The character Lord of the Flies centers on most closely is Ralph. Indeed, he pursues a goal—getting off the island, or in lieu of that, figuring out a way to survive and thrive on it. In the course of pursing that goal, he’s met with an obstacle in the form of Jack and his followers’ increasing dissatisfaction with his pacific governance. This presents him with a dilemma; he can appease Jack and follow his lead, or he can stick to his guns and continue standing up for what he believes is right, which includes protecting a weaker boy named Piggy.
If Ralph is the character readers most identify with, the one whose unfolding fate holds us in suspense until the last page of the novel, then how can it be said that the message of the book is one of violence? If you were like me when you read the story, you were scared for Ralph, but not for Jack. You hoped Ralph would be the one to prevail against all odds. Yet Ralph is the character representing—if we’re obligated to reduce him to an abstract principle—peace and self-sacrifice, not force and dominion.
For many of us, it’s not hard to recall what it’s like having a teacher assign a book that offers little meaning we possess the wherewithal to grasp; after a while, you stop even trying to make sense of the words your eyes are slipping over. And, if you’ve ever taught an English class, you’ve probably been confronted with students who insist they read the assignment, even though they can’t recall a single detail. That’s understandable considering the language and the thematic material are completely beyond them.
Therein lie the seeds of a lifelong apathy—if not an outright antipathy—toward reading. The student’s reasoning goes something like this: All my teachers keep saying there’s so much great stuff in these books, but every time I try to read one I get nothing. So either my teachers are full of it, or I just don’t have a head for this reading business. Reading comes to be thought of as work, and unrewarding work at that. What you’ll tend to hear them say aloud is, “Reading is boring.” By the time the kids are out of school, books are things you pick up only when you have to—when there’s not a movie to watch instead.
Steven Pinker has already been proven right on at least one of the points he raises in Enlightenment Now: “Intellectuals hate progress,” he writes in a chapter titled “Progressophobia.” “Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’,” he goes on, “reallyhate progress.” The many acerbic responses to his book in the pages of high-brow magazines have borne this out in spades.
From The New Stateman and The Nation, to The New York Times, The Evening Standard, ABC Religion and Ethics, and The American Spectator, major publications are rushing to give the disgruntled intelligentsia a platform to gripe about Pinker’s woefully misguided—or loathsomely inconvenient—arguments and views. (Though, to be fair, The New York Times has also published positive reviews.) But it’s not just progressives; conservatives like Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan have also rejected Pinker’s paean to human progress.
What is it precisely these intellectuals hate so much? “It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class,” Pinker opines, “the Enlightenment belief that by understanding the world we can improve the human condition” (39). On the one hand, it’s shocking anyone would bother making The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, as the book is subtitled. On the other, “nothing demonstrates the case for Pinker’s book, the non-obviousnessof his thesis,” the computer scientist Scott Aaronson posits, “more clearly than the vitriolic reviews the book has been getting in literary venues.”
Tamsin Shaw’s essay in the February 25th issue of The New York Review of Books, provocatively titled “The Psychologists Take Power,” is no more scholarly than your average political attack ad, nor is it any more credible. (The article is available online, but I won’t lend it further visibility to search engines by linking to it here.) Two of the psychologists maligned in the essay, Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker, recently contributed a letter to the editors which effectively highlights Shaw’s faulty reasoning and myriad distortions, describing how she “prosecutes her case by citation-free attribution, spurious dichotomies, and standards of guilt by association that make Joseph McCarthy look like Sherlock Holmes” (82).
Upon first reading Shaw’s piece, I dismissed it as a particularly unscrupulous bit of interdepartmental tribalism—a philosopher bemoaning the encroachment by pesky upstart scientists into what was formerly the bailiwick of philosophers. But then a line in Shaw’s attempted rebuttal of Haidt and Pinker’s letter sent me back to the original essay, and this time around I recognized it as a manifestation of a more widespread trend among scholars, and a rather unscholarly one at that.
Alexander von Humboldt, Enlightenment Ambassador: a Reflection on Andrea Wulf's "The Invention of Nature"
Andrea Wulf’s 2015 biography The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World garnered so much critical attention—nearly all of which was resoundingly positive (with the exception of Elizabeth Kolbert’s snooty and unaccountably small-minded review in The New Yorker)—that soon after I first started reading it I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed. Wulf’s prose builds up to a stylistic flourish now and again, usually helped along with an apt quote or two from Humboldt himself, but if the earliest pages were any indication, the rest of the book promised to make for some pretty dry reading, an occasional scene of high adventure notwithstanding. After making some further headway, though, I found that Humboldt’s story was having a slowly incremental effect on me, as all the best stories do, of cumulative enchantment.
