher, in the year 1931:
"Wars do not combust without warning. They begin as little fires over the horizon. Wars approach. A wise man watches for the smoke, and prepares to vacate the neighborhood . . . . My worry is that the next war will be so big, nowhere with a decent restaurant will be left untouched."

Was he so sure another war was coming?

"Another war is always coming . . . . They are never properly extinguished. What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence is the instrument of this dreadful will. You can see the will to power in bedrooms, kitchens, factories, unions, and the borders of states. Listen to this and remember it. The nation-state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence. Thus it ever was, so ever shall it be . . . ." (David Mitchell, "Letters from Zedelghem," Cloud Atlas: A Novel, Random House, 2004, page 444)
This passage unfolds on page 444, a triple 4 that could only be rendered more ominous for East Asian readers were it a quadruple 4 . . . "four" being a reminder of death. But that is merely coincidental . . . I think.

Why this passage quoted now? Because, "war is always coming." Remember that.

We may organize our lives on the expectation that tomorrow will continue on like today, but we tread a narrow path, not perceiving that an abyss falls precipitously to either side.

But why note this now? Because North Korea totters precariously between one abyss and the other, toward China on the left and the South on the right, with the path ahead coming to an abrupt if obscured end . . .

A wise man should therefore keep a sharp eye out for smoke . . . not that it would help much since the horizen where this little fire begins lies just beyond my window.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Sa-Rah Finishes First Online School Year

Sa-Rah with Primitive Bicycle

Yesterday, our daughter Sa-Rah finished her first two semesters of online homeschooling and did well enough in this, her seventh-grade year, for us to take a modicum of pride in her achievement, so we went out last night to eat at Outback Steakhouse by way of celebration. The school that she 'attends' -- Keystone Middle School -- has worked her hard but in productive ways, especially teaching her some fundamentals of research and essay writing.

As evidence of a typical essay required by Keystone, here's a recent, short one that Sa-Rah wrote on 'forced' bicycle riding:
Reflection: Trying Something New
I can remember a time when I didn't want to do something, but ended up liking it, and still doing the thing regularly while maybe enjoying it the most in our family. Bike riding. Bike riding along the stream close to our apartment for hours and hours -- that was what I really didn't want to do. Especially, in the middle of the summer, biking would feel horrible because my body would become covered with sweat, and my T-shirt and pants would be sticking to my arms, legs, back, and almost everywhere! The sun gleaming its hot ray right over my head would burn my skin, and my hair would become burning hot, too! I always hated coming back home more than going, too. It seemed to take longer and it would look like our apartment was so far away. Of course, it would feel great after all that exercise drinking a cup of Coke or Gatorade, but I didn't think that was worth going through all that stickiness and heat.

I ended up liking it, though. Another annoying-sticky-hot-sweaty-thirsty day, and my dad wanted me to go bike riding with him. Of course, I said no, but that never worked, and it was a good thing it didn’t work then, because if I didn’t go biking then, I might never have come to love this great sport. Anyway, my dad and I rode our bikes along the stream, and went a little differently than usual. I was getting tired, but something made me not complain so much like other times, and finally, we reached a wonderland for bike riders.

There was a orange colored tent-like figure that had writings on it, saying something like 'Coke, Gatorade, Beer, Ra-men, pork, beef, fresh squid . . .' and it just kept going on! The place turned out to be a small restaurant for bikers who would bike along the streams. It had all kinds of drinks and foods that would cheer me up after all that hard exercise, and made me feel better. The food was great, too!

After experiencing that wonderland, I came to like bike riding with my family, and now also like it not only because of the eating, but mainly because of the exercise. I now like the heat and sweat and coolness that come after it.
Not bad for a bilingual thirteen-year-old kid whose better language is Korean, and with time -- five more years, to be precise -- Sa-Rah will have worked through the grammar errors and corrected them. I'll make sure of that. Her English teacher liked it, at any rate, and wrote:
"This is such a wonderful essay. I'm glad that you now enjoy bike riding. This is a great activity to stay healthy and active."
I guess that Sa-Rah's essay must have met the standards . . . even if there is room for improvement. But that's always true, isn't it?

