Friday, October 28, 2011

Whose Body by Dorothy Sayers, a review and commentary.

Alternative Title: "A Few Backward Individuals."

      I often re-read "light" books for restful diversion: The Lord of the Rings , some of John LeCarre's George Smiley stories, or any Dorothy Sayers mystery, for example. And thus I have just read the light but richly written mystery Whose Body again for the umpteenth time. And discovered something new which increases my admiration for Sayers and my enjoyment of the book.

      This new reading comes because this last year I have been reading Stephen Jay Gould's books (thirteen, so far), especially essays from Natural History magazine (1974-2001). Gould, who died in 2002, was a distinguished and literate evolutionary biologist, paleontologist, professor, and science historian, and one of his favorite topics, or targets, is false generalizations from biological sciences used inappropriately and often inaccurately to draw predictive and reductive conclusions about human beings. Or the reverse—the way cultural prejudices dictate how someone, even a scientist, interprets what is observed.

Reading Whose Body after this year-long exploration of Gould's lectures on bias in the history of science, I for the first time saw the topicality and importance of the theory which Sayers gives to a character who is a (fictional) highly esteemed and accomplished physician. She displays artful linguistic facility in creating a believable facsimile of such theorizing, and a strong moral compass in her ethical evaluation of it. And because that theory is of ideological significance for her era, the twenties and thirties (and, sadly, still meaningful for our own times), I all the more admire both her' linguistic facility in creating a believable facsimile of such writing, and her ethical evaluation of it in the book's resolution.

     Late in the mystery, Lord Peter Wimsey, ducal cadet (if I may say so for the pure joy of language, meaning the younger brother of a duke), man about town, antique book collector and amateur detective, reads a newly published book by the aforesaid physician Sir Julius Freke, a minor figure in the puzzling case Wimsey is investigating. Its theory is that all human thought, behavior and feeling is based on specific physical phenomena in the brain. Thus the human conscience, far from being a still small voice--of God or ethics or social responsibility--is described as a useless vestige of "tribal" levels of culture (which needless to say, in the 1920s in England were considered unworthy). In a society of free and full individuation, the formation in the brain which causes conscience is, according to the theory, useless, like the vermiform appendix--except that far from having an unknown effect, it serves to enslave people to cowardice:
Conscience in man may, in fact, be compared to the sting of a hive-bee,which, so far from conducing to the welfare of its possessor, cannot function, even in a single instance, without occasioning its death. The survival value in each case is purely social; and if humanity ever passes from its present phase of social development into that of a higher individualism, as some of our philosophers have ventured to speculate, we may suppose that this interesting mental phenomenon may gradually cease to appear; just as the nerves and muscles which once controlled the movement of our ears and scalps have, in all save a few backward individuals,become atrophied and of interest only to the physiologist. [emph. mine]

As he reads, Lord Peter suddenly experiences a shuddering eclaircissement: he knows what crimes were committed in his mysterious case, who, why, and how. And readers, by following his line of reasoning to the resolution, are artfully persuaded against the proposition that the utter superiority of modern "man" will lie in achieving "full individuation," becoming free enough to cast off any acquired sense of obligation to others, and boasting with Shakespeare's Richard III, "I am myself alone."

Cultural paradigms are so insidious and assume so natural a shape in our minds that Sayers stirs my admiration by the subtlety of her construction of passages in the fictionalized book about the harm done by the brain's relic of an out-moded human conscience, and by her social consciousness in constructing the plot around it. This ideology, which preaches a higher individual imperative than social responsibility and responsiveness, is deadly serious business. Freud and Darwin, like Nietzsche, are steeped in the capitalist ethos of Adam Smith and Malthus, and their sciences are therefore dyed in its shade. It has arisen again today in the wake of the Reagan-era's instigation of war on American democracy with massive deregulations. The onslaught of the Neo-Conservatives has more than pushed back all the progressive ideas of the sixties and seventies. We've been taught that we are beyond History. That means forgetting history; it's done. When we forget history we are readily duped.

The myth of the Superiority of Western Civilization was the justification for the massacre of natives in the Americas, for the industrial-scale kidnapping of African men, women, and children to be exported as slaves for European colonialists and "white" (European) owners in the Americas, the justification for the invasion of 75% of the world by less than 20% of the world's population, all of this over the course of four centuries, approximately 1492 to 1970. For us, then, to blame German Nazi theory on an erratic and eccentric Adolf Hitler and absolve the longer history of European Colonialism is blind apologism.

