Sunday, July 23, 2006

This poem is a translation by Seamus Heaney of Pushkin's original poem. I find it quite interesting, I can see aspects of Pushkin and Heaney.

Appeal to authority and uncritical thinking

John Steinbeck owes a great deal to Ed Ricketts. Throughout his life Steinbeck campaigned and championed Ricketts to no avail and it was only when Ricketts appeared as a fiction character in ‘Cannery Row’ that Ricketts became famous.

It must be remembered that it was Ed Ricketts and the captain of the book who wrote the original journals on the voyage and that Steinbeck wrote his book based on both of these journals.

Ricketts was a pioneer in ecology. He had studied the ecosystem of sardines in Monterey Bay and he had foretold that the sardine industry was not sustainable. A few years after Ricketts death the sardine industry collapsed. Ricketts wrote during this time that if he was asked where the sardines had gone he could say ‘they are in cans’.

I cannot help but feel that in terms of the mystical view Steinbeck held he was strongly influenced by Ricketts into thinking that an atheistic solution was the only viable solution. I often wonder if the ‘appeal to authority’ is what damages the role of religion in science more than anything else. Rather than being able to analyse and think through a religious viewpoint it is too easy to accept the easy alternative of another ‘authoritative’ colleague to decide the philosophy that they hold.

We see this appeal to authority quite clearly present today in terms of scientific support for Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Whilst we also see today that there are some people who when they re-investigate the claims of atheism they have to re-evaluate. Anthony Flew is a good example of this and in 2004 he announced to the philosophical world that he had become a deist.

When Steinbeck decides to devote one whole chapter from ‘Log from the Sea of Cortez’ on nonteleological thinking, a strong feature of the philosophy of Ricketts I have to ask myself if Steinbeck when he verges into mysticism but rejects theism has really decided this for himself of if he is overwhelmed by Ricketts philosophy to suggest that theism might be possible.

I recently found a book in the library by Harold Morowitz on abortion called ‘The facts of Life’. In this book Morowitz described how he uncovered that one of the arguments against abortion was based on an appeal to authority that had been misinterpreted by the anti-abortion lobby. One of their claims was that electrical signals had been identified in an unborn child of 12 weeks. This claim was often raised with no real substantiation and Morowitz tracked it down to a conference in 1969. The results had been announced of an experiment that took place in 1963 in Finland. Under unethical conditions experiments had been carried out on aborted foetus’. The electrical activity was not found in the cortex but only in the brain stem. In fact this evidence that had been used as a strong argument for anti-abortionists was based on an unethical experiment and the results had been misinterpreted. The scientific evidence had not been examined before and it was being used without critical analysis. How much of this sort of ‘appeal to authority’ goes on in science?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Easter Sunday 1940

The one thing about Sea of Cortes is that sometimes Steinbeck is quite self-indulgent and he writes and writes about philosophical discussions in great depth. There is a brilliant example of this on Easter Sunday. The crew land on a hot beach, they cook fish, drink beer and talk about teleological issues. It must have been an amazing day but I am not entirely sure if I have understood the ten pages on philosophy.

It is interesting to note that Steinbeck didn't actually write a diary when he was on the expedition, two logs were kept but he didn't write one. He had to go back afterwards and write all this from their thoughts.

I think the essence of what he is saying is that we need to take an unteleogical approach to life. Instead of looking for a cause and effect and looking for direct relations we should look at the whole environment, and try not to find answers that are too simplistic. I think this would be valuable in terms of politics, everyone is looking for a quick 'fact-based' fix and sometimes problems don't have one direct cause. Sometimes the obvious remedy is not the correct remedy and we need to think and investigate the problem deeper.

I heard of a possible modern answer a few weeks ago in a programme on inner city urban design. In Newcastle (England) they had a problem in the large decorative plazas with teenagers hanging about and skateboarding. The council looked at the issue and decided to build a skate park, outside the city. They thought this would remove the problem and the skate park was a success but they didn't realise that a lot of the teenagers didn't skate and they remained hanging around for social reasons to meet their friends.

Steinbeck uses the interesting example of the Norwegian Willow Grouse. This endangered species was on the decline and they immediately decided that the answer was to cull their main predator - a falcon. After they reduced the numbers of falcons the Willow Grouse numbers reduced even more rapidly. It was discovered after investigation that a parasite had infected the grouse and that the falcon killed the infected birds quickly. When the falcons were removed the infected birds lived longer and infected more willow grouse thus exacerbating the situation.

Best kind of hunting

In another episode from Steinbeck's Sea of Cortes, three Indian people arrive on the boat, introduce themselves and offer to take the crew on a hunting expedition to shoot long horned sheep called Borrego. The crew find this idea attractive and they go off with their hosts into the Mexican mountains. They have a wonderful time, they light a fire, drink beer and talk about Mexican women all night. Then the next morning the hosts send out three trackers to shoot the sheep - they never intended to actually shoot them! The three trackers are unsuccessful but they bring back a handful of sheep droppings. Steinbeck is offered a few of the droppings which he takes and concludes that this a better type of hunting, the best way to hunt is without a gun:

"For ourselves we have had mounted on a small hardwood plaque one perfect borrego dropping. And where another man can say, "there was an animal, but because I am greater than he, he is dead and I am alive, and there is his head to prove it," we can say, "there was an animal, and for all we know there still is and here is the proof of it. He was very healthy when I last heard of him."

