Sunday, March 27, 2005

Shakespeare: who was he?

I have a certain fascination with the much-debated Shakespeare authorship question, as demonstrated by the three essays I've posted on the topic (which can be found here). Now a new book has entered the fray, an attractively produced volume titled Players : The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare, by Bertram Fields.

In a nutshell, the authorship controversy centers on whether William Shakespeare, a not-very-well-educated lad from a small farming town, could have acquired the range of knowledge, the life experience, and the massive vocabulary (21,000 words, almost three times the vocabulary of John Milton) that are evident in the plays and poems published in his name. Stratfordians - i.e., those who insist that Shakespeare of Stratford did indeed write the works, say that Shakespeare's innate genius allowed him to overcome all obstacles. The doubters, clumsily dubbed anti-Stratfordians, say that even genius is not a sufficient explanation for the playwright's apparent familiarity with Greek, Italian, and French, with European locales, with high-flown metaphysical speculations, with legalisms, with military and nautical terminology, with aristocratic pursuits like falconry (forbidden to the middle class), and with the intricacies of life at court. They also see in Shakespeare a distinct preference for the upper classes (nearly all of his major characters are nobles or royals) and a disdain for commoners, who are typically depicted as comical louts or dangerous mobs.

Bertram Fields revisits all these issues and more in his readable, user-friendly volume. The great virtue of his book is its evenhandedness. Fields carefully presents both sides of all the major arguments, never sliding into dogmatism or insisting he has all the answers. This approach may frustrate the absolutists on both sides of the debate, but it allows for an intelligent assessment of the claims and counterclaims, without emotion or invective.

In a book that covers such a large subject, there are bound to be some lapses. Fields makes a few mistakes; for instance, he says in passing that Shakespeare's four major tragedies - Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello - did not appear in print until the First Folio of 1623. Actually, three of the four were published in earlier quartos (the exception is Macbeth). He says that the Earl of Oxford's arms depicted "a rampant lion shaking a spear," when it would be more accurate and less tendentious to say that the lion is holding a broken spear. (Did the lion break the spear by shaking it too hard? Oxfordians - those who think the earl was the real Shakespeare - like to think so.) He also quotes Gabriel Harvey's tribute to Oxford, "... thy countenance shakes a spear," without mentioning that the tribute was written in Latin and the words can be translated in other ways.

These are minor points. What bothered me more was the paucity of citations to other scholars. The book has only three or four footnotes, no endnotes, and most surprising of all, no bibliography. Fields owes most of his arguments to earlier writers, but they are only intermittently acknowledged. His analyses of both Henry V and The Merchant of Venice seemingly owe much to Harold Goddard's superb commentary The Meaning of Shakespeare, but Goddard is never mentioned. He gives little or no indication of the sources for his information on Christopher Marlowe and the Earl of Derby, among others. More citations would have been helpful to readers who wish to pursue this subject further, and would have been appropriate in giving credit where it is due. (For those who are interested, my essays - linked above - do provide a list of sources, including Web sites.)

These caveats should not detract from the overall value of Players. Fields has done a commendable job of summarizing a vast amount of information in a clear, straightforward way, and exhibits a level of common sense often absent from this contentious dispute. His own theory, put forward tentatively at the end, is not terribly convincing (at least to me), but he does not demand allegiance to it. It's just one possibility among many.

In the end, what Fields's book and others like it demonstrate is that the case for "the Stratford man" is relatively weak, and that other contenders can and should be taken seriously. At the same time, they also demonstrate that no single contender fits the bill. Oxford died too early, and the poetry that survives under his own name is not of Shakespearean quality. Marlowe can be a candidate only if he faked his own death in 1593 - not an impossibility, but surely an obstacle to plausibility. The Earl of Derby left no writing in his own name, giving us no way to judge his talents as an author. Francis Bacon had a worldview radically different from Shakespeare's, and his multifaceted career kept him busy enough without penning 37 or more plays on the side. Other proposed candidates are even more unsatisfactory.

The riddle may never be solved. The great value of Players : The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare is that the book is content to raise the questions and leave them, ultimately, unresolved. Sometimes the most honest answer is none at all.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Was Ayn Rand evil?

Years ago I was involved in Objectivism, the movement that grew out of the writings of novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. In an essay called "Shrugging Off Ayn Rand," I discussed how the philosophy didn't work for me and why I eventually moved on.

