Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Sealed with a Kiss

Will the US Postal Service survive for another 20 years?  Should it?

Mail fascinates me.  I have no idea why.  (Then again, I have no idea why I am fascinated by 90% of the things which fascinate me.)  It’s not that I like sending physical letters; I don’t.  I have converted every bill I can to electronic payment.  And it’s not that I get a lot of mail I like to receive.  My Wall Street Journal is delivered by the USPS, but that is just an oddity.  I get a few magazines once a month.  Netflix red envelopes are nice.  An occasional letter; very occasional.  Yet, every day when I get home, I wander down to the mailbox to get the mail and somehow this doesn’t seem like a tedious chore.

These ruminations are prompted by Bradbury’s “The Great Wide World over There” all about an illiterate woman living in the middle of nowhere who is insanely excited and fascinated by getting mail.  (Pretend there is a story surrounding that description—there isn’t, but it will make you feel better if you imagine there is a story.)  The idea of getting mail is exciting too; actually getting mail is never exciting.  Why the disconnect?

Now e-mail, I like.  Quick, efficient, easy.  I understand why I like e-mail.

All of which prompts me to wonder:  how much of the National Tolerance with US Postal Service is pure nostalgia?  Growing up in California, I was mesmerized by the idea that "Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail" would ever stop The Mailman. I believed that.  Then reality came crashing down on me after I moved to New England and mail delivery was cancelled due to a blizzard.  Apparently Eastern mailmen are not as reliable as California mailmen. Either that or the saying...just wasn't true.  

But, as a business concern, the postal service is a mammoth joke.  What kind of business promises to deliver letters to every single address six days a week for under 50 cents per letter?  How does this make sense?  Think about all the mail delivered on any given day.  Now ask: if all of that mail had been delivered one day later, how much damage would be done?  I can only remember once receiving a piece of mail which would have caused harm if I had not received it until the next day—we received our Visas for India the day before departing for India.  Surely, there is time-sensitive business mail—but would anyone, anyone at all, send a time sensitive piece of mail through the US Postal Service?  Next Day Mail.  Cheap, guaranteed delivery the next day.  Who wouldn’t use that for something which needed immediate delivery (besides the Indian Embassy, of course)?

Now if the Postal Service were to drop guaranteed delivery to every address from every day to every other day, that would be a rather dramatic cutting of costs—you would need only half the mailmen (does anyone call them mailmen anymore?  I thought not.)  A pretty obvious cost cutting measure, yet I have never seen it mentioned.  Instead, they are talking about cutting Saturday delivery—and one would think not receiving mail on Saturday is a sign of the Apocalypse from the political outcry.  The same goes for stamps—where did we get the idea that the price of mailing a letter should be below the cost of mailing a letter? 

We treat the US Postal Service like a natural monopoly, and honestly, it probably is a natural monopoly.  I think it is easy to make the case that the US Postal Service is also a Public Good.  So, unlike the libertarian types, I am not fired up about abolishing the whole enterprise.  Yet, even if I am right about the Public Good nature of the whole enterprise, I cannot see any reason for the size of the operation.  Having the ability to send relatively cheap letters to anyone in the country is a good thing, but is there any reason that daily, instead of, say, weekly, delivery of mail is a public good?  This is the sort of discussion we should be having, but strangely, we are not.

None of which explains why I like the idea of mail so much.  I know my feelings are not universal—Janet hates the mail—she viscerally loathes going to the Post Office and she would never remember to go collect the mail every day.  And my kids?  I am not sure they even know how the mail system works.  (They also don’t know lots of other things—Janet and I were watching Star Trek with Clara last night and there was this planet…well, the plot doesn’t matter (“Shore Leave” for the Trekkies)…an antenna played an important part in the story—it looked an old-style TV antenna.  When it shows up, you react with an “Oh my!”  Janet looked at Clara when it showed up and asked her if she knew what it was.  No idea.  Then Clara was incredulous that there used to be such things on the top of houses.  Anyway, Clara’s knowledge of the mail is only marginally greater than her knowledge of TV antennas.)  I suspect there are quite a few people under the age of 25 who literally have no idea how to send a letter through the US Postal Service.

