Friday, March 25, 2005

Someplace else

1. I miss this. A lot. Shaking out the debris in my head.

2. I was astounded to find tubs of Play-doh available at the dollar store (for a dollar each!) last Christmas, but I was stunned to find no-name modelling dough available three tubs for a dollar. What I love about Play-doh is the smell, though I have yet to establish whether it's a Proustian thing (I don't remember much Play-doh in my childhood at all) or a chemical response. The no-name modelling dough smells awful. Really, really awful. It's also gummier and takes a really long time to harden. But it smells really awful. I've resisted making homemade Play-doh, mostly because I dread the disappointment of not capturing the smell (and because it uses a ton of salt). I wonder if I can get Play-doh scent in a can?

3. House-hunting is unpleasant. The actual viewing of homes is rather nice — it's the implications: having to battle out the priorities of living space to find a suitable compromise as well as facing the fear of never "falling in love." How can I be expected to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a space I'm not in love with? Where is the love in all the compromises? How much is a square foot really worth? The most difficult question of the day: is our real estate agent on the side of good or evil?

4. Helena has developed a strange little laugh. It sounds affected and phony, and verges on the maniacal. It reminds me of other people's children when they're playing you. The delightful usual laughs are still there, but this one is getting a lot of airtime and it confuses me.

5. I keep buying more notebooks. Yesterday, fine Italian notebooks, because the paper is creamy and screams for ink and lead to be rubbed across it, those pages want to know everything; today, dollar store notebooks (for a dollar!) wanting grocery lists, stray phone numbers, and reminders. This has to stop.

6. She keeps saying marvelous cute things I mean to jot down, and don't, because I know all kids say them and it would be tiresome to repeat them, and already I forget, and I wish I had a notebook full of Helena utterances, knowing that once I had them they would prove to be a unique and weird blending of two languages.

7. Helena delayed bedtime today by requesting hummous — too strange not to indulge, but also likely an indication of hunger, and it would never do for Helena to go to bed hungry.

8. We're off to visit my mother. We leave in a few short hours. Easter weekend will be a joy with my sister there, and before J-F leaves to come back home without us. But it'll be at least a week before he comes back for us. I'm afraid of how long this week may turn out be.

9. I'm very sad that I'll be missing Blue Metropolis. Very sad. I've been looking forward to it for a whole year.

10. I'm taking Don Quixote with me.

11. I'm going to miss this a lot. Where will I shake out the debris?

Elementary Houllebecq

I happen to have read Elementary Particles, so I was interested to read this essay on Michel Houllebecq. While I can't exactly say I enjoyed Elementary Particles — it's depressing as hell, and the sex is...tiresome — I'm glad to have read it.

The central premise of Elementary Particles is best expressed in a passage from the book that followed it, Platform:

It is wrong to pretend that human beings are unique, that they carry within them an irreplaceable individuality. As far as I was concerned, at any rate, I could not distinguish any trace of such an individuality. As often as not, it is futile to wear yourself out trying to distinguish individual destinies and personalities. When all's said and done, the idea of the uniqueness of the individual is nothing more than pompous absurdity. We remember our own lives, Schopenhauer wrote somewhere, a little better than we do a novel we once read. That's about right: a little, no more.

The hero is a molecular biologist who, at the end of the book, retires complete, between the years 2000 and 2009, his magnum opus, an eighty-page distillation of a life's work devoted to the proposition "that mankind must disappear and give way to a new species which was asexual and immortal, a species which had outgrown individuality, separation and evolution." . . . Djerzinski's conviction is that any genetic code, however complex, can be noted in a standard, structurally stable form, isolated from disturbances or mutations. This meant that every cell contained within it the possibility of being infinitely copied. Every animal species, however highly evolved, could be transformed into a similar species, reproduced by cloning, and immortal.

At the close of the book, the twenty-first century is half-done and humanity as we know it has all but disappeared, its place taken by a new species of Djerzinskian immortals. "There remain some humans of the old species, particularly in areas long dominated by religious doctrine. Their reproductive levels fall year by year, however, and at present their extinction seems inevitable." It is a strangely compelling, strangely moving conceit, this peaceful making way by the old order for a new.


Yet Elementary Particles is genuinely affecting in its vision of the end of the "brave and unfortunate species" that we as human beings have been, and of our replacement by the brave-new-worlders, made possible by Djerzinski's "risky interpretations of the postulates of quantum mechanics." For all the ferocity of his vision, Houellebecq does have a heart, and although he would probably not care to be told so, it is the palpable beating of that organ which lifts his work to heights that the dementedly fastidious Lovecraft could not have scaled in his wildest and weirdest dreams.

Houellebecq, if we are to take him at his word and not think ourselves mocked by his fanciful flights, achieves a profound insight into the nature of our collective death wish, as well as our wistful hope for something to survive, even if that something is not ourselves. The omniscient narrator of The Elementary Particles, dedicating his book "to mankind," meditates on what is past and passing and to come:

History exists; it is elemental, it dominates, its rule is inexorable. Yet outside the strict confines of history, the ultimate ambition of this book is to salute the brave and unfortunate species which created us. This vile, unhappy race, barely different from the apes, which nevertheless carried within it such noble aspirations. Tortured, contradictory, individualistic, quarrelsome . . . it was sometimes capable of extraordinary explosions of violence, but never quite abandoned its belief in love. This species which, for the first time in history, was able to envision the possibility of its succession and, some years later, proved capable of bringing it about. As the last members of this race are extinguished, we think it just to render this last tribute to humanity, an homage which itself will one day disappear, buried beneath the sands of time.

I read this book almost two years ago, just after, or maybe just before reading Atwood's Oryx and Crake. They formed a perfect juxtaposition. The reading was enhanced by the coincidental viewing of a couple dystopian films, the names of which are now forgotten. I wrote a profound and detailed missive to a friend (was it you?) comparing them — the key factors thought to be the problem with today's society, the lens through which they are viewed (and the problematic relationships with women), the means by which to rid society of this problem, through science, and the idyllic results.

(Michel Basilères posited that Elementary Particles is science fiction, but I think that goes too far. Certainly science, while it underlies all the behaviours in the book, doesn't appear as an active force till the very end. There is much less science, though possibly more technical and powerful, than in Oryx and Crake, and I wouldn't slap a sci-fi label on that one. The word you people are looking for is dystopian, a grand tradition unto itself.)

Here's a succinct report of the book.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Walking octopus

Theories that walking requires hard bones and skeletal muscle are discredited, as octopuses have neither.

[They] can tuck up six of their arms while running on the other two, U.S. researchers reported on Thursday.

They can use their other six arms to disguise themselves from predators, either as rolling coconuts or clumps of floating algae.

The behaviour has been captured on video.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Existential detective work

We watched I[heart]Huckabees this weekend, which I enjoyed immensely, even though we'd picked it up half-heartedly. Why did I think it was a screwball comedy about an extended family, the Huckabees? Why do they plaster "laugh-out-loud funny" on the DVD cover — do they not realize how meaningless that is? Or is that part of the joke? Had somebody actually said to me the words "existential detectives" in relation to this movie, I'd've seen it long ago.

