July 14, 2009

De-constricting Fictions

I tried to read Fielding's Tom Jones once and decided, after about fifty pages, that I really should not read books that don't like their readers. And vice versa. I find much of the enjoyment of reading good books is that they can propel you forward, can trigger something formerly unseen or unknown in your mind. But it can be enlightening to take oneself through reading a book again after a long lapse, precisely because the experience can take you back to places you have already visited. Odd places, sometimes.

This summer I'm re-reading books I first encountered years ago, and am going backwards with each page. On the list: Godel, Escher, Bach; The Lady or the Tiger?; Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind; all of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse mysteries; Robertson Davies' The Deptford Trilogy; and anything I can find that explains what the frak Foucault meant by 'episteme', which I have lamely interpreted for years as meaning the dog whistle of an era.

(Every now and then I pause in this furious re-examination of logic and fiction and cultural history, see Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's blank stare of empty blankness in some photo on the web, and am reminded that there is balance in the universe. But I digress.)

Godel, Escher, Bach is a great read, now, but it reminds me of college and of boring hours spent sublimating lust and discussing irrelevant theories of everything. The Jaynes opus is also a really engaging read, but holding the book in my hands reminds me that the ferociously pretentious therapist my first husband and I met with as our marriage sputtered out had this very same book prominently displayed on the shelf in her waiting room. And Davies' work, which is pure pleasure, old-fashioned, fully crafted fiction, reminds me of watching my brilliant Mom relax into the welcoming weird world of a Davies novel while she sat in her favored reading chair in the living room back home. But all those real world associations -- college life, a starter marriage, a mother, and a girlhood home -- are now long gone.

I'll be glad to get beyond this current reading phase, which is also historical re-engagement, which is also brain twisting, when it expires. Or my head explodes. Whichever.

But I guess I do recognize that, as with anything that catches and really seizes hold of one's attention for a span, there is a purpose. This is mental fuel, and a distraction, and possibly an antidote to Palin fatigue. And perhaps it is also this reader's quiet little hurrah that anti-intellectualism no longer holds the sway -- at least in the executive branch -- that it did during the last decade. Which means some of us can revisit the pleasures of the percolating brain pan, and (at least in the privacy of our...bookshelves) let our freak flags fly again.

July 4, 2009

Bigger the Punch I'm Feeling

The idea (roughly) of consilience -- or perhaps I should say the hope of this theory -- is that a defined set of principles underpins and unifies all areas of human knowledge. I have as hard a time agreeing that this can be true as I do agreeing that my siblings and I have the same memories and perceptions of our parents.

And though I am always interested in the discovery of interconnectivity between two things previously seen as disparate (like the genetic overlap of certain mental disorders) I tend to feel unease when these get translated into universals or generalizations about human beings. This is the same unease I feel when people refer to God as a universal "known" while claiming simultaneously that their own perception of or relationship to a god is personal, individual. After watching the Mark Sanford meltdown and the Sarah Palin resignation "speech", this also made me wonder about the toll that the desire for universal applicability or unity, contrasted with the subjective and inconsistent reality of, well, reality, takes on a person, or a collection of people. Because as these recurring meltdowns (personal, political, economic) attest, there is a toll.

Perhaps the feeling of separation from self (expressed by both of these pols, in different ways) is an aspect of our time. In The First Moderns, W.R. Everdell's history of modernism in art, culture and thought (an almost entirely male domain, by his narrow reckoning) he describes this problem of internal division:

"High on the list of the classic complaints of modernity is the one about the failure of integrity of modern life, and particularly of modern lives, fragmented and inharmonious, their activities asynchronous and divided against themselves. The complaint is old and was probably first heard in the 1820's when railway passengers were warned that speeds of twenty miles an hour might ruin their health. At the great World's Fairs of the turn of the century...visitors were warned about the dizzying effects of seeing and doing too much, deranging the senses and bringing on neurasthenia. We call it 'museum fatigue' and do not think of it as being modernist. In the 'post-modern era', in fact, fragmentation of lives has been not only touted as inevitable, but even hailed as a new sort of virtue."

But if personal time/life/activity fragmentation is a modern virtue, then what is consilience? If dissipation is now a goal, then why do people also strive for a unified vision of a god? And if streams of science, from physics to psychology to genetics, are daily revealing that there is overlap and interdependence even among the most complex systems, then why are we simultaneously defining improvement (or modernity) as being about segmenting ourselves and lives into discrete portions?