No more than about a third of the way in, I’d learned to appreciate Wulf’s writing, which now seemed not so much dry as scholarly, in the best sense of the term, sober and precise, but never fussily academic. I ended up reading most of the book in prolonged bouts culminating in eye strain coupled with an urge to venture out into some unmapped wilderness.
Robert Borofsky’s Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn from It is the source book participants on a particular side of the debate over Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado would like everyone to read, even more than Tierney’s book itself. To anyone on the opposing side, however—and, one should hope, to those who have yet to take a side—there’s an unmissable element of farce running throughout Borofsky’s book, which ultimately amounts to little more than a transparent attempt at salvaging the campaign against anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. That campaign had initially received quite a boost from the publication of Darkness in El Dorado, but then support began to crumble as various researchers went about exposing Tierney as a fraud. With The Fierce Controversy, Borofsky and some of the key members of the anti-Chagnon campaign are doing their best to dissociate themselves and their agenda from Tierney, while at the same time taking advantage of the publicity he brought to their favorite talking points.
Near the midway point of his recently published autobiography, On the Move: a Life, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks recounts a time in 2000 when he was busy writing an earlier book, a memoir about his childhood love of chemistry called Uncle Tungsten. In his late 60s at the time, Sacks was working on a chapter about spectroscopy and found himself roaming the streets of New York with a miniature spectroscope, an instrument that allows you to see the unique spectral light patterns emitted by each of the elements. Peering in through the window of a gay bar, he was dazzled by the display of light, but then he realized that the people inside were disturbed by the apparition of this eccentric old man looking at them through a strange device. Instead of withdrawing, though, Sacks went to the door and “strode in boldly,” shouting, “Stop talking about sex, everyone! Have a look at something interesting.” As it turned out, some of the patrons did stop to take a look.
We all know who the real stars of Jurassic World are—actress Bryce Dallas Howard’s deftness at running from myriad dinos over diverse terrains in posh heels (without messing up her ruler-straight hair), and actor Chris Pratt’s ability to find a miraculously smooth path for his motorcycle as he speeds through the tangled jungle alongside the raptors he’s trained as bloodhounds. So maybe the mosasaur was a bit too big, and maybe the denouement’s interspecies melee was a little too reminiscent of Godzilla vs Mothra vs Ghidorah, and of course the dinos were altogether too featherless. But these are quibbles. The movie is supposed to be fun. And it works. There is, however, one serious issue with the movie no one has the courage or moral clarity to discuss (except me of course).
Every time Sam Harris engages in a public exchange of ideas, be it a casual back-and-forth or a formal debate, he has to contend with an invisible third party whose obnoxious blubbering dispels, distorts, or simply drowns out nearly every word he says. You probably wouldn’t be able to infer the presence of this third party from Harris’s own remarks or demeanor. What you’ll notice, though, is that fellow participants in the discussion, be they celebrities like Ben Affleck or eminent scholars like Noam Chomsky, respond to his comments—even to his mere presence—with a level of rancor easily mistakable for blind contempt. This reaction will baffle many in the audience. But it will quickly dawn on anyone familiar with Harris’s ongoing struggle to correct pernicious mischaracterizations of his views that these people aren’t responding to Harris at all, but rather to the dimwitted and evil caricature of him promulgated by unscrupulous journalists and intellectuals.
A letter from an anonymous scholar of the medieval period to the sex columnist Dan Savage has been making the rounds of social media lately. Responding to a letter from a young woman asking how she should handle sex for the first time with her Muslim boyfriend, who happened to be a virgin, Savage wrote, “If he’s still struggling with the sex-negative, woman-phobic zap that his upbringing (and a medieval version of his faith) put on his head, he needs to work through that crap before he gets naked with you.” The anonymous writer bristles in bold lettering at Savage’s terminology: “I’m a medievalist, and this is one of the things about our current discourse on religion that drives me nuts. Contemporary radical Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all terrible, but none of them are medieval, especially in terms of sexuality.” Oddly, however, the letter, published under the title, “A Medievalist Schools Dan on Medieval Attitudes toward Sex,” isn’t really as much about correcting popular misconceptions about sex in the Middle Ages as it is about promoting a currently fashionable but highly dubious way of understanding radical religion in the various manifestations we see today.
