How Many Pre-1950 Artifacts Do You Own?

Our book club recently read A Canticle for Leibowitz, a 1960 collection of three related stories about a future that barely remembers our 1950s civilization.  A Canticle for Leibowitz is set 600 years in the future after our civilization destroys itself in a nuclear war.  The stories are about the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, where a future Catholic monastery works to preserve the relics of a Jewish electrical engineer named Isaac Edward Leibowitz.  They do not know what the relics mean, and even illuminate one of Leibowitz’s engineering blueprints.

A_Canticle_for_Leibowitz

This got me to thinking about how many things I own might be preserved in the future.  And how many things from the past I own.  Making the cutoff date 1950, I quickly realized I have damn few relics from the past.  All I can come up with are photographs, and a few knickknacks Susan and I have inherited from our parents.  If I move the date up to 1960 I can add an old wooden radio cabinet, more photographs, some LPs, a handful of books, and our house, which was built in 1957.  If I jump to 1970, we add many more photographs, a few more LPs, and a fair amount of household items.

None of my older possessions are particular durable.  None will become antiques worth collecting.  The items I find the most meaningful are photographs and twelve hardback Heinlein juveniles I bought in 1968 with my first paycheck when I was 16.  I assume when I die my wife will give the books away to Goodwill and the photographs to my sister or her sons.

Our throw-away society doesn’t lend itself well to being remembered.   However, the sense of wonder generated in A Canticle for Leibowitz is because civilization collapses so thoroughly that most everything is destroyed, and what’s left is cherished.

I don’t think I own a single thing that would be worth preserving 600 years, but if I did, what one thing do I own that I would like to represent me and the 20th century to future people?  I would have to pick my hard back copy of Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein.  I used to own a very nice slide rule from the 1950s, and if I still had that, I might have chosen it.  But the Heinlein book really does represent me well.  But what would people a millennia from now think of such a story?  Would their daily language even allow them to read it?

have-space-suit---will-travel

And if I’m honest, I know future people won’t give a  damn about our junk.  They won’t give a damn about what we think or believed.  Some of our crap might make it to museums of the future, and a few eccentrics might collect 20th century doodads, but really, how many people in the year 3013 will even think about us?  Just how much daily life from 1013 do we know about now?  The Al-Hakim Mosque was finished about a 1,000 years ago.

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Things that really last are usually buildings, artwork, monuments – works that people create to last.  I’ve often wondered what the world would be like if we all built our houses with the intention they will last a very long time – so every home becomes a museum.  Would that stifle innovation, or stimulate creativity?  Most of the stuff we own ends up in landfill, so psychologically, doesn’t that mean we’re living with garbage and not art?

Imagine a world where the smallest house lot is one acre, and each house owner builds a home intended to last centuries, if not thousands of years.  That everyone lives in the equivalent of an English mini-manor house.  Picture manicured gardens outside, and beautiful art collections on the inside.  How would society change?  Would we still want cars and roads cluttering up the countryside?  Or visible power lines, phone cables, satellite dishes?  Would we design houses to withstand tornadoes and hurricanes?  Could we design roofs that could go 500 years without maintenance?

Homo sapiens have been around for tens of thousands of years.  History, not so long, say five thousand years.  Unless we destroy ourselves, homo sapiens, and their descendants,   AI robots, could be around for millions of years.  How long will we continue to process the resources of the Earth into landfill?  At some point we need to make things that will last, and yet, leave room for new art to evolve and be added.

If I was young I’d buy a plot of land and design a house to last.  I’d furnish it with antique scientific equipment, beautiful electronics from the 20th century, and as much art as I could afford.  I’d want it solar powered.  I’d want enough land to make an interesting landscape. 

It’s a shame I didn’t think of this sooner.

JWH – 10/14/13

The Ghosts That Haunt Me

Most people are haunted by dead relatives – parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings – but the ghosts that haunt me the most, are people I never knew.  Since I’m an atheist I don’t believe in real visitors from the other side. I don’t expect my Jacob Marley to come calling on Christmas Eve.  On the other hand, there are a number of dead people that won’t leave me alone.

Mark-Twain-by-Alvin-Langdon-Coburn

I am mostly haunted by literary figures.  The first one to do this, starting when I was a kid was Samuel Clemens.  For some reason, reading about Mark Twain was always more powerful than reading his fiction.  It started with his autobiography.  I was a kid with my life in front of me, reading about a very successful man writing about his life behind him.  Samuel Clemens led both a charmed and tragic life.  His wife and two of his three daughters died before he did, and Clemens took this very hard.  Clemens always had a sharp tongue for the human residents of Earth, but towards the end, his writing turned bitter to the point of viciousness.  I was born naïve and became a skeptic by twelve, and Clemens writings fueled my conversion to disbeliever.  I have never experienced the tragedies Clemens experienced, so I’ve yet to become bitter, a burden I hope to avoid.

Twain didn’t finish an actual autobiography, but two versions of an autobiography appeared after he died that were heavily edited collections from his voluminous autobiographical writings.   Over the decades the University of California Press released various collections of Twain’s writings, with more and more material that hadn’t been published in his lifetime.  I first got a taste of Twain’s unpublished writing as a teen with Letters from the Earth, coming out in 1962 that I didn’t read until 1968 or 1969.  Over the decades many biographies about Twain have appeared and he would haunt me again and again.

kerouac

Jack Kerouac was the next literary specter to haunt me, beginning in my twenties.  Jack died in October 1969, the fall I started college, the same year as the first Moon landing and Woodstock.  That was around the time I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.  I can’t remember if I read that first, which led to reading On the Road, of if reading On the Road led to reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Kerouac was a character in Wolfe’s book.

Kerouac was a writer like Proust and Thomas Wolfe (not Tom), who wrote books that were thinly disguised accounts of their own life.  I didn’t know this until I read the Ann Charters Kerouac: A Biography in the early 1970s.  That’s when Kerouac really began haunting me.  I’d read his books, then another new biography, and then reread the novels, and then another biography.  Kerouac became a 10,000 piece puzzle that I’ve never finished.

Even before Philip K. Dick died in 1982 he was a legendary character.  I remember reading about his paranoid theories in The Rolling Stone magazine, and stories about him in science fiction fanzines.  My college roommate even had dinner with Dick and his wife at a convention in the 1970s.  As soon as the biographies came out, I started reading them.  Like Kerouac, no matter how many puzzle pieces I found, the image I had of PKD was always shifting.  Like Twain and Kerouac, Dick was another troubled soul.  Why am I so haunted by people so torn up by their lives?