To paraphrase some of the film's mood:
Nobody asks the big questions when they're feeling up. It's alway when they're depressed, or bad shit is happening.
There is no remainder in the mathematics of infinity.

Can we say there is a grand tradition of existential detectives?
Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently.
Paul Auster's Mr Blue.
Kinky Friedman's Kinky Friedman.

OK, maybe not a grand tradition, but one day...

I feel I ought to call in some of these pros to work on my own case.

See Mental Multivitamin's nightstand for further — and I think related — thoughts on various kinds of enlightenment. I particularly like the bit quoted from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet:
Search into the depths of Things: there, irony never descends — and when you arrive at the edge of greatness, find out whether this way of perceiving the world arises from a necessity of your being.

I've been having a crisis of motherhood. Helena was home 2 days last week, and it was hard. Hard. I can no longer imagine looking after her on a full-time basis. I know that, in part, I'm simply out of practice. When faced with any reality: you gotta do what you gotta do. But sometimes it just seems so hard.

We'd dropped Helena to stay with her grandmother this weekend. She threw up in the car on the way. Yet we left her there. See what a horrible mother I am? True, it was probably better to let her rest there for a while than subject her to another long car ride home, but I still feel guilty about it. (No other signs of illness since.)

J-F and I went shopping for new glasses and ordered some. I suspect this will go a long way toward my not waking up every morning with a headache. No wonder I've been foul-mooded, I finally realized — I've been waking up every morning with a headache.

I feel blocked, for lack of a better word. All sorts of thoughts and emotions have been swirling around, and I've been storing them up till such time as I could sort through them and organize them clearly, here. Not gonna happen.

I finished reading Jasper Fforde's Something Rotten, which was good fun. I enjoyed it more than the 2nd and 3rd books in the series, but I think this has more to do with time and place, and perhaps my familiarity with Hamlet, than with objective factors. This book was not nearly so inventive as the others in exploring bookworld and the fictitious characters that inhabit it. There were fewer literary jokes. I found it charming that Thursday Next's toddler son spoke Lorem Ipsum rather than regular babble. I kept waiting for a connection to be made between the villain Yorrick and the skull Hamlet carries around, but there was none.

Need a poem? Answer a few questions, win a poem to match your mood. For my existential crisis, here's the poem to help me through my long dark night of the soul:

Fire and Ice
SOME say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
— Robert Frost (1874 — 1963)

Book stick

Passed to me by scribblingwoman:

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
Oh yes. Larry, in Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. I was only 16, and he was so worldly and wise, even if everyone dismissed him as a loafer. Nobody understood him like I did. Sigh.
And the Three Musketeers. Well, mostly D'Artagnan. But, really, any musketeer would do in a pinch. I'm a sucker for a man in uniform. If it has a cape and a plumed hat.

The last book you bought:
Something Rotten, by Jasper Fforde, because I can't pass them up at $6.99.

The last book you read:
The last book I finished: Something Rotten, by Jasper Fforde. The last book I read, though I only squeezed in a couple pages today: Iain Pears' The Dream of Scipio, which I've been reading, and enjoying, for months.

Five books you would take to a deserted island:
(No anthologies for me. I am not a cheater. Given enough advance warning I'd publish my own anthology of favourite works — I wouldn't need five books, just that one.)
1. Ulysses, James Joyce. Because I've been trying for almost 20 years.
2. Remembrance of Things Past, or whatever they're calling it these days, Marcel Proust. Yes, all the volumes. Because I've been trying for about 10 years.
I need some peace and quiet, dammit!
3. Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes. Although I'm nearing the halfway mark, I suspect I could read it a few more times and still get something new on each reading. I reserve the right to substitute another book for this one in the event I finish it and am disappointed, before being shipped off to said island.
4. Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco. Because I've always meant to REread it, giving the footnotes their due. And it will keep me paranoid. A valuable quality on a deserted island.
5. Diary, Witold Gombrowicz, in 3 volumes, and, depending how long I was to be on this island, I might bring it in Polish, just to keep things interesting.
(Hah! No Shakespeare! Man, will I get bored fast.)

Who are you going to pass this stick to and why?
I will pass it to Rachel, because her relationship with books runs deeper than she generally lets on, even though she probably won't do it, cuz I don't think she does memes, but then neither do I...


What obsolete skill are you?

You are 'programming in QBASIC'. This programming language (of which the acronym stands for 'Quick Beginners' All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code'), which is so primitive that it cannot easily be used for any purpose involving the Internet nor even sound, was current more than a decade ago.

You are independent, in a good way. When something which you need cannot be found, you make it yourself. In writing and in talking with people, you value clarity and precision; your friends may not realize how important that is. When necessary, you are prepared to be a mediator in conflicts between your friends. You are very rational, and you think of things in terms of logic and common sense. Unfortunately, your emotionally unstable friends may be put off by your devotion to logic; they may even accuse you of pedantry and insensitivity. Your problem is that programming in QBASIC has been obsolete for a long time.

What obsolete skill are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

(Via Pratie Place.)

Friday, March 18, 2005

"Timeless truth, today's language"

The Bible has been "updated," retranslated, perhaps dumbed down, for a modern audience.

Would anyone really misunderstand the phrase "stoned to death" to mean "to die of a drug overdose"?

Many of the changes are banal; some are controversial; others are weird.

"Foreigners will no longer be called 'aliens,' because that makes too many people think of space travellers."

You'll never mistake the Bible for sci-fi again.

Raising children with secular values

How do you raise your children when you don't believe in God? A thought-provoking speech presented at The New York Society for Ethical Culture (via Mimi Smartypants):

"I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one," Einstein wrote. But rather than be billed as a "professional atheist," Einstein added, "I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being."

So, yes, of course, humility in the face of cosmic grandeur is always warranted; but let us not forget that Einstein sought to the very end of his long life to honor that grandeur by seeking to understand it, bit by bit, with his weak little intellect. How much better, in my view, is that approach, of humility crossed with an unslakable curiosity to delve the majesties of nature. . .

Does Science reconcile itself to God? Does it matter? "Instilling in my daughter an appreciation for the difference between evidence and opinion is a critical part of childrearing."

On my mind as I'm preparing to spend the Easter holiday with family — a tradition, but how much of it is religious? and does it matter?

Ah, but what of values, of learning the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? What about tradition, what about ritual, what about the holidays that children love so much? How will a child learn to be good without religious training? Well, damn. Do you really need formal religion to teach a child to be good, to be honest, to try not to hurt other people’s feelings, to care about something other than yourself? These are all variants on the golden rule, and there is nothing more powerful, in my experience, than sitting down with your kid and saying, how would you feel if somebody did that to you? There is a growing body of scientific research that demonstrates we are by nature inclined to cooperate, to trust others, even strangers, to an extraordinary degree. Even strangers we can’t see, over the internet, and even strangers that we’ll never meet again. None of this owes anything to the ten commandments. Which of those commandments tell you to help a stranger who looks lost, or jump into a river to help saving a drowning kid, or donate blood, maybe even a kidney or a slice of liver?