Notional Bodies, Angels' Wings, and Poet's Truths: The Exquisite Discomfort of "Bring up the Bodies" by Hilary Mantel
The choice of death over compromise is the surest proof against any charge of hypocrisy. Whatever your feelings about the underlying creed, anyone willing to die for a principle is going to make an indelible impression on you, especially if you happen to be the executioner. In addition to the role he played in England’s break with the Catholic church and King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Thomas Cromwell is known historically for two dubious accomplishments: securing the conviction of Thomas More for treason after he refused to swear an oath endorsing the king’s supremacy over the pope, and confiscating the lands and holdings of England’s monasteries to fill the country’s royal coffers. As imagined by Hilary Mantel in her ingeniously textured and darkly captivating novel Wolf Hall, Cromwell despises monastics, “that parasitic class of men” (41), as he refers to them in the sequel, along with ascetic theologians like More—whose habit of wearing a horse hair undershirt to irritate his flesh does as much to irritate Cromwell—for their unworldliness and cruelty, but most of all for their corruption and hypocrisy. It’s no wonder then that, in Mantel’s telling, it’s having to condemn More to martyrdom that ultimately undoes Cromwell, or rather further propels him along a path toward undoing himself.
The most natural way to interpret fictional narration is as a direct communication from the author. We understand full well that the characters and events being described are fabricated, more or less whole-cloth, for the purpose of entertaining us. Yet we trust the author to relate all the details of the story, as she’s conceived of it, in a straightforward and accurate manner. If the rhythm and diction of the prose achieve a pleasing balance of artful evocation and easy comprehension, we ascribe the gracefulness to the author herself, and often feel a sense of gratitude that predisposes us to look favorably upon the prospect of reading other works in her oeuvre. This inclination to hear the author’s voice in fictional narration serves us well enough when we’re reading commercial fiction. As we move closer to the literary end of the spectrum, though, we must assimilate a more sophisticated linguistic convention. Only by grasping this technique can we fully experience the fruits of the author’s imaginative efforts and fully appreciate the depth of her psychological insights into the dynamic workings of her characters’ minds.
Everything a work of literary fiction is supposed to do, Hilary Mantel does masterfully in her historical novel Wolf Hall, including the creation of scenes so vividly immersive and the construction of plots so arresting that you all but forget you’re reading a work of fiction at all.
Storytelling comes naturally to humans. But there is a special category of narratives that we’re taught from an early age to approach in the most strained and unnatural of ways. The label we apply to this category is literature. While we demand of movies and television shows that they envelop us in the seamlessly imagined worlds of their creators’ visions, not only whisking us away from our own concerns, but rendering us oblivious as well, however fleetingly, to the artificiality of the dramas playing out before us, we split the spines of literary works expecting some real effort at heightened awareness to be demanded of us—which is why many of us seldom read this type of fiction at all.
Some of the difficulty is intrinsic to the literary endeavor, reflecting the authors’ intention to engage our intellect as well as our emotions. But many academics seem to believe that literature exists for the sole purpose of supporting a superstructure of scholarly discourse. Rather than treating it as an art form occupying a region where intuitive aesthetic experience overlaps with cerebral philosophical musing, these scholars take it as their duty to impress upon us the importance of approaching literature as a purely intellectual exercise. In other words, if you allow yourself to become absorbed in the story, especially to the point where you forget, however briefly, that it is just a story, then you’re breaking faith with the very institutions that support literary scholarship—and that to some degree support literature as an art form.
Sam Harris believes that we can derive many of the benefits people cite as reasons for subscribing to one religion or another from non-religious practices and modes of thinking, ones that don’t invoke bizarre scriptures replete with supernatural absurdities. In The Moral Landscape, for instance, he attempted to show that we don’t need a divine arbiter to settle our ethical and political disputes because reason alone should suffice. Now, with Waking Up, Harris is taking on an issue that many defenders of Christianity, or religion more generally, have long insisted he is completely oblivious to. By focusing on the truth or verifiability of religious propositions, Harris’s critics charge, he misses the more important point: religion isn’t fundamentally about the beliefs themselves so much as the effects those beliefs have on a community, including the psychological impact on individuals of collective enactments of the associated rituals—feelings of connectedness, higher purpose, and loving concern for all one’s neighbors.