There is a book of conversations with PKD called What If Our World Is Their Heaven?  That title captures PKD’s kind of spookiness.

Louisa-May-Alcott

I read a biography of Louisa May Alcott before I read her famous book Little Women.  I started off reading about the American Transcendentalists, and found Louisa.  I read two Louisa May Alcott biographies before finally getting to Little WomenLittle Women was my mother’s favorite childhood book.  She tried to get my sister and I to read it when we were kids but I didn’t want to read a girl’s book.  But I was willing to watch Katherine Hepburn and June Allyson play Jo in the movie versions.  Over time Louisa May Alcott started haunting me too.  Another troubled soul.

Other writers haunt me too, Heinlein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wells, Lawrence, Huxley, but so far I’ve only read one biography each for them.  Writers don’t appear truly ghostly until I’ve read several biographies and start reading their letters.  I have read many books on Wyatt Earp, but his appeal is different.  He doesn’t haunt me – maybe because he wasn’t a writer.  Or maybe he wasn’t a troubled soul like Twain, Kerouac, Dick and Alcott.  I’ve always loved biographies, they were among the first type of books I learned to read.  But most subjects of the biographies I read never lingered in my psyche like these four.

Interestingly, the lives of Clemens and Alcott overlapped, as did Kerouac and Dick.  Clemens and Alcott both became successes after the Civil War, becoming famous for writing about their childhoods.  Kerouac and Dick both wrote a lot of books in the 1950s that affected readers in the 1960s counter culture.  All four of them have had their share of film success – with their fictional work, and as characters themselves.  I am not the only person they haunt, not by a long shot.

There is a 1968 Burt Lancaster movie called The Swimmer based on a 1964 short story by John Cheever.  The story begins when a man at a pool party tells his friends that he thinks he can swim all the way home because there’s a pool in every yard across the suburbs to his house.  I think a wonderful account of American history could be written by just writing a series of biographies of all the American writers that span the centuries back to colonial times.  We’re used to history being about politics and war, conquest and invention, economics and industry, but I think there are many ways to look at the evolution of our culture, and the lives of these writers give a much different, and for me, a more real insight into the living through history.

I believe these writers haunt me more than the memories of my ancestors is because my relatives never wrote down their thoughts.  If my dad had written about his life, I think it would be a whole lot like Jack Kerouac’s.  They were both restless men and died miserable drunks.  I’m sure my mother and her mother loved Louisa May Alcott because their lives seemed much like hers.

For some people, the promise of prosperity never lives up to their unfolding lives, and that’s very hard to take.  Ambitious idealists usually have a long way to fall.  I’m currently reading The Unwinding by George Packer.  For all its shiny glory, the American Dream is hard to achieve.  Packer chronicles many Americans who have succeeded or failed, or both, in the last four decades.  What’s amazing about this book is the diversity of the people it presents.  Every American has a different American Dream.  I think we’re all haunted by past Americans.  I think we’re all inspired by our personal ghosts.

JWH – 9/4/13 – Happy Birthday Janis

Rethinking the Great Books of History

I am listening to “Books That Have Made History:  Books That Can Change Your Life” from The Teaching Company, taught by Professor J. Rufus Fears and I’m wondering if the “classic” books of history are being oversold.

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I’m a life-long bookworm.  I got my degree in English Literature.  I study books about books, such as those by Harold Bloom, and I even study the Bible as literature although I’m an atheist.  I wish I had the time to master the great books.  And I started listening to these lectures expecting to expand on my knowledge of the great books of history.  However, Dr. Fears is making me think otherwise.

Books That Have Made History is a popular course for The Great Courses, but I think it has a fatal flaw.  And I’m not the only one to criticize this series, just read the customer reviews at the site.

Dr. Fears approaches these 36 lessons with the assumption the greatest books of history have great moral lessons to teach.  He expects great books to explore and answer four questions:

  • Does God or do gods exist?
  • What is fate?
  • What do we mean by good and evil?
  • How should we live?

Dr. Fears teaches these books with a firm belief in the answers.  He teaches each title by fitting them into his own theological beliefs.  In his opening lecture he discusses Dietrich Bonhoeffer and how he was imprisoned by the Nazi’s and hanged on April 9, 1945.  Dr. Fears said Bonhoeffer and the judge that sentenced him to die both read and studied the same classic books of history, and asks:  How did they come to such morally different conclusions?

Dr. Fears assumes the great books of history have answers to the great questions of history.  I think he’s wrong. 

Dr. Fears assumes there is a God, there is good and evil, that we’re expected to live by definite rules, and we have a fate or destiny in our lives.  I think he’s wrong.

Dr. Fears refuses to believe that the universe is accidental, that there is no good or evil, that there are no moral laws embedded in the universe, and the universe expects nothing from us.   I think he’s wrong.

Dr. Fears advocates The Iliad was the Bible for the ancient Greeks like the Christian Bible is for the western world, and that Homer was a singular real person.  I disagree.

Dr. Fears believe Moses was a real historical figure and there’s amble historical and anthropological evidence to support his story.  I disagree and even think many Jewish scholars disagree.

Now my point is not to say I dislike this lecture series because I disagree with the professor.  I’m asking why we should read the great books of history?  If they exist for the reasons Dr. Fears suggests, then I say, let’s forget them.  I’m dead tired of trying to puzzle out truth about reality from ancient thinkers.  I’m willing to read their books to understand the evolution of mankind and its history, but I have no interest in acquiring their beliefs.

Dr. Fears believes studying these books are valuable and relevant to teaching modern people how to think and act.  I think that’s wrong.  I think that’s why our world is confused and full of conflicting belief systems.

Great books make you think about life and reality, but they should give no answers.  Explicit answers are dangerous.  We live in the 21st century and we need to study the moment.  Now it’s actually impossible to study the current “now” in books, since books take years to write.  But for example, if you are studying cosmology, anthropology, or geology, or another other science, you really need to be reading books written in the last five years, and no more than 10 year old.

History and biographies can have a trailing edge of maybe 25 years, but that’s because some topics don’t get written about all that often.

If you’re studying the great books of history, I believe they should be read as primary sources to supplement current historical research.  Your research efforts should go into studying how and why they were written in context of their times, and not use them for acquiring personal beliefs.

This represents a schism in approaching reality.  If you believe that science has been the only consistent human endeavor to answer questions about reality, ancient knowledge will only be superstitious beliefs and endless philosophizing.  If you believe in God, then ancient writings are a goldmine of potentially revealed secrets.  Books That Have Made History falls in the later category.  My thinking falls in the former, so these lectures have little value to me.

