Tuesday, March 29, 2005

myth and memory Posted by Hello
How The Human Mind Shapes Myth
by Elizabeth Wayland Barber & Paul T. Barber
Princeton University Press.

How Memory Shapes Our Past
by Douwe Draaisma,
translated by Arnold and Erica Pomerans
Cambridge University Press.

by William S. Kowinski

These two books are about memory, although on very different scales: the cultural memories stored over long periods of time through myth, and human memory in an individual's lifetime.

Though I started reading these books at about the same time only because of the accident of their arrival in close proximity, the idea that they are both about memory came quickly, for early in each book they each cite the same 1880 memory experiment, conducted in Germany by Hermann Ebbinghaus. Though they make entirely different (but not opposing) points from their examples, the coincidence suggested how the books naturally go together.

In '>When They Severed Earth From Sky, E.W. and P.T. Barber cite the Ebbinghaus research to support the idea that memories are remembered better when they are structured as stories rather than strung together as isolated facts. The basic premise of their book is that ancient myths are essentially stories that preliterate people used to help them remember important information about the real world, and pass it down. But for various reasons, we no longer recognize the events and phenomena these stories are meant to describe.

Their first example is a story of the Klamath people, about the fire-flinging Chief of the Below World battling the Chief of the Above World at Mount Shasta. Thanks to the sacrifice of Klamath medicine men, the Chief of the Below World was overcome, and his mountain disappeared. It then rained for many years, filling the hole where that mountain had been. The people were saved from the threat of fire, but were cautioned not to look upon the sorrowful waters.

Using details of the story matched up with known geological history, the authors maintain this is actually a story about a volcanic eruption which in fact blew away a mountain near Mt. Shasta, and left a hole now filled with water, which we call Crater Lake. The warning to stay away from the lake (which the Klamath people obeyed for many years) essentially was to protect them from any later eruption.

This book is a pleasure to read. The authors give the impression that they had a good time traveling and doing their research over a number of years, and they seem to have worked hard to make the writing seem easy, which is always appreciated. The result is a very readable romp for any intelligent reader, with lots of forward momentum (at least until the "Of Sky and Time" section) and employing a mostly engaging style consisting of lean, robust sentences and breezy diction. They anticipate the reader's logical questions, and present their theories about why myths are encoded as they are and the mechanisms they use, using a series of cleverly named "Myth Principles," like Memory Crunch, Silence Principle, Lethe Effect, Zone of Convenient Remove Syndrome and UFO Corollary.

Along the way readers will learn what getting up on the wrong side of the bed actually means, as well as fascinating interpretations of dragons (as a collection of ideas stuck together with the same name) and the Prometheus Myth.

The weaknesses of the book, apart from an awful lot of the myths turning out to be descriptions of volcanoes (including Prometheus) and attendant tsunamis (parting of the Red Sea), are in its limited usefulness and jovial reductionism. While it may come as a surprise to some academics that Native stories record real events, in my part of the world---which is not far from the Klamath---even geologists refer to stories of indigenous peoples when they talk about seismic events on the North Coast of California, and they've used these stories for at least a decade to help them understand local geologic history. As these authors admit, on this quality of Native stories, Vine DeLoria got here ahead of them in his impassioned and at times hilarious diatribe, Red Earth, White Lies.

While I'd be surprised if the premise that myths can refer to actual events is big news to academia (but I'm prepared for that eventuality), the authors are really on shaky ground with their apparent contention that this is all these myths represent. For instance, in her A History of God, Karen Armstrong refers to the possibility that the Bible story of the parting of the Red Sea may refer to earlier pagan stories, and that the Israelite god Yahweh might have originally been a god of volcanoes. But Armstrong goes on to discuss how the Israelites changed the nature of this god, and adapted this and other stories to refer to themselves. For them and I suspect in many other cases, the myths are not merely explanations of natural events; the natural events and the stories about them are incorporated into the myths to support a religious, philosophical, political or tribal idea. In other words, at least some myths use the natural events to explain beliefs, not the other way around.

