Against Armchair Literature
Disclaimer: Meat, this thread is for people who actually care about literature, philosophy and stuff of this sort. If you don't, just ignore the following posts.
I've been knocking literature and a few authors for quite a while, but I never really took the time to make my views explicit so you could criticise and give me some feedback.
What do Galileo, Ayn Rand and Descartes all have in common? In a way or another, they're well intended grifters. The Renaissance man was the best PR he could have had, pissing off the Pope not because of his discoveries but because of the way he sold them (Copernicus had, after all, espoused similar views, but an amendment was added to his most important book - without his consent, that is - making sure that readers would see that as the best way to measure the position of celestial bodies, and not necessarily the truth). He made it sure that his ideas were seen not as fiction, and told stories that clearly were so even though his ideas would back them up (do you really think people would let him drop heavy objects from the Tower of Pisa and that he'd be able to reliably measure their fall?). Luckily, his ideas were quite profitable to the advent of science and much happened after he made his ideas public. What saved his ideas was the legion of natural philosophers who revised and developed his work.
Jenny McCarthy is the proof that the power
of narrative and charisma can go so far as
to cause the resurgence of otherwise banal
fevers. Thanks to her, kids too can be hot!
History wasn't so kind to Descartes and Ayn Rand though. The murky fate of their ideas may have, of course, been inspirational at first (What if Descartes is right? What if Ayn Rand is on to something? Is Big Brother watching us?) as mistakes are just as important as the reliable information we have at any given time. Descartes sure made a lot of mistakes but, after a while, scientists and mathematicians were able to save the good ideas he had and discard the eventual errors - and animal activists still try to rectify some of his beliefs to this day! Time and again an obsolete idea of his is resurrected (such as in Chomsky's Cartesian Linguistics), but they're subjected to just as much scrutiny as they used to. Ayn Rand, however, did much more harm than the other people I mentioned precisely because she was a great story-teller and knew bugger all about the stuff she was talking about, which definitely made her all the more confident about the content of her writings. Her ideas have been challenged by academics, including otherwise logical allies, such as Nozick have turned against her ideas, but due to her influence outside these circles, these debates lack the influence to actually have an impact on these ideas. Such is the power of narrative: Feeling a story is more powerful than looking at numbers, for one, and that's why Jenny McCarthy's account of how her son got autism from a vaccine is so much more compelling than the dozens of studying proving that's impossible.
Ideas put forth by novelists may become quickly popular if the authors are charismatic writers, but that doesn't mean they're right. I've jestingly written about 1984 and how poor Orwell's take on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is (of course, this is far from being the main point of the book, but it renders the story as probable as Usain Bolt breaking more world records if we chop one of his legs off... and the butt-hurt fandom makes the criticism all the more amusing) and if you extrapolate the concept of story-telling to other media, you can clearly see that it can have a harmful (and unintended) impact on society. Such is the CSI Effect, for instance.
My first criticism to literature can be summarised thus: it's time we bridged the gap described by C.P Snow and treated literature as the hotbed of ideas it truly is. There are books such as "Batman and Philosophy", "House and Philosophy" and even "Simpsons and Philosophy", which bring academic topics to the attention of the public at large. However, that's not enough. That's not daring enough. It's about time scientists took literature more seriously and analysed some of the ideas proposed by the authors not as literature - but as scientific/philosophic hypotheses that need to be scrutinised. Likewise, authors should stop fooling themselves that beauty conveys truth. It doesn't. Depending on the work, there may well be the momentary suspension of disbelief that is typical of fiction. But, when an author intends to describe something that may well happen in the real world, Dan Browning the public has undesirable outcomes. And, when doing the research for a novel that purports to be realistic, the author should also link to the reference material he used, so the readers can have access to the same material.
Obviously, we can't require that from works that have already been written - and quite often that's unnecessary - but when it may be, we should take a step back and remember that authors are no more reliable than anyone else. Story telling, both in printed media and outside, is too compelling for its own good.
|Originally said by Maurice Moss|
I came here to kick ass and drink milk... and I've just finished my milk