However, they do make me ask:  Should or can we write current books that summarize good and ethical behavior for people to study?  If people are wanting to read books about how to live their lives in a “proper” manner, can’t we come up with something a little more current and based on contemporary knowledge?

JWH – 9/12/12

Are You Naïve, Delusional, A Rube, A Chump?–The War On Science

Do you believe everything you read?

Can you verify everything you know?

How much of what you know is wrong?

People believe what they want to believe, and they always think they’ve right.  Would you even know when you’re wrong?  Does it matter, or would you really like to know the truth?

The reason I ask these question is because we’re in the middle of a war on science.  Like the rulers in Nineteen Eighty-Four, there are people who want you to believe what they want to believe and they know what they believe isn’t scientific, so their battle plan is to confuse people by attacking science and making it very hard to know what’s true and what’s not true.  Like those rulers in that famous dystopian novel, they’re willing to rewrite history and invent newspeak to fool people into believing their version of the truth.

Why trust what I have to say is the truth?  Well, you shouldn’t.  Never trust anyone.  The important thing is to learn how to verify facts for yourself.  It’s also important to learn how information is presented to you.  It’s very easy to be persuaded.  People are quick to believe anything.  It’s surprisingly easy to convince people to believe false information.  It’s devilishly hard to be logical.  People aren’t rational, even though we believe we are.  We’re geniuses at self-delusion.  Don’t trust yourself either.

Absolute truth is elusive in this reality.  We don’t live in a black and white world, but one with infinite shades of gray.  One of the biggest misconceptions about science is its knowledge is one hundred percent certain.  We know with absolute certainty that the Earth orbits the Sun.  Our knowledge of celestial mechanics is good enough that we can launch a satellite to Saturn and years later and billions of miles traveled, we’ll hit our target perfectly.  This is while the Earth, the satellite and Saturn all move independently tens of thousands of miles an hour in different directions, and the gravity of all the bodies in the solar system come into play.  This is fantastic knowledge that correlates to many decimal places.

Science is far less sure about the causes of breast cancer or global warming, but scientists know far more about those topics than you think.  The trick is, if you are worried about getting cancer or impending global warming, is to understand just how much they do know.  Evolution is closer to the fact of the Earth orbiting the Sun than the causes of global warming, and what we know about global warming is massive, but millions of people are fooled otherwise.

Now I can’t prove that in this essay.  It would take more words than I have time to write.  What you need to learn is how to examine news about science, and to do that I highly recommend reading Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.  Oreskes and Conway examine several public scientific debates that have occurred since the 1940s and they show how science works and doesn’t work, as well as how anti-science forces are corrupting science in the United States.

merchantsofdoubt

After World War II scientists began to tell people that smoking cigarettes was not safe.  Now the tobacco industry didn’t want people believing that, even though their own scientists told them it was true.  When the tobacco industry realized they couldn’t refute the actual science, they discovered they could confuse the public by attacking science in general and sowing doubt.  Oreskes and Convey show a history of how big businesses have refined these techniques to fight one scientific discovery after another that threatened livelihood.  And they use the public as their dupes.

Oreskes and Conway examine these battles like a court case carefully weighing all evidence presented by science and the anti-scientists.  One thing big business learned quickly was to hire scientists to attack other scientists, and Merchants of Doubt presents several men  and women who have made careers of being anti-scientists.  Oreskes and Conway try hard not to vilify these individuals, but I can’t help seeing them as evil.

But who is to say I’m right?  The point of Merchants of Doubt is to learn how scientific issues are studied and decide for yourself.

We all get email with a political agenda.  These emails have carefully crafted stories designed to convince us to believe something specific about reality.  It might be that global warming is a myth, or Obama isn’t a natural born American.  Why believe what you read?  Why be skeptical?  Because there’s a war going on and each side is recruiting.  One side wants you to be their chump.  It’s like computer viruses that convert your computer into zombies used for organized crime – someone wants to use your mind, and they want you to act for them.

Don’t get brainwashed.  Learn how to think for yourself.  Learn how to think scientifically.  Be skeptical.  Seek good evidence.

Real science works through peer reviewed journals.  A scientist will develop a hypothesis to test.  They will set up an experiment.  They will report their results in a paper and send it to a peer reviewed journal.   Fellow scientists in the same discipline will review the article and judge it for proper methodology.  If the article is accepted and published it doesn’t mean the results are facts.  Other scientists will read the article and devise new tests and go through the process again.  Topics under examination will be thoroughly researched over and over again until a statistical consensus emerges.  It takes a long time.  All too often one test result will be reported in the national news and causes a big brouhaha.  This is one reason why many people find science confusing.  They think one test result is suppose to tell the absolute truth and it doesn’t.

To further complicate scientific inquiry, people with a vested interest in a particular topic will make that topic newsworthy.  They will do everything they can to try their case in the court of popular journalism.  In peer reviewed journals only people who are specialists in the topic deal with the subject, but in regular journalism anybody can say anything.  You might get a food processing chemist proclaiming facts about climatology.  Or you might get high school dropout that just wants to get their opinion heard.

Don’t believe what you read about scientific concepts unless you thoroughly research them.  Few people are going to read peer reviewed science journals.  So what can you do?  Learn to read popular science books.  At least research Wikipedia.  Wikipedia can be untrustworthy, but many of its articles are a battleground between many points of view and a consensus often gets hammered out.

Another good realty check is Snopes.com.   Snopes often reviews silly topics, but all too often people believe silly crap.  When you hear about something new check Snopes.  A large percentage of internet gossip is fabricated.

Like I said, I highly recommend reading Merchants of Doubt.  Instead of saying anything more about the book please read Global Warming Deniers and Their Proven Strategy of Doubt to get a bit of the flavor of the book.

This isn’t the only book on this subject.  Journalists, writers and historians are beginning to see a pattern.

JWH – 6/21/12

Anna Karenina–Translations

Every time we read a book we have to translate it into our mind, even when we’re reading a book written in the language we speak.  If the book was written in another language, we have to depend on another mind to do an initial translation for us.  Sometimes two or more people work on a foreign language translation.  Those translators must interpret what they read in the original language and refashion it into English for us.  They have to choose between a literal translation and one that reads well.  Many decisions have to be made.  If an old book is being translated, does the translator preserve the language of the past, or modernize it, do they translate the colloquial phrases, or substitute similar English sayings, should they improve upon the original authors writing, for example, and change a weak passive sentence into a strong active one, etc.

In our modern world books are most often translated to film, but every reader translates words into pictures when they read.