By the way, I didn't have a recent photo of Sa-Rah with a bike, so I selected this relatively recent image of her with a young horse that belongs to my old high school math teacher and surveying boss, Mr. Jim Scott, whose Ozark farm she visited last summer, as some readers might recall.

Within a few days, Sa-Rah, En-Uk, and Sun-Ae will again be in the Ozarks, doubtless revisiting Mr. Scott's farm, so perhaps I'll soon have more such photos to post.

Maybe even one of a bicycle . . .

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

"The Gospel of Mel Gibson"?

Poor schizoid Mr. Gibson, eh?

Oh, perhaps he's no greater wretch than the rest of us, but he certainly seems to be currently working overtime at bringing himself lower than what you might expect to scrape from the bottom of that proverbial barrel, and his image has taken quite a long, hard tumble since his heady days with The Passion of the Christ almost seven years ago.

I've read enough in the transcript from the recording of his self-righteous, narcissistic bluster towards Oksana Grigorieva to realize that we only now truly know the guy, and I don't care to know him any closer by reading more of that.

I'll therefore take some distance from the man and turn to an astute analysis of Gibson's narcissism by David Brooks in his recent column, "The Gospel of Mel Gibson," published with the New York Times (July 15, 2010):

There used to be theories that deep down narcissists feel unworthy, but recent research doesn't support this. Instead, it seems, the narcissist's self-directed passion is deep and sincere.
Note this clever use of the quasi-religious term "passion." We'll return to this. But first, more on the typical narcissist:

His self-love is his most precious possession. It is the holy center of all that is sacred and right. He is hypersensitive about anybody who might splatter or disregard his greatness. If someone treats him slightingly, he perceives that as a deliberate and heinous attack. If someone threatens his reputation, he regards this as an act of blasphemy. He feels justified in punishing the attacker for this moral outrage.
More religious terminology there from Brooks on the narcissist's messianic self-regard, with additional religious language of the sacred yet to come:

And because he plays by different rules, and because so much is at stake, he can be uninhibited in response. Everyone gets angry when they feel their self-worth is threatened, but for the narcissist, revenge is a holy cause and a moral obligation, demanding overwhelming force.
Brooks then turns to Gibson and describes his verbal attack upon Oksana Grigorieva as "primal and searing" in "unleashing one . . . barrage after another," his "breathing . . . heavy," his "vocal muscles . . . clenched," and his "guttural sounds . . . like hammer blows." His "crude and derogatory" words "come out in waves" as he tries "to pulverize her into nothingness, like some corruption that has intertwined itself into his being and now must be expunged." Brooks is especially struck by Gibson's self-righteous -- dare one suggest messianic -- self-regard:

It is striking how morally righteous he is, without ever bothering to explain what exactly she has done wrong. It is striking how quickly he reverts to the vocabulary of purity and disgust. It is striking how much he believes he deserves. It is striking how much he seems to derive satisfaction from his own righteous indignation.
How did he fall so far? Recall that this was a man -- as reported by Allison Adato in "The Gospel of Mel," People (Vol. 61 No. 9, March 08, 2004) -- who imagined himself already so low:

It's the director's left hand nailing Jesus to the cross. The cameo is more than a Hitchcockian gimmick. Gibson feels his telling of the Passion holds all humanity responsible for the death of Jesus. And, he has said, "I'm first on line for culpability. I did it."
I recall being struck by those very words back in 2004 and thinking that they sounded something like what many evangelicals might utter, perhaps echoing the words of St. Paul in I Timothy 1:15, that "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief."

But Gibson's words seemed somehow different, perhaps because he had physically acted out the role of the one actually pounding in the nails. Consider his statement: "I'm first on line for culpability." If Brooks is right about Gibson being a narcissist, then we shouldn't interpret Gibson's confession of his culpability as an expression of humility, but as a claim to primacy.

Mel is just too good to be any place other than "first on line." His "Passion" is first and foremost about himself . . . as Brooks implies in his clever, striking pun on "passion," just one of many wordplays, beginning with his column's title.