The authors also completely dismiss Carl Jung's theory of mythic archetypes (central to Joseph Campbell's work, too), and later refer only to minor features of their ideas. (They also dis dreams with an oversimplified and reductionist "scientific" explanation that would surprise some neuroscientists.) They apparently reject what I take to be much more likely: that myths can be stories by which peoples remember some natural events, and they express other kinds of beliefs, and they reflect archetypes that may be universally present in human life. Sometimes one, two or all of them, and probably more. There's really no contradiction. We don't call them the mystic chords of memory for nothing.

In '>Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older, Douwe Draaisma , a professor of history of psychology in the Netherlands, describes Ebbinghaus' researches (which he doggedly conducted using himself as the subject) as one pioneering kind of memory research, which became the dominant kind because it allowed for quantified data. Another early self-researcher, Francis Galton, experimented with associating subjective memories to current observations, but for much of the twentieth century, this way of approaching memory (as actual autobiographical memories) was neglected.

Draaisma uses the fruits of both kinds of researches, in the laboratory and out, as well as the musings of philosophers, writers and psychologists, to freshly examine several phenomena of memory, which always involve the content of memories. He explores reminiscence, so-called photographic memory, forgetting, déjà vu, and other questions of how we experience time and memory, and examines unusual cases, such as the memory of savants and grandmasters, trauma victims, and two people who seemed never to forget anything: one of them fictional, and one real.

Draaisma is a graceful writer (the English version's virtues aided no doubt by translators Arnold and Erica Pomerans), and most chapters have the length and structure of short self-contained essays. Many address questions we all have about memory and memories (since we all have both)with stylish economy and a treatment of relevant research that is involving. The questions begin with why don't we remember more of our earliest years? (Memory, or access to our memories, is autobiographical, and seems to depend on self-awareness and the development of speech.) How do people with unusual or prodigious memories remember so much? (Their memories seem to be laden with more sense data, and their brains structure memories in spatial relationships.)

One of the best essays is on "Smell and Memory," which confronts the question of why certain smells can instantly bring a long forgotten moment to life. Draaisma begins with the literary reference that has become automatic: Proust's moment with the madeleine dipped in tea that floods his memory with images and feelings (which is relevant because taste is so strongly related to smell.) But instead of referencing what has become a cliché, he goes back to the text and reveals that Proust's description of this experience takes up four pages, and his narrator goes through a long process of remembering, which requires hours, and not one but ten tastes of the tea-soaked cake.

Draaisma then examines other similar recorded experiences and the relevant laboratory research. It appears that smell is the exception to the rule: that associations are formed in memory that don't depend on language, which is why memories inspired by smell are different from most other kinds.

Of course, there's more to each question than these paranthetical and somewhat reductive summaries, and much of the pleasure here is in the reading journey. There are intriguing insights within chapters, such as our predeliction to remember insults and humiliations with great clarity, and unlike other memories to see ourselves in these painful scenes, as if from outside.

Not all the chapters are successful either in the questions they ask or the answers. In particular, the chapter that addresses the title question, why does life speed up as you get older? is not very satisfying. One of the central difficulties in talking about memory and time is the difference between subjective experiences and objective facts of each. Sometimes in dealing with them, Draaisma is illuminating, but this chapter seems a bit too confusing. He acknowledges that part of the difference in experiencing time in youth and age is physiological, and some is experiential. His final metaphor in this chapter, of a man running along a river (at first as a child running faster than the river of time, then in youth at the same rate the river is flowing, then with aging, slower and slower until the river runs without him) is a lovely synthesis of the research he cites, but doesn't quite answer the question.

So why does life speed up as we get older? I think it has a lot to do with anticipation and hope. I am writing this a few days after Easter Sunday. In my childhood, Easter was a major holiday, and one that I anticipated and thought about far in advance. The day itself was full of events and feelings (some of joy, some of disappointment, some of boredom.) This Easter had such little significance that the fact that some places were closed was a momentarily unaccountable surprise.

Part of the difference is objective: Easter is not as big a holiday as it was in my particular ethnic Catholic western Pennsylvania context in the 1950s, though among my family still living in the area where I grew up, it is more significant than among people I know where I am now. Much of Easter became oriented towards children, so naturally it would have been more important when I was a child, or if there were children now in my household. But I think an important factor is also the change that comes with disillusion. After awhile, tempered by disappointments and fading possibilities, you no longer expect or anticipate wonders linked to a day or an event, so time does not slow down before or during it.