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Villains we love, and others

Waterstone's in the U.K. has compiled a list of favourite literary villains.

"Villains are the more convincing and interesting characters."

Of the villains listed (and of those I'm familiar with), I feel the criminal of Suskind's Perfume is the one with the fullest, best-drawn character, and the one to whom I reacted most viscerally. (I'm racking my brain for villains they overlooked.)

There is a separate children's list.

For Britain's World Book Day a couple weeks back, The Independent published a list of of 100 favourite fictional characters chosen by 100 literary luminaries. (China Miéville chose Jane Eyre — who'd've guessed it?)

(Humbert Humbert makes both lists, and other villains also appear as all-time favourites.)

Thinking on this the last while, I've come to realize that I tend to read novels for ideas, then for story. Characters come after these.

After much agonizing I've determined my favourite to be Sara Crewe of A Little Princess, even though she is of "children's litereature." Then comes Larry of The Razor's Edge.

Who are your faves?

Stuff about the girl, mostly

The facts
Monday the monitor died. How frustrating to know that the cyberworld is at my fingertips but be unable to see to navigate it.

Helena's home with a fever today. Her two boyfriends at daycare spent yesterday afternoon vomiting. Helena has thus far been spared that unpleasantness. I'm looking forward to a quiet day of children's programs and books, lazing about and much cuddling (I hope Helena cooperates).

The heart
The other day Ayelet Waldman in her column, on living out loud, online, wrote:

At this point in my life and my children's, I experience so little that is entirely separable from my identity as their mother. Mothering consumes not just the bulk of the hours of my day but the majority of my emotional and intellectual energy. Were I to declare that part of my life sacrosanct, I would have much less to say. I want to write about being a mother and about them precisely because they are such a large part of who I am. But I will no longer be writing about them just because they have said something amusing, or because they happen to look cute in their matching pajamas. I can't promise not to invade their privacy, but I can promise to do it more thoughtfully, and, I hope, to more meaningful an end.

That's what I'd wanted to say, more or less. Except that over the last months, my life has gradually been refilling with experiences separable from my identity as Helena's mother, while she is becoming more her own independent person.

In light of this, what follows is ironically trivial in detailing the minutiae of Helena's antics these last few days. (Oh well.)

The hair
We took Helena for a haircut. My sister flew through town this weekend, and this seemed like an appropriate family excursion to undertake. The hairdresser came on a bit strong in greeting Helena — I think she assumed Helena was older than she is — which made Helena freak out with tears and clinging. So she sat on my lap for the cut rather than in one of the cool car chairs, and she got a lollipop at the beginning of the cut rather than the end.

Weirdly, and to our great entertainment (I mean Helena's), this same mall was playing host to a menagerie of quasi-Easter-themed barnyard animals. And a donkey.

The body
Helena has suffered the shock and embarrassment of bodily functions in recent days. When in the tub, a look came over her face: "Caca." She stood up and was very distressed (as was I) to see a round little turd floating amid her boats. Frankly, I'm amazed this never happened before — I used to dread bathtime for the possibility of this happening.

The daycare has suggested Helena doesn't need diapers or pull-ups anymore; we're to send her in underwear. Before we managed to get her out the door Monday morning, we had two accidents. Two changes of clothes. Two sessions of hugs and consolation. Two mop-ups. The daycare environment inspires her to act like the big girls, but we'll have to go a little slower at home.

(Why am I writing about this? Toilet-training is a mystery to me. Whatever advancements Helena has made, she's figured out on her own. Maybe I should read up on these developments. The whole subject is... icky. I'm not sure if I'm asking for advice or commiseration. I'm shocked, too, that this stage and all the clothes changing and laundry and mopping it entails take up so much of my time. But I'll get over it.)

The brain
When we asked "What's that?" of the scribbles Helena was toiling over: "C'est un beau dessin!" (It's a beautiful drawing!)

"Twa." Toi? No. Ten minutes of questions and pointing and repetition revealed that Helena meant "straw." Once she was finally sipping her beverage through the desired object, she smirked and shook her head. "Pas 'toi.'" How could you be so silly, Mom? "Twa." Like in the language acquisition experiments I studied, she knows that what we repeat back to her is incorrect, even if she's unable to produce the correct utterance herself. A source of amusement and frustration for all.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Stuff about books, mostly

1. I stopped by a bargain book centre, hoping to stumble upon a great bargain. And I did. For $6.99 (CAD) I purchased Jasper Fforde's Something Rotten, the latest in the Thursday Next series, in hardcover (5.25 x 8 x 1.375 in). For a dollar less (what a bargain!), I could've had the paperback (6 x 9.25 x 1.5 in). I chose to spend the extra buck. Not because I have to have the hardcover (I'm not that kind of book snob) — it's what's between the covers that counts — but because after careful comparison I determined that the hardcover was physically more compact and lighter, and therefore an easier fit in my purse. A function well worth a dollar!

Paperbacks should be standard sized (mass-market-paperback size) and cheap. I should be able to cram it into my pocket. I have no use for "trade" paperbacks with their fancy covers and unique dimensions — if I wanted the superficial extras, I'd buy a hardcover (and I do, sometimes). This is why I frequent bargain bins and remainders stacks.

The trend of trade fiction is part of a vast conspiracy to make reading an event, for book clubs and designated personal time in one's special reading space, equipped with throws and candles. I suppose it does some good for some people to make it special — reading then becomes perceived as something worthy to aspire to. But don't make me take it out of my everyday. I want to carry a book with me (easily, not in a specially designed tote) so I can read standing in lines and on buses. Ordinary people stand in lines and ride buses. Believe it or not, ordinary people read.

2. The Globe and Mail has removed the Books section from its sidebar of sections. When did this happen? I had to burrow into Entertainment to find book stuff. Sure, books are entertaining, but I hate to think that's their only purpose. I hate to think that's how most people view books.

3. I found a slim volume of "fables" collected by Alberto Manguel, The Ark in the Garden: Fables for Our Times. In the children's section. I took the book, at the 20% discount being applied to kids' books that day. Stories by Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley, and others.

The book was obviously misfiled. These fables are not for children. (The book's title isn't exactly correct on the store's website either.) Unless you are trying to indoctrinate your children into the ways of pinko commies. These stories caused even my liberal eyes to roll.

...six wry, satirical, at times dark, at times poignant, and always slightly disturbing, tales cast in a decisively contemporary ethos ... tackles a tome-like cross-section of the moral, political, social, and ecological issues that face us all.

Except that it's hardly a cross-section.

The story by Rohinton Mistry is my favourite:
"Socialist claptrap and metaphorical mumbo-jumbo cannot shake my belief in common sense," declared the king.

I'm trying to figure out for whom among my friends this would make a great gift.

4. I also purchased a copy of A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It's a childhood favourite of mine, and I want to be ready to introduce it to Helena.