Gibson's gospel turns out to be just Gibson, a self-glorifying narcissist flaming out as a falling star in a long, tedious arc of insidious descent.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Sonmi: Deified in Death

Korean Peninsula
(Image from Wikipedia)

By now, regular readers know that the county called Nea So Copros in David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas is modeled on a unified Korea, but this is made explicit only in the story that follows "An Orison of Sonmi-451," a tale entitled "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After," which relates the story of a certain Zachry who lives on an island of Ha-Why (Hawaii) in a post-apocalyptic, barbaric future and worships the goddess Sonmi, even after he learns the truth of her humanity through asking a more civilized visitor known as Meronym about the three-dimensional image of a beautiful woman that she has in her possession:
She was Sonmi, Zachry. Sonmi the freakbirthed human what your ancestors b'liefed was your god.
Meronym then further explains:
She was borned'n'died hun'erds o' years ago 'cross the ocean west-nor'westly . . . on a pen'sula all deadlanded now but its old-time name was Nea So Copros an' its ancient one Korea. A short'n'judased life Sonmi had, an' only after she'd died did she find say-so over purebloods'n'freakbirths' thinkin's.
These two quotes come from page 277, and anyone who's stayed with me thus far, since that beginning quote from page 3 in my reading of Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, will observe that this novel covers a lot of territory and time, literally a world-historical text.

But more reports another time, for today's the date of an annual medical check-up for me.

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Wangshimni Orchard?

Wangsimni Station
(Image from Wikipedia)

As I stood on a subway platform at Wangsimni Station yesterday afternoon having to wait for the next homebound train because a closed-off escalator being cleaned had forced me to detour and just miss the previous one, I occupied my involuntary delay by reading more from David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, and happened upon this passage:
Wangshimni Orchard: what an encyclopedia of consumables! For hours, I pointed at items for Hae-Joo to identify: bronze masks, instant bird's nest soup, fabricant toys, golden suzukis, air filters, acidproof skeins, oraculars of the Beloved Chairman and statuettes of the Immanent Chairman, jewel-powder perfumes, pearlsilk scarves, realtime maps, deadland artifacts, programmable violins. A pharmacy: packets of pills for cancer, aids, alzheimers, lead-tox; for corpulence, anorexia, baldness, hairiness, exuberance, glumness, dewdrugs, drugs for overindulgence in dewdrugs. Hour twenty-one chimed, yet we had not advanced beyond a single precinct. How the consumers seethed to buy, buy, buy! Purebloods, it seemed, were a sponge of demand that sucked goods and services from every vendor, dinery, bar, shop, and nook. (Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, Random House, 2004, page 227)
I did a double-take, of course, briefly wondered if an orchard flourished nearby, or at least a market offering everything under the lunar-sponsored heavens, but quickly recalled that I was reading not some oddball Lonely Planet Travel Guide for Seoul but David Mitchell's dystopian futuristic story, "An Orison of Sonmi-451," and concluded that I'd just experienced a mild instance of Jungian synchronicity.

At any rate, in this passage, Sonmi (a clone, aka "fabricant") is being shown about town (obviously Seoul) by Hae-Joo Im (seemingly, a graduate student, but we'll see). Note the allusions to Kim Jong-il (Beloved Chairman) and his father Kim Il-sung (Immanent Chairman), implying -- as mentioned in yesterday's entry -- that the North and South of Korea may have unified without rejecting the ruling Kim Family, but also through accepting capitalism, albeit a corporatist sort of state capitalism dependent upon incessant, consumerist-induced purchasing to keep the economy running.

I've finished half of the story and will get to the latter half after an intervening chapter set in Hawaii, but in the even more distant future.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

David Mitchell: "An Orison of Sonmi-451"

Juche Tower
(Image from Wikipedia)

Not many Korea specialists are reading David Mitchell, I reckon, since so few online sites note that the "Juche" referred to in the dystopian story "An Orison of Sonmi-451" in his novel Cloud Atlas is North Korea's official ideology (and one site that notes this is clearly nonexpert).

