Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, August 28, 2017

The History of Disenchantment

Here's a brief description of a course I'll be teaching next semester:

In a wonderful early poem, "Merlin Enthralled," Richard Wilbur describes the way that magic drains from the Arthurian world when the wizard is no longer around to generate it:

Fate would be fated; dreams desire to sleep.
This the forsaken will not understand.
Arthur upon the road began to weep
And said to Gawen, "Remember when this hand

Once haled a sword from stone; now no less strong
It cannot dream of such a thing to do."
Their mail grew quainter as they clopped along.
The sky became a still and woven blue.

A hundred years ago the great sociologist Max Weber wrote that “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world” (Entzauberung der Welt). We experience this, he added, as an “iron cage” of rationalization. The purpose of this course is to explore Weber’s great thesis. Is it correct? If so, what are its consequences? What intellectual strategies have we formed to deal with this disenchantment, to break the bars of this iron cage? And if Weber’s thesis is not right, in what forms has an enchanted world persisted?

Major readings:

  • Weber, selected writings on the rationalized social order
  • Charles Taylor, A Secular Age
  • Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
  • Neil Gaiman, American Gods
  • Jason Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment

Supplementary readings:

  • various essays on the “secularization thesis”
  • Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age
  • Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (selections)
  • Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (selections)
  • Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (selections)
  • C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien on the “enchantment of worldliness”
  • selected essays and excerpts by Marina Warner

The logic behind many of these choices should be clear -- it's obvious why Taylor's magnum opus will be the central text here -- but a few may need explanation. Gaiman's novel is a great case study in various culturally particular forms of enchantment and disenchantment, and a profound meditation on how technology affects both. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell explores the conditions and consequences of re-enchantment. Josephson-Storm's book puts some hard questions to Weber's thesis and to narratives of secularization more generally. Kass presents Genesis as an intrinsically disenchanting text from the outset, in which it demotes the sun, moon, and stars from the status of deities to that of mere created things -- big lights in the sky, worthy neither of worship nor of terror.

Comments and suggestions welcome.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

let joy be unconfined ...

... because there's a new Adam Roberts novel!

No one has yet said to me, “Of course you praise Adam Roberts’s novels, you’re his friend.” But if anyone ever did say that to me I’d reply that Adam and I have become friends in large part because I admire his novels — and his criticism as well. A few months back I commented to Adam that I couldn't remember how we first connected, and he reminded me that it was in the comments section of a now-silent website called The Valve. His posts there intrigued me, I commented, he replied, I decided to read one of his novels — and a friendship was born, one that I greatly value.

So ... am I prejudiced in his favor? Only in what we might call a Hazlittian sense, I would argue: I am prejudiced in favor of Adam’s writing because what I have read by him has consistently given me pleasure. And that is the right kind of prejudice to have.

Which brings me to The Real-Town Murders,which is a really good novel — you should read it. You should buy it. You also should support Adam’s completion of Anthony Burgess’s idea for a book, The Black Princeplease do, or the book won’t be published and I won't get to read it.

But back to The Real-Town Murders. It’s a fantastic read, fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat stuff — but it’s also sometimes disorienting, and I want to emphasize the disorientation it produces, because that’s related to something Adam has written about before — with, I think, disarming honesty — which is, not to put too fine a point on it, his neglect by the SF world. Not complete neglect, mind you, but significant neglect, especially of a book with the ambition, profound intelligence, and emotional depth of The Thing Itself, about which I have written here. It’s in light of this neglect, and Adam’s understandable puzzlement at it, that I want to say something about The Real-Town Murders.

As I say, it’s a terrific thriller — Roberts writes masterful chase scenes — most of his books have chase scenes, and they’re always great — but it’s also kinda weird. For instance, it can be really hard in The Real-Town Murders to know if someone is dead. Sometimes you think people must be dead but they turn out not to be. At the risk of a spoiler, here’s an example:

‘You see,’ Pu said. ‘You see, you can’t reinvigorate the Real simply by decreeing it. You can’t make it happen by fiat. You have to make it more attractive than the Shine. More intriguing to the people who … Who …’ Her weight slumped away from Alma, and she struggled to continue holding her upright. But she had gone, and Alma was not strong enough. As slowly as she could she lowered Pu Sto’s body to the ground. The aircars banked overhead and came down into the turf fifteen metres away.