There will come a time she will pay attention to a book for more than 15 minutes a sitting, when the sound of my voice and the text on the page will entrance and transport her as much as bright and intricate pictures fascinate her now. And I'll be ready, with her very own copy, because mine, on the shelf by my bed, is so worn it may not survive her little fingers.

5. I have five fiction books on the go. Until a couple months ago (until Don Quixote!) I was decidedly a one-book-at-a-time girl. Finish one before moving on to the next. It troubles me a little — I feel I'm not giving these books my full attention. Yet it's the only way I seem to get any reading done these days. I lack the focus to devote myself to just one. I hunger for them all.

6. In the course of running errands, I accidentally walked into a paper goods store. I spent well over an hour fondling notebooks. I exercised great restraint and walked out of the store without purchasing anything. But I can't get that little Italian number out of my head. (Paul Auster's notebook love was Portuguese.)

The second time I was drawn into such a store — (It's like they're calling to me. I need a notebook. I don't even use notebooks all that often. Certainly not for notes that warrant creamy pages and supple covers.) — I treated myself to a handtooled, embossed, old-leather–look volume. I don't know what I'll use it for.

And I'm still thinking about that little Italian number.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Because it's funny

Hills Like Stuffed Tigers: Calvin Discovers Hemingway
by Russell Bradbury-Carlin

"What do you think it means to be a man, Hobbes?"

"I wouldn't know, I'm a tiger"

"It is moments like this, that I know I can test myself — see what separates the boy from the man."

"You weren't much of a man last night when you wet the bed."

Because she's so sweet

Helena. Posted by Hello


Freedom of Thought
People demand freedom of speech to make up for the freedom of thought which they avoid.
Søren Kierkegaard

A review of a biography of Kierkegaard makes clear that "If, as Socrates claimed, the unexamined life is not worth living, the overexamined life may leave little time for living."

After an inhibited, unhappy Christian upbringing, Kierkegaard received a degree in theology. His dissertation, "On the Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates," demonstrated his literary style and "subversive tendency" early. In a typically clever comment, Garff notes that "the master of irony became a magister in irony."

Thought Crime
Matthew Cheney comments on the arrest of a high school student for his "fictional short story about zombies" (fictional zombies, not real ones).

I often feel that Americans no longer understand what imagination is. . . A society that is more skilled at fear than imagination is one that can be manipulated, controlled, and pacified with shock tactics.

I'm not saying anything new here, I know. But if anything is going to combat this idiotic, fascistic paranoia that continues to explode around us, it may be our willingness to stubbornly and loudly repeat things we already know: That thoughts are not actions; that writing is a form of imagination, not terrorism; that fiction is not reality; that it's entirely possible for a perfectly nice and harmless person to write really dark, disturbing stories.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


The life and times of Oliver Sacks, a "clash of sober form and exuberant imagination":

"I was sent in to places where it was felt I couldn't do much harm. One of them was a migraine clinic." His first book, Migraine (1970), from which he had suffered as a child, gave clear signs of his later method, though it was addressed as much to sufferers as to onlookers. It was full of quirky case histories — one patient who could only avert an attack with violent sexual intercourse; another, who arranged his entire life around the regular eruptions of the disease. In all this, his interest was not in what the illness did to the patients, but in what it came to mean to them. The kind of cure he was looking for, one felt, was not one where the symptoms merely disappeared, but where they were incorporated into the life, and almost enriched it.

Is Sacks a real scientist?

For most of the 20th century, it seemed science, with its impersonal descriptions of the world, and consciousness, which we experience in the first person, must be mutually exclusive terms. Science dealt in facts, and the way things are: consciousness only told us about the way things seemed to be. Even in psychology, the study of conscious experience was largely taboo. Sacks's books were one of the first and most important public demonstrations that there might be such a thing as a science of consciousness. It's a subject that suits his dualities perfectly: "I regard everything I write as being at the intersection of the first and third person, biography and autobiography, as it were."

Somehow, his stories and his style have captured the popular imagination.

Many films have been based on his case studies. I first became aware of Oliver Sacks when I heard Michael Nyman's opera based on his The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (also made into a play):

What primarily interested me was that Sacks does not describe Dr. P's neurological problem, but rather takes the reader through his own step by step discovery of the patient's condition: narrative as process, demanding a parallel musical process. The text contains very little direct portrayal of Dr. P's daily experience of visual agnosia but instead reveals his affliction through a series of diagnostic tests conducted in two sessions — the first in Dr. Sacks' consulting room, the second at the home of Dr. and Mrs. P. Each test presents a new piece of diagnostic evidence and, in the opera, would be treated as an individual narrative event: each of these self-contained musical events would then be linked together into a large-scale sequential narrative — a number opera with a difference.

One television series walked the public through the very private worlds constructed via odd neurological conditions.

A recent story about a blind painter brought to mind Oliver Sacks' accounts of blind people having their sight restored and the cognitive overload that resulted. The story about Virgil originally appeared in The New Yorker and was later incorporated into An Anthropologist on Mars (PDF here).

Sacks' books have been attacked
...for confusing the boundaries between literature and science. The complaint took various forms, but it all came down to the same thing: these were wonderful stories, but where were the facts? Ray Dolan, a neuroscientist in London, puts this most sharply: "Whether Dr Sacks has provided any scientific insights into the neurological conditions he has written about in his numerous books is open to question. I have always felt uncomfortable about this side of this work and especially the tendency for Dr Sacks to be an ever present dramatis persona."

It strikes me as an outdated, but undervalued, method for doing science, or undertaking any investigation. It still has its uses.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

You know, life

650 square feet of crap
Our apartment is small. We measured.

This comes as a relief to me actually. I'd thought it was rather larger. Now we find that all the affordable condo apartments are a good 2 to 3 times the size of this place, instead of just marginally larger.

It's as if for the last 8 years we've been practicing living on top of each other, adding another cat into the mix and then a baby, in preparation for the ultimate compromise, the sacrifice of space to be able to live in the city. That is, to be able to afford to buy a place in which to live, in the city.

Today, we had a meeting at the bank. We are mere hours away from a pre-approved mortgage.

Last week, we bought a vehicle. The good ol' reliable it-looks-like-it-wants-to-be-a-sportscar-but-it's-not-fooling-anybody Sentra — theme: Blur's Song #2 — is finding a new home with my mother-in-law. We are welcoming into our life a kind of SUV — that is, J-F's loving it; I'll warm up to it eventually. (Helena does seem taken with "la nouvelle voiture," most especially, I think, because she can see out the windows. A view!)

No longer can I gripe as we drive "Look at all the #$%#ing SUVs. With no passengers! Does one person really need that much vehicle? In the city! And you can tell none of them learned to drive in an SUV — sitting higher really skews their sense of space on the road!" My only consolation is knowing that if I am in the vehicle, the vehicle will have more than one occupant. I will continue to encourage the use of public transportation. And some day I will come to terms with being a hypocrite, as well as a drain on the environment.

Am I a grown-up yet?

