Descartes before the Machine

I read Frankenstein for the first time last year which also happened to be the centenary of the first publication. So that worked out.

In this piece, David Lloyd Dusenbury re-asks the question at the heart of Mary Shelley’s story: why should we not mechanically recreate life? Dunesbury answers the question by first discussing the philosophical context of Shelley’s work. Naturally, Descartes comes up. He then mentions this interesting piece of biographical information:

It is a defining mark of modernity that Descartes’s texts are haunted by lifelike machines—and not only his texts. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, sources claim that Descartes built a girl-like machine in a desperate bid to replicate his only child, Francine, who was born (out of wedlock, but recognized by him) in 1635, and who died of scarlet fever in 1640. When rumor of ­Descartes’s ­android was first reported in 1699 by a Carthusian monk (and a ­Cartesian), Bonaventure d’Argonne, he asserted that the philosopher made it “to prove demonstratively that animals are nothing but highly complex ­machines.”

I did not know this about Descartes, and it doesn’t improve my opinion of him. Read the rest of Dusenbury’s piece at First Things.

A Tale of Twos

The opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities (TTC) is a glorious one hundred nineteen words long. Even if you haven’t read the novel–and unless you’ve been living under a giant rock–you’re familiar with it:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Before teaching it over the past three weeks, I hadn’t read TTC, which I realize is an embarrassing admission from someone who has a graduate degree in English literature. But better late than never! While reading and discussing it with my students, I was struck by Dickens’ artistry, specifically his ability to blend both the formal and thematic structure of the story without detracting from the momentum of the plot.Image result for tale of two cities

Like the title of the book and the opening sentence, the story revolves around opposing extremes. At the heart of the story are the social and political extremes of the unchecked authorial abuses of the French aristocracy and the blood lust of the French revolutionaries.* But the pairings form the macro as well as the micro components of the story. Here are a couple that stood out to me:

Wine & Blood

The color red shows up everywhere in the story, from the revolutionaries red hats, to the spilled wine cask in the street, to the blood spilled by the French revolutionaries and aristocracy. The Eucharistic imagery is unmistakable–in fact it might be an unspoken rule in western literature that if an author pairs wine with blood in any way, shape, or form, then you should expect a theological theme running just below the surface. Dickens uses the imagery to great effect by turning the Eucharistic image on its head. At the beginning of the novel, a large cask of wine breaks and spills all over the streets of St. Antoine where the French lower-classes and poor live. A frenzy ensues: the people ladle it with their hands, bend their faces into the gutter where the wine has pooled and lap it up. The red wine stains everything and everyone. Dickens parallels this scene with another scene toward the end of the book. The people of St. Antoine have been transformed into revolutionaries. Dr. Manette and Jarvis Lorry, standing on a balcony above a courtyard, look out to see these same people stained with blood as they sharpen their weapons and prepare for more killings and executions.

There are varying Christian beliefs about what happens to the wine during a Eucharistic service, but historically the Church has taught that a change occurs to/within the elements–whether that’s the Roman Catholic teaching of Transubstantiation or the more common teaching of Real Presence. Dickens avails himself of this theological point: in the same way that the people have been transformed into revolutionaries, the wine at the beginning of the story has been transformed into blood. Unlike the Eucharist, however, the transformation is not salvific. If anything, TTC presents us with an inverted image of Christian soteriology. Dickens’ description of the revolutionaries, like his description of the French aristocracy, is not overly sympathetic. The pendulum of injustice has swung to the opposite extreme.

Sydney Carton & Dr. Manette

Another important pairing, and one that ultimately extends the wine and blood imagery, is that of Sydney Carton and Dr. Manette. Comparing these characters may seem odd since the narrative explicitly connects Carton with Darnay. Physically Darnay and Carton share such a close resemblance, that Carton uses it in the opening courtroom scene to clear Darnay’s name of false charges. Later, Carton expresses disappointment in himself, recognizing that Darnay has shown him what he has fallen away from, “and what [he] might have been!” (II.iv).

In terms of character arc, however, Manette and Carton exhibit a closer parallel. Aside from their general supporting roles, neither character is very useful at the beginning. Manette’s mental instability and Carton’s alcoholism and unchecked self-deprecation render them mostly unreliable. Nevertheless, they both share a deep love for Lucie Manette (Dr. Manette’s daughter) which proves redemptive. Lucie manages to restore her father’s mental health when his memories of his Bastille imprisonment haunt him. And Carton briefly becomes reacquainted with a side of himself that has been all but forgotten. In the scene where he responds to Lucie’s kind rejection to his marriage proposal, Carton attempts to reassure Lucie who is concerned that he will relapse into his old ways:

I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul. In my degradation I have not been so degraded but that the sight of you with your father, and of this home made such a home by you,has stirred old shadows that I thought had died out of me. Since I knew you, I have been troubled by a remorse that I thought would never reproach me again, and have heard whispers from old voices impelling me upward, that I thought were silent for ever. I have had unformed ideas of striving afresh, beginning anew, shaking off sloth and sensuality, and fighting out the abandoned fight (II.xiii).

Manette and Carton’s love for Lucie sets the stage for the final scenes of the story. When Darnay is imprisoned in France, Manette steps into the role of savior. As someone who suffered at the hands of the French aristocracy and who has a friendly history with the leader of the revolution, Manette recognizes his influence with the revolutionaries and uses it without hesitation to save Darnay from “Sainte Guillotine.” No longer an old and feeble former prisoner haunted by the demons of his past, Manette trades roles with his daughter by becoming a source of security and consolation.

