Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Camus, Melville, Beowulf and Vietnam?

It's kind of unsettling, actually, but every now and then Bush and his associates show signs of something resembling cultural literacy. Roughly a year ago, there were rumors that Bush was reading Camus' The Stranger and discussing it with Tony Snow. Then, last weekend on television, Karl Rove seemed to be groping for literary analogies to explain the Democrats' relentless pursuit of him. First he compared the Democrats and their subpoenas and hearings to crazed Ahabs pursuing Moby Dick. But then he felt the need to go back earlier in literary history: "I'm a myth...You know, I'm Beowulf, you know, I'm Grendel." But then (no doubt mentally straining to come up with the names of other characters from Medieval epics) he added, "I don't know who I am. But they're after me."

A friend of mine who used to teach literature at Western Reserve Academy was actually impressed that Rove could name both Beowulf and Grendel, even if he seemed kind of vague on other details. And I guess I should be impressed too: outing undercover intelligence agents and conducting Stalinesque purges of U.S. attorneys probably doesn't leave you a lot of time for catching up on the books you blew off in high school. On the other hand, now that Rove doesn't have a job anymore, he's got a lot more time to read. Maybe his literary analogies will get more impressive: "I'm Orestes, and the Democrats, you know, are like the Eumenidies."

But let's go back to Bush and The Stranger. I have to confess to being a little skeptical that he has actually read any Camus. I think it's much more likely that the press have (as usual) gotten their French Existentialists mixed up and the POTUS was actually reading some Sartre. Seriously--take a look at the official Presidential Advance Manual, with its instructions on how to keep demonstrators away from the press and even out of sight of the President. Clearly, this is a man for whom Hell is other people--at least people with opinions.

And there are clues that the President is branching out a bit intellectually. He might actually be reading history as well as fiction. At least, that's my inference from a speech he gave today comparing the war in Iraq to the one in Vietnam. He warned of regional chaos if U.S. troops withdraw, such as engulfed Cambodia and Laos after Vietnam. Now I'm finding this historical comparison a little weak. If you're looking for the cause of the Cambodian bloodbath, you're more likely to find it in the country being bombed for 14 months by the U.S. Air Force and then its occupation by U.S. ground troops. As for Laos, we armed a proxy army to fight the North Vietnamese and Laotian communists.

So either the President's a little shaky at drawing historical analogies, or he's got plans for Syria and Iran we don't know about yet. But cheer up: this is progress. George W. Bush is, after all, the man who supposedly told Joe Biden, "Brief me on Europe." I wonder how he started? "Well, Mr. President, it's a continent..." And now he can name individual countries--ones that aren't even in Europe. He's still rusty on more advanced reasoning, but our President mastering basic facts and showing an awareness of historical events is something to cheer. Because rarely is the question asked, is our politicians learning?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Seinfeld and the Military-Industrial Complex

I was poking around on the website of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency the other day (don't ask), and found myself reading about a project called Intestinal Fortitude. While naturally every word of a DARPA project summary is gripping, this passage in particular caught my eye:

To increase the amount of energy available to the soldier from either food rations or nontraditional foodstuffs, the program explores the use of cellulose-degrading beneficial bacteria in the gut. These novel “fibr-biotics” are able to break down non-digestible fiber (cellulose and hemicellulose) into glucose, which can be directly absorbed for energy. When added to the diet of deployed soldiers, these novel fibr-biotics will be able convert non-digestible fiber into usable energy.

Cellulose is one of the primary components of grass and leaves. In other words, when the soldier of the future runs out of field rations, he's going to be able to graze. The DARPA summary says little about the current state of this project. But then a friend suggested I search the incomparable Danger Room, Wired's military and national security blog, where I discover that I am, as usual, behind the times. Intestinal Fortitude was not the entire project, merely the name of phase one, which was wrapped up in March 2007. Under a DARPA contract, scientists at the Agricultural Research Service sorted through pig manure, isolating 'degrading bacteria' to figure out why our porcine brethren can digest things we can't. In phase 2, scientists are examining human feces, isolating potential fibr-biotics.

