Monthly Archives: April 2012

Blasphemy, Sirrah!

Shakespeare as a young man with tattoosIt may be 100 years too soon for me to say this. I think it’s time to translate Shakespeare into modern English. There are various reasons why Shakespeare is difficult to read. In part, he is simply a complex writer, in terms of the intricacy of plots, the subtlety of characters, or the twists and turns of presenting these things. He is also difficult not simply because he was writing 400 years ago, but because he was usually writing in poetry, so that he often uses descriptions, metaphors, and oblique phrasing to say things.

When I advocate translating Shakespeare, I mean that such characteristics in his writing should not be touched. Modern readers, if they care to, are capable of reading intricate plots with inventive language. But what we cannot do without special study is get past the third reason Shakespeare is so difficult to read: much of his language has simply passed out of normal use, and is no longer comprehensible.

The poetic character of Shakespeare’s writing should not be altered, as in the following example. In Richard the Third King Edward has given an order to kill his brother Clarence, but then gave a second order cancelling the first. He is afterward told of Clarence’s death: “But he, poor man, by your first order died,/ And that a winged Mercury did bear;/ Some tardy cripple bare the countermand,/ That came too lag to see him buried.” While there is some old language here—countermand, lag—in general the vocabulary is not too hard to get through. What may slow some readers down is the two metaphors, that the order which arrived quickly was carried by the flying Greek god Mercury, and the order to leave Clarence alive came by a crippled human hobbling along.

Let that be. But what about this example from Henry the Fourth, Part I, which may begin understandably (though still poetically), but which grows murky as we read on: “To see him shine so brisk and smell so sweet,/ And talk so like a waiting-gentlewoman/ Of guns, and drums, and wounds, God save the mark!/ And telling me the sovereignest thing on earth/ Was parmiciti for an inward bruise…”

I don’t support translation lightly. All translation has its problems. I love and admire the brilliance of Shakespeare’s language, the beautiful way he could put words together, the metaphors that can delight us with the shock of newness, or his clever wordplay and puns. I also understand that he invented both words and phrases that are now everyday parts of English. Shakespeare could be simply brilliant with language, a man who could describe an attitude change in Richard the Third as “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer…”

And yet for people who do read Shakespeare in translation—everyone in the world except English speakers—his work is more comprehensible than it is for those of us reading it in his language. As to whether or not to translate him, ever, I will cite one literary example, Geoffrey Chaucer. His Canterbury Tales (from 200 years before Shakespeare) is considered one of the great works in English, but who would argue that we should not translate a line like this: “With-outen him we have no might, certayne,/ If that him list to stonden ther-agayne.”

An honest translation of Shakespeare will not make his work very easy to read, nor should it. But when readers are shut out by changes in the language itself, then he is read less, understood less, and enjoyed less. Shakespeare portrait in very digital formI want Shakespeare to be read and understood, and I think this can be more common if his work is carefully updated by talented writers who understand the Elizabethan dialect. We should not make such a fetish of the language that we lose the literature.

[The word “sirrah”, which I used in the title, was a form of address to inferiors or to someone who you wanted to insult. It might be compared to saying “sir” sarcastically. It occurs fairly commonly in Shakespeare’s plays.]

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Back to the Sea

Woman looking at the ocean pouring out of a paintingWithin the last two days I could say I’ve begun two new part-time jobs. Or since I haven’t actually, you know, worked at either one, I might choose not to say that. But I have initiated both. I have begun—finally—to get some training at Lowes, if filling out paperwork and taking a tour of the store constitute training. But it’s a start, and surely at some point I will at long last learn to work a cash register, bing bing!

The second job has appeared rather miraculously, the way people say good things sometimes will. I was contacted by someone I know at the Forestry Resources department at Penn State, asking me to come in and talk. The conversation consisted of this: they are creating a new center for forestry, they want help in a variety of areas to get it off the ground, and I am offered a part-time job helping to do this. Item number one, apparently, is to work on organizing a conference.

Even with two jobs, both of which are temporary and do not come with a limo, keeping the wolf away from the door is not assured. Nevertheless, I have my spray bottle of Wolf-B-Gone, so we’ll see.