I've been writing about Helena increasingly less in this space. This makes me a little sad. It's certainly not for lack of material. I've seen a few other bloggers go through this sort of transition, and I thought I still had a while — Helena's not yet 28 months old. But she is already so much her own person that my writing about her is starting to feel like an invasion of her privacy, a transgression, an infringement on her space. She's making her own way in the world now.

It feels silly to report on her vocabulary, her eating habits — she's not a baby anymore.

That said, I will continue to relate anecdotes and even post the occasional photo. It just feels different.

Helena arranges for the Tubbies to have something to read while she's off at daycare. Posted by Hello

Helena indicates one side of the room with her arm, then the other. A droite, a gauche, a droite, a gauche, a droite, a gouche... I'd say she gets it right a solid 50% of the time.

Helena has started saying "pourquoi" — not persistently enough that most of the whys don't get buried under the usual chatter about our days, but enough for me to notice and to dread having to have answers. So far it's not much more complicated than "why are you making coffee?"; "why are you reading?"; "why are you putting the cordless phone back in its cradle?" the answers to which are "Because if I don't, my head will implode." But there are things to which I don't know the answers, and she will find them out and ask them of me, and when that time comes my head may very well implode.

It snowed yesterday. A lot. I made beef stew. It was delicious. Helena loved it. There are days she eats nothing but apple sauce. Other days are meat days, and she has a third or fourth helping. She eats a balanced meal measured over the long run, just not on a daily basis.

I miss Helena a lot when I'm working to meet a deadline. I miss her now when work is quiet. We should be having tea parties and doing puzzles together.

Dialogue sans frontières

Alberto Manguel talks about "Don Quixote and the Arabs" (on Saturday, April 2, at 14h30); a French version of his talk is scheduled for Thursday, March 31 at 19h00.

I am so there.

The full program for Montreal's Blue Metropolis literary festival has not yet been posted (March 17), but every day seems to bring new highlights to their website.

Blue Metropolis. Posted by Hello

The concept of dialogue is at the very heart of Blue Metropolis. More than just a literary festival, Blue Met is a meeting place for writers and readers. It is a crossroads for different nationalities, backgrounds, languages, and points of view. At Blue Met, French- and English- speakers, men and women, fact and fiction, art and science, North and South, East and West, established and aspiring writers, the written and the spoken word, the living and even the dead can touch and greet and protect each other.

The recipient of the 2005 Blue Metropolis International Literary Grand Prix is Carlos Fuentes.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Exorcise your demons

This weekend we watched Exorcist: The Beginning. Although it's not a particularly good film, it made my adrenaline surge more so than any other rental in recent memory, which I attribute less to the filmmaking than to the subject matter — call it a guilty pleasure of mine.

The first Exorcist film is now a classic, though I don't think I've had the pleasure of watching it in its entirety and without commercial interruptions. It's one of those movies so much a part of our culture it's as if you've seen it, whether you have or not. I remember as a kid getting out of bed to get a drink of water downstairs and happening upon my mother and brother watching a movie on tv. The noises intrigued me; my mother told me not to look, but I did. I won't say the image haunted me — I didn't suffer nightmares — but it stuck with me. Years later I would identify the source of it as The Exorcist.

The film's website provides a little background on the phenomenon:
Throughout the Ritual, the priest frequently makes the sign of the cross and tries to draw the subject into the Ritual.

The demon is not considered exorcised until it tells the priest its name and its purpose. Once the demon leaves the subject, the subject is warned to guard themselves carefully and abstain from sin, to keep the demon from returning.

If you've never seen the movie, you may want to watch this 30-second reenactment by bunnies to get up to speed.

The real story behind the movie (and the fictionalized account on which the movie was based).

Why I would not make a very good exorcist:
All idle and curious questioning of the demon should be avoided, and the prayers and aspirations should be read with great faith, humility, and fervour, and with a consciousness of power and authority.

History of exorcism:
The use of protective means against the real, or supposed, molestations of evil spirits naturally follows from the belief in their existence, and is, and has been always, a feature of ethnic religions, savage and civilized. In this connection only two of the religions of antiquity, the Egyptian and Babylonian, call for notice; but it is no easy task, even in the case of these two, to isolate what bears strictly on our subject, from the mass of mere magic in which it is embedded. The Egyptians ascribed certain diseases and various other evils to demons, and believed in the efficacy of magical charms and incantations for banishing or dispelling them. The dead more particularly needed to be well fortified with magic in order to be able to accomplish in safely their perilous journey to the underworld (see Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1899).

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Posted by Hello

Procedure summarized.
The Rituale Romanum (about).

A more indepth guide with invocations. Remember:
Only legitimate priests who are spiritually sound should attempt an exorcism.
Devils are extremely powerful beings and can be harmful to the unqualified.

An exorcism was supposed to have been televised a couple weeks ago:
The TV exorcism will be performed by an Anglican priest while cutting-edge neuro-imaging technology monitors activity in the adult male subject's brain.

C4's Matthew Robinson dismissed accusations of bad taste and possible harmful effects. "There will be warnings before the show is broadcast and helpline numbers provided at the end," he said. He highlighted the programme's scientific elements and insisted the experiment was legitimate. "This is a unique scientific investigation of a much-misunderstood religious practice. Exorcism remains shrouded in mystery. It has always been considered off-limits as far as scientific investigation is concerned, like most apparently inexplicable religious phenomena. But the emergence of neuro theology is changing that."

This relatively new field of research examines what is happening inside the brain during religious experiences. Dr Peter Fenwick, a respected consultant neuropsychiatrist at Oxford University, will monitor the subject's brain activity on The Exorcism.

Despite its common perception as an outdated practice, exorcism, or deliverance as it is sometimes termed, has come to the fore again in recent weeks with the Vatican announcing a new course on Satanism and exorcism for priests. This is the first major statement on the matter by the Catholic Church since 1999, when it issued its first updated ritual for exorcism in almost 400 years, warning against mistaking mental illness for diabolical possession.

From the television program's website:
Could this mean then that religion too exists only inside our heads? Is spirituality simply another biological fact of existence, or has medical science found a way to mediate the tensions that have traditionally existed between the human body and the human soul? The two have, after all, been kept apart for centuries.

A history of the field of "neurotheology" is presented, citing examples of attempts to scientifically explain religious experiences, including voices and visions, as a "feverish interactivity between the right and left halves of our brain."

The recently announced course on Satanism is to feature practical lessons in psychology and law.

Father Giulio Savoldi, Milan's official exorcist
...did not have the benefit of training but is in no doubt about what he would include in any course for candidates to take on the task of fighting evil in the raw — and the qualities needed of any would-be exorcist.

"I would include the supernatural force — the presence of God — and then suggest that the man picked to do this kind of work be wise and that he should know how to gather strength not just from within himself but from God," he says.

"Because each case of possession is different, each person possessed is different. Those studying to become exorcists should also study psychology and know how to distinguish between a mental illness and a possession.

"And — finally — they need to be very patient."