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There are so many kinds of translations going on, more than just moving ideas from one language to another.  When we read a story we picture it in our minds, and we seldom picture it as the author pictured it.  How often have you read a book and then talked with someone about that book only to find they translated the book completely different.  The best illustration of this when movies are made from books.  Is Keira Knightley what you think when you imagine Anna?  Or is Aaron Johnson how you picture Count Vronsky?

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If you’ve read a book about a poor person and have never been poor yourself, you will translate the book different from a reader who has been poor.  I have never been a woman, Russian, rich, dashing, beautiful, lived in the 19th century or been part of an aristocracy, so I have to imagine a lot when reading Anna Karenina and translating what it must have been like to been Anna or Count Vronsky.  I have studied American History, but is translating concepts about American slavery equal to Russian serfs?  I’ve seen Greta Garbo play Anna in a 1930s film, but is Garbo anything like what Tolstoy pictured when he was describing her with words?

Here is a portrait of Baroness Varvara Ivanovna Ikskul von Hildenbrandt that was painted in 1889, years after the book was published, but who people in Russia then used as a model for Anna.

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Ilya Repin
Portrait of Baroness Varvara Ikskul von Hildenbandt, 1889
The State Tretyakov Gallery

Researching translations is fun.  That’s why studying the Bible is fun for me even though I’m a non-believer.  My friend Mike loves studying Homer and other Greek and Roman writers and comparing translations.  Readers have to constantly ask:  Is this a good translation?  Think of how many Christian creeds, sects and churches been created from reading one book.

I’ve always wanted to tackle Anna Karenina or War and Peace.  Well I’ve finally read (listened) to Anna Karenina, but how much of the story did I get?  Is one reading enough to make a fair judgment?  Did I pick the right translation?  Without doing any research I ended up with the Maude translation because I liked the sound of the reader of the audio book.  But I have to wonder, did I pick a good translation.

I’ve gone out and found four different translations.  Two of which I have on my Kindle, and two of which I did a screen shot of the first page off of Amazon.com.

Here’ is the opening of Anna Karenina translated by Constant Garnett (1901):

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys. The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend asking her to look out for a new situation for her; the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner time; the kitchen-maid, and the coachman had given warning.

Here is the same opening translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918), the version I listened to:

ALL happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was upset in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered an intrigue between her husband and their former French governess, and declared that she would not continue to live under the same roof with him. This state of things had now lasted for three days, and not only the husband and wife but the rest of the family and the whole household suffered from it. They all felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that any group of people who had met together by chance at an inn would have had more in common than they. The wife kept to her own rooms; the husband stopped away from home all day; the children ran about all over the house uneasily; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper and wrote to a friend asking if she could find her another situation; the cook had gone out just at dinnertime the day before and had not returned; and the kitchen-maid and coachman had given notice.

Here is another translation, from Joel Carmichael (1960).

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And here is the more recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2000):

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This last translation was made famous by being picked for the Oprah Winfrey book club in 2004.

While listening to the novel I felt there were phrases that sounded modern, and wondered if Russians had some of the same sayings we did, or if the contemporary feel came from the translators.  Then my friend Mike called me to talk about his research on translations of War and Peace.  So I got to thinking about the translation of Anna Karenina.

I was very happy with the Maude translation, but it felt like I was reading Dickens.  But then Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina just after Dickens died.  It was also serialized like Dickens’ novels, so it had that episodic feel.  Plus, both writers are coming to grips with similar changes in society brought about by industrialization, science and technology.

If you look at these different versions you’ll notice they are different and similar.  So, does the translation really matter? 

In the old two, Oblonsky had an intrigue with the French governess, while in the modern versions he had an affair.  Why the change?  How long has “an affair” meant what it does now?  But look at some other phrases:

“The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days.” – Garnett.

“The wife kept to her own rooms; the husband stopped away from home all day;” – Maude, and it’s only part of a long sentence.

“Oblonsky’s wife refused to leave her rooms; he himself hadn’t been home for three days.” – Carmichael.

“The wife would not leave her rooms, the husband was away for the third day.” – Pevear and Volokhonsky.

Notice, there’s even changes in facts.  In the first the wife had one room, in the others, rooms.  In the second, the husband had been away all day, but in the others three days.

Notice how we’re told the cook has left.

“the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner time” – Garnett.

“the cook had gone out just at dinnertime the day before and had not returned” – Maude.

“the day before the cook had picked dinner time to go out” – Carmichael.

“the cook had already left the premises the day before, at dinner-time” – Pevear and Volokhonsky.

The Carmichael one doesn’t mention that the cook never returns.  And why doesn’t three of them mention that the cook is male?  I assumed the cook was female from my translation, but that’s my cultural spin on things.  I thought “walked off” was the strongest way of saying the cook quit.  “Left the premises” seems passive and not definite about why.

Well we do know why, the household is in confusion, upset and topsy-turvy.   Each of those words convey a different meaning to me, and none of them really convey the anger of a marital fight.  But then that might be Tolstoy’s failure.

Also, the famous first line is subtly different.  I wanted it to be more succinct.  Like “Happy families are all alike, unhappy families are distinctive.”  I don’t know Russian and would never be in the position to do a translation, but are the others translators like me, wanting to write the lines like they would want to read them?  If I had translated Anna Karenina it would have been a much shorter book, but is that translating or editing?

Then there’s Android Karenina, a parody mash-up of classic novel and science fiction – it’s another kind of translation.

android-karenina

Now many readers will be outraged by this particular translation of the novel, but really, is it any different in its extremes than the many film versions of Anna Karenina?  Most movie versions jettison the stories of Levin and Kitty, who appealed to me far deeper than Anna and Count Vronsky.  Just look at all these images from a Google search.  Each actress, or each painting for a book cover is an interpretation or translation.

How can modern readers understand Anna Karenina without understanding the social norms of the 1870s?  How much history do we have to know to really appreciate what Tolstoy is writing about?  I read AK at 60 and admired it greatly.  I could not have comprehended it at 20 or 30 or even 40, but even at 60 I’m sure I’m missing most of the story.  I don’t know Russian, but even if I did, I really don’t know much about life in 19th century Russia.  However, reading Anna Karenina is teaching me about Russia, like Dickens, Elliot and Trollope are teaching me about 19th century England.  Again though, through their translation.

History and fiction are constant mistranslations of reality, that change from generation to generation.

To see how we mistranslate history watch this little video “5 Historical Misconceptions Rundown" at YouTube:

JWH – 5/11/12

How Will the Future See Us in the Art of Our Times?