Here's a passing mention of "Juche" in Mitchell's "Orison" story, the speaker being "Sonmi-451" (clone number 451, I presume, and an apparent allusion to Fahrenheit 451):
Humor is the ovum of dissent, and the Juche should fear it. (Mitchell, Cloud Atlas: A Novel, Random House, 2004, page 188)
The story, which I've only begun reading, seems to depict a future Korea in which the North and the South have unified into state capitalist version of a corporatist Juche society. Hence the name of the country, "Nea So Copros," meaning something like "New South Korea," I suppose. A certain Martina Hrubes, of the University of Frankfurt, has a master's thesis, "Postmodernist Intertextuality in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas," that seems to confirm this:
[T]he corporate dictatorship of Nea So Copros is suggested to have developed out of North Korea, the most overtly socialist country today, as the recurring reference to the "Juche" (Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, 203; 341; 347; 360; 364), Kim Jung Il's state doctrine, indicates. The ideological system of capitalism thus seems to have prevailed over the promise of communism, while democracy has failed as a system and is referred to as "abortive" (Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, 243). (Hrubes, "Postmodernist Intertextuality in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas") [Note that Hrubes uses the Hodder and Stoughton edition, apparently differently paginated than the Random House edition.]
Hrubes is also one of the few to note the point about "Juche" as the North's official doctrine. Mitchell's interest in Korea likely stems from his time in Japan, where his years there teaching English, 1994-2002, would have allowed him to familiarize himself with Japan's peninsular neighbor.

I'll have to look into this much more deeply after I've finished the entire novel, but I thought that I ought to mention Mitchell's story here for others with an interest in South Korea to pick up on.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gypsy Scholar: Number 22!

Top 45 Literary Studies Blog 2010

Looks like not only E-katerina of Omsk and Anthony Loehnis of Interpol are contacting me these days. Just yesterday, I received an email from the people (all two of them) at "Top 45 Literary Studies Blog 2010," and the folks there address me familiarly enough that one would think that they know me even if they don't know better than to hail me as "Horace":
Dear Horace,

Congratulations! Emma Lee here, and your blog, Gypsy Scholar, has received our 2010 Top 45 Literary Studies Blogs award!

You can see your name amongst our winners here at: "Online PhD Programs."

Winners were chosen through a scoring system led by internet nominations, which came from your reader base!

You can let your readers know you won by embedding the badge code below.

If you choose not to accept the award, please let me know, so we can give your spot to the next person on our list. Dennis [i.e., Dennis Anderson] and I [i.e., Emma Lee] work hard to put these awards together, with zero outside financial assistance, and we don't want these awards to go to waste.

Please do not hesitate to call or email if you have any questions. Many questions can be answered at Awarding the Web: About or Awarding the Web: Disclaimer.

Again, Congratulations, and I hope to see your badge soon!


Emma Lee
Frankly speaking, I'm not entirely sure what to make of this. I've looked at some of their selections, and I see that my friend Scott Nokes, who blogs at Unlocked Wordhoard, is listed in fifth place as "Unlocked Word Hoard" (sic) even though he hasn't updated his blog since April 19, 2010 (and what's up with that lack of updates?). There's also seventh-ranked Anne Galloway, of Purse Lips Square Jaw, whose web address they've gotten slightly wrong and who, at any rate, has stopped blogging and left her blog archived since April 24, 2010. I don't know Dr. Galloway, but her blog looks more social sciency than literary.

Then, for this otherwise very impressive-sounding website, "Literary Studies Blogs," there's that odd-sounding web host, namely:
"Online PhD Programs."
And why does anyone even need a web host these days? Still, I don't ever look a gift horse in the mouth, so I'll proudly display my 'badge' here in today's blog post. After all, Ms. Lee and Mr. Anderson must have worked hard scouring the internet to find the top 45 literary blogs and therefore deserve some recognition for their efforts.