So much of youth and adolescence (when Draaisma says most retained memories occur) is the experience of discovery. Having discovered through experience the limitations placed on hopes and dreams leads to a disillusion that distances you from the moment. It becomes too painful and wearying to either anticipate or allow yourself to fully experience the flow of time. This translates more generally, as your priorities necessarily shift to dealing with daily responsibilities, especially now that the speed of life has increased. As the habit of anticipation and hope gives way to the habit of coping and the suppression of disillusion, we flatten experience and even hurry through it as unconsciously as possible. For this and other reasons, life speeds up because we aren't paying so much attention to it.

This may also be why as we get older, we live more in our memories. Memories are themselves timeless. The more time we spend in this timeless space, the faster time seems to speed on, in those fewer moments when we rejoin the present. So now when we bite into a marshmallow bunny, it is a more Proustian than present pleasure.

Friday, March 18, 2005

This is What's the Matter with Kansas

by William S. Kowinski

'>Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred
by John Lukacs
Yale University Press. 248 pp. $25

Simply in the ideas it addresses and the authority of its arguments, this is a profound and useful book. Historians and other scholars will have to vet its evidence and wrangle over its arguments, but much of it passes the smell test of at least one reader with the same set of questions that pervade one of the more fashionable political books of the year, Thomas Franks' '>What's the Matter With Kansas?

John Lukacs is a historian whose work encompasses politics. He distresses many because his own political ideology can't quite be nailed down. He's blue states on some issues, red states on others, it seems. And his reading of history is his own.

Given the ground it covers and its apparent nature as a summary or a summing up, this is a relatively short book. Despite Lukacs' resulting declaratory, even declamatory tone, or perhaps because of it, he often pulls back suddenly to say, but this isn't the subject of this book, but if it were... That's part of this book's considerable charm, which it needs, considering its subject.

The ideas Lukacs expresses are conclusions he has drawn from his study of history, and we get some fascinating slices of it as he assesses the world since 1870, and especially as he corrects what he considers to be improper use of language, as in throwing the word "Fascist" around too freely (he restricts it to its origins with Mussolini) and misusing the concept of "totalitarian" in respect to the regimes of the most infamous 20th century dictators.

This is meaningful because, Lukacs asserts, such dictatorships, especially Hitler's Germany, were essentially populist regimes, and populism in the modern age is associated with nationalism. So the Nazi Party was what its name said: National Socialism. But especially since all modern governments were and are historically socialist (he argues) in that they provide some social safety net, Hitler's emphasis was on nationalism. It is what links his regime to Stalin's, and in large part now, to ours.

Lukacs contrasts populism with patriotism. The patriot is loyal to the state, but the populist to the nation. The populist is more likely to be racist. "A patriot will not exclude a person of another nationality from a community where they have lived side by side and whom he has known for many years; but a populist will always be suspicious of someone who does not seem to belong to his tribe." (But Lukacs, who is so careful about many words, is imprecise in his use of "tribe.")

Why do the people of Kansas vote against their own economic interests? This was the key question of Franks' book, and a great puzzle of Democrats over the 2004 election result. Without specifically addressing that question, Lukacs answers it: "But what governs the world (and especially in the democratic age) is not the accumulation of money, or even of goods, but the accumulation of opinions." This was true in the age of monarchy, and even more true now because "the accumulation of opinions can be manufactured and even falsified through the machinery of publicity, at times even against contrary appearances." So in a way, a new definition of faith-based v. reality-based.

The emphasis on materialism as motivation is a mistake, Lukacs insists. Past a certain point of basic necessities, humans in society are concerned with, for instance, respectability: for the high opinion of others. While material belongings are a part of that, so is belonging to the group in other ways. And historically, Lukacs asserts, the group is ultimately defined as the nation.