A recent book tells the story of two exorcisms conducted by the author, a psychiatrist:
Possession is a rare phenomenon and is related to evil, but possessed people are not actually evil; they are doing battle with the forces of evil. I am getting old and this is my last book and I felt I had an obligation to record these two cases in which I was involved. I felt it would be a sin to go to my grave leaving them untold and wanted them told as scientifically as possible.

A great many people in this world have character flaws. Yet very few of them become possessed. The best explanation that I have been able to come up with in the cases of possession I've seen is that they were somewhat holy people to begin with.

In another interview the author points out:
Genuine possession cases are quite rare, but there are a number of diseases — such as hemophilia — that are also rare, yet we study them to know why the blood clots. You answer a question in science and immediately you get 100 new questions. I have more questions about demons now.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Male mommy movies

I've never found them very funny. I've never given them much thought at all. Perhaps that's because on some level I always found them to trivialize parenting.

For CBC, Katrina Onstad writes:

In the course of belittling fathers, and eliding mothers (once they go back to work, the vanished women come home late, hands on hips, shaking their heads at the messy kitchen), these films deify children. Skateboarding boys and precocious little girls prove, over and over, that they're not such pains in the ass after all. The chaos they create isn't a problem, but in fact, just harmless self-expression; we should learn from their mess, not force them to clean it up. Kids are fountains of truth that adults need only drink from to ensure their own youth. . . On screen, staying at home has nothing to do with equalizing the father-mother roles, and everything to do with men finding themselves. Balance is never an issue; it's either parent or work, play or be a slave to the man.

...And let me say that of course children better and teach their parents. And of course there's nothing wrong with choosing home over work; women have long fought for that choice...

...Childhood is a relatively new invention, a social construct...

The place of children among us has fluctuated throughout history — seen, heard, neither, both — but since the 1960s, western culture has been seized by youth worship. The upside is, of course, awareness of child poverty and abuse, and the downside is baby yoga. As a moms' group dropout, I can never quite groove to the whole "kid culture" of my Toronto neighborhood. The co-sleeping, child-centred, them-first philosophy driving pricey kiddie sing-along courses and baby salsa makes it difficult to say: "I think I’d rather do yoga without a mewling infant on my mat," let alone: "I might be ready to go back to work now." I love my son desperately, but I have aspirations outside of motherhood, too, and to fulfill them, on a daily basis I confront issues of labour division (i.e. toilet cleaning) and finding a decent, carrot-filled day care. Male mommy movies shrug off the seriousness of parenting. The reformed movie dads ask: What's the problem, ladies? Just loosen up, have fun. Kids keep dads young and free of workaday responsibilities, making them better mommies than mommies.


He's not the kind of wheel you fall asleep at.

I don't often write about music. This is because
1) I don't know much about music, apart from "I know what I like," and
2) most of what passes for music is crap.

A couple weeks after Christmas, I received a CD in the mail from my brother, whom I hadn't seen over the holidays. A couple more weeks passed before I put it on the stereo. Since then, I've been listening to it repeatedly.

Tom Waits' latest album is real gone, as the hepcats would say, and so it is titled. I hear in it rap, reggae, and Afro-Caribbean beats. It sounds like Leonard Cohen and Angelo Badalamenti working together on a David Lynch soundtrack (in my mind that's a good thing), complete with circus dwarves. It's sublime.

I play it at all hours of the days, though it is decidedly better after dark, better still when the rest of the household is asleep.

I don't pretend to know what it's about. I haven't discerned the lyrics or looked at the liner notes. I've barely listened to it. Rather, it's become part of my space.

I can feel it in my bones.

I don't write about music because when it's good, it is meant to be revelled in and revered. More so than the other arts. It seems to me more ethereal because it is less quantifiable (though technically speaking, sound waves can be measured as easily as light waves). (Certainly none is so tangible, so clearly definable, as literature, words ordered on a page; although there's the curious case of poetry, where words become music.)

Maybe it's similar to the sense of smell in its ability to evoke memories (how often I wished I were carrying a tape recorder on my travels; the effect of the fingerprint of the sound of a place, explored by Wim Wenders explored in Lisbon Story). Maybe it's that we are too bombarded by visual stimuli to allow ourselves to be transported by them to the same degree. Maybe it's that we feel most strongly regarding that about which we know the least.

Is it me? Or do you too feel it in your bones?

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The perfect nanny

"Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking."

I've lived most of my life according to this dictum. But I've come a long way, baby.

I knew about Mary Poppins as a kid, and I knew all the songs from the movie (we had the soundtrack), but I didn't see Disney's Mary Poppins until I was about 20. My reaction at that time: "You know, she can be quite a bitch." That was the child in me responding to the disciplinarian and trickster. She was not the permissive enabler that I'd imagined was every child's vision of nanny perfection.

Helena received Mary Poppins on DVD for Christmas, and we've been watching it quite a bit. Now that I'm a mother, and a working one at that, this movie is a little more meaningful. Helena, meanwhile, is charmed, but I can't honestly say that I understand what the appeal is to her (except for the umbrella).

On the rooftops of London. Posted by Hello

Would you entrust your children to the care of someone so vain (constantly checking the mirror) and irresponsible (eschewing errands in favour of personal business), impertinent and disrespectful? who casually lets the children run off by themselves while she cavorts with her "boyfriend" (a street performer no less)? who takes the children to the racetrack? spends her time traipsing across the rooftops of London with a host of filthy characters (she may as well be hanging out on the docks) and trails them into your home?

It wouldn't surprise me in the least if illicit substances were involved. Teaparties on the ceiling, stepping into pictures...

Is she not worse than your average teenage babysitter?

But it turns out that she is in fact practically perfect, just the right balance of fun with responsibility, clever in the arts of distraction and persuasion so vital in caring for children. Brimming with tough love. (Maybe it's this that children respond to.)

The year is 1910. Mrs Banks is a suffragette, and arguably a working mother — working for the Cause at any rate. The film was made in the 1960s, with a whole other kind of feminism taking place. Pioneering times for women.

Interestingly, the women in this movie seem to have it all together. Mary Poppins, of course, is practically perfect in every way. Even Cook, in a minor role, has common sense and her wits about her, knowing the order of things and maintaining all as it should be. Mrs Banks exudes confidence, devotes her energy to the cause while still effectively managing her household — dealing with staff, loving her children, and stroking her husband's ego, exerting her influence but never stepping on his toes. She never questions Motherhood, her place at home, or the work/home divide. She's as much a superwoman as Mary Poppins.

It is the men who need saving.
Although we adore men individually.
We agree that as a group they're rather stupid.

The Telegraph reviewed the recent London stage production of Mary Poppins, but I feel many of the points are equally relevant to the film:

The biggest shift is to make Mary Poppins a parable about adulthood rather than childhood. The lesson that the children are taught is to empathise with their father. Mary Poppins decides to leave when she has bestowed what is now called emotional intelligence on Mr Banks.