When I go to a museum, like the National Gallery in Washington, DC, I look at their collection as a doorway into time.  I know when I look at a Titian or Rembrandt I’m not seeing an actual view of the past, but an artistic view.  Art works on many levels, but the level that is most important to me is what it communicates across centuries.

What I want to see when I look at a great work of art is communiqué from the past  .  When you look at this painting what does it say to you about 1659?  Scroll through Rembrandt’s paintings on Google Image Search, or his gallery at the Google Art Project, or read his entry at Wikipedia.  The more you study, the more you are pulled into the past.  If you become hooked you’ll even start reading history books.

[Click on photos for larger views.]

rembrandt-van-rijn-self-portrait

Rembrandt’s self portrait says so much.  He’s looking at us looking at him.  He knows we’ll see his world through his eyes, the ones that stare eternally from this painting.

Here is a photograph by Miru Kim.  In four hundred years what will people make of it and our times?  Will they think that was when humans discovered their cruelty to animals?  That early the 21st century was when we began to identify and empathize with our fellow creatures?

Miru-Kim

But what does this work by Mark Handforth say about our lives?

vespa-by-mark-handforth

Now I’m not criticizing modern art.  Contemporary art is very successful, as Morley Safer reported on 60 Minutes recently, and written up as “Even n tough times, contemporary art sells.”  If the future will look into our souls from the art we leave behind, what will they see?

In our times art is about about how much it’s worth in dollars.  Art speculation is big business.  That’s a dimension of art that I’m not interested in, nor want to analyze.  I doubt “Vespa” will survive 400 years to be seen – pop sculptures look fragile to me.  I tend to think contemporary painting has been overshadowed by photography and film.  The future will know us through our documentaries.  But I think the Miru Kim photograph will communicate something to humans centuries from now if it survives.

Today I was reading in Anna Karenina, at the part where Anna and Vronsky are visiting the Russian artist, Mikhailov living in Italy.  They study his painting of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate.  Mikailov is trying to capture history, but tell the story from his unique time and place.  This scene allows Tolstoy to express his views on art, and he sends a literary message across time about the timeless of art.

Most of the art that Morley Safer showed us on 60 Minutes won’t last no matter how much people pay for it.  It either doesn’t send a message or sends the wrong message.  I’m not even saying it has to be a coherent message, it just needs to convey a piece of our collective soul in some way.  I think this one says a lot, but I can’t put it into words.

trippy-5-modern-art

Then we have the problem of science fiction art.  It’s about the future, but is really about the present.  What do you make of this Richard Powers painting?  What does it say about the 1950s?

Pwrs_3from

When I looked at the 60 Minutes piece I felt tremendously disappointed by most of the art is saw.  I worry that the future won’t look kindly on us because our art is so lacking in beauty and imagination, and it says so little about our times.  Like Mikhailov in Anna Karenina trying to paint something that’s been painted thousands of times before, the struggle to be unique is a dangerous quest.

Which takes me back to Rembrandt.  Why don’t artists paint more faces?  Why is the 20th and 21st century so faceless?

Rembrandt

The art I like best features people.  Modern art seems to have moved away from people.  I guess painters think photographers have people covered, but I actually preferred painted people.  Here’s one of my favorites.

caillebotte-paris-a-rainy-day

JWH – 4/12/12

Throwing Away the Past

Have you ever found a pair of ticket stubs to a concert you went to a quarter-century ago when cleaning out an old drawer?  You hold in your hand proof that you were somewhere in the past at a certain time, and even what building, row and seat, and what you heard for a few hours.  Do you save the ticket stubs or toss them?  Maybe you could jot the info down in a journal, or make an entry into Facebook Timeline.  If you don’t, you’re throwing the past away.

I often throw my past away, and sometimes I regret it.  Saving the past takes work.  I turned 60 last year and my memory is in decline, so I often wish I had validation for lost memories.  But saving the past often feels like hoarding, and hoarding scares me because the weight of past can become paralyzing.  Some folks bury themselves in the past long before they die.

1939-05 - Dad at Homestead FL

Most people don’t have eidetic memories.  Have you ever wondered how biographers could write gigantic biographies of people who lived a hundred or two hundred years ago?  George Washington and Abraham Lincoln left big historical trails to follow, but most people leave few clues to piece together.  My father died when I was 19 and it took me years to realize that I knew nothing about him.  I had memories and a handful of photos, which I thought was all I needed, but when I finally got around to examining those memories I realized I had zip, nada, nothing.  I have no idea what was going on inside his head.  Like, what was he thinking on his graduation day in the photo above?  What did he hope to get out of life?

Recently I threw out decades of credit card bills, medical statements, receipts on big purchases, bank statements.  I knew if I wanted to I could recreate at least my spending and medical history with those clues, but in the end, I chose to throw them all away.

Who are we?  Are we what we think?  Are we what we own?  Are we what we did?  Are we what we love?  Are we what we hate?  I’m not a believer in the afterlife, but I wonder what it would be like, because if we went some place new do we throw out who we were on Earth?  Memories of my Dad are defined by Camel cigarettes and Seagram 7 bottles.  If my Dad can’t have his cigs and booze, can he be my Dad in heaven?  Or do they have bars and ashtrays on the other side?

And is that how the young man in the photo above expected to be remembered?  By his bad dying habits?

There was a period in my life where I fanatically collect LPs.  I had over a thousand of them.  Collecting and listening to music is what made my life good and meaningful.  I eventually sold or gave them all alway.  I only have one LP now.  Last year I had a fit of nostalgia for an album I heard in 1971 called Never Going Back to Georgia by The Blues Magoos.  It was never reprinted on CD.  I ordered a used copy off the internet and a friend gave me a turntable and I played that album a couple of times.   What I heard was not what I remembered from forty years ago.

It takes a great effort to recapture the past once you throw it away.  I know many people who never throw anything a way.  I knew a guy who claimed he had every book he ever bought and read.  I know that’s not true because he lent me a book and I never gave it back, and I’m sure I’m not the first.  I have a piece of his past – sorry about that Bob.  But is it a piece that matters?  And which pieces do?

Does the past matter?  I can go long periods of time without thinking about the past, but boy do I hate it when a memory pops up and I can’t place when and where I was.  It bums me out that I can’t remember one face or name from kindergarten through third grade.  I do remember returning to Lake Forest Elementary in my fourth grade year and meeting a girl name Helen and how it upset her that I didn’t remember knowing her from when we went to second grade together.  I can remember a few people from 5th and 6th grade.  That’s pitiful, ain’t it?  In all my K-12 years I can barely remember and name more than a dozen classmates.  Where did all those people go, I spent years with them.