And the struggle to return to that myth, and to the Social Darwinism of the supposed advantages of unfettered laissez-faire capitalism and imperialism is at a crucial turning-point it seems to me, with the rise of, first, the Tea-Party (corporate-sponsored mayhem like the Junker sponsorship of the small but fanatic National Socialists) and then the counter-force of October,2011: the Occupy Wall Street movement which brings sentimental and nostalgic tears to the eyes of us old Movement people. And a protective fear for the demonstrators, for from 1956 to 1975 we saw the iron fists and the murderous guns—in Selma, Little Rock, in Berkeley, in Memphis (MLK 1968), in Chicago, in Oakland, in Ohio at Kent State and at Jackson State in Mississippi.

The present and pressing danger of this ideology is monstrous; "astute reader" Jesse Kaufman (my son) just sent me an ad for a new book advertised in The New Yorker (Oct 17, 2011). The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good by right-wing tout Robert H.Frank. Darwin as the father of true economic science!! I know whose Darwin this will be, and I know the subtext of the "Common Good." Naked aggression (free-market cut-throat capitalism) in order to achieve the "improvement of the race" by "weeding out the weak." Herbert Spencer said it all, so well that he convinced Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford to throw away their Christian conscience and realize that competition gets rid of racially inferior people, for the "common good." Oh, S.J.Gould, come back, come back to the Five and Dime!

Thus I reiterate my admiration of Dorothy Sayers' overtly anti-war stance and twenties feminism with its far-seeing social consciousness in her distrust of the great British Brain Trust! After all, World War I had just demonstrated to anyone paying attention a German militarism based on a false equation of Darwin's evolutionary biology with the Herbert Spencer distortion arguing that any mercy shown to the weak essentially creates an inferior human race. That inaccurate equation is at the back of much resistance to Darwinism today, Darwin, who says nothing whatsoever about social ethics for human beings. If you think he does, naturally you would reject the very science as infected with Victorian colonialist mentality. And you will know nothing about 20th century alterations and corrections of evolutionary theory which certainly negate the concept of a never-ending war for domination, and, rather, realize evolution comes about during environmental changes which favor totally unpredictable genetic combinations.

And yet, "everybody loves a lord," and Sayers' Lord Peter, the paragon of British peers, strums all those heartstrings that tie us to our anachronistic love of class, and especially nobility ( as shown by the adulation of the "Royal Wedding" last year of the British millionaires Will and Kate). All the Wimsey mysteries batten on that guilty admiration, that covert sense of social hierarchies. Readers are charmed by Lord Peter because there is no virtue he does not possess. I mentioned antique book collecting, and man about town (all the noble dames scheme to hitch him up to their daughters). Drives a Daimler, recklessly and fast. Dines fastidiously but richly. Has an unequalled "palate" for wines. His valet is imperturbably strict about appropriate and impeccable perfection in Wimsey's dress and grooming. Can pal around with low-class clownish figures, adapt the dialect and pose of most regional eccentricities, and speak seriously about scholarly topics with the Warden (University President) of Harriett Vane's fictional Alma Mater. Plays Bach or what-have-you exquisitely. Punts well (on the river; great at cricket, and even sings. Nervous disorders from his heroic service in the war (WWI), lionized by the men in his command (he was a Major), and troubled by all injustices, large and small, his own anachronistic position among them. Filthy rich but not obnoxious about it. Of course we readers idolize him or fantasize ourselves as his chosen mate or both. It's what art does: it hooks us to certain values and characters and rewards us for the infatuation.

And, as in Whose Body, the process has its pros and cons. All mystery books partake of one central axiom: to provide the reader with a world in which mysteries can be resolved, in which there are ways to "find out the truth." It's lovely when the mystery writer knows that she (or he) has bigger things in hand and does them well. Many mysteries (Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, and Agatha Christie, with all her delightfully eccentric country-house characters) rely for "order" as much on cultural hierarchies and prejudices as on clever sleuthing . In most British mysteries, Sayers included, Jews and Scots will be money-loaners or sometimes investment sharks; girls with bad grammar (and too many commas) will be no better than they should be, the darker races will be servile and underhanded while orientals are subtle and sinister.

One of the most febrile of these is Christie's The Big Four. A few quick quotations will suffice:
we know him, as it were, only by the impress of his mind—and in passing, Hastings, I will tell you that I begin to understand that mind very well—a mind most subtle and Oriental—every scheme and plot that we have encountered have emanated from the brain of Li Chang Yen. [italics mine]
And the very best passage (or worst, obviously):
There's good reason to suppose that he's the man behind it all. . . . The world-wide unrest, the labour troubles that beset every nation, and the revolutions that break out in some.
Talk about combining conspiracy theory (or fever) with Colonialist racism! Christie is not alone, of course; one of the ways to establish a sense of order and of a smaller controllable world in Victorian ideology (Colonialism) is to affirm that the "world out there" is the source of all corruption: people who've been to Africa, to Egypt and "Arab countries," or the sinister East, or the Americas (especially South America) can, knowingly or not, bring back intrusive evil: curare as a South American poison as well as a host of other imagined ones from "out there" in the Colonies, Egyptian curses and poisonous asps, "thuggery" and "running amok" and other phrases derived from southeast Asia, sinister Chinese secret gangs, Indian cobras, etc. A recent Sherlock Holmes film (Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law) turned upon a secret cult that was infiltrating the British aristocracy; its rites and symbols were all from the "third world," i.e., the colonies. A Conan Doyle story turns on a woman's attempts to conceal her "yellow" (half-African) child from her later husband.