Eyre says this is a show for anyone who is part of a family. It could be an election model for a hard-working family. Here is a London couple in the throes of a childcare crisis. Mr Banks is converted to the joys of the work/life balance. The fairytale ending is that he gets to spend more time with his family while simultaneously achieving a huge pay rise...

The main difference between artistic portrayals of childhood stories and Disney is the shade of darkness. Eyre, on Radio 4, was keen to evade the "dark" cliché, preferring the word "complicated". But it is broadly true that the great narrators of childhood — J M Barrie, Philip Pullman, Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket — portray childhood as a sorrowful or savage state. There are shades of Barrie in the portrayal of Mr Banks, an unloved child becoming a lost adult.

Nannies also have a literary ambiguity (as in life). I was expecting a Turn of the Screw character, from the pre-publicity about Poppins's repressed sexual desire and malign disruptiveness.

In fact, she is more of a super management consultant figure flying in to fix family life.

"Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking." Perfect people, I have learned, allow just enough sentiment to seep through, to soften the edge.

As the 35-year-old mother of a toddler, I have fallen in love with this movie, not just as a guide to dealing with children but to balancing life. And one of the greatest movie dance sequences of all time. (And I can't wait to get my hand on the books.)

New York Times review.

In an aside to a recent discussion of the Christianity in the upcoming movie of C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, was actually a follower of the mystic G.I. Gurdjieff," Mr. Kaplan said. "Her books were imbued by mysticism, the idea that all is one and one is all. But the film became a family drama in which domestic issues, the role of the children and the prospect of the working world were the themes, rather than the great chain of being or the universality of humanity."

For the curious:
Esotericism in Mary Poppins.
What Travers wrote on Gurdjieff.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Things I've done

As usual, I'm late to the party, which I first heard about at Rachel's, but it's taken me this long to think of ten things I've done that I bet you haven't done, in no particular order:

1. Jumped out of a perfectly good plane from an unreasonable height. Yes, lots of people have done this, but I'll bet most of them didn't do it against their better judgement just because the guys, jumpmaster included, were saying, "You don't have to jump. Lots of the girlfriends back down." Hah. I showed them.

2. Went to see a hip and groovy band a week before my due date. Helena kicked up an in utero storm.

3. Slept in a Dominican brothel (cuz every place else in town was booked solid). Bonus: danced the evening away on the terrace of said brothel while poking fun at the German tourists.

4. Ran full speed into the corner of a picnic table, for which I received six stitches under my right eyebrow (I was four).

5. Agreed to let a guy move in with me after dating him only two months, because there was a bus strike and this seemed like a convenient solution to all our commuting difficulties. (He hasn't left yet.)

6. Delivered a seminar on Pythagorean dualism in grade 11 history after staying up all night and not preparing (my mother was out of town) and had the inspired audacity on this warm spring day to do so barefoot. (A+, with bonus points for my choice of footwear.)

7. Laundered shirts for Huey Lewis and the News before their concert in town that summer I worked for a dry cleaning and laundry service, where, as much as I hated the work, the people, and most especially the heat, I learned the priceless art of folding fitted sheets.

8. Jumped on the back of a guy's motorbike to watch the sun set over the Sahara, only too late realizing I was unwisely separated from my sister, and found myself some time later in the middle of a very dark oasis, where he proclaimed his love for me, and barely found my way back in time to catch the bus (with my sister) back to civilization.

9. Argued vehemently (ultimately successfully) and in both official languages but in an inarticulate, drug-stupored manner, to hospital staff regarding my right to breastfeed my baby in the middle of the night no matter how understaffed they were, if I had to drag my sorry post-op ass all the way to the neonatal unit myself.

10. Spent an evening drinking vodka with a handful of Jesuit priests who were working on a translation of James Joyce's Ulysses (into Polish).

So there.

That I attended a bullfight in Seville didn't quite make the list, as countless old Spanish men have done this (and in many ways the ticket purchase was more colourful, although there were moments during the event I thought to myself, "My God, I'm about to watch somebody die."), even though you probably haven't.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005


Edwin A Abbott's Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (available online) is one of the oddest little things I've ever read.

You see, on the one hand, Flatland did anticipate the mathematics of relativistic space. On the other hand, the book is pure social satire.

Flatland came out in 1884. The author was Edwin Abbott, a progressive Anglican clergyman. He believed we should use our minds to sort out the rising debate between science and religion.

There are many editions of Flatland, distinguished by their introductions and having a chiefly social, mathematical, or theological bent.

It's a very slim volume in two parts. The first reads like a travel report, with sections on, for example, climate and housing, inhabitants, women, painting, and priests, with some discussion of social structure and a few historical incidents thrown in.

"O brave new worlds, that have such people in them!" Posted by Hello

The second part is both more mathematical and philosophical in nature. The narrator, A. Square, glimpses Lineland (where sound is a major component of the inhabitants' relationship to the world), and then has a 3-dimensional visitor from Spaceland, which he also comes to be able to perceive.

The society of Flatland is founded on the principle that one's biology determines one's status. The inhabitants are regular geometric figures. The more sides you have, the higher in the social hierarchy. "Our whole social system is based upon Regularity, or Equality of Angles." A moral shock has the power of physical repercussions, throwing back a "criminal's" descendants to a lower class.

Women are essentially lines, at the bottom. From Flatland, on women:
One other word of warning suggest itself to me, though I cannot so easily mention a remedy; and this also refers to our relations with Women. About three hundred years ago, it was decreed by the Chief Circle that, since women are deficient in Reason but abundant in Emotion, they ought no longer to be treated as rational, nor receive any mental education. The consequence was that they were no longer taught to read, nor even to master Arithmetic enough to enable them to count the angles of their husband or children; and hence they sensibly declined during each generation in intellectual power. And this system of female non-education or quietism still prevails.

My fear is that, with the best intentions, this policy has been carried so far as to react injuriously on the Male Sex.

For the consequence is that, as things now are, we Males have to lead a kind of bi-lingual, and I may almost say bimental, existence. With Women, we speak of "love," "duty," "right," "wrong," "pity," "hope," and other irrational and emotional conceptions, which have no existence, and the fiction of which has no object except to control feminine exuberances; but among ourselves, and in our books, we have an entirely different vocabulary and I may also say, idiom. "Love" them becomes "the anticipation of benefits"; "duty" becomes "necessity" or "fitness"; and other words are correspondingly transmuted. Moreover, among Women, we use language implying the utmost deference for their Sex; and they fully believe that the Chief Circle Himself is not more devoutly adored by us than they are: but behind their backs they are both regarded and spoken of — by all but the very young — as being little better than "mindless organisms."

Our Theology also in the Women's chambers is entirely different from our Theology elsewhere.

Now my humble fear is that this double training, in language as well as in thought, imposes somewhat too heavy a burden upon the young, especially when, at the age of three years old, they are taken from the maternal care and taught to unlearn the old language — except for the purpose of repeating it in the presence of the Mothers and Nurses — and to learn the vocabulary and idiom of science. Already methinks I discern a weakness in the grasp of mathematical truth at the present time as compared with the more robust intellect of our ancestors three hundred years ago. I say nothing of the possible danger if a Woman should ever surreptitiously learn to read and convey to her Sex the result of her perusal of a single popular volume; nor of the possibility that the indiscretion or disobedience of some infant Male might reveal to a Mother the secrets of the logical dialect. On the simple ground of the enfeebling of the male intellect, I rest this humble appeal to the highest Authorities to reconsider the regulations of Female education.