Lately, though, I've been looking at Ayn Rand from a different - and even more unflattering - perspective. I just read The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, a nonfiction book that argues that sociopaths of a predominantly nonviolent type are more prevalent than we realize. And, by coincidence (or is it synchronicity?), I happened to look up the out-of-print book Therapist by Ellen Plasil on . Therapist tells the story of an Objectivist psychotherapist, Lonnie Leonard, who was highly regarded by leaders of Rand's movement in the 1970s - but who was secretly mistreating his female patients, abusing them emotionally and sexually. One of the reader comments on the Amazon page was left by Scott Ryan, author of Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality. Ryan remarks:

And the fact that the morally corrupt Leonard was able to pass for so long as "one of them" says something crucially important about the movement's standards and purposes: namely, that it is awfully hard to tell a devout Objectivist from a narcissistic, manipulative sociopath. I wonder why. (Hint: it was hard to tell Rand from one too.)
Acerbic though this comment is, it got me thinking. Was Ayn Rand "a narcissistic, manipulative sociopath" - or at least a borderline case?

Well, consider the portrait of Rand drawn by two biographies - Nathaniel Branden's My Years with Ayn Rand and Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand - and by Jeff Walker's The Ayn Rand Cult. These are, admittedly, hostile sources, but in the absence of any biography by Rand's admirers, they are the only ones we have.

Anyone judging by these books would have to say that Rand was narcissistic in the extreme. She lacked empathy. She could be intensely charming (charm and charisma are common features of sociopathy) but was also prone to outbursts of rage and frustration.

She exploited young, emotionally vulnerable people and frequently sabotaged their self-image with her vindictive cruelty. She claimed to love her husband but carried on an affair with a younger man right in front of him, a situation that drove her husband to alcoholism.

She was a hypochondriac. She showed signs of paranoia. She had an addictive personality, smoked two packs of cigarettes daily, and gobbled handfuls of diet pills (amphetamines).

She despised "average" people, whom she regarded as ugly and stupid and irrational, while viewing herself in exalted terms as the greatest writer in history and the greatest philosopher since Aristotle.

She was concerned with no one's needs or wants or suffering except her own. She was able to claim in print that no one had ever helped her, when in fact she had benefited for years from the charity and goodwill of relatives and business associates and friends. She alienated nearly all her friends and allies by the end of her life, and died nearly alone.

She literally drove people crazy; ex-Objectivist Edith Efron once remarked that if you spent any time with Rand, you had to ask yourself if you were insane, or if she was (quoted in Walker). She was a megalomaniac. She was probably manic-depressive. She created heroic fictional characters who are deeply repressed, incapable of normal human interaction, and typically angry or disgusted with the world.

This is hardly a person who should be seen as the epitome of rationality and benevolence - yet this is how her followers do see her. In my Objectivist years I once hesitantly suggested to a fellow Objectivist that there might be a few character flaws to be found in Rand, only to be met with a blank stare and the appalled question, "Character flaws - in Ayn Rand?!" In Objectivist dogma it is always other people who were at fault in their dealings with "Miss Rand" (as they like to call her). Somehow it was always those irrational others who abused, deceived, and hurt Ayn Rand, and her rages and bitterness were entirely justified, entirely rational. How could they not be? Rand was the personification of reason, so by definition whatever she thought, felt, or did just had to be rational - Q.E.D.

When I look at the portrait of Ayn Rand drawn by a variety of people who knew her best, I see a person who is certainly larger and more theatrical than the run-of-the-mill sociopaths in Martha Stout's book, different from them in degree - but not very different in kind.

And I wonder how a movement founded by a woman with such serious disorders could ever have been seen as a way to personal happiness or to a better world.

Saturday, March 12, 2005


I just finished reading The History of Torture, by Daniel P. Mannix, and I have to say the book's relentless chronicling of man's inhumanity to man was pretty depressing. I had liked to think that we are making moral progress, but Mannix's book made me wonder if I was wrong, and if my optimism abour humanity was misplaced. I ended up writing some notes to myself, in which I came to some sort of understanding of the perennial problem of human cruelty. Rather than tidy up these notes, I'm going to reproduce them with only minor editing and abridgments. Maybe some of you have gone through the same thought process and will recognize yourselves here.

Here's what I jotted down:

The thing that haunts me is the fact of human evil. The use of torture, the cruelty, the demonic aspect of people - what is it, if not Original Sin? And yet I don't believe in Original Sin. I like to believe in moral progress. But if someone held the Roman "games" today, wouldn't people show up? They enjoy the emotional pain and humiliation of reality-TV shows, even the surgical disfigurement of The Swan (a show in which contestants are put through plastic surgery). They attend cockfights, dogfights, bullfights, boxing matches, car races that end in deadly crashes. There seems to be something inherent in human nature that responds to blood sport. Maybe we haven't made so much progress, after all. Or perhaps it's better to say that whatever progress we've made is painfully slow, painfully hard won.

