Friday, December 2, 2011

What I've Been Thinking . . .

Buster: Fast Food
When in doubt, post the cat

A couple of weeks ago, when the five finalists for the National Book Award in non-fiction were announced, I found that I had read three of them, all with interest.  Loving Lucretius for most of my long life, I may have enjoyed Swerve most, and Stephen Greenblatt writes wonderfully well; seeing a mature scholar give himself so wholeheartedly to my favorite Latin author gave me great pleasure, and though I had read accounts of the Council of Constance I had never read one so alive as his.  I was so surprised by his chapter on Montaigne that I decided to get the Essays complete and read him, as I never had done before.  I also pulled out my good old Budé text of Lucretius and re-read a good deal of it, using the French as I had done in university when I got stuck, to avoid slowing down too much by using a dictionary; Lucretius, however, is not so hard as Greenblatt says.  Greenblatt was reveling in aspects of the Renaissance that I have always enjoyed dabbling in, not least Poggio Bracciolini.  Yet I didn’t dare think he’d win the prize.  I was afraid some readers might think he was proposing that, if the Lucretius manuscripts hadn’t been discovered just when they could be copied and printed, Reason might not have prevailed in the way that it did.  I don’t think he meant that, though no man could fall for Lucretius more whole-hog than Greenblatt does.  I was, however, disappointed that he stopped at the point that he did, and I know that there still are lots of educated readers whose temperament makes them assess Lucretius by each and every error (e.g., the size of the sun) that he made rather than by the power and depth of his inquiry and the glory of his poetry (Screech’s Penguin Classics Montaigne is almost Thomist in considering the essayist’s faith, and he certainly does not make much of his references to Lucretius).
I was surprised that Deborah Baker’s The Convert, which certainly I had read with great interest, was among the finalists; I thought it insufficiently well structured and was disconcerted by its relationship to its living subject.  In sum, I thought that Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital, on Karl and Jenny Marx would be the winner.  I had never read anything about Marx and his family and Engels that was both serious and treated them as living persons, persons living in a particular history, too, not merely domestically.  Though works on Marx and Engels fill libraries (not that I have read very much, for when I was a student one did not want to be noticed reading about the founders of Communism, and I don’t like ideologies of any kind very much, especially not when they’re argued as political science is), I think that Mary Gabriel has done an outstanding piece of work in this biography, and I thought it was the best balanced and most complete and likely to endure of the three finalists I had read.  I cannot overstate how much I have learned by reading Mary Gabriel.  I thought Greenblatt would get torn limb from limb, though his vulnerability, which almost asks for attacks, is no excuse for failing to read him, as one would read any poet, I hope, for what he offers, which is important if not exclusively so, and for the self-portrait, if I may say so, that his book provides.  I mean, we don’t attack poets, do we, for laying themselves bare?  But evidently the committee saw it my way; usually I am at odds with committees.  Stephen Greenblatt did win.

And then there is my fascination with theoretical physics and with astronomy.  Not wishing to confine myself to Brian Greene’s books or rely too much on the perhaps too lively video assistance of the NOVA programs (the books are really clearer, if you want to try to learn so far as a lamentable lack of mathematics permits, by reading and thinking over and over), I have tried and tried to get through Lisa Randall’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door, and I just can’t.  She explains indefatigably, as if for the very stupid and stubborn, what I don’t need to have explained, and she does not explain at all some things at the very heart of her work at CERN, for example, that I do need help with.  And her writing has all the worst characteristics of, say, Scientific American articles, only aggravated by efforts to entertain by talking about her encounters with popular culture.  I was prepared to like her book, from an interview that I saw, but I can’t.
Never mind.  I see that the difficulty of explaining Branes and Dimensions and the rest is due to human verbal language being created by and for our empirical, sensory experiences in Newtonian space and time.  I have to try to think my way through concepts that are, literally, ineffable.  Likewise, my brain’s ability to envisage needs not to be worried by a video that looks as if a here-and-now figure or object or event were visibly here-and-now elsewhere or otherwhen, too.  And I probably cannot ask for a resolution of exceeding the speed of light as recorded by instrumentation made by and in terms of a Newtonian (or Einsteinian) model.  It suffices to keep reading and thinking about it all.  History is full of funny language, as funny as black energy.  Someday it may be possible to name better what is being learned (it always has been possible).  After all, the only thing is that I want to know that everything, including parallel universes and other oxymorons, has no beginning and no end—and what it has, instead.  I mean, some enigmas are for Six Year Olds:
Elizabeth Ann said to her Nan: “Please, will you tell me how God began?  Somebody must have made Him.  So who could it be, ‘cos I want to know?”
            A. A. Milne, Now We Are Six, “Explained”, pp. 76–78.