Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
Edited by Sarah Greenough
Yale University Press

In this odd corner of the Internet I review books--not just texts but books--the physical things--how they look and feel--their confidences and auras--and so regarding this book I have to wonder--what were they thinking?

The letters--even 650 or so of them--of artist Georgia O'Keeffe and photographer/gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz are important and interesting in themselves--despite their mutual habit of punctuating with dashes--like telegraphic Emily Dickinsons--They offer a charming travelogue through the early 20th century as well as into their works and love affairs--

But--but really--this is an enormous volume--big as a Bible--with no illustrations--two of the most visual people of their times--and no pictures at all--in a book that requires assistance to hold--or even hold open--

Why not two volumes--or three--- illustrated--even modestly illustrated--books to curl up with--to savor the weathers, the opinions, the gossip--

But that must not be the point?--It must be for scholars--for libraries--although these days, well--it must be for digital--to be carried about on your Kindle--or peered at on the library computer screen---

I don't know--it's a dark Monday, and it's sad--because you can't believe a word--how can she be in a train station writing when I can hardly get the page to stay open--she'd need a porter to help her haul this around-

Well you get the point.--Publishing is becoming ever more a mystery--simple proofreading seems an antique idea--and books like this--all this work-- all these words--a misbegotten book--unless scholars are even more masochistic than I thought---I leave it to others to evaluate the contents--the text--but as a reader--I am puzzled and disappointed--     

Thursday, August 25, 2011

For Pleasure: Galileo's Dream

Of the summer reading I outlined, I did complete that lovely volume of Margaret Atwood's stories (Moral Disorder,) and a number of James Hillman essays in Puer Papers as well as in Picked Up Pieces--more on those in a later post.  I also read Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle and Mother Night, but I'll probably take a break in my journey through his novels to read a forthcoming biography of him I've received.  But the major read was Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream. 

As a fan of his science fiction and near-future fiction (the Mars trilogy, Three Californias, Science in the Capital) I’ve been reluctant to tackle Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate histories. But I started his latest novel, Galileo's Dream (Spectra), and more than 500 pages later I finished it, wondering what my problem was.

Part of my reluctance was the historical dialogue choice between two equally awkward alternatives: does everybody sound hopelessly antique and false, or do these characters from remote times talk like they’ve got smartphones in their togas?

Robinson opts for a contemporary vocabulary, though with a minimum of anachronisms plus appropriate historical touches and maybe some subtle Italian rhythms. He makes it work mostly because he creates a complex, believable and likeable Galileo, clearly the result of impressive research, but also a literary character—a kind of Italian Falstaff (Galileo and Shakespeare were contemporaries) with a quick and penetrating intelligence.

Galileo’s intellect and insights are formidable, but his ego, impatience and appetites cause him as much humiliation as his battles with the Church over how the solar system works. He’s got marital, family and money problems, devoted friends and dedicated enemies. Plus he keeps getting sent to the moons of Jupiter in the year 3020.

That’s the science fiction part of the story, and some readers have found those scenes and characters less satisfying because less complete. I like the way the problems of the future feed back into the historical story, and manage to even create suspense about Galileo’s ultimate fate. (There are hints that the past of this future is different—even the solar system has a few more planets. And that this future may depend on Galileo being executed. ) That the future characters have mythological names adds another layer of mystery. In terms of how humans react to new knowledge that humbles them, past and future stories correspond.

The future segments allows Robinson to describe a fascinating new cosmology based partly on contemporary theory. (This also makes Galileo’s means of transport credible, and there are other impressive technologies in this future.) Galileo’s scientific attitude and curiosity lends credibility to how easily he accepts what he sees and learns.  The idea of a greater consciousness is not new--Lem's Solaris has a living sea, and the great Olaf Stapledon built up to conscious star systems--but here the importance would seem to be how future humans respond to something that seems to reduce their centrality in the universe, much as people in Galileo's day did to the implications of what he saw through his telescope.

In other ways the interaction not only provides perspective from the future viewing the earth's past, but the other way around. About the inhabitants of these moons, Galileo observes: “Surely living out here must make you all a little bit mad? Never to sit in a garden, never to feel the sun on your neck? We were never born for this.”

Though Robinson (who teaches down the coast at Davis) is just shy of 60, this novel expresses a notably mature perspective, both in content and forthright expression. This gives Galileo’s aging observations even more resonance.

Ultimately this is the story of the first scientist (though the word “scientist” didn’t arrive until the 19th century), and the meaning of his insights as well as the fullness of his life. There’s humor and incident within the framework, and towards the end of his life, when Galileo sees something different in one of his daughters, there’s a feeling of possibility as well as elegy. That’s even stronger when you figure out the identity of his last visitor.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Darwin just never goes out of style.  It seems that with the unique and daunting challenges of the 21st century, his work is even more important.  These three books are evidence for that impression.

