Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Platypus Returns (Yet Again)

Well, we've been back from a wedding in Penn. long enough for the jet lag to start wearing off at least. We were out there for a wedding where I was the best man. The service was held in a beautiful little church that dates all the way back to the Revolution. The graveyard was well worth the trip as well, and it was nice to get a chance to indulge in two of my less-frequent hobbies: church-seeing and graveyard-seeing. The reception following the wedding was held in a manor house. All in all, it was quite a classy affair. Did I mention they used the marriage rite from the 17th century Irish Book of Common Prayer?

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Return of "Thus Spoke the Platypus" Part XI

Thus did Bera, Priest of the City, and Birsha, Priest of the Forest, and Bela, Priest of the Plain, all fail to move Utnapishtim from his place at the crossroads, but each led away a part of the people with them until only a few remained to hear the words of Utnapishtim. Then word came to Og, King of Bashan, that Utnapishtim had come down and taken his stand at the crossroads. So he gathered to himself a new army, horsemen, and footmen, and chariots, and took the road that led from the sea. So Og, King of Bashan, and his army, his horsemen, and his footmen, and his chariots, went up to Utnapishtim. Thirty-nine days they traveled, and on the fortieth they came to the crossroads.

Now Utnapishtim saw the clouds of dust, and perceived that Og was coming up from the sea. Then the people that remained to hear the words of Utnapishtim were filled with great dread, and they all fled so that Utnapishtim was left alone. So Og, King of Bashan, came to Utnapishtim.

And Og boasted before Utnapishtim saying: "Now surely Utnapishtim is as a dog by the side of the road, now surely Utnapishtim is as a dead dog, for none of his followers will stand before this my army."

When he had heard the boast of Og, King of Bashan,Utnapishtim frowned and said: "Have I not laid low an army with the Unnim, the World-Destroying Power, have not I laid low seven armies with the Annim, the Soul-Destroying Power? How is it, then, that Og, King of Bashan, can say to me 'surely Utnapishtim is a dog by the side of the road, surely Utnapishtim is as a dead dog?'"

When Og heard this, he laughed out loud and said: "Utnapishtim will not use the Unnim again, Utnapishtim will throw the Annim into the sea, for never again will he send so many men down to the pit apart from wisdom. So now I will cut off the head of Utnapishtim and feed his body to my dogs, and his wisdom will be no more."

Utnapishtim heard the words of Og and the heart within him was sore tried, for he knew that Og spoke true. Then Utnapishtim girded up his loins and turned and ran before the face of the armies of Og, King of Bashan, his horsemen, and his footmen, and his chariots, and he took the road that led to the waste. Forty days and forty nights he ran before the chariot of Og.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Return of "Thus Spoke the Platypus" Part X

News of how Utnapishtim had received Bera, Priest of the City, and Birsha, Priest of the Forest, spread far and wide and came to the ears of Bela, Priest of the Plains, as he was directing the mowers, and builders, and all the people of the Plain. When Bela heard how Utnapishtim had rejected Bera and Birsha, his wrath was beyond measure, for he said in his heart "will not the fool challenge me too, and take away all that I have worked for, and all that my fathers' fathers have worked for?" So too he girded up his loins and went up to the crossroads. Thirty-nine days he traveled, and on the fortieth he came to Utnapishtim.

When Bela came to the crossroads he heard Utnapishtim addressing the people thus:

"What shall I say to you, oh men of reed houses?"

And the people responded to Utnapishtim: "We do not live in houses of reed but in houses of stone! They are strong and tall, as our forefathers built them!"

But Utnapishtim replied: "Would that you did live in reed houses then, so that you could hear the wind! For once Utnapishtim lived in a reed house and there he heard the voice of Wisdom blowing on the wind and warning him of the Flood. Now Utnapishtim is the wind, and he seeks for the house of reeds where he may blow, but you build your houses out of stone and keep him out! The wind is cold, the wind is unpleasant, but through the wind dose Wisdom speak!"

The words of Utnapishtim confused the people, but they would not leave him so long as each day he spoke some new thing.

All this did Bela, Priest of the Plain, observe, and when he could stand the words of Utnapishtim no longer, he cried out: "Utnapishtim, my foe, my adversary, deceiver of men! What nonsense is this that you teach the people? They will forget their fields, and there will be no more grain, they will forget their building and there will be no more houses. Surely, Utnapishtim is liar and a hater of men!"