In No Motive, Daphne Du Maurier depicts a woman who has repressed any knowledge of having had a baby when she was a girl after she was improperly chaperoned and got drunk on a visit to the camp of traveling agriculture workers in the hops fields, called "hoppers." When she commits suicide, there's no apparent motive--she's happily and wealthily married. A detective is called in, a rather anonymous presence in the story, a "canny Scot" named Black,who  tracks down the story of the woman's life in bits and pieces and finally interviews a passing salesman who had been the last one to see her alive. Black knows by then that the girl had given birth to a baby at a very young age; he knows about the improper visit to the "hoppers'" camp; and that the baby boy was so red-haired it was called "Carrots." Black meets the young salesman, Tom Smith: "He had a thin, rather pinched face, like a ferret, and his eyes were pale blue and close together." The salesman is defensive even before Black speaks. When asked about the woman he saw that day, he confesses that he took more money from Lady Farren than he reported to the company. "A note of self-pity crept into his voice. He almost whined."

Black "had a sudden vision of crowded tents, and lorries, and mattresses, dumped in a field where the hops grew beside tall poles, and bursts of laughter, and the smell of beer, and a shifty-eyed redheaded fellow like this boy, hiding behind a lorry." And, in fact, this salesman "turns out" to be the child whose memory Lady Whatsername had suppressed.  Seeing him caused her suicide, or something like that.  Because, as we all know, if a nice young girl got very drunk and had a sexual encounter with an itinerant farmworker, the baby would have traces of a low-class criminal shifty attitude, and a sneaking "ferrety" look with his eyes close together, and would inevitably have an unmanly and dishonest way of life.

I suppose most people who read this will probably not even notice the assumptions, not if the mystery is compelling and suspenseful and the characterizations sharp, because they are the usual assumptions of mystery books: "murder will out." Class will tell. Cherchez la femme. Watch out for getting "gypped" or "jewed down." And probably 90% of the writers will be unaware of these ideas as unsupported prejudice. They're just truisms of the trade. Like the white hats have to beirectors still assume, white skins and testosterone?) the good guys and they win. Because? Because most people who read have white hats? (Or, writers and d

In times of insecurity, most of us seek eternal verities, and so we read mysteries when we're tired, because order will be restored and justice will prevail, poetic justice at least. I wonder what ideological traces future readers will find in Tony Hillerman, Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. Traces that we can't even see as cultural bias now because, as Che said, we are in the belly of the monster.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Eight Little Piggies by Stephen Jay Gould; a Review

Oooh. The day has come. One Stephen Jay Gould book too many, and my head has exploded. I've struggled for several weeks with this review, but it won't cohere. In lieu of a "book review" proper, then, I offer these observations. If you already know Gould and his popular and literate writings on science, go ahead and skip to the next paragraph. If you don't know him, you can turn to almost any of my other reviews for enthusiasm and encomium. I think he's one of the most important writers of the twentieth century especially for his understanding of human bias and the way cultural expectations limit and inform what science finds and reports, as well as how public opinion interprets science, or Mis-interprets. He died in 2002, after a productive career as biologist, paleontologist, and evolutionary theorist; he taught at Harvard for most of his career, and was widely lauded for his Evolutionary theory of "Punctuated Equilibrium" (developed with Niles Eldridge, 1972) as well as for his writing about the History of Science. He is entertaining, literate, amusing, lucid and always generous to his ideological opponents: he epitomized civil discourse. And is sorely missed. On the other hand, when opponents claimed that Punctuated Equilibrium was "Evolution by Jerks," he quickly quipped that Gradualism was "Evolution by Creeps."

This book is something like the sixth collection of his popular essays, on most of Gould's usual topics: evolution, the history of ideas, anatomical peculiarities, animal and human behavior, and opposition to human determinism. Reviewing Bully for Brontosaurus just last month I mentioned Gould's essay on DiMaggio's record hitting streak, and compared it to Gould's unbroken streak of monthly essays for Natural History magazine. In the introduction, Gould remarks how much he enjoyed it when Bruce Bochte, a former major league baseball player, made the same comparison. Gould was then (pre-1993) standing at 208 successive issues since January 1974, and would publish four more books of the collected columns before his death in 2002. The columns were planned to end in January of 2001, a goal Gould accomplished.

