Friday, August 31, 2007

Postmodernism and Mediocrity

The disparity in intelligence amongst various members of the human race is one of the most disappointing facts that intellectuals, particularly left-leaning intellectuals, have to contend with. It is so disheartening that many on the left would like to deny that it even exists; they put this disparity down to lack of opportunity or education, poverty, or poor self-esteem. Or they invent a variety of other "intelligences". This is curious, by the way, given that so many condemn intellectuals for their arrogance, when in fact the fondest wish of many intellectuals is that they are no smarter than anyone else. Yet low intelligence is usually of dire consequence, unless it is openly admitted to be the case by all concerned, including those afflicted with it. This may be why the genuinely retarded may actually fare better than those of marginal capacity. We make allowances for the retarded, but those near the borderline are expected to play on an open field, and they get mauled.

Not understanding how the world works, they fail to grasp even the connections between their own actions and the consequences. Theodore Dalyrymple notes despairingly the use of the passive voice by common criminals. "I'm sorry for what happened," they say, as if they had nothing to do with it. The criminal act in question is often a spontaneous explosion of violence, or an impetuous act, which they felt they had no control over given the circumstances. As Phillip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment proves, circumstances can make monsters of us all. But with a certain competence in life comes the ability to avoid such hair trigger circumstances--to forsee the ends of a certain course and turn aside before it goes too far.

I'm happy to admit that a well developed facility for empathy seems to be somewhat independent of raw cognitive ability, and that this alone is sufficient to prevent the worst excesses that may result from poor rational judgement. But even this can go only so far; you can still do the wrong thing for the right reason. Doing the right thing requires understanding the situation.

In a conversation with my friend Pat, he pointed out that for religious believers below a certain threshold of intelligence, God is just some big friend in the sky who does stuff for them. Interesting: below a certain level of intelligence, religion is just magic--but then, so is science and technology. But this may also explain much about the rise of postmodernism. Originally a critique of dominant ideas which might skew or limit certain fields of inquiry, postmodernism quickly devolved into a blanket claim that everything was hocus pocus, the imposition of the will of the powerful on the weaker, which somehow charms or curses them into doing the bidding of their masters. Note the terminology--the imposition of will is also a common thread in magic. "As I will it, so mote it be." I suspect that postmodernism is in fact due to the influx of mediocre minds into academia, for whom nothing is comprehensible and so everything is a trick. They don't understand how anything could be true because they cannot see how anyone could figure out a way to establish the truth.

This may have happened as early as the late 19th century, as science became arcane enough that it took dedicated study to understand how it worked. I'm talking about Nietzsche here, who was the first to declare that science was the imposition of the views of a particular social faction (the slave mentality) upon the rest. One of the reasons that Nietzschians cannot recover morality from the ash heap of nihilism is that they reject reason as well as empathy; they don't understand the world, or the people who live in it. I have always sensed in Nietzsche an overcompensation--he talks about the over-man, but he himself was anything but. It reminds me over a rather pathetic book that came out in the 80's, Power sits at another table and observations on the business of power, written, as the very title admits, by a man so marginal that no one of any significance would even sit next to him. The very title drips with a fawning admiration for influential people, but no acquaintance or understanding of them. This man wanted to write about them, but he didn't understand them at all. It was all charisma, all shadow and appearance, signs and portents--all magic.

Nietzsche's disdain for the ethic of compassion, reason, science, and any form of morality appears to be the first postmodern attempt to move the goalposts, to create a fictitious standard of merit that one already meets, or to abandon all standards and so abandon the effort. It is one thing to say that the dominant religions are outdated and need to be fixed or replaced. It is another thing to throw everything out and replace it with a wisp of a fantasy. The ubermensch is often translated as the Superman, and it's no accident that this is also the name of a comic book character. Nietsche neither experienced power nor understood it. The nobility of old, whom he took as the model of his ideal man, themselves aspired to a model of justice, one which they invented. It was never foisted upon them by their slaves--who, even by Nietzsche's logic, never had the power to do so. That ideal was weak by our standards--it did, after all, include slavery itself, and the practice of slavery probably contributed more to undermining the ancient nobility than any mere philosophy. England's abandonment of the practice forced them to invent new ways of creating wealth, and made them a great empire. America's abolishment of slavery had the same effect. The fact is that the strong attain their position through forming alliances with others, by being good managers, and by dealing at least fairly enough that others would deal with them. They did not do it by simple fiat of will. Subservience makes slaves of everyone, even the masters.

What is The Secret but a dime-store repackaging of Nietzsche's Will to Power? The very term, Will to Power, is a magical invocation, more at home in the Magick of Aleister Crowley than in a work of philosophy. It is fond hope that the simple invocation of firmly held belief will somehow lead to the ends dreamed of. Ayn Rand does the same thing. Somehow, her character Roark's buildings apparently rise fully constructed out of his mind--the people who pay for them, build them, live in them, and work in them, don't seem to exist. Frank Lloyd Wright was great because he considered all these people. Roark would have been an abysmal failure as an architect.

I think that's why Nietzsche went catatonic--not because of the syphilis, or even from cosmic despair, but because he crashed when he realized that all he ever wanted to be was the over-man, and he never would be (his last book, Ecce Homo, was a raving proclamation of his own genius--something by then that I suspect he had lost all confidence in.) His despair was personal. And to anyone like him, who wants the claim that all of this stuff--science, truth, compassion, and evidence--don't matter, it would be a crushing defeat to admit that they do matter, and that they have no idea how any of it works, or how to go about it.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Farewell, Harry Potter

I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on Sunday two weeks ago--the whole thing in about six hours over the course of the day. I had planned to discipline myself, limit it to small portions each night over a week. I couldn't do it. I never could.