Every writer faces this conundrum: your success hinges on your ability to create impressions that provoke emotions in the people who read your work, so you need feedback from a large sample of readers to gauge the effect of your writing. Without feedback, you have no way to calibrate the impact of your efforts and thus no way to hone your skills. This is why writers’ workshops are so popular; they bring a bunch of budding authors together to serve as one another’s practice audience. The major drawback to this solution is that a sample composed of fellow authorly aspirants may not be representative of the audience you ultimately hope your work will appeal to.
Whether or not they attend a workshop, all writers avail themselves of the ready-made trial audience comprised of their family and friends, a method which inevitably presents them with yet another conundrum: anyone who knows the author won’t be able to help mixing her up with her protagonists. The danger isn’t just that the feedback you get will be contaminated with moral judgments and psychological assessments; you also risk offending people you care about who will have a tough time not assuming identify with characters who bear even the most superficial resemblance to them. And of course you risk giving everyone the wrong idea about the type of person you are and the type of things you get up to.
Harry Potter became a cultural phenomenon at a time when authors, publishers, and critics were busy breaking the news of the dismal prognosis for the novel, beset as it was by the rise of the internet, the new golden age of television, and a growing impatience with texts extending more than a few paragraphs. The impact may not have been felt in the wider literary world if the popularity of Rowling’s books had been limited to children and young adults, but British and American grownups seem to have reasoned that if the youngsters think it’s cool it’s probably worth it for the rest of us young-at-hearts to take a look. Now not only are adults reading fiction written for teens, but authors—even renowned literary authors—are taking their cue from the YA world. Marquee writers like Donna Tartt and David Mitchell are spinning out elaborate yarns teeming with teen-tested genre tropes they hope to make respectable with a liberal heaping of highly polished literary prose. Predictably, the laments and jeremiads from old-school connoisseurs are beginning to show up in high-end periodicals.
How Violent Fiction Works: Rohan Wilson’s “The Roving Party” and James Wood’s Sanguinary Sublime from Conrad to McCarthy
Novels like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and, more recently, Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party, take place amid a transition from tribal societies to industrial civilization similar to the one occurring in Conrad’s Congo. Is it in this seeming backdrop that we should seek the true meaning of these tales of violence? Both McCarthy’s and Wilson’s novels, it must be noted, represent conspicuous efforts at undermining the sanitized and Manichean myths that arose to justify the displacement and mass killing of indigenous peoples by Europeans as they spread over the far-flung regions of the globe. The white men hunting “Indians” for the bounties on their scalps in Blood Meridian are as beastly and bloodthirsty as the savages peopling the most lurid colonial propaganda, just as the Europeans making up Wilson’s roving party are only distinguishable by the relative degrees of their moral degradation, all of them, including the protagonist, moving in the shadow of their chief quarry, a native Tasmanian chief.
If these novels are about their own language, their form comprising their true content, all in the service of some allegory or argument, then what pleasure would anyone get from them, suggesting as they do that to partake of the fruit of civilization is to become complicit in the original sin of the massacre that made way for it? “There is no document of civilization,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” It could be that to read these novels is to undergo a sort of rite of expiation, similar to the ritual reenactment of the crucifixion performed by Christians in the lead up to Easter. Alternatively, the real argument hidden in these stories may be still more insidious; what if they’re making the case that violence is both eternal and unavoidable, that it is in our nature to relish it, so there’s no more point in resisting the urge personally than in trying to bring about reform politically?
The simple phrase “that guy,” as in the delightfully manipulative call for a man to check himself “You don’t want to be that guy,” underscores something remarkable about what’s billed as our modern age of self-invention. No matter how hard we try, we’re nearly always on the verge of falling into some recognizable category of people—always in peril of becoming a cliché. Even in a mature society characterized by competitive originality, the corralling of what could be biographical chaos into a finite assemblage of themes, if not entire stories, seems as inescapable as ever. Which isn’t to say that true originality is nowhere to be found—outside of fiction anyway—but that resisting the pull of convention, or even (God forbid) tradition, demands sustained effort. And like any other endeavor requiring disciplined exertion, you need a ready store of motivation to draw on if you’re determined not to be that guy, or that couple, or one of those women.