It is nearly time to go to yoga, for some ahhh, owww, ommm, but before I go I wish to post a poem. I keep thinking I must have used this one, and every now and then I look to see which poems I’ve put up, and nope, it’s still not there. Or maybe I just can’t find it. So if this is a repeat, oh well. About two years ago when I was in Atlanta, in a very unusual event, I went with two brothers and my father to the large aquarium the city now has. After our visit to the aquarium, I wrote this.

The Georgia Aquarium

A microcosm of the sea looms over us.
As one star is to the sky,
this glass-bound pool is miniscule,
but we stand awed by vastness.
A whale shark slides by, ominously.
A manta ray loops in slow circles.
My father leans on a cane,
looking up at the enormous wall
holding in this ocean.

The cells of my body are salty.
Like the tremendous tank,
every cell is a facsimile of the sea.
I stand by my father in the darkness
as our far distant cousins swim past.
How many billion years
to multiply one cell to many,
to fan out into fins,
to crawl flopping from the water,
to walk across dry land looking for the water left behind?
How many million years
to stand clutching tools,
to become the man beside me
leaning on a cane?

Like twisted seasnakes,
DNA swims through our cellular oceans.
The seasnakes curl into new bodies,
and children crawl across dry land.
My elderly father is here with three grown sons.
He has three children living, one gone.
One of my father’s sons
has one child living, one gone.

Crowds of children
push excitedly up to the glass of the aquarium
to watch the fish.
I watch the children
watching the fish,
and my father watching the children.
We are all swimming in life’s river,
headed back to the sea.

It feels late,
and I turn to my father.
to ask if he is ready to go home.


Filed under Not Real Poetry

Hopefully the Grammar Nazis Won’t Know

Child in dunce hat sitting on a stool in a cornerSometime within the last week, I found an article (which I made a copy of) on one of the details of change in the English language. Where I found the article I don’t remember, but that doesn’t stop me from quoting it: “The barbarians have done it, finally infiltrated a remaining bastion of order in a linguistic wasteland. They had already taken the Oxford English Dictionary; they had stormed the gates of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. They had pummeled American Heritage into submission, though she fought valiantly — she continues to fight!”

This sarcastic stream of metaphor was inspired by the fact that the Associated Press stylebook has agreed that the word “hopefully” can be used as I used it in the title of this blog. You probably didn’t notice that the walls are coming down. Maybe you’ve even been working the catapult.

In my line of work (I’m using “work” as a metaphor there, you understand), or rather in my avocation, as a person who pays a lot of attention to language, I’ve long been aware of the distaste of some strict stylists for beginning a sentence with “hopefully”. It’s my unfortunate nature that the moment I know something is not allowed, then I really want to engage in that forbidden action, even to my own detriment. Hopefully, you’re not like that.

This dispute over a word brings a number of ideas to mind for me. A primary thought is that all language changes, constantly, unstoppably, and anyone who tries to stop it is a fool. Here, for instance, is a sentence in English from approximately the year 900: “Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.” Those are the first few lines of the poem Beowulf, and it really is English. It changed that much in the last 1100 years.

From generation to generation language changes. My grandmother said she knew the phrase “too far from head tall”, meaning from anywhere, but I’ve never said that. And I know my grandmother never used the word “google”. Even my own father pronounces the word “either” differently from how I say it. Does accepting that language changes mean, however, that there is no such thing as right and wrong, good or bad language? This question also heavily impacts discussions of dialects.

In fact, without an authority to declare what is right or wrong, all language is equally valid. The earliest authority was usually the source of political or cultural power, such as the court around the king. How often did the King of England speak bad English? Never, by definition. Whatever he did was right, and if you wanted to be right, that was it. Later, book authorities came to exist, particularly beginning with Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in 1755. We are now in the age of book authorities, as evidenced by the list of dictionaries in the first paragraph of this blog.

A third idea that this issue brings up for me is how we define “good” in reference to language. Does “good” mean strictly following a set of rules in a book? A letter from a lawyer does that. Is that good writing? Or what if we defined good language as being clear and easy to follow? (But that would mean most writing in English is bad.) Or good language might be language with an elegant, thoughtful, and interesting style. This sounds reasonable to me, but it also depends on who is reading and what they happen to think.