J. K. Rowling is a master of character and story, using magic to magnify and illuminate her characters--which is precisely what magic should do in a story. The metaphor of magic is the logic of the heart writ large, in language that all can understand. Well, almost all. But anyone who cannot understand and appreciate the Potter books has no business reading the Bible--no business at all. So we will dismiss the objections of religious pedants as the braying of spiritual incompetents, and move on.

Her prose is economical and tight, ideal in a storyteller, with flawless dialogue and description which illuminates in brilliant and relevant flashes. This, to most of us, is all that matters. The opposite of this is Joyce, who chose to bury his stories in prose so opaque that the story was lost. Neil Gaiman, a writer I also greatly admire, is a member of group called the post-Joycian society, whose main argument was that story matters, and that language should be put to the service of that end. Robert Fulford celebrated the triumph of narrative, the return to the primacy of storytelling. Rowling's Potter series is all this, with a vengeance, a stake in the heart of those who would indulge themselves at the price of simple human connection.

The best, I think, is her final chapters, to which she had been building for seventeen years. Nothing was left to chance here, each word chosen with utmost care, particularly the last chapter before the epilogue, where the battle comes to a climax. Every dot is connected, the outcome built out of pieces assembled in all of the books. As a programmer, I can easily debug a broken chain of logic, missing links that make the outcome less than certain, gaps which demand too much suspension of disbelief to be tolerated. Even in some hard science fiction books, I find a certain abitrary nature to the conclusion, a free-falling speculation that renders the ending, not surprising, but simply radically contingent and unconvincing. Rowling makes none of these mistakes, and yet, she is dealing with the dream logic of magic. The closest I can think of is Ursula K. LeGuin. There are reasons for what happens, reasons based in character, in circumstance, and in the rules of her magic system.

I remember a writer who, giving advice to other writers, said that you have to like people to make your readers care about your characters. This is that certain something that is often missing from fiction; the nagging doubt as to why you should bother reading about the people in the book. I've read books of far superior writers who are nevertheless a trial of endurance to finish. Slogging through three hundred pages to encounter, once again, the conclusions known to anyone acquainted with the black dog that comes in the waking hours of a troubled night, seems a waste of my time and self-indulgent of the writer. We are all familiar with the problems of this world. Have you any suggestions about how to meet them? But I have also met, even amongst the most flawed and troubled of anti-heroes, characters I identify with. Empathy illuminates even the darkest of souls.

Rowling's characters are all near and dear to us, even the most flawed. Voldemort himself is a study in sociopathy, a serial killer in the terminal stages of madness, a supreme narcissist impervious to all indications of his own limitations. The best of her characters are close friends, the worst so accurate to type that those who have met them in our own lives wonder where Rowling met the real thing. But the theme of redemption runs throughout the stories; redemption by love, by courage, by loyalty. Harry's greatest strength is not his magical skills, though they are formidable. Harry forms bonds of loyalty, by forgiving, encouraging, and supporting others. He's not perfect--sometimes you want to slap him to wake him up. But if he were too good, you would doze off. Harry--and Dumbledore--are already close to the limits of human perfection. Their flaws are what make them real. Without them, these characters would be made of cardboard.

In this book, Dumbledore is brought into focus, taken from the pedestal and made human. The mistakes hinted at on the lake in the sixth book are revealed, but Rowling does an excellent job on this--first by trashing Dumbledore through the muck journalism of Rita Skeeter, and then telling Dumbledore's real story, through those actually involved. Harry makes his mistakes too, but when he hits his stride, the story takes off. There is a repeat of book five, where the obsessions of Voldemort spill over into Harry's mind, brought on by Harry's own willingness to understand his enemy (is this really a failing?) but tragedy snaps him out of this, and he learns how to avoid this mistake from then on. After this, the action never really stops, although side excursions occur to fill out the story and connect the dots. This allows the reader to rest in what would otherwise be an action rollercoaster.

I cannot think of any books more suitable for the moral development of children, growing, as Harry does, from child to adult. Rereading book one, I found it disappointingly simple, having grown used to the complexity of character and language of book seven. These books are meant to be read one per year, from the age of 11 to the age of 17. Yet through all, Harry, Dumbledore, Hermione, Ron, and Harry's friends display a nobility and courage that makes one reconsider the hard, judgemental stances that we take towards people we consider to be unworthy of our time. Harry's sufferage and mercy towards the most unappetizing of characters is reminiscent of Frodo's tolerance of Gollum--who, in the end, salvages Frodo's quest from ruin, when Frodo himself seems beyond help. As with Tolkien, faith in others is the right choice, while distrust and contempt lead to a bad end. Even the best of Rowling's characters makes this mistake from time to time, and learns from their mistakes the hard way. Rowling, like Tolkien, understands what real faith consists of, and never confuses it with mere superstition.

The finish is spectacular, though I would have preferred more of an epilogue. There is another book to be written, in my opinion; the mopping up of the death eaters, the banishment of the dementors, Harry's answer to his detractors and his rise to the rank of renowned auror, and the grief for the fallen. There are many new beginnings and final endings still to be rounded out. Perhaps, after a few years, Rowling will feel the tug again, and write this final chapter. But for now, at least, this is enough.

Farewell, Harry. We will miss you.