Friday, March 20, 2015

Poetry and Push-pin, Satire and Sailing (14 March 2014)

[Q]uantities of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry.
—Attributed by John Stuart Mill to Jeremy Bentham

                                                                                                                               Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with […] 
                                                                                                                            music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, 
                                                                                                                                it is more valuable than either. Everybody can play at push-pin; 
                                                                                                                                                                 poetry and music are relished only by a few. — 
                                                                                                                                       Jeremy Bentham, The Rationale of Reward (1825) [III.i]  

            Push-pin is apparently some sort of kids' game noted for being particularly mindless, perhaps comparable to "Marco Polo" as played by Stewie Griffin on Family Guy; or, to keep John Stuart Mill's brevity and alliteration — although losing his gender-neutrality — we might say, "poetry is no better than pud-pulling."

            "Different strokes / For different folks" ….

            I've been thinking of such matters since retiring from having taught for forty years the largely poetic scripts of William Shakespeare, and such other works as Shakespeare film, the original Buck Rogers stories, Animal House, Blazing Saddles, and South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.

            And, having a retirement income to live on — younger readers should study up on the concept of "pensions," out of which you have been screwed — having a retirement income to live on, I have entered the film biz and have, among other things, provided fairly extensive Notes to improve a brief scene of a nice young Canadian having his stomach punctured repeatedly by a pick axe. Not coming soon to your local theaters but available on PSYCHOTICA! (2010), and if the bit about a pick axe would be a spoiler for you for the movie, you really don't watch many slicer-dicers and probably shouldn't watch this one.

            Since retiring I've also had to put up with my annoying best friend Dan's habit of periodically asking me why anyone nowadays should study Shakespeare. Dan, of course, is a serious reader of serious fiction, and, as Captain Dan, teaches the problematically practical art of sailing. If the south-central coast of California is ever attacked by poorly-equipped 17th-century pirates, Dan can be out there leading the naval attack on them; or, in a somewhat more likely scenario, after a secular Apocalypse, Dan could be running supplies out to the wretched survivors on the Channel Islands, depending only on the winds for power, and the aversion to water of both robots and zombies.

            "Quantities of pleasure being equal," poetry is indeed no better than push-pin or Marco Polo or masturbation or sailing — if, but only if, all we're concerned about is quantity of pleasure.

            That's one standard response to Jeremy Bentham's bit of philistinism, but note that the formulation is "if all one is concerned about" is pleasure. Pleasure counts. Utile et dulce and all that: good art is supposed "to please and instruct," to have some utility — a good word for a Utilitarian like Jeremy Bentham — and give pleasure. If pleasure didn't count, people would do better to just read history or philosophy or self-help books or instruction manuals or, God help us, theology or law books.

            But why give university course credit for studying Shakespeare or Blazing Saddles, usually even more credit than for studying sailing?

            The answer I gave Dan: 'cause it kept me working and getting paid, (schmuck!). The more interesting question, that one out of the way — it costs money to sail with Captain Dan, and he wasn't about to push me on that argument — the more interesting question is what literature and drama and film might be good for, period. Granting that harmless fun needs no excuse, what's useful about plays or movies, or — for most of what I taught — non-technical reading?

            In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker has recycled an old and unfashionable argument defending literature, but, if it holds up, a very powerful argument. A major part of Pinker's analysis concerns "The Rise of Empathy and the Regard for Human Rights" from the 18th century on in the West, a crucial phenomenon for what he calls "The Humanitarian Revolution" (ch. 4). And Pinker holds that this phenomenon didn't just follow substantial increases in literacy and the reading of fiction, but to a significant degree was caused by that reading — and, I will add to Pinker's list, by watching and listening to some drama and later film.

            "Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else's thoughts are in your head" — especially when reading a novel — "you are observing the world from that person's point of view. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person's mind and are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions" (Penguin pb, 2011: 175). That is, while reading many novels, you are automatically engaging in a kind of empathy; and Pinker argues cogently that a rise of empathy was significant for the elimination or radical reduction — usually and so far! — of most of the casual brutality woven into the fabric of everyday life for almost all of recorded human history.

            And there's more involved than just empathy.

            As an admirer of satirists like Jonathan Swift, Pinker also recognizes that "Exposure to worlds that can be seen only through the eyes of a foreigner, an explorer, or a historian can turn an unquestioned norm ('That's the way it's done') into an explicit observation ('That's what our tribe happens to do now'). This self-consciousness is the first step toward asking whether the practice could be done in some other way" (175).

            As a student of satire and science fiction, I'll add that such "S&SF" works, when they're earning their keep, can be highly effective in an audience's world expansion. As Pinker says, most of us, most of the time accept the world we live in as the world, the only possible world. A study of history or anthropology would disabuse us of that delusion quickly: our ways are far from the only way. History however, often comes with quizzes where the proper little "bubble" to fill in gives "1492" for the Fall of Granada or Christopher Columbus's sailing off and doesn't get you picturing life in a besieged city or what was going through the head of a complex world-changer, and major criminal like Admiral-Governor Columbus. And you may remember from your anthro courses mostly factoids on kinship relations among the clans, phratries, moieties, demes, and what-all of the Tlingit peoples of wherever.

            Good satires and science fictions are fun, and they sucker us into seeing our world from alien points of view and seeing the weirdness of everyday life — or seeing worlds radically different from our own. How would Early Modern European history look to a humane, civilized giant of high intelligence, or to a horse-like creature who was truly a rational animal, a rational animal who had never seen an ill-natured quarrel, much less a war? How would we view human relations after several chapters inside the mind of a highly intelligent creature whose species has always come in three sexes?

            Admittedly, a bad teacher can make Swift's Gulliver's Travel's or Isaac Asimov's The God's Themselves every bit as boring, tedious, and unpleasant as bad teachers can make history or anthropology; but for their original audiences, Gulliver and Asimov were somewhat guilty pleasures, and still can be discovered with delight by curious young readers. Or some young nerds can discover to another kind of delight that there are adults willing to take Asimov and Swift and Animal House and South Park seriously.

            Pinker may be more wrong than right, of course, and the esthetes' and puritans' doctrine may be correct that poetry — and art more generally — accomplishes nothing and/or wastes time better devoted to useful things.

            I don't think so.

            Robert Browning's disreputable monk and great painter Fra Lippo Lippi gives us a look into his world in a dramatic monolog justifying himself and his painting to the Italian Renaissance equivalent of a cop on a late-night beat.

                                  we're made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted — better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out. (lines 300-06)

Art, when it's working, "defamiliarizes" our world and opens up other worlds: "making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar" to paraphrase several lines in S. T. Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (1817: ch. 14). If Pinker and an old tradition are right; if Browning's Lippo is right, and Browning as well, as an author of dramatic monologs — then some forms of art can get us to see the world through other's eyes. That's empathy by definition, which can lead to sympathy; and it offers visions of alternatives.

            So it might be useful to watch and listen to Shakespeare, and perhaps study his scripts, and study and enjoy satire and SF and other arts.

            And, if you're into it, go sailing: quantities of pleasure being equal, sailing is as good as satire reading, plus it's a good way to learn some math and meteorology and the somewhat foreign language of utterly pedantic ways to talk about parts of a boat.

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