In spite of my apparent rebellion against all rules for how to write gooder, and even though it’s almost impossible to define, I also think some things in language are bad. This happens for me with punctuation, when people put apostrophe’s in the wrong places’, which make’s me crazy (and yes, I’ve seen a student put a goddamned apostrophe in a verb). And in grammar, though I don’t think I’m normally a dialect snob, I really do hate to hear a past participle used as a regular past tense: I seen him yesterday.

I’m also objecting to the objection to “hopefully” as I’ve used it above. It is reasonable to support standard grammar, as it helps us communicate, and style might be criticized because it is either unclear or awkward, but the objection to “hopefully” was based on arcane points that would mean little to most English speakers. It was like the rule against never ending a sentence with a preposition. The no-preposition rule is based on the fact that in Latin you can’t…blah blah blah, who cares? It’s stupid. Worse than stupid, it doesn’t even make sense.

So here’s my summary point in this blog entry. Things are good if I think they are. If you’re not sure about something, ask me. And it’s OK to say “Hopefully, you brought more beer, because we’re out.”

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Lord of the Games

Painting of a red forestPardon my diversion into trivia, while I bring the world up to date. Since I mentioned here in the blog that I had applied for a job editing a small newspaper, I want to report that the job went to someone who actually deserved it instead. If the world is going to reward people based on merit, how will I get anywhere? But it doesn’t do any good to milk the melancholia; best to look on the bright side and consider the enormous amount of badly paid work I won’t do there. In any case, an hour after I read the negative email, I decided that some therapeutic dancing was in order. So I got out a Psychedelic Furs CD, turned up the volume a bit, and danced around the dining room table.

Now we turn our attention to the Serious Business of Blogging. In this particular well-written, pithy, and fascinating entry, I’m going to trot along behind pop culture waving my hand in the air saying, “ Wait, wait, me too!” and talk about the book The Hunger Games. If you’ve managed to miss the current cultural wave, which could happen, The Hunger Games is the first book in a trilogy, it has been made into an extremely successful movie, and with all that money, you don’t gotta be Einstein to figure out that the other two books are rushing toward movie screens as well. The books are also marketed in a category known as Young Adult. I wonder what weird lapse of logic invoked the word “adult” among people who market books, since the “adults” in question tend to be around 12 to 17 years old.

The gist of this book is that every year there is a game in which two children (or young adults, if you will) from each of twelve districts are brought together to fight one another to the death, and the one person left alive wins. This horrible premise is told in an extremely entertaining way, but the basic plot is that children kill each other in very gruesome ways. What disturbs me about the book as a social phenomenon is that with such a plot, the book and movie are veeeery popular among kids the same age as the characters.

No doubt I’m just an old guy who’s out of touch and doesn’t appreciate how much fun all this is. I can hear people saying to me, “It’s just a book, it’s not real.” Uh huh. And that’s why you let your children read pornography, because it’s just a book? Then again, I’m not saying kids should not be reading the novel, but I would never entertain such a stupid argument as “it’s just a book”. No book is just a book.

If the novel had made some point beyond the killing and dystopian bleakness, I would consider the freakish premise redeemed, but in the end, The Hunger Games is only about kids killing kids. There is nothing positive and by the end of the book nothing has really changed. Nevertheless, one of the reasons young adults (and not so young adults, like me) read and enjoy this book is because it is so well written and so entertaining in many ways. So let me make a different point here—I was enthralled by this book. I literally didn’t want to put it down to do anything else.

Suzanne Collins did an admirable job in writing The Hunger Games, taking several obvious influences and making something very new and imaginative out of them. Some of the influences aren’t hard to see: the novel The Lord of the Flies (children in the forest killing one another), the short story “The Lottery” (someone in the village is randomly chosen to die), pretty much any dystopian novel or movie about the horrible future, just for the idea of a dystopia (1984, Brave New World, Blade Runner, Mad Max). I also wouldn’t be surprised if Collins was also thinking of the myth of the minotaur, in which the Athenians were regularly forced to select some of their young people to be killed by the monster. As one of the most powerful influences on this book, Collins was clearly looking back to the Romans, a people who were a freakish combination of high civilization and bloody savages. What is only a story in The Hunger Games—killing people for entertainment—was of course real for the Romans, and Collins clearly acknowledges their influence. In the capital city in the novel, the powerful city that forces other people to participate in the games, every character has an obvious Roman name, such as Caesar, Claudius, Octavia. Collins even calls the forest where the killing occurs the “arena”.