Mysterious Island

I adore 'Log from the Sea of Cortes' it is brilliant. It really gets you into the mind of Steinbeck and makes you feel like you are there with him on that amazing expedition in 1940. Some people have criticised Steinbeck for having a 'half-baked' philosophy. I really admire him because he is obviously not a philosopher, he is just trying to think deeply about his life and about the meaning of life. A professional philosopher doesn't really take this approach, when they try to write about general things they become condescending or just write stuff that is incredibly difficult to understand.

Plus the expedition is quite exciting and as travel writing it is an incredible escape and very interesting. I was fascinated by his report about a rather mysterious island that they came across. I'm not really going to say too much about it but when I read this I couldn't help thinking - King Kong or pirates!

“March 23 1940

For although the day was bright this Islet called Cayo on the map, looked black and mysterious. We had a feeling that something strange and dark had happened there or that it was the ruined work of men’s hands. Its northern end is a spur and its southern end a flat plateau about forty feet high. Cayo is only a quarter of a mile long and a hundred yards wide. Even in the distance it had a quality we called ‘burned’. . .

It is nearly all questions, but perhaps someone reading this may know the answers and tell us. There is no landing place; all approaches are strewn with large sea-rounded boulders which even in fairly still water would beat the bottom out of a boat. On its easterly side, the one we approached, a cliff rises [at the] back of a rocky beach and there are a number of shallow caves in the Cliffside. Set in the great boulders in the intertidal zone there are large iron rings and lengths of big chain, but so rusted and disintegrated that they came off in our hands. Also, set in the cliff six to eight feet above the beach, are other iron rings with loops eight inches in diameter. They look very old, but the damp air of the gulf and the rapid oxidation caused by it make it impossible to say how old they are. In the shallow caves in the cliff there were evidences of many fires being built, and piled about the fireplaces, some old and some fresh, were not only thousands of clam-shells but turtle-shells also, as though these animals had been brought here to be smoked. A heap of fairly fresh diced turtle meat lay beside one of the fireplaces. The mysterious quality of all this lies here. There are no clams in the immediate vicinity and turtles do not greatly abound. There is no wood whatever on the island with which to build fires; it would have to be brought here. There is no water whatever. And once arrived, there is no anchorage. Why people would bring clams and turtles and wood to an islet where there is no protection we do not know. A mile and a half away they could have beached easily and have found both wood and water. It is a riddle we cannot answer, just as we think of no reason for the big iron rings … there is no safe water for a boat to lie in and no cove protection from wind and storm. We climbed the cliff by a trail that was well beaten in a crevice and on the flat top found a sparse growth of brown grass and some cactus. Nothing more.”

I searched the Internet for information on Cayo Islet but found nothing. The picture above is of Coronado Island, an Island that is described by Steinbeck as very similar to Cayo. The rock face looks to be similar to Cayo. There is probably some reasonable explanation but it is curious ...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Log from the Sea of Cortez

When two crayfish meet, they usually fight. One would say that perhaps they might not at a future time, but without some mutation it is not likely that they will lose this trait. And perhaps our species is not likely to forgo war without some psychic mutation which at present, at least, does not seem imminent. And if one place the blame for killing and destroying on economic insecurity, or inequality, on injustice, he is simply stating the proposition in another way. We have what we are. Perhaps the crayfish feels the itch of jealousy, or perhaps he is sexually insecure. The effect is that he fights.
John Steinbeck p.15

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Russian place names

One of the books I bought for my birthday was the new edition of 'Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida', translated and edited by Robert Chandler. I was able to compare the translation of Gogol with an older translation and it is much more hip, trendy and easier to read. Altogether it seems to be quite a cool book.

I had never heard of Buida and Robert Chandler introduces each author quite well so I couldn't help laughing at one of the anecdotes. Buida is known as a surrealist writer. One story about him and about Russia is told about his mother:

"Buida has described how his mother, who had been brought up in Central Russia, first arrived in the region in 1947. Her train ticket bore the name of her destination: the town of Wehlau. She arrived, however to find workmen blanking out the name from signs in the station. That night she and two friends speculated as to how the town would be renamed. Her own suggestion, 'Somewhere', was dismissed as too definite, not Russian enough. Her friends suggested 'Sometime or other' or 'Any old how'. In the event, the town was called Znamensk, after the Russian for banner."

Monday, July 03, 2006

Happy Birthday!

Just a short note to say that today is my birthday!! Not that I am giving anyone a hint or not. I will write more later, it goes without saying that I managed to get some more books:)

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Surrealist poetry

"The embrace of poetry like that of the flesh
As long as it lasts
Shuts out any glimpse of the misery of the world"

From Andre Breton 'On the road to San Romano'. I managed to find a book of Surrealist love poems in a secondhand bookstore yesterday. I find surreal poetry to be the most exciting and if I am true to myself it is the style that I prefer to write. This is quite a wonderful book. The surrealists 'exploited' the abstract nature of their poems to write about erotic subjects, it is true the poems are quite powerful. This is the stereotype of all poets that they write about sex. I must admit it I don't completely agree but it does make me smile and that quote about the embrace of poetry is wonderful. In another part of the same poem he sames to be describing what poetry is, and he does a marvellous job:

"The eye of the kite
The dew on the horsetail
The memory of a bottle frosted over on a silver tray
And the road of the mental adventure
That climbs abruptly
One stop and bushes cover it instantly"