What's new in this book is a marked shift in Gould's style to a freer, more irreverent choice of analogies and parenthetical comments, as well as a venture in a new direction : "contemplative and highly personal ruminations." He also explicitly takes up a "theme of transcendent (and growing) importance . . . . anthropogenic environmental deterioration and massive extinction of species on our present earth." He professes to have previously avoided it not because he didn't find it important, but because he felt so strongly about it, referring to Wordsworth's phrase about "thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears" and, he adds parenthetically, "perhaps for words as well."

And what Gould says about environmental destruction is powerful. For one thing, he directly addresses the way "Development" boosters distort evolutionary theory to make it seem to give its blessings to extinction of species. I said that Gould usually deals civilly with his opponents on issues of science and political interpretations of it. In an essay called "The Golden Rule," he makes a bit (or a bite) of an exception, citing a June 7, 1990 pro-development "opinion piece" in the Wall Street Journal by Michael D. Copeland "(identified as 'executive director of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana')."

Copeland cited me in the service of a classic false
argument—the standard, almost canonical misuse of my
profession of paleontology in debates about extinction
. . . . to uphold arguments by developers about the
irrelevance (or even, in this case, the benevolence)
of modern anthropogenic extinction. This standard error
is a classic example of failure to understand the
importance of scale. (45)

Copeland neatly twists the words of "Mr. Gould" referring to the Permian extinction's "estimated 96 per cent extinction of species" and yet a claim that "the actual number of living species has probably increased over time." Copeland's conclusion, and what he implies Gould and other paleontologists might say, is that "we may be wasting time, effort and money on animals that will disappear over time, regardless of our efforts."

The time scales—hundreds of millions of years-- of evolution and geology on earth cannot conceivably, Gould argues, be grasped in a way that justifies rapid destabilization. We may indeed "all disappear over time," but to predict that a mass extinction would not bring catastrophe to our human cultures, Gould observes, is a fantasy, and to argue that recovery of "number of living species" will occur skips the little detail that such recovery may take place about 10 million years down the road, and is thus irrelevant if our entire species has so little prospect of surviving that long in rapidly destabilized environmental conditions. Gould quite acutely sums up:

to say that we should let the squirrels go [a species
threatened by the development for which Mr. Michael D.
Copeland was promoter and mouthpiece
] because all species
die (at geological scales) makes about as much sense as
arguing that we shouldn't treat an easily curable childhood
infection because all humans are ultimately and inevitably
mortal. (46)

Gould further argues that paleontology shows us this:

1. We live on a fragile planet now subject to permanent
derailment and disruption by human interventions;
2. Humans must learn to act as stewards for this threatened
world. (ibid.)

He sums up the reality:

[The] planet will recover from nuclear holocaust, but we
will be killed and maimed by billions, and our cultures
will perish. . . .The earth will prosper if polar icecaps
melt under a global greenhouse, but most of our major cities,
built at sea level as ports and harbors, will founder,
and changing agricultural patterns will uproot our
populations." (48)

Serious food for thought and ammunition for our thinking about these issues. And this is just one essay, of thirty-one.

It's a hefty book, at 435 pages in the Norton paperback, with—Bless Academia!—a full and rich Bibliography and an Index. It's the ninth book by Gould I've read this last year (2010/2011) and the thirteenth since I first discovered The Flamingo's Smile some time in the late 1990s. I meant to read all his books and it looked like I could easily and happily do that in a year. My theory was that the more time I spent reading him the better, combining as he does good reading and important information. Up until a month ago, I thought I had only two more books to go. I was mistaken! I now have a list of 26 books. No wonder I have foundered on book #13—I'm only halfway through!.

I recommend the book, absolutely, but by the end of it I felt that perhaps I preferred the more straightforward writer that I knew from earlier books. Or perhaps—and this is the worm beneath the nail—my discomfiture, and my trouble with reviewing the book came because of uncertainty. In Eight Little Piggies Gould writes about contemporary genetic research and theories like the "molecular clock" which, it is proposed, may override natural selection and random variations as the mechanisms for evolutionary change. As Gould argued strenuously for natural selection, and therefore for the survival struggle, I began to suspect that perhaps I myself have been guilty of the cultural bias he so often evokes. Perhaps my 'search image' for arguments against the excrescences of class society, against Herbert Spencer's translation of "survival of the fittest" to justify cut-throat Capitalism, were over-riding my rational understanding. Perhaps I have been misreading Gould. And misrepresenting. Perhaps I had a hard time writing about this book because I could not make it say what I wanted it to say. Perhaps...perhaps this has all been just a dream.

This is a book of riches, but only one in a vast dragon's hoard, it seems. And danger lurks when one suspects that HC SVNT DRACONES. I hope someone out there will explore this territory and report back.

August 2011