Collins’s skill as a writer shines through in the book, with her ability to develop characters in ways that make them richer than she had to. The protagonist, Katniss, for instance, has a troubled relationship with her mother. That relationship is actually a small detail, as the mother is not in most of the book, but the ability to add such things to the characters makes them more real. There is also a wonderful use of detail, necessary to make an alternative world come alive. It is partly through such use of details that we are brought into the forest where the killings occur, as well as into the exotic wonder of the advanced capital city.

This is a gruesome book, illustrated by this encounter between two young people: “Thresh brings the rock down hard against Clove’s temple. It’s not bleeding, but I can see the dent in her skull and I know that she’s a goner. There’s still life in her now though, in the rapid rise and fall of her chest, the low moan escaping her lips.” In the end, The Hunger Games is a dark dystopia, a skillfully written book that intensely holds the imagination, and then, if you’re willing to think about what you’ve been reading, raises questions about why people enjoy the idea of killing other people. Or maybe it isn’t worth thinking about. It’s just a book.

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Have You Seen The New Guy?

Frankenstein and doctorWhen you need to create a person out of thin air, what do you do? This is a question mad scientists and writers deal with on a regular basis. You could, of course, follow the modern scientific method and gather body parts from the graveyard. And I don’t intend to be critical if that’s your way.

But if you don’t have a shovel and a wheelbarrow, and you’re writing fiction, you could use the literary method. You still get to steal things, and you might even want to lie about it on occasion, such as when someone says, “Was that woman who wouldn’t shut up at the party based on me?” Ohhhh no, it wasn’t based on you. You’re nothing like that.

One of the truths of writing fiction is that even creating a poorly-done, unrealistic character can require a lot of effort. If your character does more than stand on the corner with an umbrella, or collect train tickets, the character will have to move around (“the man walked along quickly, with his arms held close by his side”) and wear some kind of clothing (“she was wearing a red knit dress that came to her ankles, sitting there in the laundromat”). In other words, even for things that aren’t really all that interesting, there are many possible choices.

Doing far more than I’ve implied above can still produce flat characters. Needless to say, but damnit I’m saying it anyway, it can be very frustrating to work so hard and then realize—or worse, have someone tell us—that we didn’t achieve it. Although every character on paper will be missing many things a real person would have, if we work hard enough, in the right way, the readers will perhaps fill in or ignore what is missing, and the character starts to seem like a real person.

What is enough? What is in the right way? In this succinct, well-written blog I can’t begin to cover all that might be done, but I want to consider one idea of character development: does a well-developed character always need a flaw? It’s a tricky question, because negative qualities are so…you know…negative. We don’t like them. If a character has enough flaws, the character becomes unpleasant. When we write fiction, we ask readers to voluntarily give us their time, and in exchange we promise to provide an experience worth having. Is spending many hours in the company of a repellent character an experience worth having? Not for me it’s not.

Yet there is an exception to any rule against creating an obnoxious character. If it’s done for humor or satire, then the humor alleviates the displeasure, and it can become a happy experience. Maybe the most well-known example is Shakespeare’s character Falstaff. I would add Ignatius J. Reilly (Confederacy of Dunces) or Ostap Bender (The Twelve Chairs, a wonderful Russian satirical novel). The idea of nasty characters for humor has carried over into pop culture and filmed versions, such as Homer Simpson, all the characters on Seinfeld, or many movies attempting humor.

But those are all exaggerations, and humor is the purpose, rather than convincing the reader to believe in the character as a real person. Part of the trick fiction writers face is that all real people have flaws, sometimes small things like eating food off the knife, and sometimes large flaws like being cheap with money. If we create a character who seems to have no weaknesses or faults, the reader actually may not notice, because we can’t possibly see everything about a person. Still, if we do add flaws and faults to our characters, this addition can help make our characters seem more real. There may be the danger I mentioned above of causing a reader to back away from the character, and it is a real danger. In addition to skill, perhaps the writer has to have more bravery to darken a character who they want the readers to like, but with our own friends, we surely know things about all of them that we consider negative, yet we like them anyway.