In response, let it be noted:
Abbott was one of the leaders of the Women's Education Movement in Victorian England. He was regarded by the feminists of the day as an invaluable aid in their work to bring equal educational opportunity to women. . . I get frustrated when people reading Flatland superficially call Abbott a sexist. Abbott used satire to describe his society, which pained him so much, a society which treated women as though they were only one-dimensional. It’s a two-cultures allegory. Abbott’s sentiments are very clear. He talks about rationalists and intuitionists. All the rational goes into the two-dimensional men; all the intuition goes into the women. He found this disjunction unacceptable, and he took it to its logical conclusion in satire. His protagonist was totally limited by his own view of the world. A Square’s preconceptions had to be blasted away. They were — by his contact with a revelation of a higher order of existence.

For all the "detail" Abbott provides, there are many shortcuts. We never understand how people move through this world in any practical sense. For the purposes of his tale, the inhabitants need not be flesh and blood. He is clearly not interested in the physical aspects of existence in a world of different dimensions.

This article provides some background for the "analogy of dimensions," how the concept of a fourth dimension had evolved and to what extent Abbott would be aware of it.

In The Spirit on the Waters, he recounts the climactic visitation scene from Flatland where the hero, A Square, is confronted by the changing shapes produced in his two-dimensional universe by the passage of a being from the third dimension. He discusses the possible responses of the square, the most immediate of which might be to worship this being because of its mysterious God-like powers. Not so, says Abbott. Physical or intellectual powers do not automatically signify any of the moral and spiritual qualities we must demand of any object of our adoration. He concludes:

"This illustration from four dimensions, suggesting other illustrations derivable from mathematics, may serve a double purpose in our present investigation. On the one hand it may lead us to vaster views of possible circumstances and existence; on the other hand it may teach us that the conception of such possibilities cannot, by any direct path, bring us closer to God. Mathematics may help us to measure and weigh the planets, to discover the materials of which they are composed, to extract light and warmth from the motion of water and to dominate the material universe; but even if by these means we could mount up to Mars or hold converse with the inhabitants of Jupiter or Saturn, we should be no nearer to the divine throne, except so far as these new experiences might develop in our modesty, respect for facts, a deeper reverence for order and harmony, and a mind more open to new observations and to fresh inferences from old truths."

That last sentence just enlarges on the final phrase of Flatland's dedication, hoping that the experience of the dimensional exploration will contribute 'To the Enlargement of the Imagination and the Possible Development of that most rare and excellent gift of Modesty Among the Superior Races of Solid Humanity'.

For Abbott, visualizing a "higher dimension" is also metaphorical for knowing God.

To the Sphere visitor:
My Lord, your own wisdom has taught me to aspire to One even more great, more beautiful, and more closely approximate to Perfection than yourself. As you yourself, superior to all Flatland forms, combine many Circles in One, so doubtless there is One above you who combines many Spheres in One Supreme Existence, surpassing even the Solids of Spaceland. And even as we, who are now in Space, look down on Flatland and see the insides of all things, so of a certainty there is yet above us some higher, purer region, whither thou dost surely purpose to lead me — O Thou Whom I shall always call, everywhere and in all Dimensions, my Priest, Philosopher, and Friend — some yet more spacious Space, some more dimensionable Dimensionality, from the vantage-ground of which we shall look down together upon the revealed insides of Solid things...

In a final lesson, the Sphere further guides A. Square:
"I conduct thee downward to the lowest depth of existence, even to the realm of Pointland, the Abyss of No dimensions.

"Behold yon miserable creature. That Point is a Being like ourselves, but confined to the non-dimensional Gulf. He is himself his own World, his own Universe; of any other than himself he can form no conception; he knows not Length, nor Breadth, nor Height, for he has had no experience of them; he has no cognizance even of the number Two; nor has he a thought of Plurality; for he is himself his One and All, being really Nothing. Yet mark his perfect self-contentment, and hence learn his lesson, that to be self-contented is to be vile and ignorant, and that to aspire is better than to be blindly and impotently happy."

 Posted by Hello

Social Dimensions
A few weeks ago, China Miéville published a list of Fifty Fantasy & Science Fiction Works that Socialists Should Read. He stretches the definitiions to include Toni Morrison, Ayn Rand, and Oscar Wilde.

Of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein he notes:
Not a warning "not to mess with things that should be let alone" (which would be a reactionary anti-rationalist message) but an insistence on the necessity of grappling with forces one unleashes and the fact that there is no "innate" nature to people, but a socially-constructed one.

I've read about a quarter of the books on Miéville's list. Does that make me a quarter socialist?

The most interesting course I took in university, and undoubtedly the one with the most lasting impact, was Utopian and Dystopian Literature. In addition to introducing me to works (Zamiatin's We) and authors (for example, Doris Lessing) I might not otherwise have discovered or considered seriously, here I saw mathematicians and theologians mapping society's directions, trying to achieve a practical end to their efforts. Nowhere — not any literaure course, history, philosophy, or math — was it ever laid out more clearly to me humankind's pursuit of, and failure to obtain, an ideal.

Dimensions of the Universe
Roger Penrose has newly issued a "state-of-the-universe report," The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, in which "he dismantles what is known about the nature of the universe and then puts it back together again."

The appearance of a new Penrose is a hybrid literary-scientific event. Physicists are eager to see what the matchless Sir Roger (he was knighted for his services to science) has come up with, while science fans, for whom physics is a spectator sport, hope to finally get the lowdown on how the universe turns.

The reviewer "came away stimulated, sometimes flummoxed, and with an encouraging sense one rarely gets from a science book: how very much there is we still don't know — even about Schrödinger's stupid pet trick."

Toward the end of the book, Penrose rejects superstring theory in favour of "a scheme that would construct space-time from abstract little somethings called twistors. A twistor is a higher-dimensional spinor. And a spinor? Something that ends up facing backward when it is rotated full circle in space. Penrose has played with twistors for over 40 years, he says, looking for the right fit."

Quantitative Measures
A recent meme askes which authors have you read more than ten books by. Here's my list, in order of the phases of my life in which they featured:

Carolyn Keene (the Nancy Drew books)
Agatha Christie
W Somerset Maugham
Michael Moorcock
Piers Anthony
Italo Calvino
Margaret Atwood (including poetry and children's books)
Umberto Eco (including nonfiction and children's books)
Lemony Snicket
Dr Seuss

Within the year, evidenced by those books in the stack beside my bed, I will be able to include:
Jose Saramago
Doris Lessing

The lists I've seen have a decidedly odd feel about them — featuring "genre" fiction, perhaps they say more about authors who produce tens of books than anything else.