Religious people agonize over being reborn after death – they just don’t want to let go, they’re just afraid of dying.  But I think we die every day, every moment, I think we’re constantly throwing away the past.  We’re new people every day.  We go to sleep every night and our brains housecleans the day’s memories and throws out most of them.  If we kept all our memories we’d be like hoarders buried under piles of useless crap.

But each night, and maybe not every night, the old noggin decides to keep a few bits of the past, so there’s a precedence for keeping some stuff.  I wish I had kept a diary and took more photographs throughout my life.  A case could be made that we should each be our own biographer, and maybe that’s the right amount of past to keep, what we could keep in one big book.  Our brains aren’t very good with details, so we should jot the important ones down and take a few snaps to document our lives.

Now here’s my wish.  I wish The Library of Congress would create a national digital archive where we could store our memoires, like a permanent blogging site that historians can depend on for mining memories about all of us.  I know most of our autobiographies will go unread, but they’d be there.  I’d love to read my father’s thoughts, and his father’s, and his father’s father, and so on.

There are things we do want to remember.  Most of the past we throw away, but maybe we should start throwing away a little less.

JWH – 3/16/12

Understanding Reality

Think about cockroaches.  How much do they know about reality?  They have compound eyes that see the world poorly.  They can sense vibration, and they have a sense of touch.  Do they smell and taste the world around them?  I don’t know.  Cockroaches are little biological machines that eat and replicate.  They survive.  Between roaches and humans is an array of animal life with ever improving senses that understand more of reality.  To get some idea how an animal thinks watch “My Life as a Turkey.”  Humans do not have an exclusive hold on consciousness, but our consciousness lets us explore reality far deeper than any other creature we know.

I tend to doubt animals understand their environment in a conscious way.  They react to it, and even develop rudimentary calls that can be language-like that can relate to others of their kind about locations, events or things in their environment.  But I don’t think they ever ask:  who, what, where, when, how and why?  Maybe some higher forms of animals might pine for who, what and where, but I doubt they cognitively ask.

I believe we have a number of cognitive tools that help us analyze, map and understand reality.

Language

Words let us break down reality into parts.  Grammar lets us describe actions with nouns and verbs.  The origin of language let us work with who, what, where and when.

Theology

Theology introduces abstractions that attempt to answer how.  Theology was our first tool that lets us ask why are we here.  Unfortunately, theology is all based on imaginary concepts.  Theology distorts reality.  Theology lets us think we see things that aren’t there.  Theology has imprisoned humans for tens of thousands of years in a pseudo-reality.

Philosophy

Philosophy introduced rhetoric and logic and attempts to understand reality through deduction.  Sadly, philosophy was tainted by religion and sought to reconcile reality with ideal forms of the mind.  It took philosophy centuries to throw off trying to make reality shoehorn into a preconceived concept.

Mathematics

We started counting with language and commerce, but mathematics came into its own with philosophy.  At first mathematics was used in philosophical interpretations of abstractions and ideal forms, but eventually we applied it to analyzing reality.  It became our first tool where consensus and validation was important.

Science

Science is a system for testing reality.  Answers only count if they are consistent, reproducible and universal.  Mathematics became the cognitive tool of science.

Technology

Technology allowed us to expand our senses.  Telescopes and microscopes see further than our eyes.  Other technology allowed us to look into the reality where our senses can’t perceive.

The first three cognitive tools we developed, language, theology and philosophy often distort reality, or create illusions and fantasies.  Most humans never get beyond those three tools and even though they perceive reality far greater than a cockroach because of their superior senses, language, theology and philosophy often just confuses their minds.  Our brains are so powerful that they let us see what we want to see.  Our minds can override our senses and alter reality.  Theology has always been more powerful than any drug, especially combined with the power of our imagination.

The Limits of the Mind

Math, science and technology have expanded our awareness of reality out to infinity in all directions, including time.  How much of this reality humans can comprehend is yet to be determine.  Most humans on planet Earth cannot get beyond theology which blinds them from seeing true reality.  Most religions have incorporated bits of philosophy to make their religion logical and understandable by rhetoric, but its foundation is based on illusion and quicksand.  In recent years theology has even attempted to incorporate science but its been a pathetic failure.  Those people whose only cognitive tool for understanding reality is theology cannot comprehend how science works, if they did, it would destroy their theology.

There are many other tools for understanding reality, such as art, literature, history, journalism, poetry, drama, etc.  They are all subjective, but they have their pros and cons.

JWH – 3/6/12

The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels is both fascinating and tedious.  Who Jesus was has been argued by billions for thousands of years, so why should anyone assume we can solve an unsolvable puzzle?  Before the Catholic Church became the monolithic institution that defined Christianity for centuries, there were a few centuries after Christ’s death where many different Christian beliefs flourished, and among those were the Gnostics.  Gnosticism wasn’t limited to Christian thinking, but Christian Gnosticism in various forms were large enough movement that early orthodox leaders wrote books teaching against Gnostic thinking.  Gnostics were heretics early orthodox Christians hated even more than the Romans.  The orthodox did everything it could to wipe out the heretics and burn all their books.  In 1945 we found 52 texts at Nag Hammadi, Egypt.

gnostic-gospels

The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels is a short overview of alternate Christian beliefs before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  Now here’s the rub.  You have many Christian philosophies before 325 AD, then hundreds of years of the Catholic Church, and many Christian philosophies after the Protestant Reformation in 1517.  The Catholic Church spent centuries hammering out who Christ was and what his teachings meant, but there are always other people believing he taught something different.  Gnostics had very radical ideas about Christ that sound just as good or better.  Who is the real Jesus?

How Christianity evolved is a fascinating historical mystery.  I’ve been watching Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication, A Great Course lecture by Bart D. Ehrman.  I got The Gnostic Gospels as a supplement.  The Gnostics are intriguing because they claim to have secret knowledge of Jesus based on his mystical teachings, like Eastern religions.  Some Gnostics thought the virgin birth and bodily resurrection were silly stories the orthodox Christians believed in and claim to know the real truth.  They said Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven was within and had already arrived and with the right practices and secret knowledge it would be revealed here on Earth.  It wasn’t faith, but direct experience.

While studying these early Christians I got a strange idea.  History is full of religious charlatans and con men.  What if Jesus had been a con man gathering his flock with a promise of secret knowledge.  Then he gets killed, and after that all his followers taught something different about his “secret knowledge” creating endless religions never knowing they had been conned.  Most people like to assume that one view of Christ is the right one.  But what if they are all wrong?

