Losing Things

I just read Gina Barreca's post, Everything You Lose Makes Room for Something New and it reminded me of two things. One, a vilanelle by Elizabeth Bishop that I have a love-hate relationship with called 'One Art'. Although it's 'about' the death of her partner, my favorite lines are:

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

The whole poem is here.

The second thing this post reminds me of is my own just-so postcard that Shanti sent me from Geneva when I was studying in Lahore. The quote, from Jules Renard, reads:

Ecrire, c'est une façon de parler sans être interrompu.

Stuff I'm Reading: Identity

From Amin Malouf's On Identity (translated by Barbara Bray.):

But let us return for a moment to some examples I quoted at the beginning of this book. A man with a Serbian mother and a Croatian father, and who manages to accept his dual affiliation, will never take part in any form of ethnic "cleansing". A man with a Hutu mother and a Tutsi father, if he can accept the two "tributaries" that brought him into the world, will never be a party to butchery or genocide. And neither the Franco-Algerian lad, not the young man of mixed German and Turkish origin whom I mentioned earlier, will ever be on the side of the fanatics if they succeed in living peacefully in the context of their own complex identity.

Here again it would be a mistake to see such examples as extreme or unusual. Wherever there are groups of human beings living side by side who differ from one another in religion, colour, language, ethnic origin or nationality; wherever there are tensions, more or less longstanding, more or less violent, between immigrants and local populations, Blacks and Whites, Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Arabs, Hindus and Sikhs, Lithuanians and Russians, Serbs and Albanians, Greeks and Turks, English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians, Flemings and Walloons, Chinese and Malays - yes, wherever there is a divided society, there are men and women bearing within them contradictory allegiances, people who live on the frontier between opposed communities, and whose very being may be said to be traversed by ethnic or religious or other fault lines.

We are not dealing with a handful of marginal people. There are thousands, millions of such men and women, and there will be more and more of them. They are frontier-dwellers by birth, or through the changes and chances of life, or by deliberate choice, and they can influence events and affect their course one way or the other. Those who can accept their diversity fully will hand on the torch between communities and cultures, will be a kind of mortar joining together and strengthening the societies in which they live. On the other hand, those who cannot accept their own diversity may be among the most virulent of those prepared to kill for the sake of identity, attacking those who embody parts of themselves which they would like to see forgotten.

Science and Literature

In his article May 11 article for the Boston Globe titled Measure for Measure, Johnathan Gottschall writes:

We literary scholars have mostly failed to generate surer and firmer knowledge about the things we study. While most other fields gradually accumulate new and durable understanding about the world, the great minds of literary studies have, over the past few decades, chiefly produced theories and speculation with little relevance to anyone but the scholars themselves. So instead of steadily building a body of solid knowledge about literature, culture, and the human condition, the field wanders in continuous circles, bending with fashions and the pronouncements of its charismatic leaders.

Something that frustrates me no end about literary theory is its lack of understanding of the sciences, particularly when it purports to draw from them. Witness theorists who present their musings as meaningless mathematical formulae or draw on an at best limited understanding of physics. Nevertheless, these theorists manage to impress, because they most often happen to be addressing people who have no interest in either mathematics or physics (or biology or chemistry) and who are therefore happy to take their word for it because the theories in question are interesting and seem to make sense in context.

The other frustrating thing about literary theory is precisely its irrelevance to anything outside literary theory. Certainly it enhances the reading of literature and provides new and startling ways to conceive of the world created by literature and, given that literature is often seen as a reflection of real life, the world itself. But while it contains ideas and philosophies and suggestions that are a joy and a challenge to explore, it ultimately doubles back on itself without actually providing answers and students are left right where they started.

At the same time, it irritates me when the science bloggers I read make offhand, dismissive comments about the humanities and those who study them, saying things like "Even the arts students understand that intelligent design is bogus."* No we're not scientists, but why does that automatically make us the morons of academia? ID is a shoddily presented argument. You need only basic reason to see that, not deep scientific knowledge.

And while we're on common misconceptions, why are scientists so often cast as drones lacking all imagination? The rigors of method notwithstanding, I can't see a scientist as anything but imaginative. What is the development of a hypothesis if not a creative act?

We seem to be stuck in this very high-school perception that the arts=flaky vs. science=nerdy. Gottschall argues that this is simply unnecessary:

Above all, these changes would require looking with fresh eyes on the landscape of academic disciplines, and noticing something surprising: The great wall dividing the two cultures of the sciences and humanities has no substance. We can walk right through it.

I think he's absolutely right. If we all actually bothered to get to know each other, I think we would all realize that we are, at heart, all knowledge-obsessed geeks.

*This quote is illustrative only. It reflects only the tone of various statements littering the web, not the actual content.