And since we're on the subject of recognition, I'd like to nominate Lee and Anderson's Top Literary Studies Awards site itself for a winning badge next year in the category of "Best Fiction" since any site that would recognize Gypsy Scholar as a top literary blog is surely imagining things.

UPDATE: Looks like I was right to be suspicious.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Good Grass, California

'Yerba Buena'
(Image from Wikipedia)

I'm still reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, so regular readers will remember that yesterday's blog entry quoted Mitchell as stating that "My character Ewing was (pretty obviously) Melville," referring to the Adam Ewing character of the novel's first story and the 19th-century novelist Herman Melville.

Well, Mitchell possesses a literary sense of humor and uses it to subtly link story to story, as in the following passage from the third story "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery," which has the public relations person Fay Li reciting from memory everything that she recalls about Luisa Rey, reporter for the gossip rag Spyglass:
Fay Li speaks as if from a mental checklist. "Reporter at Spyglass -- I presume we all know it? Twenty-six, ambitious, more liberal than radical. Daughter of the Lester Rey, foreign correspondent, recently died. Mother remarried an architect after an amicable divorce seven years ago, lives in uptown Ewingsville, B.Y. No siblings. History and economics at Berkeley, summa cum laude. Started on the L.A. Recorder, political pieces in the Tribune and Herald. Single, lives alone, pays her bills on time." (Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, page 126)
The abbreviation "B.Y." stands for "Buenas Yerbas," a fictional city within which the equally fictional community "Ewingsville" is located . . . or so it seems. Ewingsville is (pretty obviously) a pun on Melville, and serves to link this third story back to the first story, "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing." At least one other reader has partly noted the connection:
Ewingsville, California: Judith Rey -- Luisa's mother -- lives there. It may or may not be named for Adam Ewing, an early resident of California.
That's a connection between "Ewingsville" and "Ewing" (though no mention of Melville) made by a certain "goatgrrl" back in 2004 on BookCrossing, apparently a site where people gather to discuss books.

As for the very nonfictional 'Yerba Buena,' it was claimed by the United States in 1846 during the Mexican-American War, the same year that Melville's first book, Typee, was published, a historical coincidence that might or might not have anything to do with Mitchell's stories.

By the way, a Volkswagen will float, won't it, just long enough for a driver to escape before it sinks . . . right?

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Monday, July 12, 2010

David Mitchell: Man of 'Few' Words

Herman Melville
aka Adam Ewing
(Image from Wikipedia)

I'm currently immersed in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, a novel of six stories structured in such a way that each of the first five stories breaks off abruptly, to be picked up in reverse order, somewhat as a mirror-image, and finished, with only the central, sixth story complete in a single reading, or so I infer from a quick riffle through its pages.

I finished the first story, "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing," yesterday or the day before but had already overheard the following admission from Mitchell's interview with the Washington Post, "Book World Talks With David Mitchell" (August 22, 2004):
My character Ewing was (pretty obviously) Melville, but with shorter sentences.
I had mentioned this interview in a previous post, but I'm avoiding further reviews and such so as not to inadvertently come upon any spoilers. Being a somewhat unperspicacious reader, I'm curious about Melville as the prototype for Ewing, so I might look into that tidbit sometime (possibly by reading some of that dark romantic's South Seas adventure stories, e.g., Typee or Omoo?). Meanwhile, here's one of Mitchell's 'short' sentences, the ultimate in his initial story's first half, Mr. Adam Ewing's tale:
Sabbath not being observed on the Prophetess, this morning Henry & I decided to conduct a short Bible Reading in his cabin in the "low-church" style of Ocean Bay's congregation, "astraddle" the forenoon & morning watches so both starboard & port shifts might
And so breaks off this 'short' sentence midway, astraddle (as it were) the subject and missing predicate of that consequential clause . . . or does it end with "attend"? As the astute reader ought also do with such a sentence hanging over one's head.

We'll see if this line gets picked up on beyond its forty-fourth word in the mirror image by book's end, though I won't look ahead, having learned patience in life and the pleasures of deferred gratification.

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

"contra Plantinga's Free Will Defense"?

