Saturday, December 8, 2007

ups and downs and ups and

Got back from the gym this morning (good) resolved to get a new bike basket (the last stolen while I was in Morocco). Was not sure whether there was enough money in my Postbank account. Went online. My Postbank account asked me to activate my new TAN list (a list of 100 numbers you use to authenticate online payments). I did. Recent activity was displayed. There was a debit of 160 Euros from LottoTeam.

I'm baffled. There was a letter from LottoTeam when I got back offering a 32 Euro voucher in return for taking out a three-month subscription to the Lottery, which I naturally don't want, with all my bank account details and a blank line for a signature. No idea how they got my account details, but surely (I thought) they can't take money from my account if I don't sign anything? I now look more closely at this letter. It says they tried to reach me by telephone twice without success, and the debit for the lottery is made monthly, and they will charge me 160 Euros unless I notify them to the contrary by postcard or fax. I naturally failed to notify them to the contrary, since I was in Florida, so they have taken 160 Euros from my account. Um. Are they really allowed to take money from my account if they simply tell me they will unless I tell them not to?

Anyway, I send them a fax, and I suppose I shall have to call them, and this is stressful so I turn in my hour of need to Bremer Sprachblog. In the comments section it emerges that Anatol Stefanowitsch is considering his options. The blog was started last January as part of the Jahr der Wissenschaften; it takes a lot of time; it may not continue in its present form. Say it ain't so, Anatol, say it ain't so! (What he in fact says is that Unesco has declared 2008 the Jahr der Sprachen, so there may be a reprieve.)

All this while I am mulling over my outraged response to LottoTeam. I have a quick glance at the Guardian; they have published Doris Lessing's acceptance speech for her Nobel Prize - a speech whose nearest rival for sheer idiocy is Paul Auster's speech for the Prince of Asturias Prize earlier this year. Auster's line was that no book had ever stopped anyone from killing anyone, never saved a child's life, never changed anything, a line which, even applied only to novels, could sound plausible only to someone who had never heard of Harriet Beecher Stowe. I had thought no one could top Auster for portentous intellectual laziness; I was young and naive. Lessing begins by talking about the desperate hunger for books in Zimbabwe, moves on to the indifference to books of boys at an upmarket North London school, moves on to sweeping comments about technology:

What has happened to us is an amazing invention - computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked: "What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print?" In the same way, we never thought to ask, "How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?"

They say you're as old as you feel, which would make me about 963, and that was before Lessing went on to privilege books over oral composition, a move which might look plausible to anyone who a) thinks The Da Vinci Code is better value than the Iliad or b) has never come across Milman Parry's work on Homeric epic and oral composition. It's entirely possible that the book-filled mud hut of Lessing's childhood had a copy of the Iliad but missed out on Parry's classic papers in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 1930 and 1932, and entirely possible that Lessing never happened to come across developments in Homeric scholarship on leaving home, one would be rather less likely, one might think, to preserve this unselfconscious ignorance if brought up on, um, the inanities of the Internet. If you're as old as you feel then discovering that a Novel Prize acceptance speech can underperform the sort of blog post one dashes off in half an hour (without bothering to check Wikipedia) would make me about 1097.

Which might explain why I have yet to adjust to the telephone, that instrument of the Devil.


Mithridates said...

Hm. Number one, Auster's argument is OLD. He's supposed to be at the forefront of postmodern fiction and here he's making an argument - or a set of assertions, rather - that is least 150 years old and probably much older.

It seems that Auster does not think that books are ineffectual, only that they are incapable of effecting any good. Evil seems to be no problem whatsoever for art.

One might ask him where the world's major religions would be without their foundational books. It's shockingly inane, this speech. He seems to say quite literally that books don't put food into children's bellies - as if books should come with snacks (which isn't a bad idea, actually) - or fix the plumbing or the roads etc etc. I love how usefulness seems to be defined here: only what people need in order to survive as physical organisms. He says,

"A book has never put food in the stomach of a hungry child. A book has never stopped a bullet from entering a murder victim's body. A book has never prevented a bomb from falling on innocent civilians in the midst of war. Some like to think that a keen appreciation of art can actually make us better people -more just, more moral, more sensitive, more understanding. Perhaps that is true -in certain rare, isolated cases."

Then of course he goes into the gratuitous Hitler-was-an-artist stuff. But interestingly enough, none of the "practical" jobs entail doing any of these things either. So practicality means: doing that which is pretty much impossible. (Feeding starving children doesn't seem all that impossible to me, actually, given the amount of wheat the US dumps into the ocean every year, but I guess the millions of starving children everywhere, including in the richest nations in the world, indicate that it might as well be impossible.)

And isn't there some - some: I realize there are other factors - correlation between literacy and the spread of equal rights? In Afghanistan, 43% of males are literate and 12% of females are literate.

I suppose Auster can make these claims given the inanity of his books. I really strongly believe that anyone who has read Borges and Kafka and Gogol and Calvino has absolutely no use for Auster, except to pass the time. Though I guess because that's pretty much all that literature does, according to him, he's in pretty good shape.

This speech could have been two lines long: "I refuse to think about why I read and write. Thank you for this money." All this hogwash about the universal hunger for stories. Novelists deal in particulars, I think, not in generalities - good ones, at least (Auster tends to try to be a novelist of "ideas"); so why do they use the platform of the public speech to start doing what they aren't very good at doing in the first place?

Hunger = constant preconscious prelinguistic inexplicable urge. In other words, it's a mystery, folks; goodnight! I want Auster to come to my classroom and see just how NOT hungry some of my strudents (I meant students, but this seems appropriate) are for stories, at least stories that are written or told (gaming's another issue, I grant you).

And I might have asked Lessing what she thought of the Internet after the recent crisis in Pakistan. The Internet, as far as I know, was the only venue for free expression left after the declaration of marshal law. Blogging effects ELECTIONS, Doris. Had she looked at the Internet periodically she might not have been the absolute last person on the planet to hear that she'd won the Nobel Prize.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry. I only feel about 102, (and am, in actuality, 21), but I'm still quite sure the telephone is the instrument of the devil. Grr.

Ithaca said...

Mithridates, yes, Auster's baffling. It's not even as though he's staking a claim for the feebleness of fiction. I suppose a book like Amartya Sen's on famines and food entitlements, in fact quite a lot of books on development economics, are meant to put food in children's bellies. Last time I looked most medical knowledge was transmitted by, um, the printed word, mainly bound up into books. And as for fiction, readers do all kinds of things, both good and bad, as a consequence of their reading. I once read an interview of a guy who had been inspired by the Lord of the Rings; he said he had seen someone being beaten up on a subway platform and went to help because he knew it was what Aragorn would have done.

With regard to Lessing, yes, it is her blindness to the importance of the Internet to people in politically repressive regimes that's disturbing. For that matter, even in notional democracies we have access to much better information now even when it doesn't for one reason or another turn up in the national press.

Mithridates said...

Yeah, that's what I meant: I don't know how he could say that books don't feed children unless he meant it in the obviously nutty literal sense.

I retract what I said about novelists not dealing in generalities. I suppose it's always a bad thing to say what novelists don't do because the novel's so elastic. I got carried away. All I meant was that Auster wasn't very good with ideas. I also probably meant that I'm not very good with them either. There are plenty of novelists who are.

Let's print up the T-Shirts: What Would Aragon Do?

I want: What Would Edmond Dantes Do?