Unfortunately, Manette’s efforts fail. The night after Darnay is released from prison, he’s rearrested. Manette dangerously relapses into his old pattern of mental instability. It’s at this point that Carton returns and trades places with Manette. Only this time, Carton’s attempt to save Darnay is successful.

I like to imagine Dickens graphing the character arcs of both Manette and Carton prior to writing the story itself. Manette’s line of ascent begins at the end of book II and reaches its zenith half way through book III. His down turn then crosses paths with Carton’s ascent. Both characters rise above their troubled pasts and personal flaws, and both do it for the love of Lucie at great personal cost.

Carton’s sacrifice reasserts the wine and blood imagery. If Dickens has turned the Eucharistic image on its head with his description of the revolution’s trajectory, then he’s attempted to restore it in the character of Carton. Carton’s character is closely associated with wine (and alcohol in general) throughout the story. He’s a drunk, unable to exercise any self-control. In book III, however, he’s reappears sober. His vow to serve Lucie and anyone she loves calls him out of himself. He trades his alcoholism for a sober self-sacrifice that will “recall to life” Lucie’s husband. His wine becomes blood and saves those he loves most.

There’s more to be said about the various pairings throughout TTC. Right now, I’m tempted to think that the Eucharistic imagery is at the heart of the story, and every other pairing a variation on that theme. The pairings, however, are not inflexible. Miss Pross, for example, could be compared with Madame Defarge and Jerry Cruncher; Cruncher with Jarvis Lorry and Monsieur Defarge; Dr. Manette with Lorry; and on and on it goes. In every instance, Dickens will have illustrated new aspects of his theme. The result, like all good literature, is a work of art that will always reward close attention to detail.

 

 

*I realize Dickens’ understanding of the historical circumstances of the French Revolution is mostly wrong. But for the purpose of his story, his description of the context serves him well.

George Saunders on Writing

I might be overly concerned with my writing style, but every time I finish a piece, I’m disheartened at how “mechanical” it sounds. It’s as if I’m stacking LEGO blocks from different LEGO sets on top of one another, creating a recognizable but oddly proportioned figure. Part of the problem, I think, stems from the fact that I teach writing to junior high and high school students–i.e., I spend most of my time teaching writing formulas and structures so that students can work on plugging in the right information in the right places.

The result: I sometimes impose an artificial structure onto my ideas, instead of allowing the ideas to take shape naturally on the page. Structure can’t be abandoned entirely, but I can’t be authoritarian about it either.

The folks at the Literary Hub recently interviewed George Saunders about some of the best writing advice he’s received. The following excerpt got right to the heart of my own writer-ly insecurities. It also reminded me of Alan Jacobs’ dictum, “Read at Whim!”

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Once, when I was a student, I cornered my mentor and hero Tobias Wolff at a party and assured him that I had sworn off comedic sci-fi and was now writing “real literature.” I think he sensed, correctly, that 1) this was not an attitude that was going to produce my best work but 2) there was going to be no arguing me off of that position (only time could do that). So he just said, “Well, good. Just don’t lose the magic.”

Which I then proceeded to go off and do, for about four years. The “advice” part of that came home on the day I made the breakthrough that would lead to my first book—that is, when the magic (finally) came back. The new writing was fun and (see above) ostensibly entertaining—it came out of a place of joy and orneriness, instead of a place of stiffness or control or pedanticism. And to suddenly recall his advice at just that moment was a sort of force-accelerator, and I’ve never forgotten that, for me, “magic” has to be the operative word—getting the prose to go somewhere and do something you couldn’t have foreseen at the outset.
I saw that this distinction I’d been making between “entertainment” and “literature” was not meaningful, not at the highest levels.

So, this principle of proceeding not by head (ideas, concepts, plans) buy by heart (moving ahead line-by-line, trusting my ear, trying to communicate with and entertain an imaginary reader, being ok with being lost and even seeing this as an indicator that the story wants to be more than I have in mind for it) has stayed with me and has led me to think that, when self recedes, there is something else that rushes in to replace it, and that thing is smarter and kinder and just more trustworthy than self, i.e., the self we create through control and rumination.

In praise of originals

At The New Republic, Josephine Livingston writes about her experience visiting the only four surviving manuscripts of Old English poetry. And it knocked my socks off. I’m bias, of course–my graduate studies have focused primarily on Old and Middle English literature. But Livingston is right: not only is it a miracle that we still have these codices, but they remind us that the presence of a work of art is powerful–something we continue to lose as technology makes reproductions faster and more ubiquitous.

I struggled not to quote the whole thing. But here’s the heart of the article:

In his 1936 essay on the subject, Benjamin wrote, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

Our concept of authenticity is derived from the “presence of the original,” he writes, such as “proof that a given manuscript of the Middle Ages stems from an archive of the fifteenth century.” Without such proof, an original becomes a forgery. But when we reproduce a work (via a photocopy or an ebook, say), we create not a forgery but something new. We can “put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself”—the manuscript can leave the cathedral and enter our own homes.

Benjamin argued that this process of reproduction inevitably diminishes the artwork’s presence. He calls that quality an aura: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” That withering kills our connection to tradition, to the ineffable magic of the original, and—in short—to the entire history of how humans once related to art.

n 2018, we are in a much more elaborate and abstracted phase of Benjamin’s reproduction theory. We are accustomed to reading without reference to any physical object specific to the act of reading. We might have a romantic association with libraries, or prefer to turn real pages rather than electronic ones, but those are tastes borne of nostalgia. They have no real meaning for our experience of literature’s power.