J.L. Mackie
Arguments for and against the Existence of God

Kevin Kim has posted a blog entry, "contra Plantinga's Free Will Defense," promising a future post on the subject but also providing some links to critiques offered by others.

One such link is to a paper by Niclas Berggren titled "Does the Free-Will Defense Constitute a Sound Theodicy?" I haven't read Berggren's article, but the title suggests a misunderstanding of Alvin Plantinga's free will defense of God's omnibenevolence, granted that God is omniscient and omnipotent and that evil is a problematic reality.

Plantinga would agree that his free will defense doesn't constitute a sound theodicy because a defense is not intended as a theodicy.

Plantinga formulated his free will defense simply as a formal argument intended to demonstrate that a logical contradiction cannot be proven in the following conjunction of statements:
1. God is omniscient.
2. God is omnipotent.
3. God is omnibenevolent.
4. Evil exists.
Plantinga argues that God might have a good reason for creating a world in which evil could arise, and he suggests that the gift of morally significant free will might be one such reason. If such free will is a great good, then God might be justified in creating creatures with free will despite the possibility that they would misuse their freedom to choose moral evil.

In his argument, Plantinga notes the special case of natural evil, i.e., evil outside of human agency, e.g., such as the event of a large asteroid striking the earth and causing great suffering (my example). Plantinga suggests that natural evil could have resulted from the free actions of fallen angels, thereby making such evil a consequence of moral evil.

The philosopher J. L. Mackie, unpersuaded by this argument, acknowledges the formal possibility but considers the supposition of fallen angels an arbitrary one. He begins by recalling the problem of natural evil, the moves to his criticism of Plantinga's argument:
But the vast majority of natural evils cannot be ascribed to human choices at all, and it seems, therefore, that the free will defense cannot cover them even indirectly. But Alvin Plantinga argues that it can cover them, since they can be ascribed to the malevolent actions of fallen angels. Formally, no doubt, this is possible; but it is another of what Cleanthes called arbitrary suppositions. While we have a direct acquaintance with some wrong human choices -- our own -- and our everyday understanding extends to the recognition of the like choices of other human beings, we have no such knowledge of the activities of angels, fallen or otherwise: these are at best part of the religious hypothesis which is still in dispute, and cannot be relied upon to give it any positive support.

J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), pages 162-163.
Mackie's acknowledgment that "[f]ormally . . . this is possible" -- i.e., that Plantinga's argument that natural evil might result from moral evil is formally possible -- is all that Plantinga needs since the free will defense is no theodicy. All that Plantinga need demonstrate is that there is no proven formal inconsistency in affirming God's omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence despite the fact of evil.

Mackie considers Plantinga's supposition of the "malevolent actions of fallen angels" to be "arbitrary" and incapable of offering any "positive support," but that is irrelevant to Plantinga's limited free will defense, which is basically a negative argument to the effect that no contradiction has been proven in affirming God's omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence despite the fact of evil.

I'd also dispute Mackie's choice of the term "arbitrary." Plantinga hasn't introduced an arbitrary supposition. He has simply noted that the theological view of natural evil as a consequence of moral evil is a long-standing Christian position. Mackie might consider that Christian position a long-standing arbitrary supposition, but that objection would still be irrelevant to Plantinga's limited, formal argument.

Plantinga does not set out to convert the skeptic by finding means to "justifie the wayes of God to men" (John Milton, Paradise Lost 1.26), for unlike Milton, he pursues no theodicy. Rather, he seeks to show that no logical contradiction has been demonstrated in the conjunction of the fact of evil with God's omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence.

In that limited sense, he seems to have succeeded.

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Vedran Smailovic: Cellist for Sarajevo

Vedran Smailovic
(Image from Wikipedia)

On May 27, 1992, I was living in Germany and already aghast at the incipient siege of Sarajevo. That date was the day, at 10 a.m., when a Serbian paramilitary shell, fired at the besieged city Sarajevo, struck a line of people that stretched from a bakery out into the street and killed twenty-two individuals waiting for bread.