As with all other aspects of creating literary characters, since our characters imitate the amazing diversity of human beings, we have a range of choices for making them flawed. We could simply do something physical. Maybe the character is ugly, or has a deformity, such as a limp or bad vision. The physical flaw could also be situational, like a boy on a baseball team who always drops the ball after he catches it. Physical flaws can be useful to round a character out on occasion, but the most serious portrayals of human beings involve psychology. A few general categories for faults or weaknesses include fear, prejudice, intolerance, or bad habits.

Creating examples from that list, I can have (1) a lawyer who is afraid of flying and has become so adverse to travel in general that his wife is frustrated they can’t go anywhere, (2) a male violin player who believes that women are physically incapable of playing a violin as well as a man, (3) a woman running an ice cream shop who doesn’t like the Chinese in her neighborhood and who gives them slightly smaller portions when they come in, or (4) a young woman working for a publishing company who will go for days without washing her dishes, until there are roaches in the kitchen.

For the same people, let’s add this: (1) the lawyer makes a point of being home for dinner with his wife every night, and he brings her fresh flowers once a week, (2) the violin player volunteers one evening a week at a homeless shelter, (3) the woman who runs the ice cream shop is coldly ignored by her husband and she also spends time helping her elderly mother, (4) the young woman is writing a play about her father, who was a hero in Vietnam.

If we take either paragraph alone, good or bad, the characters may be somewhat interesting, but not nearly so much as when we add both together.

The only flaw I can find in all this discussion of depicting human nature is that I cannot seem to detect any faults in myself. But I will keep looking. I know people who will surely be willing to help me. In the meantime, I wonder what characters have you encountered in literature that made you feel you were reading about a real person?


Filed under How We Create Magic

They Do What?

Sign for brothel in Winnemucca, NevadaFinally, April 11, the year of our Lord 2012, it snowed. Or it was more of a cross between snow and sleet. As it began to flurry in full across the street, I walked from the parking garage to the new book store downtown. The store doesn’t open until Saturday, but I was there because I had an interview to be the editor of a small newspaper. When I say “small” I mean it comes out once a month. It does pay $10,000 per year, and if this were 1920, I’d be dancing to the bank.

Still, I’d like the job, as I think it would be interesting, as well as a definite challenge, and I can think of things to do with the paper that I’d like to try. About a year ago I was writing for the same paper, both feature articles now and then as well as a regular monthly health column. As with most interviews, today I had to pretend to be better than I believe I am. I also did not indicate that having this job would be my first step to world domination and free beer for anyone who pretends to like me. I figure first things first.

I should also start working soon at Lowes as a cashier, where, by the way, all the signs in the store are in both English and Spanish. I like that. Eventually I will know how to say “whirlpool” and “guaranteed delivery” and other useful things in Spanish. Lowes is waiting for the results of the drug test to finalize the deal with my employment. Since this isn’t 1980, I don’t think there should be a problem with that. If I also get the editor job, between the two I might barely be able to survive. If someone else takes care of the free beer. If you do that, I’ll pretend to like you.

But what I came here to tell you about is how the novel I’m writing is going. I’ve gotten an idea for the book title. Not an entire idea, that is, just part of one. I’ll use the word “time” in it. Now maybe you’re thinking “Oh! Somebody stop me from falling asleep here.” Which means you just don’t appreciate the subtle and marvelous workings of a writer’s mind, that’s all that is. It took me months to come up with that word, and as soon as I get a few more words to put with it, I’ll have a whole title.

Well, then, moving along. And I am moving along. Sort of. Slowly. I’m now on page 238, although technically page 238 does not exist, as it is still completely blank other than the word “title” to be replaced by an actual chapter title when I think of one. So let’s say 237. That’s not so bad. How many have you done? At this point I can also see more or less to the end of the book. As Benedict and Miramar are traveling west to California, I pretty much do see all the way to the end. They’re now in Winnemucca, Nevada, home to gold mining, casinos, and several brothels that all seem to be tucked off together on Riverside Street. Must be some local ordinance in Winnemucca as to where you can locate a whore house.

