Revisiting the Crystal Palace

Once again, dear readers, I must recall the past as I am busy as a bee editing my best posts for the upcoming book!

UNDERGROUND MAN
(6/16/12)
I recently read an interesting essay on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground in the June 11th edition of the New Yorker. The author of the essay, David Denby, revisits the book and reflects on its enduring message for our times. He’s right: “it can still kick.”
It does seem to me that along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass not to mention Kafka’s Trial, Dostoevsky’s novella does indeed show us a side of ourselves and the world in which we live that we may want to deny. But when we contemplate the things that are being done on a state and national level out there in the “real” world, where politicians insist that we can improve education by eliminating teachers, and that we will be safer by firing policemen and firemen; when the military expands the war on terror in parts of the world that most of know about only by hearsay and kills by remote control; and when corporations destroy the earth and ignore threats to the survival of life on this planet (and legislators say it isn’t so), the words of these authors start to ring true.
Dostoevsky’s hero in this novella is a man of “caprice.”  “He passionately loves destruction and chaos. . .” He does things for no reason whatever. He likes to deny the obvious, rails against the Crystal Palace and everything European/scientific/technical/mathematical. Two times two may NOT be four. “. . .two times two is four is no longer life. . .it is the beginning of death.” We learn from this novella that if we try to fathom human motives we come up empty. The world is borderline insane and humans do things for no reason whatever much of the time — as Carroll and Kafka also suggested — and we might just as well not try to make sense of it.
For someone who spent his life trying to teach young people to think, who still believes deeply that sound judgment is the way to ferret out small pieces of truth, these authors leave a bad taste in the mouth. One doesn’t like to admit that his life may have been spent in a caucus race (as Carroll would have it) chasing around incoherently with no purpose and slim rewards in the form of comfits from Alice’s pocket.
But as I grow older and “crawl toward death,” along with Shakespeare’s Lear, I begin to think Carroll, Kafka, and Dostoevsky were right: the world really doesn’t make sense. And humans are capricious: acting often without reason, doing good or evil seemingly with blinders on. But I don’t despair because reason can help us sort things out; more importantly, we have it on good authority (when Dostoevsky’s underground man exhibits a profound need to connect with another human being) that the things that matter remain after all: friends, loved ones, and a life lived trying to “lift the lives of others,” as a good friend of mine recently put it. Why? Why not?

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Dum and Dee

In Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll we find the indomitable twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum. I have noted their presence before in an earlier blog post, but I have another point to make about this pair in what is usually regarded as a child’s story — unless you count the horror story made about Wonderland by Hollywood (which I don’t). I also discount Walt Disney’s abortive attempt to capture the magic of Carroll’s masterpiece. One really has to read the original and delight in the remarkable drawings by John Tenniel.

In any event, Alice comes across the pair in a thick woods and they stand arm-in-arm looking sideways at Alice as she struggles to tell them apart. They form what geometers call “enantiomorphs,” mirror-image forms of each other. This is appropriate since they are encountered in looking-glass world where everything is a bit backwards and “it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run twice as fast as that.” — as the Red Queen explains to Alice earlier in the story. (Reminds us all of the condition of politics in this country at the moment  — or is that the caucus race?)

Alice With the Twins

But the Tweedle twins also pose another philosophical conundrum, which may have been in the back of Carroll’s mind. Logicians call it the “identity of indiscernables.” The two are identical and differ only with respect to place. One is to the left of the other. This suggests that unless we regard space as a feature of a thing’s essence, the two twins would not be two but only one. If the only respect in which they differ is that one is to the left of the other — and vice versa — then, if they are identical in every other respect,  they are one and the same person! But this seems absurd. We must therefore conclude that the thing’s position in space is essential to it’s being what it is. But that is also absurd.  That would mean that every time you move you would be someone else — because your spatial location (which we have assumed is part of who you are) has changed. In fact, no one would ever be the same person in one place that she is in another. This paradox is embraced by such thinkers as Hegel,  but most philosophers refuse to regard spacial location as in any way a defining characteristic of who they are. It is a mere accident.

Thus, it would seem, Twedledee and Tweedledum are the same person. Or so it would seem.

The delightful thing about Carroll’s tale is not only that it is a chess game (which it is) but it is also filled with logical puzzles like this one and we are reminded on nearly every page that the man was a mathematician with the most remarkable imagination. What a delight!

Am I Dreaming?

Lewis Carroll’s classics Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass focus on a perennial philosophical question first propounded by Bishop George Berkeley in the eighteenth century: the things we take to be real, material, and substantial are merely intangible, “sorts of things” in the mind of God. We do not know what is real and what is merely apparent. Further, we cannot say at any given moment whether we are awake or dreaming because there is no reliable criterion that enables us to distinguish the two states from one another.