The people heard Bela's voice, and they stood back from him in great confusion; a part on his right, and a part on his left.

Utnapishtim bore these harsh words from Bela, Priest of the Plain, and he smiled as he heard them, but when Bela had finished he spoke: "Has Bela come too? Thirty-nine days you have walked, and forty you have travailed to insult me, but you have never walked so far to insult Wisdom! Who is Utnapishtim, and who is his father, and what is his clan that you hate him with such an abiding hatred?"

And Bela answered Utnapishtim: "Utnapishtim is a liar, and his father a deceiver, and his clan's name is the pit. He, I insult, for what is this wisdom he claims to speak for more than a fable? I and my fathers have taught the people how to mow, I and my fathers have taught them how to build. What does Utnapishtim teach them? Birsha knows his place, and Bera serves the builders and mowers of the city, but Utnapishtim draws the people out while their fields go untended and their houses unbuilt."

At these words, Untapishtim laughed: "What a long time Utnapishtim must have kept these people standing here if their grain goes unharvested and their homes become ruins! Does any man need to go to his work? Let him go! But what is this talk of "I and my fathers?" If Bela knew his fathers' teaching better, he would know that they themselves said "we were taught by Wisdom."

When Utnapishtim had said this, Bela came up and struck him on the mouth and spit on him. Then he called out, "friends, do not be troubled any longer, for have I not defeated this man who was troubling you? I could have argued all day, but his bible-babble is nothing, and it would waste our time. Come back to your fields and to your houses, and I will show you new marvels to make them better than they were before!"

Then a great part of the people arose and followed Bela, Priest of the Plain, but a part still remained with Utnapishtim.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Platypus Reads Part XXIV

It's funny, but it's true; during the school year I have to shut half my brain off so that I can teach.

Bare me out on this one. You can't walk into a room full of eighth graders and say: "Modern America can only be understood in terms of Nietzsche's understanding of the creative man, or "over-man," as the maker of values via his will-to-power perversely democratized so that all of us can become value-generators." Well, you can, but they'll just look at you funny and roll their eyes. That's not to say that teaching teenagers doesn't require any real mental effort, quite the opposite, but that it uses certain mental faculties to the limit while demanding that others be temporarily suspended. You have to figure out how to communicate complex information in a way that they can grasp and run with. When you're mentally sparing with them, you still have to keep one hand behind your back. The goal is to help them develop their abilities, not to crush them with your massive brain. The part of my brain devoted to navigating those tricky waters gets worked to exhaustion during the school year. The other half, the half that desperately wants a long jaw with an Oxford trained mind, has to lay dormant.

Summer is when the other half of me gets let out of the basement. Practically, this means that I read about five books at once. The closer to the school year, the more difficult the fair. This summer, I've already long since exhausted my projected reading list, and so I'm having to make up more as I go. Sometimes it feels like my brain is on over-drive.

So what does all this mean? Well, for one thing, it means that my list of posts under the heading of "The Platypus Reads" is growing at an alarming rate (and I'm not posting on all the books I'm reading). Secondly, it means that I understand why teachers get that time off during the summer. Summer is your chance to remember that you're an adult again. It's a time to let out those parts of you that you have to stifle during the year in order to get by. Don't get me wrong, I love teaching, and I care about my students, but it comes at a price. Summer's reminding me of that fact right now.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Platypus Reads Part XXIII

Following from what I have stated in the last post about my read of "Dune," I want to address what I think is a sub-theme that flows out of it. Since the focal character of the drama is the planet Arrakis, the humans in the book are there as fauna and loci of planetary change. Thus one of the primary lenses through which Herbert views them is in how they adapt to life on Arrakis.

In light of this, it is no surprise that the entire first book of the novel "Dune" deals with the attempts of the Atreides family to adapt to life on Arrakis. Because of the predators on Arrakis, the Harkonnens (indeed, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is fond of referring to himself as a predator), most of them are wiped out. This is to be expected when a new species is introduced to an area; it will either flourish and displace indigenous life forms (ie. the rabbit or the cat when introduced to Australia), or rapidly decline unless some sort of adaptation occurs (ie. colonial Europeans in tropical Africa before the discovery of a malaria prophylactic and cure). Books two and three, however, deal with the few specimens that do survive via adaptation; Paul, Jessica, Alia, Gurney, and (perhaps) Thufir. Their adaptation is so successful that, together with the native Fremen, they are able to devour House Harkonnen in turn, and replace them as the dominant species on Dune. Moreover, the exceeding harshness of the environment of Arrakis shapes the Atreides/Fremen into super-men capable of becoming the dominant species in the galaxy.