While the conventional wisdom would contrast the power of public opinion in democracies with its silent irrelevance in dictatorships, Lukacs, who is known as an expert on Hitler and his era, does not: "...it is the accumulation of opinions that governs the history of states and nations and of democracies as well as dictatorships in the age of popular sovereignty. It is the main ingredient of nationalisms, the cause of wars, and of the majority support of fanatical speakers like Hitler, or of the less enthusiastic but majoritarian support of less than mediocre presidents." (The ending of this sentence was changed from the bound page proofs, where it read: "but still prevalent support of otherwise colorless presidents such as George W. Bush.")

Lukacs traces the rise of nationalism after 1870, and believes that "the masses" are less conscious of class than of nationalism. They fear foreigners and hate those who are insufficiently nationalist within their own country. (Readers right here might keep this in mind as they read the review of Homeland below.)

The "fear" and "hatred" of his subtitle distinguish the left from the right on the political spectrum. Especially at their extremes, the left is motivated by fear (of oppressive capitalists and reactionaries) while the right is motivated by hatred (for enemies of the nation, of the "people," which translates into those who aren't us.)

"But while hatred amounts to a moral weakness," he writes, "it can be, alas, often, and at least in the short run, a source of strength. Whence the advantage of the Right over the Left---especially in the age of democratic populism."

But fear, of course, is not much better. "Fear and hatred are prevalent among us," he concludes, "manifest and evident in the increasing savagery---"savagery is the proper word, not 'violence'---in and around our everyday lives."

If anything makes noise from this book, it is likely to be Lukacs assertion that liberalism is dead, and a Red State sort of populism triumphant. But it is the savagery that he seems to really want us to understand.

However, he sees conflict within this triumph, because there may be division between "two kinds of Right": "between those who believe that America's destiny is to rule the world and others who do not believe that; between those who trust technology and machines and others who trust tradition and the old human decencies...in sum, between those who do not question Progress and others who do."

I don't know that I buy this division in precisely this way, but I see what he's getting at. In the book as a whole, perhaps the most glaring omission for me is a specific discussion of plutocracy and how it might interact with populism, which is a crucial element of today's that remains insufficiently explained in general.

Lukacs view of the masses is not unfamiliar, but his application to the world we know is pertinent and thought-provoking. Against the collective, mechanical, easily manipulated, nationalistic populist mass, he reintroduces other familiar concepts: freedom and the individual. "Freedom means the capacity to know something about oneself, and the consequent practice or at least the desire to live according to limits imposed on oneself rather than by external powers."

Between the lines I have quoted are his arguments as to why this is so difficult in the modern world. Lukacs presents a historical and political argument that reminds me of other themes, other fears, from the 20th century, such as the fears for "mass man" and the "outer-directed" "Organization Man" or even Jung's "extraverted as hell" Americans. To these characterizations he adds pungent illustrations of the role of publicity in government, and the phenomenon of populist religion.

Historians may buzz a bit about Lukacs' assessments: while he finds Marx, Orwell and even Machiavelli wrong or irrelevant, de Tocqueville turns out to be remarkably astute and prescient. But what I suspect is most likely to be missed, and what I found most moving, is his hope for the future. (He even refers to the "historicity of hope.") "It is hate that unites people, whereas love is always individual, rather than collective. To this we may add something that immediately negates whatever moral essence the purposes of class struggles or of racism or of modern nationalism may have: and this is that love is never the love of oneself, it is the love of another. That is the saving grace of mankind."

Friday, March 04, 2005

Photo by Michael Williamson from "Homeland" Posted by Hello
by Dale Maharidge, photographs by Michael Williamson
Seven Stories Press

review by William S. Kowinski

There are so many books, too many good ones get lost. That's my excuse for not knowing about Dale Maharidge, and his previous collaborations with photographer Michael Williamson, obsessively chronicling the losers of this American society, most of them innocent of anything but being born in the wrong place and time, and maybe being unlucky and vulnerably flawed, and believing the wrong people.

On the other hand, the major machinery of this culture would naturally work towards obscuring the existence of these books, and only obsession can really account for them even being written. However, these guys were noticed enough to win a Pulitzer Prize, and get Bruce Springsteen's attention. He wrote and recorded a couple of songs based on people they wrote about.