In other words, they want to make the human digestive tract (or at least some human digestive tracts) more like a pig's. Now this is far from full-blown hybridization, but the project inevitably brings to mind the Seinfeld episode, "The Bris," in which Kramer thinks he's seen a human-pig hybrid in a hospital:

Kramer: I'm tellin' ya! The pigman is alive. The government's been experimenting with pigmen since the fifties.
Jerry: Will you stop it. Just because a hospital gets a grant to study DNA doesn't mean they are creating a race of mutant pigmen.
Kramer: Oh, Jerry. Would you wake up to reality! It's a military thing. They're probably creating a whole army of pig warriors.
The question of the hour, ladies and gentleman: is DARPA so desperate for ideas they're stealing them from Seinfeld? While I am one of those who has long held that Seinfeld was one of the best American television shows of all time, I'm not sure that qualifies it to play an even marginal role in national security efforts. I re-read the script of the episode "The Masseuse," (which deals with Jerry's 13-year no-vomiting streak), to see if it could possibly have provided any inspiration for the Navy's vomit beam.* No dice (it was a long shot, I realize).

I won't say rest easy. But perhaps we should rest a little less uneasily with my modest evidence that military scientific research isn't solely inspired by Larry David. Still, American military and political affairs have an air of unreality, to say the least. The great war news this month was that U.S. casualties were down in July, so the 'surge' must be working. However, casualties have dropped during July since the war began--nobody wants to fight when it's 120 degrees. Back home, the Supreme Court spent its time this summer debating whether "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" is constitutionally protected speech. And currently the campaign of a half-African presidential candidate is dogged by the question "Is he black enough?"

Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld may not be the minds behind the latest military research, but somewhere along the way our national life really did get to be a show about nothing.

*Thanks to my friend KT for alerting me to the existence of the vomit beam. Or as she put it, "I'll see your grazing soldier and raise you one puke gun."

Sunday, August 5, 2007

On the Cusp of Two (or more) Cultures

There's a relic on the shelves of my workplace: C. M. Bowra's Oxford Book of Greek Verse. I take it down from time to time, just to look at it fondly. I don't know when it was last checked out. I call it a relic because the title is literally true: the poetry is all in Ancient Greek--no translations. It was published in 1930, at a time when one could reasonably assume that many people (mostly men) had learned Greek and Latin in the course of their education. I wistfully imagine some old gent who walked the same sidewalks I do taking that book home to read Pindar or Hesiod in the original.

I don't know Greek or Latin--a fact I used to regret very much but no longer do. Nevertheless I still think it a little sad that a classical education has largely gone the way of the mastodon. Partly because I can identify just a little with the people who had that education, or at least with a feeling some of them must have had as they saw the generations after them growing up ignorant of learning they considered essential. In college my teacher for a course in Shakespeare's tragedies was an old Oxonian steeped in the classics. I remember him fondly because he was such a kindly man. But I also remember his visible distress on discovering I hadn't read Aeschylus. He told me to go home and read The Oresteia: "Without a working knowledge of those plays you simply aren't an educated person." A number of my friends to whom I've told that story are appalled by the bigotry of the comment, by the Dead White Male world view it expresses, but I can laugh sadly about it in some small way, because I know that feeling: I experience it with teenage library patrons all the time. A girl has to read a biography of a famous woman and when I suggest names I discover she has no idea who Susan B. Anthony or Dorothy Day are. A boy needs a "classic novel" to read for school and I tell him about The Red Badge of Courage and 1984 as if they were personal secrets of mine.

I have similar experiences with friends and co-workers as well. At work one day I sardonically quoted a passage of the King James Bible that I thought particularly apt to the situation. I got a blank look instead of a smile of recognition.

Of course, there's much more to all this besides changing conceptions of what an education is. In the case of my teenage patrons it's a result of a sharp decline in educational standards, and (probably) people who aren't readers raising their children to be non-readers. And that classical education I can feel so wistful about was part of a rigidly stratified society culturally dominated by white males. And my prized knowledge of the King James Bible is product of an oppressive cultural environment that I am still recovering from. But still....

Addendum: Critic Gail Caldwell wrote an essay that covered similar issues with much more depth (and a somewhat different take) in yesterday's Globe. Unfortunately it's only available to subscribers at the moment. Hopefully it will soon be available in its entirety elsewhere on the web.

Blog Archive