Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Boy's Life

I remember the film quite differently. In my recollection, the doctors are villains bent on vivisection, and Elliott is betrayed by the scientist who purports to comfort him. In fact, although the hunters are framed by the conventions of the horror flick – darkness, muffled voices, torchlight, silhouettes – they simply try to find E. T., place him under quarantine for everyone's safety, and prevent his premature death. The avuncular scientist is quite sincere:
I've been wishing for this since I was ten years old. I don't want him to die. [His] being here is a miracle, Elliott. It's a miracle – and you did the best that anybody could do.
Another aspect that I did not recall: the absent father, poignantly but implausibly invoked by Elliott – "Dad would believe me!" – and now in Mexico with "Sally". ("Where's Mexico?" asks Gertie; he might as well be in outer space.)

There are various threads from the theme of abandonment winding through the film. It is tempting to look for models of fatherhood, as in the teasing scene in which Elliott weighs E. T. ("35 pounds – you're so fat!"), and, less successfully, measures his height (what to do with that retractable neck?). When she meets him, Gertie proclaims, canonically, "He's a boy!"

But E. T. doesn't need a father, and he doesn't take to Elliott's lessons in goldfish, Pez and peanuts. (It's Gertie who directs his real education, through the auspices of Speak & Spell: he is principally an autodidact.)

Perhaps, then, it's the other way around: E. T. as substitute father for Elliott? But, as a father figure, E. T. tends towards delinquency. He stays home drinking beer, slumped in front of the TV, and his psychic influence causes Elliott to misbehave.

If the theme culminates in anything – I must painfully admit – it is with the redundancy of fathers. No-one needs them: not E. T., not Elliott or his siblings, not even Mary, their mother, who seems only mildly grieved by her husband's flight. The scientist, Keys, emphatically does not become a substitute parent; his only memorable speech identifies him as a child.

The film ends with an assurance of self-sufficiency. "I'll be right here," E. T. insists, glowing finger directed at Elliott's brow – meaning that he won't be here, and he doesn't have to be. The father is dispensed with, or consumed. It doesn't matter if he never comes back.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

How to Read a Book

When I first read philosophy, as a teenager, I didn't know what it was. I did not know, for instance, that you could question what a great philosopher said, or that you should only believe it if the arguments worked. To be honest, I didn't know that these books contained arguments. My reaction to Russell on Our Knowledge of the External World was not scepticism, but shock that, despite all appearances, this is how it must be: I was constructing my whole system of the world from echoes and two-dimensional discs of colour. A miracle!

There are other ways to read philosophy: as poetry; as fiction.
[No] novelist has created a more dashing hero than the handsome Absolute, or conceived more dramatic extrications – the soul's escape from the body, for instance, or the will's from cause. […] Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language, and make themselves up out of concepts. Both, in a way, create worlds. […] But the worlds of the novelist, I hear you say, do not exist. Indeed. As for that, they exist more often than the philosophers'. Then, too – how seldom does it seem to matter. Who honestly cares? They are divine games.
This extraordinary passage was written by William H. Gass, in an essay called "Philosophy and the Form of Fiction". Unlike him, I do care that philosophy is not a game, any more than it consists in lessons from the Oracle. The more interesting question runs the other way: how far is the novel a form of philosophy?

For Gass, the answer is: not, for the most part, in proposing a metaphysics, but in presenting a world of which some metaphysics holds. The business of the novelist is creation not depiction; and the business of the critic – at least, the properly philosophical critic – is to lay bare the principles of the created world.
The role of chance or of assumption, the recreative power of the skillful reader, the mastery of the sense of internal life, the forms of space and time: how much is known of these? The ontological significance of the subordinate clause, […] or new words, or inversion – all passed over. […] The novelist has, by this ineptitude, been driven out of healthy contact with his audience, and the supreme values of fiction sentimentalized.
This theory has a certain purity; but it is a recipe for misprision, since it matters to the metaphysics of some novels that they are ways of understanding this world. In order to read a book, you need to know what kind of book it is – as I learned from my experience with Russell. (This point is developed with both insight and generality in Kendall Walton's "Categories of Art".) It would be a mistake to read Jane Austen as science fiction – which is, in effect, what Gass would have us do.

It is, correspondingly, no mistake to be baffled by a novel, like Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, that defies generic thought. The uncanny passivity of the characters: is it something we must simply grant – like the native English of beings from outer space? Or is it a picture of ourselves? For Gass, only the first response is warranted, and the friction of the book is planed away.