I used to think this kind of cruelty was an outgrowth of materialistic culture. The Romans, after all, were materialists who believed in nothing but sensual gratification. On the other hand, the Inquisitors believed they were saving souls, and the Aztecs believed they were placating the gods. It's not a simple matter of "materialism bad, spirituality good." It goes deeper. Any belief system is compatible with torture - as if the lust to kill is so deeply ingrained in human beings that it can be rationalized under any system of thought. If so, it's incorrect to "explain" cruelty by reference to ideology or philosophy or culture. Ethics can mitigate cruelty, but the potential for cruelty is always there, and we are all capable of it.

We all mistreat people, abuse people, insult people. No one is ever blameless. When I was a big sports fan, I used to root so hard for my team that I actually hoped the opposing players would be injured.

And why was I rooting so hard? Because my ego was invested in the team. Their victory was my victory, and their defeat was my defeat - my humilation.

The ego is the key. The small-minded, petty, grasping, insecure, defensive part of us that wants to be superior, wants to control others, wants dominance and power and safety. Only by getting beyond the ego can we escape from violence and cruelty.

The Roman mob rooted for slaughter because they were powerless and frustrated, and it pleased them to see someone worse off than themselves. The Inquisitors were willing to torture because of their egoistic conceit that they, and only they, were in possession of absolute truth. The Nazis worshipped Hitler, a megalomaniac, the personification of ego. The Aztecs, too, were operating on an ego level - they were terrified of the gods, and to propitiate these deities they engaged in wholesale massacres. (The ego is all about fear and vigilance and saving oneself regardless of the cost to others.)

Religious and ethical traditions have always opposed the ego. Greek myths warn of "hubris," or overweening pride, and the myth of Narcissus is a critique of excessive self-love. In the Bible, violence enters the world (Cain's murder of Abel) right after humanity acquires an ego (Adam and Eve's defiance of God). The Ten Commendments stress the need to subordinate the willful self to God, to parents, to social norms. Do not covet = don't be envious or jealous (ego qualities). Do not put any false gods before God = don't elevate the ego to godlike status.

The ego is part of human nature and can't be eradicated. The best we can do is keep it in check. Moral systems teach us this truth. If we have made progress since the days of the Roman "games" or the Inquisition, it's only because we have a long ethical tradition that attempts to put some restraints on the ego.

So it looks like there really is such a thing as Original Sin - and it's the ego. It's part of us all.


That's the end of my notes, but as a coda, here's a quote that just occurred to me. It's from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, a play about cruelty and hubris:

But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured
(His glassy essence), like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep ...

Measure for Measure, II, ii. 122-127

Big bucks

Last night I saw a news report on the federal government's latest budget, which is said to be 2.6 trillion dollars. This got me wondering how I could visualize such a large sum. I decided that by breaking it down into smaller pieces I could make more sense of it. Here are my seat-of-the-pants calculations.

The government spends $2.6 trillion in a year.
There are 52 weeks in a year.
Therefore the government spends $50 billion per week.
There are seven days in a week.
Therefore the government spends $7.14 billion per day.
There are 24 hours in a day.
Therefore the government spends $297 million per hour.
There are sixty minutes in an hour.
Therefore the government spends $4.9 million per minute.
There are sixty seconds in a minute.
Therefore the government spends $82,600 per second.

I should add that the federal budget does not include so-called "off-budget items," which are also very costly. And it does not count state, county, and municipal government spending.

I'm not saying that this amount of spending is necessarily excessive. The United States is a military, industrial, and scientific colossus, with a population of 300,000,000, and it is fighting a global war on terrorism while engaging in massive programs that involve economic subsidies, medical research, and the maintenance of infrastructure, to name just a few.

But when we hear members of Congress insist that government programs are being starved and shrunken, remember this:

The federal government currently spends $82,600 every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of the year.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Playing with fire

A common demonstration of paranormal abilities involves walking on fire or handling fire. The 19th century medium Daniel Dunglas Home was known for his ability to hold red-hot coals in the palms of his hands, astonishing observers who swore that the coals glowed and that Home's hands were unprotected. And of course we all know about demonstrations by shamans of their ability to walk barefoot over embers without injury to the soles of their feet.