Bishop George Berkeley
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In a conversation Alice is having with Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Looking-Glass Land we hear the following exchange that follows their discovery of the red king sleeping under a nearby tree:

“I’m afraid he will catch cold with lying in the damp grass,” said Alice, who was a very thoughtful little girl.

“He’s dreaming now,” said Tweedledee: “and what do you think he is dreaming about?”

Alice said, “Nobody can guess that.”

“Why, about you!” Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. “And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you would be?”

“Where I am now, of course,” said Alice.

“Not you!” Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. “You’d be nowhere, Why you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!”

“If that there King was to wake,” added Tweedledum, “you’d go out — bang! — just like a candle!”

“I shouldn’t!” Alice exclaimed indignantly. “Besides, if I’m only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?”

“Ditto,” said Tweedledum

“Ditto, ditto,” said Tweedledee.

Both of Carroll’s tales have a surreal quality and throughout Alice is constantly wondering if she is awake or just dreaming. This generates the pithy problem: how do we determine that we are awake? Berkeley was convinced we could not, that is, we cannot say just why it is that we know we are awake at any given moment and not dreaming. We may have strong feelings. Common sense insists that we are awake and not dreaming when we ask the very question. But the problem is HOW do we know this? We cannot distinguish dreams from reality with any certainty. And this is because any claim to knowledge must produce the criteria that make the claim knowledge and not a pretender.

If I claim that this computer before me is real I can say I know it because I can see it and touch it. But how do I know I am really seeing it and touching it and not just dreaming that I am seeing it and touching it? As you can see, it’s a tough one! No one really answered Berkeley satisfactorily in the many years that have followed his suggesting the paradox and it is still out there.  David Hume suggested reality has greater “force and vivacity,” but this won’t work because many people have very vivid dreams and for many people reality is a blur — especially if they a prone to the occasional tipple. So Lewis Carroll is having great fun with it in his Alice stories. Children’s stories, eh?? I don’t think so!

Carroll later wrestled with the problem in his book, Sylvie and Bruno in which the narrator shuttles back and forth mysteriously between real and dream worlds.

“So, either I’ve been dreaming about Sylvie,” he says to himself in the novel, “and this is not reality. Or else I’ve really been with Sylvie and this is a dream! Is life a dream, I wonder?”

If it is, perhaps we will all wake up soon and discover that this is so and breathe a sigh of relief. Otherwise this dream is a nightmare.

 

Like Humpty Dumpty

I have remarked in previous blogs about the tendency of politicians — and the government generally — to turn perfectly ordinary words like “socialism” and “communism” into scare words. In some cases the military, especially, will actually make up words or put them together in new and startling ways in order to mollify the terrible things they do. They tell us they are going to “take out” the enemy rather than to “destroy” them. And if the enemy happens to be human they are referred to as “soft targets.” They “neutralize” people, they don’t kill them; a planned assassination is referred to as a “target of opportunity” (think about that!); they mention “collateral damage” when they are really talking about the innocent civilians who are killed by such things as drones, which they call “unmanned aircraft.” But my favorite is the fact that they don’t call themselves the “Department of War” any more: they are the “Department of Defense.” Sure, why not? In any event, I Googled the euphemisms they use and came up with pages of them. It’s enough to make you tear your hair out — if you have any left these days. And it puts me in mind of one of my favorite conversations — the one between Alice and Humpty Dumpty after Alice walks through the looking-glass in Lewis Carroll’s classic.

Humpty is rather gruff and downright rude with Alice, as you will recall. He is always correcting her, as are many in the looking-glass world. But after Alice proves to Humpty by writing it down in her notebook that when you take 1 from 365 you get 364 (Humpty seems skeptical), Humpty  says “That’s glory for you!” Alice is puzzled, and the following exchange takes place:

Illustration by John Tenniel

Illustration by John Tenniel

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'”Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I mean ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,'” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs, they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice, “what that means.?”

“Now you talk like a reasonable child,” said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. “I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here the rest of your life.”

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

“Oh!” said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

“Ah, you should see ’em come round me of a Saturday night,” Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side: “for to get their wages, you know.”

Which helps to explain why the cost of “defense” spending is so high. The words the military make up to convince us they are not doing what we all know they are doing demand compensation and it must cost a great deal — given how many there are.

Underground Man

I recently read an interesting essay on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground in the June 11th edition of the New Yorker. The author of the essay, David Denby, revisits the book and reflects on its enduring message for our times. He’s right: “it can still kick.”

It does seem to me that along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass not to mention Kafka’s Trial, Dostoevsky’s novella does indeed show us a side of ourselves and the world in which we live that we may want to deny. But when we contemplate the things that are being done on a state and national level out there in the “real” world, where politicians insist that we can improve education by eliminating teachers, and that we will be safer by firing policemen and firemen; when the military expands the war on terror in parts of the world that most of know about only by hearsay, and kills by remote control; and when corporations destroy the earth and ignore threats to the survival of life on this planet (and legislators say it isn’t so), the words of these authors start to ring true.