It took their appearance on C-Span to bring them into my life. I heard Maharidge talk about the new secret poverty in America, of not the unemployed but the working poor, in many cases the overemployed (working two or three jobs) but severely underpaid. These are the people who show up at work every day in their nice clean clothes, and sleep in their cars. Or they go home to their well-kept houses on a modest nice street, but there is absolutely no food in the refrigerator or furniture in the house. This scandal, and the outrage it is not inspiring in America, is where the horror begins.

He talked also about the rage among them, but not rage at the rich and the corporate elite. Rage at immigrants and people of other races. And now, after 9/11, rage at anybody who looks Arab or doesn't adore G.W. Bush and the flag on his lapel.

With a friendly intensity, he made some provocative and interesting observations at that bookstore on C-Span, and made some stimulating connections, as between a man's racist rage and his woefully inadequate health insurance, and the hospital bills that have dug him into a ditch of debt he will likely never even see the rim of.

All of that is in this book, but so is some riveting, absorbing writing. This book's effectiveness owes at least as much to literary skill and a mix of adept styles and tones, as to the selection of subjects. The result is a singular reading experience.

The basic focus of "'>Homeland" is post-9/11 so-called patriotism run wild, and the accelerated pungency it braids into the hot fears and cold prejudices that runs through the paradox of the lower middle class. (Mostly.) This is not entirely foreign territory to me; I grew up in western Pennsylvania, the grandson of a coal miner and an immigrant tailor, and I went to college with a lot of kids from Chicago and its suburbs. But this is definitely a scary picture. Maharidge sees a land of barely suppressed hate and open rage, of racism that's changed only in becoming too media sophisticated to ever let on that it is racism. The paradox is everywhere: ordinary people on the skids, blaming people who are often even worse off than they are.

"All these things," he quotes a priest saying. "And we don't grow up. We just don't grow up."

The first part of "Homeland" is a gripping, full-speed-ahead narrative about Katie, a high school student in West Virginia ostracized for her "radical" political views, post-9/11. The rest of the book is more fragmented in its narrative as Maharidge journeys out farther into other uncomfortable corners of America, and inward to try to make sense of it all.

This book quivers with life, its wild tangles of feeling, the everydayness of plodding but easily flaring, near-psychotic possession, and the heroic stands some make to oppose this insanely normal morass of misguided rage, by lone figures who know they will be mowed down for the smallest symbolic gesture and usually are, to the notice of almost no one. That continues to be the great political weakness of the left. While the rightists talk individualism but support each other, the leftists caw about solidarity, and fail to get past their personal fog to lift a finger for anyone. Still, at least Katie got some help from the American Civil Liberties Union.

It's carefully described and reported, but full of feeling and it gets personal, too. Maharidge writes about his father in World War II, and the painful break with an old friend over some of these issues. The book ends with a Thoreau-style manifesto against the Iraq war, from the woods of Humboldt County. Hey, I live in Humboldt County. He's got a sentence in there about a guy who lives down my street. And I had to meet Maharidge on C-Span? It's a strange world.

Maharidge teaches students to practice "Star Trek journalism," to go where nobody has gone before. He certainly walks the walk, nobody's gone where he has since the Depression anyway, and he is remarkably patient and open (much more than I could see myself being), as well as a writer of skill and feeling.

He comes away with some ideas about why we're trembling on the brink of savage chaos. In a conversation with a Civil Liberties attorney, they talk about this "blanket of conformity that had settled over America" in terms of nationalism, and a comfort with authoritarian rule that comes from feeling economically stressed and insecure.

The next review to appear here will be of a book that tries to explain some of this historically, and such explanations are certainly keenly needed: for if the 2000 election showed how divided we are into blue and red mental states, the 2004 election revealed it's more than personality preferences and lifestyle. We awoke in November to how little we know about what goes on in each others' heads or hearts. But theories aren't likely to tell us as much about this country at this moment as this book does, through the sights and the voices Maharidge brings us (and Williamson's portfolio of harrowing photos) and the responses from his head and heart he so honestly and eloquently presents.

Homeland is published in hardback by Seven Stories Press. Their paperback edition is scheduled for August 1.