The more I study the history of Christianity the more its obvious that every Christian see a different Jesus and it’s impossible to know the real Jesus.  Reading The Gnostic Gospels only made me feel more conclusively that Jesus and his teachings are unknowable – and all we can know is an endless series of imaginary Christs created by people who have their on unique beliefs.

JWH 1/4/12

Nonfiction, Fiction, History, Myth and States of Consciousness

Have you ever read a book about a real life event and then watched a documentary about the same subject?  The contrast of what we can learn from words and what we can learn from film is often jarring and sometimes shocking.  One of my favorite books from youth is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.  Wolfe made literary fame by pioneering “new journalism” which is now called creative nonfictionThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was considered the book that defined the hippies and their philosophy.  I read this book back in 1969, and now 42 years later I got to watch Magic Trip, a documentary that used actual film footage of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.   Wolfe interviewed all the principal people right after the events, and he also must have seen the original 30 hours of film, and I was blown away by the difference between the two ways of telling the same story.

KoolAid_1stUSEd_front

Truth is the actual events.  How close can we ever come to reconstructing the truth?  What is the best evidence for the truth?  When Farmer Ted bets his geeky friends he’ll hook up with Samantha in Sixteen Candles and his friends demand proof, he asks them what kind, and they say in unison, “Video!”   As far as I can imagine, video comes closest to the truth as any evidence we can find – but even then it’s far from perfect.  For centuries, before the advent of video, our knowledge of past events was based on writing.

How much can we know from reading?  Before writing was invented our worldview was limited to the here and now.  We had oral storytellers that conveyed news from distant lands and remembered events and people from the past, but it was very limited.  Most of the time people’s consciousness was focused on the present and the immediate world around them.  Then reading and writing was invented and information about endless places and countless past moments could be recorded so people could conjure up in their minds things that weren’t here and now.  But how effective is reading at reproducing the past?  How accurate can reading describe distant places and events?

All my life I’ve been a bookworm, spending hours a day with my head in a book.  When young I most read fiction, and felt that time away from reality was just escapist entertainment, but over the decades I’ve shifted to reading more nonfiction, and felt I was learning stuff about other places, people and the past.  But am I?

Lately I’ve been reading nonfiction books and then seeking out documentaries and photographs to supplement my reading, and in every case I’m shocked by how different my mental image from reading is from the photograph or film.  Words are black marks on white paper, but they attempt to encode information that comes through our five senses.  How well does any word for a color convey the actual color? Does the word blue suggest any particular shade of blue?  Picture the wall of paint sample colors at your local Home Depot.  Which of the thousands of blues are the one we call blue?  Now think about the other four senses and words for sounds, textures, tastes and smells.  How close do words come to the infinite varieties of sensual details?

Last night I watched a documentary Magic Trip about Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters taking a bus from the west coast to visit New York City for the 1964 Worlds Fair.  In 1969 when I read “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe it blew me away by how exciting his non-fiction writing was at vividly conveying the story of these freaks on acid traveling across the country.  Over the years I’ve read more books and articles about this event, and the people involved.  To me this cross country trip was the legendary beginning of the hippies.  Of course I was wrong.   Kesey and his Merry Pranksters met the real hippies, like the Grateful Dead, when they got back from the trip and started promoting their acid test events.  Hippies already existed in 1964.

The documentary Magic Trip was created around the actual film the Pranksters took while on the trip and it blew my mind again.  It was absolutely nothing like I pictured from the Tom Wolfe book.  First off, Kesey and the Pranksters didn’t look like hippies – only the women had long hair.  And they all looked ordinary – I wouldn’t have named them the Merry Pranksters – that moniker seems way to grand for them.  The people in the film looked like college kids from the late 1950s or early 1960s acting really silly.  They looked more like early Beach Boys wearing stripe shirts.  Their antics looked as sophisticated as old episodes of The Monkees.

In some of the film clips Kesey and the Pranksters are on heavy doses of acid but you couldn’t tell that from what you see.  Now I know what they were feeling, I can remember that from those days.  Acid is like having a hurricane in your head, but you don’t see that from the outside.  What you see is kids being goofy and stupid.  Now in the book, Tom Wolfe tries to convey the epic psychological discoveries they were making – things going on in their heads, and the Magic Trip film tries to suggest that too, but the physical evidence of visuals from the film and sound recordings from tape just don’t back it up.  Wolfe wrote about what was going on in their heads and we can’t see that in the film.

As evidence of what actually happened I credit the film over Wolfe.  But is that fair or even accurate?  How much can we judge the truth of an event from what we can see and hear?  As counter evidence, how much do people know you from seeing you and hearing you talk?  See what I mean?  Reality and truth is deceptive.

It’s impossible to convey a psychedelic trip in words – and the clips of the trip festivals at the end of the movie don’t even come close.  What you see is kids dancing and acting weird and idiotic – no wonder the silent-majority Americans were freaked out by the freaks.  Back then the claim was drugs took you to a state of higher consciousness, but I always felt like they took me to a state of animal consciousness – a lowering.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s quite revealing, and you can learn a lot about how the mind functions, but all that talk about higher states was bullshit.  But then I value the verbal mind over the nonverbal mind.

In one part of the film, the west coast Merry Pranksters, along with their legendary bus driver Neal Cassidy, famed beat character Dean Moriarty from On the Road, meet up with his fellow real life On the Road beat characters Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.  Hippies meet their beatnik idols.  But things don’t go off well.  Jack is morose and turned off by the silly pranksters.  Then the west coast psychedelic legends go and meet the east coast prophets of LSD, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert.  Leary is so turned off by them that he runs away and hides and leaves the future Ram Das to deal with them.  Leary and Alpert were trying to make LSD a serious tool for studying consciousness and these proto-hippies were abusing acid like teenagers breaking into their parents liquor cabinet.  In 1964 most people did not know what to make of these crazy kids.

Seeing Magic Trip was shocking to me.  Imagine how disturbing it would be to discover films of Jesus and his merry band of disciples.  Christianity has created thousands of different interpretations of the history of Jesus – so imagine if we got to see what Jesus really said and did?   Video can be so shocking to see after studying words.  We have no idea what Jesus was like or what he said.  Everything he supposedly said was recreated decades after the fact.  In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe is deifying Kesey and his disciples just three years after the real event, and it’s impossible to know how much of the legend is Wolfe and how much is Kesey?

