The Dark World

In between work today, I got in a quick read – The Dark World by Henry Kuttner, from 1946. I read on Wikipedia a few weeks ago that it had influenced Roger Zelazny heavily, so I wanted to see for myself – and lo and behold, the connections are even more obvious than I’d thought.

It almost reads like a first draft of Nine Princes in Amber or even Jack of Shadows. Kuttner’s style is too florid, over-the-top, and even primitive compared to RZ, but the rest… an immortal with amnesia that gains a conscience, a power struggle with sharply defined and overtly color-schemed characters, generous bloodshed and sword-play, a mixture of Earth and some otherworldly place… they seem very much like proof of concept for more advanced parallel-world ideas that RZ came up with – the Trumps, Shadow, the Pattern and the Logrus, even the World Machine from JoS. It all feel rooted in this little 126-page book.

I knew he was a fan of Alfred Bester, which explains the vastly improved dialogue, but combine Kuttner and Bester with an energetic, poetic approach, and you get RZ. Neat.

I have been very, very leery of writing in anything resembling a RZ-way since I wrote an 11th Amber novel, The Road To Amber, on a lark as a much younger undergrad, back in ‘95 when he died on my birthday, only to learn that was a really silly thing to do that he didn’t want. I’ve still got the thing, somewhere, in a bottomless trunk. 65,000 words, I think. It helped convince me that I could begin, sustain, and end a story. If I hadn’t written that, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to write EJ.

And it was a really fun pastime, trying to imitate the master. I hit a good stretch more than once, but I came to realize that it all leaned on an already established and rock-solid skeleton – pulling off the surface hijinks are nothing, really, compared to what lies beneath. I wonder if the guy who writes the Oberon books, which I have avoided, has fallen into this trap.

But reading Kuttner has gotten me thinking again. What if the problems I’m having with my 2nd book, which has lingered for six years now even though it lives in my head every day, are at the core because I’m trying to avoid sounding like RZ? It looks like he was not bashful at all in embracing Kuttner, consciously or unconsciously. Why should I avoid 1st person like the plague? As I said before, the style is nothing compared to the skeleton, and this skeleton is mine. It might open the book up and allow for the kind of weird riffing that I like to do in this blog. It’s too bad I’m overworked.

Maybe I could get a PhD grant, and work on my dissertation AND the book in relative relaxation. I could, also, eject pigs from my backside.

Maybe he did know what he was doing

After reading this article, and doing some poking around in regards to Oriana Falluci, I am much less certain now the Pope was being merely excessively academic. His boo-boo of a citation now takes on a sinister and calculated aspect – reminding me of GWB, even, in the sense that his rhetorical goal is often no more complex than polarization of the world and the consolidation of his power structure.

Maybe we need to add another amendment to the Constitution, just in case, that actually says “seperation of church and state” rather than the mere implication in the 1st. The Pope’s view, hidden behind a facade of embracing reason, is that there is an acceptable middle-ground between the two, and that must not ever take a good grip here. Not that it hasn’t already…

The Pope, mistranslated

I find this brouhaha over the Pope’s recent remarks fascinating in the context of scholarly citation and popular mistranslation.

I have no real interest in defending/attacking him, Christianity, or Islam, but I do have an interest in what he said as opposed to what it was taken as.

My gut instinct, initially, was that he had offered a quote to illustrate some point, being the ex-professor he is, and this was mistranslated or crudely summarized into being his own remarks or even that he agreed with the gist of the quotation.

After a brief search, I found the text of the speech and proceeded to read it instead of sorting through conflicting and oft biased news accounts.

Assuming that the English within is accurate, I would say my initial guess was correct. I was actually impressed by the smooth flow of the speech, though you’re not going to find me agreeing with faith/God and reason being compatible, which is a large part of his argument.

A very simplified summary of the speech’s thesis would be that God acts rationally and this is a key tenet of Christianity. The infamous quotation in particular offers a theological debate between a Byzantine (and Christian) emperor and a unidentified Persian (and assumed follower of Islam) in 1391. The emperor states God is bound by reason, and that he believes spreading faith by war and violence are not reasonable activities; he goes on to question how Mohammad or the Koran address this issue, as much of Islam was, admittedly, spread by holy war. The Persian’s (Ibu Hazn) remarks are paraphrased through another author, but the response seems to be that the God of the Koran is “transcendent” and thus beyond rationality, is free to disregard even his own statements on violence and such.

The rest of the Pope’s speech drops the Christianity/Islam context and focuses instead on the “Must God be bound by reason?” question, the role of reason in Christianity, and in particular how Greek philosophy intersects.

I would have extreme difficulty calling this an attack on Islam. The Pope does not use the quote to even denounce the use of war or violence to spread religion (though I’m sure he agrees with that position); his focus at that point in the speech is the differing view of God’s rationality between the two religions, and he then moves quickly on to Christian-only concepts. In the preceding paragraph, even, he explicitly states he is only using the quote as a “starting-point for my reflections on the issue,” which is the issue of “faith and reason.” I think he wanted an equally scholarly response from an Islamic scholar, as the Persian responded to the emperor. But in today’s supercharged, simplified media…

Ergo, I think the Pope got mistranslated, but he left the opening.

