December 31, 2022

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, December 2022

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on anti-discrimination law, early 20th century shock art movements, early 20th century science fiction, or the Renaissance reception of classical mythology. Also, most of my reading this month was done at odd hours and/or while bottle-feeding a baby, so I'm less reliable and more cranky than usual.

Marie Mercat-Bruns, Discrimination at Work: Comparing European, French, and American Law (trans. Elaine Holt)
A French legal academic interviewing distinguished American legal academics about anti-discrimination law and related topics, with her commentary. (The interviews close off around 2011, so Ricci vs. DeStefano is a big subject, and the idea of a Supreme Court case instituting gay marriage nationally is definitely beyond everyone's horizon...) In between the interviews, Mercat-Bruns provides her own analysis, including a lot of discussion of French and EU legislation, regulations and case law. Her accuracy on those topics is (obviously?) not something I can evaluate, but I found it notable that she's usually asking why European law can't be more like American law. (Thus our soft-power conquest of the Old World continues.)
I read this for the inequality class, because I was unhappy repeating "I know nothing about anti-discrimination policy in other countries, sorry" in response to very reasonable questions from students. I now feel entitled to reply "I know hardly anything about how anti-discrimination law works in other countries, but...", which is progress. §
Caroline Tisdall and Angelo Bozzolla, Futurism (1977)
This is older, but it's still a really good book about the Italian Futurists. Indeed I can't think of a better one for a general audience with some background knowledge of modern art. The chapters on Futurist painting and sculpture, on music and performance, on women, and on politics are especially good.
I fell in love with Futurist painting as an undergrad, so like a freak I've read far too much about them; this book is surviving the on-going purge of my library. §
Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker (1937)
I read Last and First Men as a boy, and it warpped my mind forever, but I never attempted any other Stapledon (aside from being left cold by A Last Man in London, both as a child and as a grown-up). This was a mistake I am glad I finally fixed.
Star Maker is a very conscious attempt at creating a truly cosmic modern myth, so the whole two-billion-year saga of humanities in Last and First Men is a passing incident mentioned in a handful of paragraphs. Rather this attempts to embrace the whole life of our universe, and of the other universes which are all the work of the titular Star Maker.
A few stray notes (avoiding spoilers):
  • Some philosophical influences are very obvious: Hegel, Spinoza, Leibniz's Monadology. The Hegelianism is pervasive throughout; it leads me to wonder what a Deweyan equivalent work of science-fictional myth would be like. The Spinoza who comes through here is that of the Ethics, in particular (but not just) the "intellectual love of God", the life of the stars (and the way the order and connection of their material bodies is the order and connection of their mental lives, seen under a different aspect), and some of the presentation of eternity in the climactic myth-within-a-myth. That last is also where Leibniz is felt.
  • I will be surprised if Stapledon wasn't familiar with Attar's The Conference of the Birds, in which a group of travelers of various species move through a visionary landscape which is also a series of spiritual developments in search of a transcendent being, only to have revealed to them that they collectively are that being. (The true Simurgh is the friends they made along the way, as it were.) Just so here, with the growth of the collective group of seekers. Indeed I'd not be surprised if Attar's seven valleys map, in order, on to the stages of Stapledon's future history. (But see Allen below...)
Reading this now, with half a lifetime of consuming mind candy behind me, I can see just how much it shaped subsequent science fiction, even when that has contented itself with less ambitious and visionary, more all-too-human, projects. There are places where Star Maker is dated (the sequence of stellar evolution, the origin of planets, etc.), but it's still a magnificent venture, and I recommend it highly. §
Don Cameron Allen, Mysteriously Meant: The Rediscovery of Pagan Symbolism and Allegorical Interpretation in the Renaissance (1971, 2020) [Open Access]
For several centuries following the revival of classical learning, the received theory among European scholars and intellectuals was that the classical myths, especially as recounted in great poets like Homer, Virgil, and Ovid, were actually elaborate moral allegories and/or symbolic depictions of physical theories. These ranged from the you-can-kind-of-see-it (Circe turning Odyssesus's men, but not Odysseus himself, into swine \( \simeq \) something about reason resisting temptation to which the appetites succumb) to the excruciatingly flimsy. (I will not attempt to do justice to the elaborate encouragements to fussy virtue which were supposedly encoded in, of all books, Ovid's Metamorphoses.) Of course, the interpreters showed little agreement about exactly what a given myth was allegorizing --- except when one interpreter borrowed from his predecessors. None of the interpreters, moreover, seem to have really faced the question of why great poets would go to such pains to create elaborate allegories for rather trite morals.
Just to add to the confusion, all this went along with also seeing classical mythology as ripped off from, or a literally-demonic parody of, the Biblical Genesis story, and/or distorted memories of various historical events among the pagans (so Zeus was a king of Crete, etc.). As Allen explains, these ideas all had their roots in antiquity --- in writings of later pagans looking back at the myths (with more or less embarrassment), and in writings of the Church Fathers trying to make their own kind of sense of those stories. Medieval Christian practices of interpreting Biblical passages in multiple ways fed into the mix.
All of this was taken extremely seriously, and when Renaissance Europeans learned about classical myths, they learned them with these interpretations. Moreover, this complex of ideas helped shape how Europeans understood literary interpretation in the first place, and how they composed their own literary works. (Allen is especially good on Ariosto, Tasso and Milton.) This persisted, as Allen documents in great detail, for centuries, down through the 1700s where he calls a halt *.
From the modern perspective that began to appear in the 1700s, the idea that the classical myths were composed as elaborate moral or cosmological allegories is, of course, loony tunes. But the sheer distance between the surface story of (say) Aphrodite and Ares getting caught in adultery by Hephaestus and the ways that story was read allegorically over the centuries tells us something about how good people are at extracting meanings from anything **, about how unconstrained those meanings are by the object being interpreted, about how much, and how little, tradition and intellectual communities do to channel interpretation, and about how much of the history of ideas is a history of freaks. (Allen is more polite.) §
*: Stopping around 1750 is actually a bit disappointing to me, because the Romantic era seriously revived the idea that the ancient myths were full of hidden meanings, an idea which has persisted to this day. The Romantic mutation, however, seems to lie in implying that the meaning is personally transformative while being (strategically?) vague about just what it is. (The Renaissance mythographers, by contrast, were ploddingly explicit, and the morals were always very conventional.) It'd be very interesting to know what (say) Novalis had read in earlier mythographers. ^
**: OK, maybe not anything. I have speculated that one reason some stories last for so long is that they have a quality of suggestive ambiguity: they seem like they should mean something important, but it's not obvious what. Our surviving corpus of myths, and of renditions of myths, may have been under selection for this quality. ^

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Writing for Antiquity; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Teaching: Statistics of Inequality and Discrimination; The Beloved Republic; The Commonwealth of Letters

Posted at December 31, 2022 23:59 | permanent link

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