Tom Wolfe had used words to make this trip into an epic adventure, a transcendental experience of the first order.  He totally mythologized the people involved – of course the Pranksters were trying to do that themselves even while they were on the trip.  They gave each other funny names making themselves into characters on an epic adventure traveling in their legendary bus Further.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that these folks weren’t experiencing eye opening philosophical experiences.  They were exploring a new consciousness, breaking out of the rigid 1950s stereotypes, and exploring new experiences that would come to be known as the psychedelic sixties – but it wasn’t new consciousness.   Throughout history groups of people have rediscovered the Dionysian joys of intoxication and ecstasy – and wanting to escape from the rigid confines of society.  Even in the film Kesey says they were too young to be beatniks and too old to be hippies.

I remember my psychedelic days from over forty years ago, and it pretty much followed the Pranksters.  Me and my friends did a lot of silly and stupid things while exploring the doors of perception.  I had been inspired by Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley and wanted my trips to be scientific experiments into the mind, but they weren’t.  It was just me and my friends doing many of the same exact things the Pranksters did in Magic Trip – going group swimming, driving around in funny vehicles that got a lot of attention, trying to play musical instruments when we had no ability, getting zonked out by nature, admiring the beats, upsetting the older people.  Oh, I learned a lot, but I can safely say to kids today, don’t bother, there are much better ways to explore the mind.  Read Steven Pinker, Edge.org and learn how to achieve Zen mindfulness.

But does any of this answer the question about how much truth we can attain from words?  In terms of acquiring knowledge, words can get you far higher than any amount of acid.  Truth and experience are wordless – ineffable.  I’ve experienced wordless states of consciousness through drugs and a mini-stroke, and that’s not a normal human state of consciousness.  As humans, like it or not, our consciousness minds are based on words and language – and language and words do not mirror reality perfectly.  Or even closely.  I know there are non-verbal conscious states of mind but the past and future don’t exist in those states.  The mere act of trying to recreate the past is a verbal state of consciousness.

The real question is:  How close does the nonverbal reality match our verbal reality?  I don’t think very much at all.  My proof is the fact that we all live in different verbal realities, and even when several people experience the same event they seldom recreate the shared reality with the same words.

A good lesson in understanding this is to study writing creative nonfiction.  I took two MFA writing courses with Kristen Iversen dealing with Creative Nonfiction and I learned quite a lot about “telling the truth” with words.  It’s actually very hard, if not impossible.  One of the first writing lessons she gave our class was to take a memory from when we were young and put it into words.   Even here I’m being misleading.  I can’t remember the exact assignment.  I think she might have told us to pick a memory from when we were twelve, but I’m not sure.  What immediately occurred to me to write about was a memory of me staying with my grandmother who maintained an old apartment building on Biscayne Bay in Miami, and the night she gave me an old fishing tackle box left in one of the apartments, and how I went out alone to fish off the concrete wall by the bay.  The more I thought about the memory the more details I could dredge up, but eventually I realized I couldn’t be sure of any of the exact details.  Memory is so faulty, but they’re also tricky.  It’s easy to create false memories. But my final essay was praised in class for its vivid details.

Was the essay absolutely true?  No, it wasn’t.  But I didn’t feel I was lying either.  I had recreated in words what were vague impressions and memories in my mind.  Mining those memories took work.  There’s a quality of effort in recreating memories that is very enlightening.  But still this brings us no closer to explaining the difference between nonfiction, fiction, history and myth.

I have read many nonfiction books on Wyatt Earp.  I have seen many documentaries on Wyatt Earp.  I have read many fictional stories about Wyatt Earp.  I have seen many fictional movies about Wyatt Earp.  I have heard many people discuss Wyatt Earp as a legendary mythic character of the old west.  Which of these various modes of learning about Wyatt Earp are the best for knowing who the real Wyatt Earp was like?  Is Tombstone the movie better than The Last Gunfight the nonfiction book, or Doc, a fictional novel where Wyatt is a prominent character?  Or the  PBS American Experience episode about Wyatt Earp?

Here’s what I can tell you.  It’s only based on personal feelings.  Wyatt Earp the man who lived in the nonverbal reality of the 19th century is long gone and unknowable.  That kind of reality is unknowable.  That’s why it’s called ineffable.  I can say some fictional versions of Wyatt Earp vary far from the actual reality of the nonfictional evidence, but can we say the Wyatt we create with historical evidence is actually close the to real flesh and blood Wyatt?  Yes, I think we can, even though there are many nonfictional Wyatt Earps to consider.  Every account, whether fiction or nonfiction creates a new edition of Wyatt Earp.  But I actually doubt we really get that close to the real man – some accounts are just more factual than others.

Scientists like to entertain the idea of multiple universes because there should be an infinity of these other universes allowing endless versions of our own world, many just slightly different.  That’s how verbally reconstructed Wyatt Earps exists.  There’s an infinity of them.  Some of them are close to the real world that did exist, but it’s very hard to judge which are the closest.  We can spot the absurd examples easy enough like all the Wyatt Earps in science fiction stories, but we can’t say which historical Wyatt is actually the best.

I think we’re getting closer to understand nonfiction, fiction, history and myth, but we’re not there yet.  I am reminded of a book called The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes.  What Jaynes suggested was for early humanity they had a different state of mind than we do now, which he called the bicameral mind.  I don’t want to go into the details of his theory other than to say that in the past we shifted from one kind of consciousness to another.  I just want to suggest that as our verbal consciousness evolved, we’re now shifting into a third state of consciousness.  This new consciousness is based on sharing facts and building a consensus model of reality based on science.

We’re not that good at it yet – the proof can be seen by how Democrats and Republicans model our political reality.  And even conservatives and liberals seldom share the same ideas.  But in theory we believe through science and other forms of knowledge, that we can model our complex social reality in political and economic laws, as well as nonfiction, history and even fiction.

In other words, many of us believe given enough facts we could prove to each other the validity of a model of reality.  Science has gone the furthest by explaining the physical world.  The consensus is very strong with that – there’s very little fiction or myth in science.  All other areas of knowledge, like politics, ethics, law, economics are a long way from matching reality with any kind of common agreement.  In other words, they are mostly built on fiction and myths.

What I’m saying finally is, we all like to believe that we can separate nonfiction and history from fiction and myths.  Whether that’s true or even possible, is still open for scientific evaluation.  In other words, if you hold any beliefs other than those covered by a narrow range of scientific study, you can’t be sure if there is any difference between nonfiction, fiction, history and myth.

There is no way to know who Ken Kesey or Wyatt Earp was scientifically, but is there any emerging discipline that could use consensus like science, to measure the accuracy between nonfiction and fiction?  Is the scholarship of History rigorous enough to make that claim?  Or will all areas of knowledge outside of science always by undermined by subjectivity?

JWH – 12/30/11

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