Winnemucca is one day’s drive from Sacramento, the end of the novel. But of course they are also traveling east in 1876, and until I can get them into the past again and back on a train, they haven’t gotten beyond Indianapolis. Soon, though, they’ll be on their way, through Columbus and Wheeling and Pittsburgh, until they get to Altoona, Pennsylvania, where Benedict and Miramar’s Big Adventure really steps up. I’m doing this exciting plot feature in Altoona just because I can, and Altoona is right down the road from where I live, where I’ve gone on occasion for diversion. They have a very nice cathedral up on the hill there.

If you’ve been paying attention, then you’ll recall that my literary buddies are trying to get to Philadelphia for the Centennial Exposition. To tell the truth, I’m not sure if they should get there or not, though I’m a little concerned with pissing off the reader if I don’t take them all the way. There is still a good bit to do on the eastward end.

And maybe I should do some of it, instead of wasting time trying to waste your time. Isn’t it time for you to go read a book? It’s time for me to go write a book.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), Writing While Living

Where Were You Between Twelve and Three O’Clock?

An enormous diamond

It's even better when it's yours

Years ago, when I was commencing my foolish sprawl through life, beginning my collection of interesting-but-unwise decisions, my wife in that life read a couple of novels by a writer I had never heard of. She liked him, which would have given me reason to read him as well, and yet it has taken me several more decades to get around to Wilkie Collins, who lived from 1824 to 1889. I don’t mind the wait, as it’s good to know that all our life, marvelous discoveries are still possible, and the novel The Moonstone is one of them.

There are various things I could say about Wilkie Collins and this novel, one of his two most well-known (the other is The Woman in White). Let’s start with the ephemeral nature of fame. Have you ever read Wilkie Collins? Have you even heard of him? There’s a good chance the answer is no, yet here is the second sentence from the Wikipedia article on Collins: “He was very popular during the Victorian era and wrote 30 novels, more than 60 short stories, 14 plays, and over 100 non-fiction pieces.”

In other words, he was very famous and successful, and where is he now? But there are much better things to say about Wilkie Collins than to hold him up as an example of famous-then-not-famous. The world is filled with that, including many fabulous writers who most people don’t read anymore. Here’s the main thing about The Moonstone: It’s fun to read. You don’t need to know about Collins himself (his interesting—to say the least—romantic life; his very close friendship with Charles Dickens; his father who was a well-known painter). And you don’t need to know what other people say about this book (one of Collins’ best novels; considered to be the first detective novel in English).

You only need to know that reading the book is a pleasure. It’s written in a technique called “epistolary”, which originally meant a story told in a series of letters written by various characters to others. In this case, the term “epistolary” may be stretched a little thin, as the story is indeed told by different characters, but they are all writing long documents telling what they know about incidents related to the theft of a huge diamond (the Moonstone). All of the documents, and thus the novel itself, are intended to be a kind of legal record.

One of the most entertaining things about the book is the different narrators. Collins is able to create distinctive voices for the people writing, though he is better at the more eccentric or lower-class characters. The more upper-class the character, the more the voice sounds like an educated and refined Victorian such might be found in other novels as well. The Moonstone begins with the delightful, slightly curmudgeonly head servant of a country estate, who is the first narrator. Here is a sentence from his section: “Every thing the Miss Ablewhites said began with a large O; every thing they did was done with a bang; and they giggled and screamed, in season and out of season, on the smallest provocation. Bouncers—that’s what I call them.” The second narrator makes a fine contrast to the elderly head servant: a young woman who is fanatically religious, and who reveals things about herself without knowing she is doing it, as though there is a joke between the reader and Wilkie Collins that the narrator herself doesn’t understand. Here is a sentence from that narrator: “Even that simple appeal—so absolutely heathenizing is the influence of the world—appeared to startle my aunt.”

In telling the story of the giant diamond, The Moonstone uses a number of literary devices that show up in many later detective novels. Most prominently, we find the experienced detective (though called a Sergeant in this book) called in to examine the case, who carefully questions everyone in sight and tries to put pieces together, to puzzle out what happened.

There are also subplots related to the main puzzle, with worship of Hindu gods, secret identities, betrayal, mistaken love, and even, briefly, cultivation of roses. Working out what happened takes a couple of years in the plot, which doesn’t go in the direction we might expect. As with many things, surprise is part of the pleasure, and even now a good detective novel has a goal of trying to fool the reader until the end.