Dostoevsky’s hero in this novella is a man of “caprice.”  “He passionately loves destruction and chaos. . .” He does things for no reason whatever. He likes to deny the obvious, rails against the Crystal Palace and everything European/scientific/technical/mathematical.  Two times two may NOT be four. “. . .two times two is four is no longer life. . .it is the beginning of death.” We learn from this novella that if we try to fathom human motives we come up empty. The world is borderline insane and humans do things for no reason whatever much of the time — as Carroll and Kafka also suggested — and we might just as well not try to make sense of it.

For someone who spent his life trying to teach young people to think, who still believes deeply that sound judgment is the way to ferret out small pieces of truth, these authors leave a bad taste in the mouth. One doesn’t like to admit that his life may have been spent in a caucus race (as Carroll would have it) chasing around incoherently with no purpose and slim rewards in the form of comfits from Alice’s pocket.

But as I grow older and “crawl toward death,” along with Shakespeare’s Lear, I begin to think Carroll, Kafka, and Dostoevsky were right: the world really doesn’t make sense. And humans are capricious: acting often without reason, doing good or evil seemingly with blinders on. But I don’t despair because reason can help us sort things out; more importantly, we have it on good authority (when Dostoevsky’s underground man exhibits a profound need to connect with another human being) that the things that matter remain after all: friends, loved ones, and a life lived trying to “lift the lives of others,” as a good friend of mine recently put it. Why? Why not?

Bizarro World!

I always loved Jerry Seinfeld’s humor and my wife and I watched the re-runs of his sit-com until we could say the lines with the actors. One episode developed the notion of a “bizarro world” where everything is backwards. The idea is stolen from Lewis Carroll, of course, but many a good idea was stolen from someone else. In any event, I sometimes think we live in such a world — especially when I listen to or read some of the comments made by politicians. A case in point is a series of remarks by Mitt Romney quoted in today’s Yahoo News in which he made comments about tax cuts that John Sununu felt necessary to defend. (If we judge people by the company they keep we must be at least mildly concerned by Mitt’s new friends.)  In any event, Romney’s comments, in part, are as follows:

“He [President Obama] wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin?” Romney said, referring to the failed recall effort of Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker. “The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

Of course, we can expect the Republicans to play the Wisconsin card at every opportunity. Indeed, if Walker had been recalled the Democrats would have played the same card. But in any event, the notion that “America” has spoken is absurd: the voters in Wisconsin spoke on one issue that makes clear their desire to hang on to their money until their eyeballs pop out. It is, as I am fond of pointing out, a case of short-term thinking that plagues us all. We can’t see the forest for the trees. We think that by saving a few tax dollars we will benefit. We may in the short term, but certainly not in the long run: the cost will be irremediable.

There is simply no way reducing the numbers of firemen, police, and teachers can benefit this country. To say, as Romney apparently did, that “it’s time to cut back on government to help the American people” is oxymoronic, to coin a term. How is it going to help the American people to have a few more dollars in their pocket if there are not enough policemen to keep thieves from stealing them? Or if their house is burning and the remaining firemen are putting out a fire somewhere else? Or if their children grow up and keep electing the same damned fools their parents voted in?

I am aware that government has grown huge. But much of that growth has resulted from individual and, especially, corporate irresponsibility. Many of the government agencies that have sprung up are a direct result of the damage large corporations have done to the environment. Many more are the result of the fact that we all seem to lack foresight. But many, if not all, of these agencies are indeed essential to life as we have come to know it.  Making drastic cuts in essential services, especially at a time when the very rich do not pay their fair share of the taxes, is borderline crazy.

The idea that, as Sununu says (defending Romney), “there are too many teachers” is arrant nonsense. It is on the order of Romney’s notion that small classes don’t benefit the students — which I have discussed previously. Moreover, Sununu’s notion that teaching can be done on the internet is an idea that is catching on and I have also discussed that notion. It, too, is absurd.  Real teaching and learning cannot be accomplished on the internet. The suggestion that we need to reduce the number of teachers in this country is all part of the move to eliminate public schools altogether; it would leave more of our citizens uneducated than is already the case. We not only need more teachers, we need better teachers, and smaller classes.

But as long as we remain focused on reducing taxes by eliminating critical elements within this society such as teachers, firemen, and policemen [what are these men thinking?!], then we deserve the consequences that are sure to follow. Our society will become considerably more dangerous and its citizens even more stupid than they are now — judging by the remarks by these two politicians and by the recent vote in Wisconsin. Bizarro world, indeed: black is white, up is down, and we can make our kids smarter by reducing the pittance we now spend on education and our citizens safer by reducing the number of police and firemen.