Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Thought Experiment

From Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos: Chapter 9, The Envious Self. This always cracks me up. Personally, my answers would be B, 7:
You are standing by your paper-tube in Englewood reading the headlines. Your neighbor comes out to get his paper. You look at him sympathetically. You know he has been having severe chest pains and is facing coronary bypass surgery. But he is not acting like a cardiac patient this morning. Over he jogs in his sweat pants, all smiles. He has triple good news. His chest ailment turned out to be a hiatal hernia, not serious. He’s got a promotion and is moving to Greenwich, where he can keep his boat in the water rather than on a trailer.
   “Great, Charlie! I’m really happy for you!”
   Are you happy for him?
(a)  Yes. Unrelievedly good news. Surely it is good news all around that Charlie is alive and well and not dead or invalided. Surely, too, it is good for him and not bad for you if he also moves up in the world, buys a house in Greenwich where he can keep a 25-foot sloop moored in the Sound rather than a 12-foot Mayflower on a trailer in a garage in Englewood.
(b)  Putatively good news but — but what? But the trouble is, it is good news for Charlie, but you don’t feel so good.
 (check one)
If your answer is (b), could you specify your dissatisfaction, i.e., do the following thought experiment: which of the following news vis-à-vis Charlie and you at the paper-tube would make you feel better?
(1)  Charlie is dead.
(2)  Charlie has undergone a quadruple coronary bypass and may not make it.
(3)  Charlie does not have heart trouble but did not get his promotion or his house in Greenwich.
(4)  Charlie does not have heart trouble and did get his promotion but can’t afford to move to Greenwich.
(5)  You, too, have received triple good news, so both of you can celebrate.
(6)  You have not received good news, but just after hearing Charlie’s triple good news, you catch sight of a garbage truck out of control and headed straight for Charlie — whose life you save by throwing a body block that knocks him behind a tree. (Why does it make you feel better to save Charlie’s life and thus turn his triple good news into quadruple good fortune?
(7)  You have not received good news, but just after hearing Charlie’s triple good news, an earthquake levels Manhattan. There the two of you stand, gazing bemusedly across the Hudson from Englewood Cliffs.
(check one)
In a word, how much good news about Charlie can you tolerate without compensatory catastrophes, heroic rescues, and such?

A few excellent articles about Percy and his ‘self-help book’ can be found here, here, and also here.

Friday, July 26, 2013

In Which the Author Makes His Retraction

“And if there is anything that displeases them, I pray also that they ascribe it to the fault of my ignorance and not to my will, which would readily have spoken better if I had the knowledge.”
   If you’ve ever read The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, you may have noticed, if the publisher included it at the end of the book, Chaucer’s Retraction. Chaucer wrote it at the end of his life, and in it ‘retracted’, or basically, renounced, virtually all of his works with which readers are familiar, including his Troilus and Cressida, the classic tale of sexual procurement from which we get the word ‘pander’, as well as the Canterbury Tales — or at least those of which ‘make for sin’, as the author puts it — and “many another book… and many a song and many a lecherous lay…” of his.  In the religious age in which Chaucer lived, certain types of works, of course, were likely to provoke the displeasure or censure of religious authorities, such as Chaucer’s translation of another medieval work, The Romance of the Rose. So Chaucer renounces all of his ‘secular’ works, but stands fast by his more ‘serious’ works, such as his translation of the excellent Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, and “other books of the lives of the saints, and homilies, and morality, and devotion…” He also asks the reader, if they find anything in it which displeases them, to attribute it, not to any guile or spiteful attempt — or ‘unkonnynge’ in the original English (cunning) — but to his ignorance. In other words, “Blame it on the fact that I am stupid.” A nice defense.
   Scholars have debated whether this retraction was sincere, or merely an attempt to avoid trouble, or perhaps just a way to promote all of his works. One other detail about the Retraction that is not immediately obvious and which makes it further compelling, is that, in the medieval manuscripts in which Chaucer’s works initially would have appeared, the Retraction would have been printed in the front of the book. So the Retraction would have been something that the reader would have read in advance. Which certainly seems, if not insincere, a bit even more cheeky.

   So that is what I am going to do in starting off this blog. I actually created this blog four years ago, but have not written much in it at all, attempting a few initial postings, and ultimately withdrawing all since, finding them unsatisfactory. I have been meaning to write from time to time, but never could getting around to it, because each topic I could think of seemed good, but not quite good enough, with which to begin. But now I have finally realized that here is the perfect way to start off this blog — with an apology. It comes to my mind that maybe I shouldn't have been so concerned with how to start; one of my favorite writers — perhaps my favorite — G.K. Chesterton, writing on Shakespeare’s supposed lack of originality, in that nearly all of the plots in his plays are recycled from other works, declared that genius is not concerned with beginnings, but with ends; true genius lies not in originality and in beginnings, but in taking those things which others have started fitfully and bringing them to their ultimate fruition. Or something like that. I can’t find the quote. So perhaps the long delay was unnecessary. In my defense, see the title of this blog. Nevertheless, I have been at great pains to get to this point, and while it may perhaps not even be necessary, here I am. I am sorry. So if you find anything in this blog which you find offensive, please do not think it is the result of any ill will on my part. Just blame it on the fact that I am stupid. I retract it in advance.