Genetics of Original Sin: The Impact of Natural Selection on the Future of Humanity by Christian de Duve (with Neil Patterson) (Yale University Press) is forthrightly dedicated to this theme.  De Duve, Nobel Laureate in Medicine, contends that natural selection, the means of human survival as a species so far, is now becoming its fatal flaw.  Those qualities that got us here are leading us to our ruin.  The basic reason is that natural selection works for the present and the immediate future, while our survival now depends on working to secure the long-term future.  With our short-term adaptations, we've made a sustainable future impossible otherwise. The book's first three sections tour the science of evolution.  In the last section, de Duve lists and evaluates various options for overcoming this flaw and getting to the future.

This paradox of natural selection for humanity was stated more than a century ago by Thomas H. Huxley, whose name does not appear in this book.  Huxley and his student H.G. Wells worried about the short-sightedness and self-destruction that natural selection encouraged, just as humans were developing destructive technologies that could end civilization.  Part of their answer--only obliquely touched upon in this book--was that humans inject a moral imperative in the natural selection equation, as well as using their big brains to anticipate the consequences of their actions in the future.

Stanley A. Rice comes closer to this answer in his book, Life of Earth: Portrait of A Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World (Prometheus Books.)  Rice covers some of the same preliminary and expository ground on natural selection, but in a blunt, declarative, authoritative and occasionally authoritarian style.  But in terms of where evolutionary science is at the moment, he makes a very interesting move.  He includes long chapters on symbiosis and altruism, two areas that at least until recently were pretty controversial in the field.  I'm no expert, but this is the first time I've come across a combination of the theories of Richard Dawkins and Lynn Margulis--whose work seemed incompatible for awhile-- stated with such certainty.

Altruism especially has been a conundrum for selfish gene theorists, and Rice goes to the heart of it with his opening sentence on the subject: "It feels good to be good."  The altruism chapter alone is reason to obtain and read this book.  Rice goes on to religion (which de Duve also considers), science and the environment--again, making pretty blunt statements like "Welcome to the Republican Climate"--which is itself bracing and entertaining.  In  a sense, Rice answers de Duve's conundrum by correcting the view that natural selection doesn't include altruism, empathy and reciprocity.   Something like a moral imperative is part of us, too.

Elliott Sober is a respected voice in the philosophy of science, and his book Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards?  (Prometheus Books)  is a collection of essays on Darwin and natural selection, group selection, sex and "naturalism" (the religious question.)  The "Group Selection" chapter also deals with altruism in evolution theory.  Sober quickly reviews the literature and makes closely argued observations, laced with appropriate math.  His book will likely be of most interest to academics, while Rice's book is the most accessible to all intelligent readers, with de Duve somewhere in between but leaning away from an academic style.                   

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Couple (of Books) in Search of Happiness

In The Great Disruption, Paul Gilding foresees that the onrushing climate crisis in combination with resource depletion and other factors will create catastrophes that force major changes, including (and especially) the transition to a no-growth, steady-state world economy. So in such a society, what will replace material acquisition and the joy of shopping as the definition of the good life? He calls his best case scenario “the happiness economy.”

Never out of style, redefining happiness acquires new urgency when contemplating these immense future challenges. The two books noted in this review are among recent examples.

Arthur Dobrin is a former Peace Corps volunteer and leader of the Ethical Culture movement. In The Lost Art of Happiness (Prometheus Books), he emphasizes the link between personal happiness and doing good for others that he finds reflected in founding religious texts and classic philosophers as well as the work of social scientists. He uses his own experiences with traditional cultures to relate their sources of happiness in relationships, moral behavior and appreciation for the beauty of the world.

Dobrin astutely summarizes research that shows the roots of empathy and altruism in animal and human evolution. These tendencies, strongest for close relatives and members of the band, can be extended to strangers. He reviews relevant research in modern societies, including the work of Samuel and Pearl Oliner in their work on Holocaust rescuers, particularly in The Altruistic Personality.

Though he skillfully weaves the research and writings of others to support his thesis, Dobrin’s book has a strong point of view, and is occasionally dogmatic. In contrast, Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science (Yale University Press) by famed Harvard philosopher Sissela Bok is more scholarly in approach and more nuanced in its judgments.

Bok deals with even more philosophy, literature and neuroscience, and the complex and competing definitions of happiness. She places a greater emphasis on the individual (such as those who find value in solitude) in contrast to Dobrin’s brief for relationship as the source of happiness. But Bok as well as Dobrin explores the roles of morality, empathy and resilience in happiness. Like both Dobrin and Gilding, she sees happiness related to more equality (gender and racial, as well as economic) but not wholly residing in material wealth.