So, 20 years from now, when DVDs are obsolete (so no more Netflix envelopes), when all magazines are read on your iPad, will daily physical mail delivery still exist?  I doubt it.  And then, this song, will make no sense to anyone.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Why Does the World Exist?

For Father’s Day, Janet bought me a book.  That in and of itself is not terribly interesting or surprising.  It was a really good book.  That also does not seem surprising, but therein lies a tale.  I have been married to Janet for 25 years; we dated for 5 years before getting married.  In that entire span of three decades, I have read a lot of books.  Yet, and here is the part which will Astound One and All, in that entire span of three decades, 30 years, 360 months, nearly 11,000 days, Janet has not once—and I mean never—looked  up and asked me, “What are you reading?”  She has never once, to the best of my knowledge, ever looked at a book I was reading to see what it was.  Yet, when it comes to wandering into a bookstore to buy a book for me, she has an uncanny ability to find books that I have not read and are actually extremely interesting. 

Now when I noted this oddity to her the other day, she laughed.  And then she said, “Well, I don’t have to ask what you are reading to find out.”  One of the young‘ins who was there laughed at Janet’s witticism.  I was nonplussed.  I still am.  I don’t think I talk about every book I read.  And even if I did, how is it possible to not ever ask what I am reading? 

But, to the book, which was good, but you knew that because Janet bought it for me.  Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt.  In this case, the title is not deceptive; it is exactly the subject of the book. Holt poses the question and then travels around, Socrates-like, to assorted people who think they can answer the question.  Nobody has a very satisfying answer.  Holt tries to provide an answer at the end, but oddly, after just showing how nobody can provide a satisfying answer, he seems to think his answer might be at least somewhat satisfying, but suffice it to say a) his answer is not in the least bit satisfying and b) his answer is totally irrelevant in evaluating the quality of this book, which is extremely high.

Just think about the question for a bit.  Why is there something rather than nothing?  Obviously there is something.  But why?  Is it Necessary for there to be something?  Is or Was Nothing a possibility.  Could it be that Nothing...and here we get stuck even more…can you ask Could Nothing Exist?  Is Nothing Something or is it the absence of Something?  If Nothing is the absence of Something, then can it exist or does existence require being something?

Now it seems like this question of why the world exists can be easily solved by positing a Deity.  The world exists because a Divine Power Created it.  But, that backs up the question.  Why does God exist?  To which the traditional theological answer is God Necessarily exists because Existence is a Necessary Characteristic of Deity.  But, how do we know that?  Does God necessarily exist?  Is it possible that God could Not have existed?    What is the either the Deity-generating Process or the Reason that the non-existence of God is impossible?  In other words, even if the Universe is Created by God, if we consider the God/Universe combination or the Universe alone, the exact same questions arise:  Why?

The multiverse doesn’t solve this, by the way:  This universe may exists because there are infinitely many universes, but why are there infinitely many universes?  Also, if there are infinitely many universes, is there a universe which doesn’t exist?  Is the non-existence of a universe among the possibilities granted by the multiverse?  What does that question even mean?

It also seems like if we can get around the question by asking what seems like a simpler question. What is the purpose of the universe?  Or, How did the Universe come into Being?  But neither of those questions has a very good answer either.

This most excellent book by Holt does not have an answer (as noted above, ignore Holt’s desperation pass at the end—it falls incomplete).  But, reading this book is like one endless mental exercise on an unbelievably fascinating question.  This book is like one of these wandering discussions which just keep turning back on themselves and by the end you aren’t even sure what you are asking, but by golly, it sure feels like you are making progress toward some unknown end but you have no idea what you are learning because you have forgotten where the question started or what you were trying to answer or even whether you are actually writing a coherent sentence or off on some bizarre string of words in which each world follows from what came before but it is no longer clear if what is currently being written has any resemblance the to the matter you began to write about at the commencement of the sentence, which probably no longer qualifies as a sentence anyway.

Why Does the World Exist?  I have no idea.  In fact, I know less now than I did when I started reading this book.  And that is seriously high praise for a book.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Plants of Lower Lake

Proof that I really have moved back from the World of Administration:  I just spent the afternoon reading by Lower Lake.  Mount Holyoke is truly gorgeous; last week it was put on a list of the 15 most beautiful campuses in the world.  And I work here.  Life is good.  The ability to read by Lower Lake is one of the things I missed most in my travels through Administratia.  I never had three hours free in which I could ditch my shoes, wander over to the lake, lounge in an Adirondack chair, and just read. 