Pu Sto had fainted.

Fainted?? You said “she had gone,” and we know what that means! You said “her body”! Damn you, Roberts! So a little later on, when someone else seems to have been killed, I the reader am waiting, waiting, waiting for the revelation that my assumption was wrong ... again ... but no. This time the assumption is correct. (Isn’t it?)

Here’s another thing: sometimes in this book human language goes awry. That is, certain characters temporarily lose the ability to speak grammatically coherent sentences. Sometimes this happens to automated systems, bots, as:

‘Relevant company documentation and answer any question to podscrip pending in your legally permitted break for lunch,’ said the receptionist. It had been prodded into a less secure margin of its response algorithm.

‘Furious green ideas?’ Alma asked.

‘Profitability supersedes itself in a company atmosphere of positivity and,’ said the receptionist, smiling.

‘Realising that nothing changes,’ Alma tried, ‘change everything.’

‘Happy to leverage all options and drill down to the next level.’

‘Let me ask you a direct question: are you, in fact, not the Ordinary, but rather the Extraordinary Transport Consultancy?’

‘Thank you for your input,’ beamed the receptionist.

‘Teleportation?’ Alma tried. ‘Instant transportation devices?’

‘No comment,’ the receptionist replied, rather too rapidly, and shut down.

But it happens to human beings too — and Roberts never explains why. He just throws us into this weird world where sometimes humans, like digital machines, develop linguistic glitches — and perhaps for the same reasons, given that the future society he describes draws human beings closer and closer to as purely digital a world as can be managed. And there are people who just speak oddly, by my standards, for reasons that might be related to the online world called the Shine or because they have a regional accent that I don't know about or...?

‘I know he works in the world, but his free time is all online. All of it! And you need to own dare stand – I make sure he eats. He has always ate. He used to weight a hefty number. Loves his food. He comes to mine, and I feed him till his stomach bulges. Then it’s o mama and gut-ache mama and I see it shrink down.’

There’s even a (relatively minor) character — one whose language is still more distorted — whose name seems to change: for most of the book he’s called “Lester” but there’s a period where he’s called “Ernest,” and I don't know what to make of that, because, though I’m tempted to say that it’s just a copy-editing oversight, there's another minor character whose name changes repeatedly through the handful of pages in which we see her. (So I’m thinking: is Ernest someone different? Did I miss something? Surely I missed something. But I’m caught up in this story here and don't want to go back to be sure.)

With Roberts, you never know — this is my point. Roberts likes making fictional knight’s moves, which is another way of saying that he is a perverse rather than an accommodating writer. To me, this is endlessly delightful; I enjoy having my legs taken out from under me, from time to time, as I read. I laugh at how Roberts sneaks in a line from Pynchon here, a line from Shakespeare there. I love this novel’s extended, multi-faceted homage to and riff on Hitchcock — another guy who was good at chase scenes — who makes an uncredited appearance here, as he typically did in his own films, but whose name is never mentioned except as the provider of an epigraph for the novel’s second part: “Puns are the highest form of literature.”

It’s all enormous fun. But I suspect that there is a kind of reader — a quite common kind of reader — for whom it would be rather too much. Many readers like their fictional moves to be straight, like those of a rook, or (when they’re in an adventurous mood) on a diagonal, like those of a bishop. This starting out on one path and then suddenly veering off — well, it’s rather disorienting, isn't it? Rather perverse. I say: let Roberts do his thing! Take a ride! But many readers will simply prefer writers who are willing to do more to accommodate the most typical readerly expectations. It’s the way of the world. And this, I think, is why Adam Roberts hasn’t won a major SF award, though he has written several of the very finest SF novels of this millennium.

In addition to the pleasures it provides, The Real-Town Murders is also an extremely thoughtful meditation on one of the classic forms of literary pleasure. People have long asked “Why does tragedy give pleasure?”, which is a very good question — but one might equally well ask why thrillers give pleasure, why mysteries do — why death does, the sudden appearance of death in the midst of life. (In tragedies the most important death comes at the end; in mysteries it comes at the beginning.) It’s a question you might expect both Adam Roberts and Alfred Hitchcock to have some thoughts about. And they do. We could talk about those thoughts once you’ve read the novel.