His choice of quotation is airtight from an academic perspective, but politically poor. This is rhetoric that fails on a worldwide stage. Surely there are dozens of other theological quotations that he could have used to introduce the same God/reason thesis without juxtaposing Christianity and Islam so sharply.

But I can’t give that approach much weight at all, personally, as I have little patience for burying history to make people happy. There is a sharp divide between the theology of the two religions. From what I know of Islam (I took a course as an undergrad) he did not misrepresent its conception of God, and if the Pope – and a very educated Pope we have, for better or worse – doesn’t know Christian theology, I’m a saint.

It would be really, really easy to mistranslate or misquote that speech and turn it into an attack on Islam rather than a scholarly debate with, perhaps, a mild implication that Christianity and Islam should have theological rap sessions on occasion. I might even say that the Pope, eager to deliver a thoughtful rumination, accidentally left an opening that was exploited.

By the way, even English-speakers didn’t understand the speech. The NYT said today, “The speech was largely a scholarly address criticizing the West for submitting itself too much to reason, walling God out of science and philosophy,” which is a so-so summary of just one point of the speech.

I’d like to see an Islamic scholar write a good rebuttal to his speech, in a polite manner. The obvious counteragrument to the Pope’s speech is that Christianity may talk the talk of rationality and borrow the Greeks for backing, but there is no shortage of religious warfare done in the name of Jesus. The Crusades ring a bell. And why, there’s an overtly Christian nation right now waging war to make the world safe for Judeo-Christian Western civilization. You get one guess which one. The ‘war on terrorism’ is not eligible for a secular sticker.

Lecture vs. one-on-one

One of the frustrations of teaching is the limitations of a lecture class. I still much prefer one-on-one interaction. It has been pleasant so far, however, teaching the night 3604 persuasive writing class. I feel like all my strengths get to come to bear with more experienced students, whereas in 1010 I often feel like I’m holding back to some extent in the interests of keeping most of what I say from sailing over everyone’s heads. That may be the key FYC skill – simplification of complex material, much like my pet peeve, the importance of summarization.

What I like about meeting students one-on-one is that this lower-division/upper-division split tends to vanish. When I address a 1010 class as a whole they tend to clam up, especially early in the semester; when I put them in groups and walk around, speaking to only 3 or 4 at a time, they start talking; but when it’s just one student sitting in my office or standing in the hallway, they positively pipe up with whatever’s on their mind. Now, a upper-division class tends to function like a 1010 class does at the small group level, which is good – getting a good discussion going is remarkably easy – but whatever level of student, they all talk more or less freely when it’s just me and them, even if Raven, my officemate, is a mere 5-6 feet away.

I’ve introduced some new peer response stuff in both classes this fall, especially in 1010, and a robust conference schedule in 3604, to nudge them along with their papers (we only meet once a week in that class). With these thoughts in mind. It’s too early to say what the effects will be. But I feel a lot more confident this semester than in any previous other about what I’m doing, I’ll say that much.

With that said, I need a cheeseburger.

Breathing, and Stipends

It’s Saturday, after a very busy week of classes, and I feel like I can’t breathe properly anymore. It’s just one thing after another. I thought I’d be in the semester groove by now, but it hasn’t happened yet. Already this weekend I’m behind, a situation that shouldn’t happen until late October at least. I hope I’m not burning out. I felt like that Thursday morning. Then again, there is no caffeine in the apartment. Maybe I just need my Coca-cola fix, and I can then read through the fifty hojillion pages I need to get through by tonight. I can’t do an all-nighter as H and I are taking a trip tomorrow, but I might stay up too late anyway.

The English department drama that I mentioned earlier was over our teaching assistant stipends. On the 28th, the first day of classes, we all got an email saying the stipend would be cut by over 25% percent in the spring. We’re already well underpaid – the second-lowest in the nation among English departments, according to the Chronicle of Higher Ed two years ago. I’m paid a little more as I’m doctoral, but not much.

Muttering, both constructive and not, ensued. The TAs met to discuss a response.

Earlier this week the department suddenly took back those cuts before the TAs managed to make a official communal response (although the grumbling from the dungeon, the TA offices on the first floor, I think, got heard in some form upstairs, through certain faculty) but there is still resentment, particularly since little explantation was given for why there was a cut to begin with. The drama is not over yet. There will probably be a department/TA meeting to try and resolve the strange lack of communication, and we’ll probably get an official explanation. Either way, I think the TAs will organize as a result of this.

It’s a drain on time to worry about these things, really, when I’ve got papers to go out, clases to teach, and classes to take, but stuff happens and it has to be dealt with. I don’t feel particularly self-conscious about mentioning this to the universe right now, as it’s been almost two weeks since the TAs were told of this, and the news has doubtlessly trickled out in plenty of informal mediums, either in rumor or factoid form.