Now as I said, Mount Holyoke is gorgeous, and I really noticed it today.  Which brings us to Roald Dahl’s “The Sound Machine.”  [Note: this is not the book I was reading today; a review of that tome will have to wait until its argument, make that its quite interesting argument, has time to sift in the mind for a bit.]  [Second Note:  yes, this is the Roald Dahl of children’s book fame.  He was also a writer of short stories for adults.]  Our hero invents a sound machine which can hear sounds on frequencies beyond those which can be sensed by the human ear.  He discovers that plants emit sounds when they are wounded, sounds which are not quite like yelps of pain, but more akin to shock (apparently plants don’t have memories of previous wounds?).  (Wounding a plant includes such things as cutting off its flowers and driving an axe into it.  (The preceding explanation was provided for those whose imaginations could not generate an example of a wounded plant. (Let us hope that there are no Readers who actually Required Said Explanation.)))

As a story…forget that.  I promised (myself) to stop complaining about “Short Stories.”

Staring at all the amazing plants today got me wondering:  would that which makes plants worth admiring be enhanced or degraded if “The Sound Machine” was right?  I’ve been thinking a bit about the nature of Nature in recent weeks.  For our 25th wedding anniversary (insert “Ah, that’s sweet”), Janet and I journeyed up to the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden.  Janet likes gardens; always has.  She is, indeed, obsessed with plants.  I, on the other hand, have only lately come to an appreciation of all matters plant-like.  (I feigned an interest when courting; Janet feigned an interest in football; so I think we are even on that score.)  Gardens did it.  A perfectly planned garden would surely rate among the Great Works of Art. The Coastal Maine Botanical Garden is a great work (small g, small w) of art.  So, is Mount Holyoke.  Now one part of what makes these Gardens so beautiful is their inherent transient nature; gardens change, constantly.  Not just seasons, but weather and wind patterns and sunlight and rainfall all make the garden look slightly different than before.  Truly beautiful.  None of this is at all surprising to the Reader.

But, what if these plants had the ability to emit sound?  Indeed, what if they were conscious?  Would I be more or less enraptured in staring at their beauty?  Would I be terrified of them?  Would I feel so free to rip out the weeds which surrounded my chair in order to enhance the pleasure I felt in reading there on a pleasant summer day?  I’m not sure.  There are two large trees which are right outside the window of my office when I look up from my computer screen.  Those trees have been there for as long as I have been in this office (they predate me by decades—big trees).  I know those trees.  What if they knew me?  Would that thought cheer me?

Now don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think plants are sentient.  The thought experiment is simply whether I would be happy, terrified or indifferent if I found out I was wrong about that.  I don’t know.

So, we can conclude with an Imperfect Song about the Most Perfect Garden: Eden.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Cold Coming

When I finished Things Fall Apart (reviewed in yesterday’s entry in this ever-serendipitous space), I read the author bio at the back and was quite surprised to discover that the author, Chinua Achebe, had written a sequel.  Obviously I had never read the author bio before.  I was intrigued by the idea of the sequel.  Then I noticed the title: No Longer at Ease.  Shock.  That book was on my bookshelf; I had picked it up at a library book sale years ago and filed it away for later reading.  I had no idea it was a sequel.  Nowhere on the cover of No Longer at Ease does it say it is a sequel.  Odd.

Not surprisingly, I read it.  The quick answer: it isn’t as good as Things Fall Apart. But it was worth reading; it is short and a quick read so that helps, but even on its own terms it is worth reading.

The hero of this tale (Obi Okonkwo) is the grandson of the hero of Things Fall Apart.  The first novel is the African Tribe’s first encounter with the British.  This novel traces what was wrought in that encounter.  The tribe we met in the first novel has scraped together enough money to send one of its own, young Obi, to England for an education.  Obi returns to his homeland, and this novel is the result of what follows.  The title tells it all:  from Eliot’s poem, “Journey of the Magi”:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.