Dobrin skillfully makes his largely inspirational case, but Bok asks more questions and suggests more complexity, irony and subtlety. Both books are thought-provoking, well constructed and written. Both books—plus Gilding’s—suggest one important area of inquiry about how to cope with the challenges ahead. Once the reality of those challenges is accepted, one task will be to encourage the values, attitudes and virtues that will be needed in the oncoming future.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Great Disruption

by Paul Gilding
Bloomsbury Press

Our first truly human evolutionary test was whether we could anticipate the future catastrophe we were blindly causing, and act effectively in time to prevent it. Well, we flunked that one. Like other recent books on the climate crisis, this one asserts that the global catastrophe is unstoppable.

Gilding, an Australian former human rights and environmental activist as well as a businessman and corporate advisor, is forthright on the irrefutable factors besides the climate crisis that are converging: unsustainable population and economic growth outrunning and crashing resources. He says straight out what others have avoided for years: “I expect we’ll tragically lose a few billion people.”

Yet the buzz about this book is that it’s optimistic.

Gilding asserts that there will come a point, perhaps an event, when the crisis will be really obvious, and humanity will respond in its characteristic “slow but not stupid, late but dramatic” way, as for example when the West geared up to defeat Hitler.

There will be what he calls the Great Awakening: “an exciting and ultimately positive transformation, with great innovation and change in technology, business and economic models alongside a parallel shift in human development. It could well be, in a nonbiological sense, a move to a higher state of evolution and consciousness.” (Presumably that’s if you’re not one of the lost billions.) It’s humanity’s second evolutionary test—and if we blow this one, it’s pretty much over for civilization. And this transformation could begin in this decade.

At least half the book is devoted to Gilding’s ideas of what must be done over the next 40 years to create a sustainable no-growth economy and the values that go with it--ideas tested so far in his speeches and peer-reviewed papers, but now available for wider scrutiny and participation. Though he uses big labels and inspirational generalities, he’s practical and subtle on the process and on as many details as he musters.

Gilding acknowledges the emotional impact of a future of earthquake-like disruptions, and a transition that “will shake us to the core, forcing a substantial rearrangement of human values, political systems, and our physical lives.”  This has happened before, but perhaps never so intentionally. He writes that “Grieving is an appropriate response” for the world we’ve destroyed and the resulting pain, “but sustained despair is not.” Any chance for civilization surviving depends on “active, engaged and strategic hope.” Hope is not a response but a commitment. Optimism is “the most important and political choice an individual can make.”

This hope must be enacted partly by working to define the plans necessary to meet this crisis, so when society demands them, they’ll be ready. That makes this a book to keep. It takes awhile to absorb its information and the emotions it evokes. But there’s getting to be a consensus that the catastrophe “that will shake us to the core” is coming. It’s time to choose this way to be human, face the grief and think hard about the future.

Combining a brief sketch of the depth and extent of catastrophe with a brief sketch of a program to get through it and make things better seems a proper enterprise, but it makes for a very weird book.  The implications of living through the death of millions--as we're seeing right now in the climate-related starvation in the Horn of Africa--as well as the chaos, the fear, uncertainty (is this intractable recession the beginning of the permanent economic growth collapse?) and denial--seem to need more than a simple acknowledgement they are coming.  A moment's reflection makes the rest of the book seem like whistling in the dark, and the occasional inspirational self-help book tone doesn't help.

That's not to say that his program isn't a useful one, or that it won't work.  It just makes for a schizoid reading experience.  Also, its subtitle is so silly I can't even bring myself to use it.  But all of that just has to be acknowledged--then the content of the book worked with and absorbed.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

American Georgics: Writing on Farming, Culture, and the Land
Edited by Edwin C. Hagenstein, Sara M Gregg & Brian Donahue
Yale University Press

This is a collection of agrarian writing--about farming and the land--in America from its founding as a nation until just about now.  It's of more than historical interest, not only in the general ecological way but in view of the new interest in local self-sustaining communities, including the self-named New Agrarians.  The title comes from Virgil's Georgics, about an ideal rural society.  Not exactly a selling title, except perhaps for scholars and the already initiated.

For the rest of us there are little discoveries, like an example of Louisa May Alcott's satirical writing--at which she excels. There are quite a few otherwise neglected voices here, though I leave it to experts to evaluate the adequacy of this selection.  In a section called "The Machine in the Garden," I would have expected something from the classic work by Leo Marx of that title.  But otherwise this is a handsome, useful volume, with a graceful foreword by Wes Jackson.