Even to focus on the characters is confused, on his account: it is the activity of the sentimentalist, someone who believes in them as people she has met, who forgets that "novels [are] made of words". Or rather, she resists this recognition, in distress:
It's as though you had discovered that your wife were made of rubber: the bliss of all those years, the fears…from sponge.
The parody has a point: that even at their best, the "people [of fiction] have less spontaneity, are less intricate, less free, less full" than anyone's parents, or children, or friends. But the same is true of the worlds in which they live. Are we more justified in speculating on the form of cause and the elementary particles of Beckett's "Ping" than on the reasons for Cordelia's silence, Iago's treachery, or Hamlet's delay?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

An Unheard Melody

The objection was made by T. S. Eliot:
This line ["Beauty is truth, truth beauty"] strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem; and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue.
I used to agree with this, but I recently changed my mind. This happened in the course of reading Cleanth Brooks on "Keats' Sylvan Historian" – though not because I was persuaded by his take on the disputed lines, as a dramatic interjection by the urn not to be attributed to Keats. The poet who wrote these words was surely concerned with their topic on his own behalf, writing, in a letter to Benjamin Bailey, "What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be Truth."

The question raised by Eliot is a version of Richards' "problem of belief", which has been mentioned here before. What is fascinating about the present example is that the object of putative belief is a doctrine about the aesthetic significance of belief. In the presence of self-reference, paradox should come as no surprise.

Consider the principle that a poem is harmed, as a poem, by philosophical error. This would be the premise of Eliot's objection to Keats. If the premise is false, the objection is mis-placed. But if the premise is true, the objection fails again. For it is plausible that the doctrine expressed at the end of the poem is precisely the one that is being discussed, that what is beautiful must be true. The poem ends with a mistake only if this principle is false. But if the principle is false, it doesn't matter that the poem ends with a mistake.

Eliot's objection can therefore be ignored. What cannot be ignored is the sheer inelegance with which the doctrine of truth and beauty is framed. Right or wrong, it is ineptly said in Keats' bald and clunking syllables. I continue to believe, with Eliot, that the line is a serious blemish on an otherwise beautiful poem – but for reasons that have nothing to do with the problem of belief.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Out of Context

In the latest Critical Inquiry, there is an essay by Marjorie Garber, "Loaded Words". Having enjoyed some of her previous writing, I read it with interest – and only mild dismay. Garber's topic is epistemology, and her initial treatment is facile to the point of incoherence. As well as the standard flirtation with relativism, on utterly misleading grounds – "Facts can change. What was once regarded as fact can be disregarded or discarded." – there is the following passage from the opening page:
How can one distinguish between knowledge and belief? You could say that one is "truth" and one is "opinion," but that seems an unreliable gauge. President Bush "knows" that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He has good "intelligence" on this matter. It is for him a matter of firm conviction, of belief.
A prize will be awarded to anyone who can explain the relevance of the last three sentences to the question posed in the first and the proposal considered in the second.

More promising is Garber's assertion, a few pages later on, of contextualism about knowledge attributions:
Knowledge and belief are good (or bad) examples of what linguists call shifters: words like you and I, here and there, that change their meanings depending on the location and nature of the speaker.
In a paper in which "knowledge" and "belief" receive scare-quotes at least half the time, one would have welcomed the use of quotation marks where they are in fact required. And it wouldn't hurt to cite some of the extensive philosophical literature on the topic. But it's an interesting view.

Its connection with the rest of the argument is unclear. Garber's strongest points emerge in her expressions of frustration with the rhetoric in which knowledge is now clothed: "knowledge worker"; "the knowledge industry" – to which I add the most hated phrase, "production of knowledge". In anxious moments, I ask myself: how much knowledge have I produced this year? Could I be producing more? Is it possible to produce too much? Will it all fit in my office, piled up and shoveled like – well, you know what it's like.

What Garber is protesting is the hypostasis of knowledge, and the "banking model" of education. Her solution is to re-discover knowing as a process, "active, transitive and transitory". I respect the impulse, and even endorse it, but not the formulation. In Aristotelian terms, knowing is not kinetic: it is not a process of becoming, but a state complete in every instant. The right conclusion for her to draw is therefore not that we should re-conceive knowledge, but that we should spend less time worrying about its production, and more time thinking, learning and reasoning well.