Obi doesn’t fit.  He isn’t British, but he also is no longer truly at one with his tribe.  He is bewildered by both the colonial culture and the tribal culture.  Indeed, it is a society which is nearly impossible to navigate.  Obi does not meet with a good end, which comes as no surprise, since the novel opens with his conviction in court for accepting a bribe.  The rest of the novel is a flashback showing how Obi arrived at this point.

As a novel about the problems of Colonial Rule in Africa, it is pretty good.  It’s not a good society; it would be hard to spin the situation as good for anyone, African or British.  It would be a simple matter to spin this novel into a question about the merits, or lack thereof, of colonial rule.  But, to do so reduces Obi to a prop.  Think about his plight, not the plight of Africa as a whole, but the plight of the individual, and it is suddenly obvious that there is a much deeper problem to ponder.

Obi returns from England.  The hopes of his tribe are on him—they paid for his education and now they want a return on their investment.  Obi is meant to get a job in the government, from which he can return favors to the tribe.  There is a weight of expectation on Obi, not just to provide for his family and his tribe, but to keep up the appearance of being a success.  It is not long before Obi finds himself mired in debt.  On top of that, he falls in love with a women, who it turns out is from an abhorrent caste.  Now such things shouldn’t matter in a modern society, but tribal memories die hard and everyone is his tribe, his parents included, are adamant that Obi cannot have a relationship with a woman of this class.

Now put yourself in Obi’s situation.  What do you do?  Is there any way to live in that society without disappointing someone?  Do you discard the expectations of your tribe, your family, your employers?  And thus begins the slow slide into accepting bribes to square the circle, but of course that doesn’t work either.  It isn’t at all clear that Achebe has given any way out for Obi.  And therein lies the deep matter of this novel; how do you live a life when there is absolutely no way to fit into the world in which you find oneself.

One answer: just rebel.  A nice answer. Simple. To the point.  But after the death of the old system?
“I had seen birth and death/ But had thought they were different: this Birth was/ Hard and Bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”
The story of decolonization?

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Widening Gyre

Way back in ninth grade (many, many years ago), I read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for my English class.  Clara is entering ninth grade this year, and one of her assigned summer reading books: Things Fall Apart.  Different coast, 30+ years later. 

First, though, can I just say that this whole idea of assigned summer reading makes me very happy?  My kids all hate it, but I love it.  Just think, in the old days, I never had homework during summer vacation.  Never—not once in all my years of schooling did I ever have a single summer assignment.  This change is proof that civilization is not totally in decline—some things are improving.

I actually liked Things Fall Apart in ninth grade—indeed, it was one of the very few assigned books I enjoyed.  As I have noted in this space previously, over the years I have reread most of the books I was assigned and hated in high school—I have enjoyed them all.  The books were good—the method of assigning them sucked all the joy and life out of them.  Why can’t schools just let kids read the books and enjoy them?

I reread Things Fall Apart some time ago, and I think I enjoyed it more than I did in 9th grade.  (It is hard to know—how accurate is a memory of pleasure?  How can I compare the pleasure from reading a book now, 15 years ago, and then 30 years ago?  Are recent pleasures more or less vivid than older pleasures?  Surely it varies, but how? Rumination topic for another day.)  I just reread it so that I can talk with Clara about it.  (Not that she will want to talk with me about it.  She won’t.  She is 13, and for reasons I cannot understand having a sprawling hour long discussion about a book is not something which causes young Clara to experience paroxysms of joy.  But, I reread the book anyway…just in case.  The triumph of hope over experience, to be sure.) 

It is an excellent book.  It is, indeed, one of the few books assigned by the Multicultural Types which is genuinely well worth reading. An African tribe and British missionaries and colonizers meet and, well, the title says it all.  Now this could have been a cheap moralizing book all about how bad the British are.  But, the African tribe is not portrayed in some idyllic light.  It is in many ways a brutal and nasty culture.  But, not uniformly brutal and nasty; there are some very admirable things there too.  The story has, mirabile dictu, nuance.  Our hero, Okonkwo, does not do well when he is faced with the massive cultural change the British will bring.  But, he wasn’t doing so well in his old tribal culture either. The British will inevitably destroy what is good in the tribal culture, but they also end what is brutally wrong in the tribal culture as well.  Nuance.  A virtue in novels not much appreciated in the modern age.