At that time, early in the war, I still expected the UN, the EU, NATO, the US . . . somebody, to do something to stop the carnage. But the shelling went on and on and on, despite the pleas for help -- even despite the street performances on cello by Vedran Smailovic of the Adagio in G Minor, played every day for 22 days, one for each victim of the attack.

I read of Smailovic's courageous stand for civilization in the International Herald Tribune, in the Guardian, in various other papers, and I was heartened . . . to no avial. The siege continued for another four years. By 1994, I'd had enough with European pusillanimity in particular, so I wrote a poem for "Sarajevo":
Scenes of fallen tranquility
And the silence that follows lies:
Words fail, would sound obscenity,
Would flail against uncaring skies
That answer not to your demise.
No answer give to your demise.

Yet other words betray you still,
Worn words so cheap, not worth a dime:
Thus even now they bode you ill,
This evening of your sad decline,
With promises of peace in time.
Peace in their own, serene, sweet time.
As you can see, I was angry and cynical, but the war finally did come to an end through NATO's untimely but effective intervention. I had already left Europe by then, but I never forgot the tragedy of Sarajevo.

I grew up without an education in classical music, so I often don't know the music pieces by name, but at some point, possibly since the advent of You Tube, I listened to Smailovic playing the Adagio, and I recognized the music, for it was the same tune that I had heard the progressive rock band Renaissance use back in the 1970s for their song "So Cold is Being":
So cold is being lonely
Behold the feeling lonely
The living part is done
The dying has begun
The world is spinning slow
So tired slow

So cold is being sadness
Behold the feeling sadness
Oh how can we believe
We earn what we receive
The pain it overflows

Lord won't you help us realise
See through your eyes
Within our lives
The earth grows old
The earth grows cold

So cold is being tired
Behold the feeling tired
Stand quietly at the side
Watch darkness open wide
The light is growing dim
So dim within
Annie Haslam did the vocals on this melancholy, even lugubrious piece, and the album was loaned to me in 1977 by my friend Margaret Robinson when we were both students at Baylor University. I haven't found a performance on You Tube, so you'll simply have to imagine these lyrics sung to the famous adagio.

Anyway, the original piece itself, by Tomaso Albinoni -- or rather than by Remo Giazotto (as the tale turns out) -- was played by Smailovic out in the open in Sarajevo, amid the mortar shells and sniper's bullets, to commemorate those killed in that shelling of May 27, 1992.

I was reminded of these things recently because in my course at Ewha Womans University this summer, the students are reading about the cellist of Sarajevo himself, Vedran Smailovic. To supplement the reading, I've used You Tube, so they've heard this version of the Adaigo with photographs of Smailovic, as well as of Sarajevo before, during, and after the four-year siege.

The British composer David Wilde was so touched by Smailovic's courage in risking his life daily for 22 days playing out in public amidst the gunfire and mortar shells that he composed The Cellist of Sarajevo, which is a nearly seven-minute piece for cello that occasionally, distantly echoes the famous Adagio but is harsher, more discordant, in its evocation of the shelling that rained down on Sarajevo, destroying a beautiful city and killing so many people. The piece was played by Yo-Yo Ma at the International Cello Festival in Manchester, England, in 1994, with Smailovic present, as described in Reader's Digest by the pianist Paul Sullivan in this excerpt:
When he had finished, Ma remained bent over his cello, his bow resting on the strings. No one in the hall moved or made a sound for a long time. It was as though we had just witnessed that horrifying massacre ourselves.

Finally, Ma looked out across the audience and stretched out his hand, beckoning someone to the stage. An indescribable electric shock swept over us as we realized who it was . . . .

Smailovic rose from his seat and walked down the aisle as Ma left the stage to meet hin. They flung their arms around each other . . . everyone in the hall erupted into a chaotic, emotional frenzy . . . .