The narrative at the human level, on this read, is not one of treachery and vengeance, but of natural selection in action. Along with the life cycle of the Sandworm, the topography of Sheildwall, deep desert, pan, and graben, and discussions of various flora right down the flowers that the dew collectors harvest each morning, it is just one more feature making up the life of the planet Arrakis.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Platypus Reads Part XXII

This post comes at the urging of a friend and a stroke of inspiration prompted by a web comic last weekend.

I wanted to write a series of meditations on Frank Herbert's "Dune" earlier this year, but was prevented by illness from following through. As a further bit of background, my wife and I were reading the book together out-loud at the time. It was my third time through the novel and her first.

Since its appearance, "Dune" has been the poster-book for proponents of transhumanism; the belief that science should be employed to help humanity "transcend" unwanted features of current human existence such as sickness and death. In the sixties, this interpretation was linked with the drug culture so that "Dune" became "all about the spice." The drug angle seems to be losing steam the further we get from the sixties, however, and the new take on the book is heavily influenced by environmentalism, cloning and genetics, the oil crisis, and events in the Middle East.

Certainly, all these themes can be found in the work, but I want to offer a little different spin in interpreting "Dune." The place to start, as a professor at the U of R pointed out to me, is with the title. The book (and those that follow it) all have as their title the name of the planet on which the action takes place. With a good writer, the title of a book generally alerts the reader right off to the core theme(s) or character in the novel. "Jane Eyre" is a book about Jane, "Pride and Prejudice" is about, you guessed it, pride and prejudice. In the case of "Dune"this should point right off to the central character of the work: the planet Arrakis.

I find further evidence, right at the start, that Arrakis is the focal character of the book, from the dedication:

"To the people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of "real materials"- to the dry-land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration."

The great workers toward the future, for Herbert, are not geneticists, or historians, or poets; they are ecologists, those who study the forces that make up a planet. Interestingly enough, this seems to presciently predict Jared Diamond's theory of geographical determinism in "Guns, Germs, and Steel." Again, this moves the focus of the work from any human character or characters and puts it on the title planet, Dune.

The purpose of "Dune" according to my read, then, is not to endorse the quest to master human evolution, but to deemphasize the importance humanity places on itself, and picture humans as just another factor of earth's ecology. All the wars, loves, politics, and religion are just tiny little ripples within the greater narrative of the planet's evolution.

Of course, a lot more evidence is needed to substantiate this claim. However, weblogs are ideally unsuited as a medium for handling 120 page academic essays. My hope is that by posting these thoughts, the reader can begin to intuitively grasp the inherent plausibility of this reading and find motivation to reengage the text along a different axis. Subsequent posts on this topic should be understood in light of this read on the text.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Platypus Reads Part XXI

This one came highly recommended from a friend.

"The High House" follows in the footsteps of George MacDonald's "Phantasties" and "Lilith," and that is the best place to start with this quirky, imaginative, highly literate, work. (Speaking of starts, this also seems to be Stoddard's authorial debut.)

Stoddard is absolutely steeped, and I mean STEEPED, in the works of the Inklings (Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams in particular), their influences (Norse Mythology, Chesterton, MacDonald), and their contemporaries (Burroughs, Dunsany, Lovecraft, Eddison). If you aren't borrowing a copy, be prepared to annotate! However, "The High House" does not come off as simply imitative or a pastiche (though as a new author, their are moments when his allusions are too heavy or descend to the level of strait borrowing). At its best, it stands as a genuine, new contribution to the field; both interpreting the works that influenced it and yet producing a new and enjoyable world all its own.

To sum it up, "The High House" is the sort of book I wish I could write.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy Fourth Platypus

May our little loves grow bigger under the sovereignty of the Love that moves the sun and other stars.

No king but King Jesus!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Platypus Plunder

Nothing makes for a morning of enjoyment like finding out that an elderly historian is liquidating part of his library and that you get first pick. The only thing that could make it better is if he wasn't an Americanist... Oh well. I still got to bring home some treasures including: "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," "The Closing of the American Mind," and Winston Churchill's "A History of the English Speaking Peoples." All for free, of course. And just in time too; my summer reading is going faster than I planned.