Naturally enough, I looked at the questions Clara will have to answer for her school.  (Not only does she have to read, but she has assigned questions to answer!)  I thought about answering the questions here, partly just for the fun of it, but also partly so that when Clara complained about how long it takes to answer all these questions, I could tell her I did them all in a rather short period of time.  But, looking over the questions, I realized a) it is probably only about 15-30 minutes of work if you write in complete sentences, and 2) the questions aren’t really all that interesting and thought-provoking.  An example—the question requiring the most reflection:
“Why is the novel’s title appropriate? What is it that fell apart? What future is suggested for the native people at the end of the novel?”
Suffice it to say that the title is quite appropriate. 

But, an even more interesting question:  is the poem from which the title is taken appropriate?  Now there would have been an essay question requiring some substantive thought.  Mere anarchy or not?  Rough Beast: the British?  All in all, I think the poem does work for the book.  But, even more interestingly, if we generalize the book in this way, we suddenly realize that this small African tribe crashing when it meets the British is not all that bad a description of the Europe on the verge of World War I.  There is much about the pre-War West we now find unattractive—colonization among other things.  The treatment of women in this African village bears a similarity to the way feminist types describe the treatment of women pre-War.  Violence, narrow-mindedness, absurd traditions: check.  “The best lack all conviction/ while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  Not a bad summary of the modern age, that.  The ceremony of innocence is drowned in a Lust for Life.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Making History

1. I am currently at a conference in Princeton.  The conference is a joint operation of the McConnell Center and the Liberty Fund, which brings Kentucky school teachers (a mix of elementary, middle and high school social science teachers) together for a week long discussion of “Liberty in the Western Tradition.”  They invited me down to be one of the discussion leaders.  Having a very lovely time.

2.  The whole concept of this sort of conference intrigues me.  I just spent a year  helping get some structure for Mount Holyoke Extension and one of the programs we have is a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT).  So, in the last year, I got a crash course in Teacher Education.  Suffice it to say that teacher education is a really odd thing (not the Mount Holyoke program—which is outstanding—but just the whole principle of what we expect of teachers).  Teachers have to take a lot of Education Theory courses, the sort of theory which is here today, and totally changed tomorrow.  Shockingly little content is required.  If you want to know why your child’s high school math teacher seems to know so little mathematics, well, this is why.  So, what the McConnell Center is doing in this conference is providing, free of charge to the participants, some fantastic education in the subject which these teachers are teaching.  This conference came with 600 pages of reading every participant had to do—not light reading, either—Genesis, Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Livy, Cicero, Coke, Smith and lots of important documents surrounding English Common Law and the America Founding.  The whole week is set up like a Liberty Fund conference—lots and lots and lots of discussion.  (Well, they also added two lectures, one each from the two discussion leaders.)  This is, in other words, what Teacher Education should look like. 

3.  The participants in this conference are great.  I wish my kids had these sorts of teachers.  But, it is surely a depressing sign of modern education in America that the teachers here, many of whom have been at other McConnell Center events for teachers, say that they have been unable to convince any of their colleagues to even apply to come to a conference like this one. 

4. The stories these teachers tell of rural schools in Kentucky would be heartbreaking if it weren’t for the fact that Granby, MA isn’t really all that much better.

5. Biggest shock of the conference so far.  One of the teachers here graduated from the same high school in San Jose, California as me, and…she graduated two years after me.  It was a big high school, so we didn’t know each other, but even still…small world.

6. A conference like this is a never ending series of comments which make one think.  To give an example: here is the last thing about which I started wondering.  Do people really want democracy?  Do they like Democracy?  Do they like the give and take of political battle?  Would they just prefer a benevolent dictator?  I am not sure.  Which is not a very comforting thought.

7.  Which leads in an odd way to a book review:  Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage.  This is thought to be Grey’s best novel; I can’t remember if I have ever read one of his novels before, so I don’t know that I have a comparison set.  He wrote Westerns, and if I recall, Colonel Potter liked him a lot (and if you don’t know who Colonel Potter is, well, I feel very, very sorry for you).  Westerns all feel the same to me—yeah I know the plots are different, but for some reason, I don’t feel the difference when reading them.  So, this one had the same rugged Western heroes fighting dastardly villains.  If you have never read a Western before, I would highly recommend this one—everyone should read at least one Western.