Collins did not entirely invent this genre, as there were some examples before him, including stories by Edgar Allan Poe, but Wilkie Collins was the first to put it all together in a long novel form. Since then we’ve seen plenty of novels so popular they’ve created an entire category, and detective stories have moved on into movies and TV shows that people will be watching this very week.

I paused while I was writing this blog entry to practice yoga, but you probably already suspected that. Back up the page where you said to yourself, “Hmm, this discussion of a Victorian novel suddenly seems peaceful and healthy and centered with the Earth.” That’s where it was. And now it’s time for peaceful, healthy leftover beans and rice for lunch. With hot sauce, to be centered with the Earth.

For those of you who celebrate it, I wish you a good Easter. Find an egg for me too. Any color is fine.


Filed under Book Talks

I Speak You Away From Me

Newspaper clipping on race laws from VirginiaBelief in the magical power of language may seem like something that only affects poor ignorant souls, probably living in the past, probably living in some country without cable TV. We’re not like that. We’re logical and reasonable. Our lives are guided by factual information.

Here in our clean, modern, civilized world, maybe we avoid blatant superstition. Sometimes. More or less. But the impulse that drives belief in curses and blessings, a foolish belief in words, is not an outgrowth of a less educated, less technological, or less socially free society. A belief in the power of words is inherent in our functioning as human beings.

It can be very hard—or impossible sometimes—to see beyond the fact that words are, really, truly, just noises to which meaning has been added by social agreement. The process is remarkably complicated, but the effect is: Let’s all agree that when we add together the sounds of “water” we mean the stuff in the lake, wherever we find it.

Once a word exists, it is almost as though the thing or idea is now real in our mind because it has a name, whether that thing is physical (like “water”), abstract (like “unity”) or real sort-of, but still abstract (like “oxygen”). We can also add an interesting fourth category here—ideas that seem real but are not.

In that group of ideas that seem real but are not, we find a word like “witch”. Many people have believed, and some still believe, in a witch as a woman with evil power who can do harm. Although witches have never existed, there was plenty of harm done alright—many women have been tortured and murdered because they were suspected of being witches. As this example illustrates, words for ideas that seem real but are not can have deathly consequences.

“Race” to describe human beings is such a deadly word. The word as it is used in social practice means a division of people in ways that do not exist in biology. The consequences of dividing people based on race are so enormous that they hardly need discussing. In its impact on our society (and many other societies) race is extremely important. However much decent people wish it didn’t matter, it still does, though less than when I was young. I was born in 1953, and that was a vicious time in America.

It is all the more tragic that we have committed such atrocities, that we have inflicted such misery, that we have damaged so many people, in the name of an idea that does not exist in reality. Recall, however, the women who were tortured to death as witches.

Let’s pause to let the howling die down, the objections to how the dumb liberal doesn’t even believe what’s right in front of his eyes. Race doesn’t exist?

No, it doesn’t.

If you really do believe that race exists as a clear physical distinction, then define it. We’ll wait for you to do it. By skin color? You can find members of the “black” and “white” races with exactly the same color of skin. By hair color and texture? Again, you can find members of different “races” who are exactly the same. If you try to define race, and if you are honest, you will give up.

I am now talking about biology, not about social practice. Here is one reference from a biology text, Biological Science by Keeton and Gould (W. W. Norton, 1986): “Many biologists have argued against the formal recognition of subspecies or races. One reason is that the distinctions between them are often made arbitrarily…” Illustrating the impossibility of racial definition and the arbitrary nature of that definition is the fact that at various times there have been many different concepts of who constitutes a “race”. I have seen references to the “Irish race” or the “Nordic race”, made up only of people living in Northern Europe. We may as well talk about the “red-headed race”. We can even give them a Latin name, the Rubescians, to make it seem real.

In the place and time where I grew up, we were raised to believe that race was an absolute reality, as definite and unchangeable as the sky. When you grow up with such a belief, it can be very difficult to realize that you have been misled by the word “race”. There are differences between humans, obviously, far more differences, in fact, than we have names for “races”. There are differences between humans, certainly, but there are no biological races that keep us apart, only social practices.

And those social practices gave us words, which have tricked us. We have abused one another too long because we’ve been tricked.

Have you ever met someone whose race you could not easily identify? Have you been unsure how you should relate to that person because you didn’t know what word to call them?

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