We were all stripped down to our starkest, deepest humanity at encountering this man who shook his cello in the face of bombs, death, and ruin, defying them all.
Also inspired by Smailovic, the writer Steven Galloway wrote a novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, which can be heard in part as an audio book through You Tube by Gareth Armstrong reading a passage from the book's opening:
[A]t four o'clock in the afternoon, twenty-four hours after the mortar fell on his friends and neighbours while they waited to buy bread, he will bend down and pick up his bow. He will carry his 'cello and stool down the narrow flight of stairs to the empty street. The war will go on around him as he sits in the small crater left at the mortar's point of impact. He'll play Albinoni's Adagio. He'll do this every day for twenty-two days, a day for each person killed. Or at least he'll try. He won't be sure he will survive. He won't be sure he has enough Adagios left.

The cellist doesn't know any of this now, as he sits at his window in the sun and plays. He isn't yet aware. But it's already on its way. It screams downward, splitting air and sky without effort. A target expands in size, brought into focus by time and velocity. There is a moment before impact that is the last instant of things as they are. Then the visible world explodes.
The novel has been highly praised, but somewhat diconcerting on this You Tube reading is the advertisement for the audio book at the end of the reading, raising the question of whether or not Smailovic's courageous act has been co-oped and commercialized. Smailovic certainly thinks so -- and says so in a number of videos confronting Galloway, such as this one, where he insists, "I am not fiction."

I understand Mr. Smailovic's complaint. He is not fiction. He is not even dead, but very much alive. Yet, his act has been fictionalized, for the book itself cautions its readers to understand that it is fiction:
The Sarajevo in this novel is only one small part of the real city and its people, as imagined by the author. This is above all else a work of fiction.
Undoubtedly, Steven Galloway meant to honor Vedran Smailovic, just as did David Wilde, but a novel is vastly different than a musical composition for the cello, and I can see why Mr. Smailovic has raised a strong note of protest. Writers, more than musicians, need to take care in fictionalizing contemporary events, lest they hit a false note.

The story hasn't ended yet, and the music goes on, so I'll just have to leave this piece unfinished . . .

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Friday, July 09, 2010

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas

Cloud At Last
(Image from NPR)

After a couple weeks' wait -- though most ordered books in Korea take only one or two days -- my copy of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas: A Novel finally arrived. I've read only the first 22 pages but am persuaded that the man is truly a great writer . . . though I had to grow accustomed to his use of the ampersand, which appears four times in the opening paragraph, indeed in the second sentence:
Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoa-nuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a White man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shoveling & sifting the cindery sand with a teaspoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away. Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr. Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. His nationality was no surprise. If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote, that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, 'tis not down on any map I ever saw.
Mitchell has an excuse for the excessive ampersand. The author is 'actually' a certain Adam Ewing, the opening story's protagonist, writing in his journal. This character is distinctive. Prudish and finicky, yet inquisitive and even foolhardy. Also deliberative, earnest . . . though a bit silly, too, even ridiculous. He sticks in my mind.

In an interview from 2004 with the Washington Post, "Book World Talks With David Mitchell" (August 22, 2004), the author -- I mean Mitchell, not Ewing -- is asked what he learned "in the process of writing" this book:
I learned that art is about people: Ideas are well and good, but without characters to hang them on, fiction falls limp. I learned that language is to the human experience what spectography is to light: Every word holds a tiny infinity of nuances, a genealogy, a social set of possible users, and that although a writer must sometimes pretend to use language lightly, he should never actually do so -- the stuff is near sacred. I learned that maybe I should have a go at a linear narrative next time! I learned that the farther back in time you go, the denser the research required, and the more necessary it is to hide it.
These are not merely things that Mitchell learned for himself, they also make for good advice proffered to other writers.

I acknowledge hesitating at the expression "tiny infinity" . . . an 'infinity' that be 'tiny'? But the nuances of a word, its shades of meaning, do constitute an infinity, comparable to those in some of Zeno's famous paradoxes. Writing is as difficult as Achilles overtaking the tortoise or as an archer releasing an arrow and seeing it reach its target. Theoretically impossible, but empirically demonstrable. Great writers reach that precise nuance with a mysterious extension that exceeds our grasp.

As for the "outsized Beaver" that's been weighing on your mind, it's not what you might be thinking . . . unless you were thinking of this.