8. Imagine putting the characters from Grey’s novel in a discussion about Liberty and the Western Tradition.  Those guys knew what they meant by Liberty.  They had firm views on government and the proper limits thereof.  And yet, they had read none of the books we have read for this conference.  Would I like it if people today had the same beliefs about Liberty and the importance of it that the heroes of a Grey novel had?  Absolutely.  Would I rather live in Utah in the 1890s than in a civilized town in 2013?  Not a chance.  Am I thus wishing for something which cannot be?  The jury is still out on that.  Maybe I’ll figure it out by the end of this conference.

9. Oddest Occurrence of this conference:  Easy.  The hotel bar has a challenge.  They have seven drinks, named for assorted famous people.  You get a card, drink the seven drinks in the order they appear on the card—one per day, but we conference participants got a special dispensation to do the 7 drinks in five days—and at the end you merit the award saying that You Made History.  This is one of those achievements in life which I cannot tell my wife I accomplished while I was at a conference and she was at home with the kids, dog, house, plants, business and finishing up her final project for her graduate certificate program. 

10. So, officially: it is all work and no play here.

11.  Tomorrow night I am going to a ball game.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Horse and Carriage

Fear not, Dear Reader.  Despite the manner in which the Following Begins, it is not a maudlin Love Story.

The need for the Advisory Warning in the paragraph above is Explained later on.

The need for two Explanatory Paragraphs before the Commencement of the Subject Matter at Hand is nowhere explained, and, Truth be told, is undoubtedly totally unnecessary.

This last week had an event of Some Note in the Life of Your Humble Narrator, assuming that the annual marking of True Events of Note are also Events of Note and further assuming that there is some mystical numerological significance in the number 25.  (Why five squared is more significant than either 4 squared or 6 squared is one of the Mysteries of Life.)  July 9 marked the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Marriage of Your Humble Narrator and the Long-Suffering Wife of Your Humble Narrator (LSWYHN).  The temptation is quite strong to now commence on an Encomium (and perhaps even a Panegyric) to My Beloved Wife, but Two Factors Prohibit this from Occurring.

First: The LSWYHN would not appreciate being Discussed in such a manner.  And, while the LSWHN rarely visits these precincts and thus would likely be eternally unaware of the existence of said Encomium, there is a slight danger that the LSWYHN would discover this and then Your Humble Narrator would be subject to the withering scowl of the LSWYHN, which as everyone who has ever been subject to said scowl (a set which comprises Your Humble Narrator and nobody else) knows, is a Fate not to be Tempted.

Second: At times, Your Humble Narrator takes pity upon the Reader and spares the Reader from the excesses of Your Humble Narrator’s prose.  (The Reader may now shudder that if the writings herein are sparing the Reader of Excess, then contemplating the Horror of being not-so-spared is something to be Avoided.)

Once, when I was teaching a January course entitled “Reflections on War” (a Great Books class—pretty interesting set of readings), I asked the class why they were all so fascinated by war that they would be interested in a class of that title.  I then asked how many of them would have taken a class entitled “Reflections on Love.”  Nobody would have taken it, and indeed, the look of utter disgust crossing the faces of the students in the class was amusing to behold.  Apparently, the average Mount Holyoke Student does not want to hear all about Love.  Yet, this same set of students were eagerly looking forward to rereading Pride and Prejudice in the Reflections on War class.  (Determining why that novel was in a class entitled Reflections on War is an interesting exercise left for the Reader.)  Presumably the aversion to a class on Love signifies a related aversion to blog posts on Love.

All of which brings us to the matter to be reviewed. Chekov’s “The Huntsman.”  The Huntsman is married to a poor woman, but he married her when drunk and now sees her as little as possible.  The poor woman would like the huntsman to be home.  She runs into him on the road.  They talk (briefly).  He wanders off. 

