Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Managing Editor
[One in an ongoing series of posts. For the full series see Zeteo is Reading.]
2 June 2013
Smart people think that reading great works of literature helps us become moral experts and that becoming moral experts helps us prepare for the decisions we will make in the future. Gregory Currie, however, finds such statement at least uncomfortable. Why should we rely on expertise? he seems to ask; expertise equals complexity, and complexity is useless. I will not go into the details of explaining why I believe that he is wrong. Perhaps the most significant part of Currie’s article “Does great literature make us better?” is the one that he is more ready to dismiss:
Literature turns us away from the simple moral rules that so often prove unhelpful when we are confronted with messy real-life decision making, and gets us ready for the stormy voyage through the social world that sensitive, discriminating moral agents are supposed to undertake.
3 June 2013
This is from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (Barcelona: Random House Mondadori: 2001)—a challenging novel which, I presume, I will continue to read through the summer. The following dialogue shows the way in which seaman Stubb narrates to his comrade Flask a dream he had the night before (for English version click here):
—Nunca he tenido un sueño más raro, Pendolón. Conoces la pierna de marfil del viejo [Ahab]…Bueno, soñé que me pateaba con ella, y cuando traté de devolverle la patada, te lo juro, pequeño, ¡se me desprendió la mía! Entonces, en un segundo, Ahab se convirtió en una pirámide y yo, como un loco furioso, seguí pateándola. Pero lo que todavía es más raro, Flask, y sabes qué raros son los sueños, es que en medio de toda esa rabia yo pensaba que, después de todo, la patada de Ahab no era un insulto. “Vaya”, pensé, “a qué armar tanto alboroto, si no es una pierna de verdad, es sólo una pierna postiza.” Y hay una enorme diferencia entre un golpe vivo y un golpe muerto. Por eso un golpe dado con la mano es cincuenta veces más difícil de soportar, amigo Flask, que un golpe dado con una vara. El miembro vivo es lo que hace el insulto vivo, hombrecito. Y durante todo ese tiempo pensaba, fíjate bien, mientras me rompía los estúpidos dedos de los pies contra esa maldita pirámide (tan confuso y absurdo era todo), digo que pensaba: “Pero qué es su pierna, sino un bastón, un bastón de hueso de ballena. Sí, sólo fue una patada en broma…En realidad, me ha dado un ballenetazo, y no una vil patada.” “Además”, seguí pensando, “echémosle una mirada: la punta, la parte del pie, es bien pequeña. Mientras que si un campesino de pies grandes me hubiera pateado, ése sí habría sido un insulto diabólicamente grande. pero este insulto se reduce a una punta.
Isn’t this, in fact, a great way to reflect on morality? Isn’t Melville giving us a colorful insight into the absurdity of human rage and -Stubb-ornness?
4 June 2013
To me, good books are like superheroes. They set a good model for how to think, how to act, and what to aspire to: courage, strength, will power, good writing? What’s most important is that people like Hawthorne, Melville, Chekhov and Defoe had very clear ideas of what they wanted to say—they were masters at moral judgement. In Fingeroth’s words (Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society, 2006), their moral judgement might, in some ways, make them superheroes:
So somehow, the superhero…has to represent the values of the society that produces him. That means that what, say Superman symbolizes changes over time. In the 1950s, he may have been hunting commies. In the 1970s, he may have been clearing a framed peace activist against a corrupt judicial system. Either way—the hero does the right thing. Perhaps more importantly, he knows what the right thing is.
5 June 2013
Stepping away from rigorous thinking, I stumble upon Merriam-Webster’s definition of “Titian”—a color characteristic of Renaissance painting and popularized by Italian painter Tiziano Veccellio:
Titian : a brownish orange that is less strong, slightly yellower and lighter than spice, slightly yellower and lighter than prairie brown or Windsor tan, and slightly redder and darker than amber brown or gold pheasant.
8 June 2013
A petty introduction (why, really, should we care so much about strangers?) and a lousy conclusion (is attentiveness relevant because we are mortal?) are not always fatalistic. Jonathan Safrán’s well-intended (if short-sighted) article on “How Not to Be Alone” offers at least three potentially deep reflections:
1. Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. [The answering machine, online communication and texting have achieved similar things]. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.
2. …Then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes. It’s easier to make a phone call than to schlep to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation — you can say what you need to say without a response; hard news is easier to leave; it’s easier to check in without becoming entangled. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up.
3. THE problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.