19 January 2014
Today's reading list
How directors' commentaries etc. are becoming part of the Primary Text. Makes me want to read the referenced book Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation by Gerard Genette. Related thought: the fascination with binge watching but not with binge reading is a sad vindication of Infinite Jest.
One of the oldest and most universal moral precepts is the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want them to treat you. That mandate shows up in Confucianism and in the Code of Hammurabi. It was reiterated by Seneca and by the Buddha. It appears in the Bible, as the command to love thy neighbor as thyself. It might possibly have been taught to more people than any other notion in history.
It is also, on reflection, a little weird. For a guideline about how to treat others, the Golden Rule is strikingly egocentric. It does not urge us to consult our neighbors about their needs; it asks us only to generalize from ourselves--to imagine, in essence, that everyone's idea of desirable treatment matches our own. As such, it makes a curiously narrow demand on our imagination, and, accordingly, on our behavior. And it is not alone. From Kant's Categorical Imperative to John Rawls's Veil of Ignorance, the self is a common benchmark in moral reasoning.
Middlemarch breaks with this tradition. Morality does not start with the self, Eliot insists; it starts when we set the self aside. "Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world?" she asks. And then: "I know no speck so troublesome as self." What a killer line, and what a memorable image. We dwell in moral myopia; literally and figuratively, we are too close to ourselves.
Four answers dealt with a personal axiom: don't think of absolutes, think of a continuum. In "Humaniqueness", Irene Pepperberg argues against absolute human and absolute other. In "Things are either true or false", Alan Alda argues against the obvious. In "Essentialism", Richard Dawkins argues against our bias towards Platonic ideals. And in "Infinity", Max Tegmark argues against rounding up to infinity when actual values are available.
Also interesting: in "Mouse models", Azra Raza (cool name) points out that it is well-known that mice are horrible models for human disease studies. Entrenchment and convenience seem to be the only reason they are still used. Or, to paraphrase, they're the worst model except for all others.
I remember 20-or-so years ago I knew a guy that was teaching lit at Morehouse. He was preparing the most geographically eclectic syllabus I've ever seen. Apparently, that's still an aberration.
Arguments against are: translations don't do justice to the originals, and only an insignificant fraction of any country can be presented. The article points out that of the most polyglot--which is rare enough--beyond five or so languages is rarer still. With that, the choice of Readable Literature is very small indeed. And the fraction of taught divided by untaught books in the English language is by necessity small.
New directions include: large corpus text analysis to examine similarities of style etc.; borderless organizations of similarly themed yet differently nationed books; grouping books across global politics; etc. An example of Thoreau reading the Baghavad Gita, Ghandi reading Thoreau then revisiting the Baghavad Gita because of him, then MLK absorbing Ghandi's writing reminded me that part of this history is expressed in Glass's Satyagraha. That instance of cross-century and cross-nation influence seems an equally important approach.
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