So, here we have a marriage.  But a loveless marriage.  Indeed, other than the legal existence of the marriage, it is hard to see in what other sense these two people are married.  This is not a Love Story.  (Grousing about short stories: On.  Well, it barely rates as a “Story.”  Grousing: Off)  It does point, however, to the strong belief we have in the modern West of a tight association between Love and Marriage. I love my wife; I am married to my wife.  These things seem like a natural pairing.  But, historically, they are not naturally paired.  Arranged marriages, marriages of convenience, shotgun marriages, political marriages, all these are the norm.  Moreover, marriages because of a desire for offspring are also quite normal.  Marriages born of Love?  Why do we think that is the Norm when it clearly is not.  Why are we surprised that No Fault Divorce coupled with an emphasis on the relationship of Love and Marriage results is strikingly high divorce rates?  In the modern world, a story like the Huntsman makes no sense; why would the Huntsman feel any compulsion to stay married to a woman for whom he feels nothing?  Why would his wife hope for, let alone expect, him to stay with her for even a day?  The entire pathos (such as it is) of this story hinges on the fact that these two people are bound in marriage.

But, I have to say, having just celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary shortly after reading this story, it is a rather nice thing to be able to say:  I love you, Janet.  You are an Amazingly Wonderful wife.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Why the Dog Howled in the Night

Bear with me a minute:
Four travelers find themselves at a strange house.  They are greeted by a man who tells them he has a sick uncle upstairs who is near death, but not under immediate threat of death because the Black Dog, which comes around and howls when people are going to die, has not yet appeared.  Later in the evening, the men are startled to hear howling, and on looking out the window, they see a black dog is the source of the noise.  Thinking to frighten off the black dog, they begin to throw things at the dog. Some beef tea is thrown, whereupon the dog starts lapping up the tea.  It turns out it is a real dog, a stray which was wandering by.  Not a phantom after all.  Relieved, the men turn away from the widow.  The sick uncle is dead.

That’s the plot of Stephen Crane’s “The Black Dog.”  So, was the legend of the Black Dog who howls at the approach of death confirmed or not?

The modern mind has no trouble with this question.  There is no mystical black dog.  The fact that a real black dog happened to show up and howl right at the moment of death is one of those silly contrivances which happen in short stories, and is not worthy of serious contemplation.  But, pause for a second:  suppose the events just described did happen in that order—there is nothing impossible about that series of events.  But, even still, the modern mind has no trouble with the events:  sometimes strange coincidences happen.  After all, with 6 billion people and who knows how many black dogs (where would one go to look up the number of black dogs in the world? I suppose it could be pieced together from Google—I did find a guess that there over 500 million dogs, but I didn’t take the time to discover relative percentages of hair color), it would be highly improbable that at least some deaths do not coincide with the howls of black dogs even if there is no causal relationship between the two.

Suppose we did find a case of Actual Black Dog howling immediately prior at Actual Death.  Why would this not be evidence for the legend of a black dog which howls at the moment of death?  Why, for example, did the fact that the dog was real cause the reader of the story described above to decide this wasn’t a ghost story after all?

We have a curious bias toward physicality in the modern age.  Yet the evidence that all things can be explained by physical causes is shockingly weak.  One need look no farther than the human brain.  Does anyone really believe that an exact copy of your physical body and brain would literally be you—not a copy of you, but actually you?   If it is a copy of you, if it is somehow distinct from you, then there is something about you which transcends the physical structure of you.  As someone once put it: The only known way of reducing Biology to Chemistry is murder. 

So, is it possible for the Black Dog to be both just a normal old stray dog and an incarnation of a legendary being?  Why, if we have a hypothesis that a black dog will howl at death and then we have the existence of a black dog howling at death, do we not think that we have evidence for our hypothesis?  Why am I not now scouring the evidence for black dogs and death?

Truth be told, none of this really puzzles me at all.  It’s just a contrived short story.  (Is that redundant?)  But, why am I so convinced, and really I am convinced, that physical occurrences on Earth have physical explanations?  Why do I discount the mystical?  After all, I do believe in non-physical things; I believe in a non-corporeal soul and a non-corporeal God and non-corporeal angels and demons.  Yet, when looking for explanations of physical things, I immediately assume that the non-corporeal world is not the source of explanation.  I have no problem with a dual explanation—that there is a physical cause and a spiritual cause seems thoroughly plausible.  Consubstantiation in the Eucharist may well have a counterpart in human affairs.  But I have a hard time thinking of events other than the Incarnation (and probably the Resurrection) which I do not assusme can be explained by physical causes.  There is no evidence that this bias is merited.  So, why do I believe it?  There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.  Hamlet was right.  But why don’t I suspect that a causal relationship between the spiritual realm and the physical realm one of those things?