There may, however, be a non-paranormal explanation. Recently I've been reading a rather grim but interesting book called The History of Torture by Daniel P. Mannix. (This is the same Mannix who wrote the book about the Roman gladiatorial games that I discussed a short while ago.) On pp. 90-91 he describes ordeals by fire, in which a person's guilt or innocence was determined by whether or not he could come into contact with fire and emerge unscathed. Mannix writes:

The accused might have to carry a red-hot piece of iron a certain distance, walk over several red-hot plowshares (unsually nine), or dip his hand into a cauldron of boiling water, lead, or oil.... In all such tests, everything depends on whether the accused's body is damp. When the human body is brought into sudden contact with extreme heat, the moisture on the skin turns to steam. A common example of this phenomenon is dropping a drop of water on a hot flatiron. If the iron is not too hot, the water will spread over the surface and evaporate, but if the iron is red-hot, the drop will keep its shape and roll about on the iron. If the drop is tilted off on the hand, it will be found to be quite cool. It never actually touches the iron but is supported by a cushion of vapor. This is known as Leiderfrost's phenomenon.

Bechmann in his History of Inventions, Vol. II, page 122, says: "In the month of September 1765 when I visited the copper works at Awested, one of the workmen put his hand under his armpit for a few minutes to make it sweat, as he said, and taking it out again, drew it over a ladle filled with melted copper, some of which he skimmed off."

I have seen steelworkers wash their hands in molten steel as it was poured from a crucible and Dr. Mayne Coe of Riviera Beach, Florida, has heated cast iron to a molten state (2,795 degrees) and handled it with moist hands. He has also walked on red-hot plates of sheet metal. As professional fire-eaters know, a white-hot spoon can be touched to the tongue without burning it (provided the tongue is damp) but if the spoon is only red-hot, it will burn. The theory, then, behind all such ordeals is that the guilty person in an agony of fear will have a dry mouth and dry hands, while the innocent who perspires naturally will not be harmed.
Mannix was probably in a position to know. The bio on the book's back cover says that after college he "joined a circus, working as a sword-swallower, mind-reader, escapologist and lock-picker." Presumably he knew some fire-eaters and learned the tricks of their trade.

Assuming Mannix's account is accurate, it could explain firewalking, handling hot coals, and similar effects often ascribed to paranormal powers.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Julian Jaynes

In 1976, with considerable fanfare, Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes put out a provocative and fascinating book that purported to explain human consciousness, religion, ancient history, and even some forms of mental illness. This all-encompassing theory was presented under the imposing title The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

The crux of Jaynes's argument is an apparently outrageous claim – that modern consciousness, in the sense of self-awareness, is a historically recent development, dating back only to about 1000 BC, and that earlier civilizations, including those of the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, and Babylonians, were founded and maintained by people who were essentially "unconscious." That is, they received marching orders from voices in their heads which they took to be the voices of the gods, but which were actually generated by the right hemisphere of the brain. (The division of the mind into two halves, godlike instructor and passive listener, is what Jaynes calls "bicameral.") In a trancelike state that lasted a lifetime, primitive people carried out these instructions, living, marrying, working, and dying in the thrall of the "gods" who ordered and organized every detail of their lives. Later, the left hemisphere became dominant and the gods died out, persisting (in a debased and altered form) only in certain cases of schizophrenia.

There is an air of triumphalism about the book – the annunciation of a staggering new truth, blinding in its simplicity and awesome in its implications. One reviewer enthused that Origin "renders whole shelves of books obsolete." The book's lengthy title was clearly chosen to reflect Darwin's Origin of Species, the longer title of which is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Jaynes felt that he had solved the problem of the origin of consciousness as decisively as Darwin had solved the problem of the origin of species.

Yet although Jaynes's theory received a great deal of press, it has found relatively few takers. Only a handful of academics have endorsed Jaynes's views, and his ideas today spark little interest. The official Web site of the Julian Jaynes Society features a forum in which members can discuss the book and its implications. When I last looked, a total of only 31 messages had been posted there.

(Correction, March 18: A reader pointed out to me that the forum was newly created when I looked at it, so the small number of messages does not indicate a lack of interest in Jaynes. I take the point and stand corrected. However, I would still maintain that the academic community has shown little willingess to embarce Jaynes's ideas. This could be due to the inertia and closed-mindedness of the establishment, but below I argue that there are other explanations.)

There are several reasons for the widespread indifference to such challenging ideas. First, Jaynes's theory is inherently difficult to accept. An entire civilization comprised of people who are unconscious is simply too far removed from our normal way of understanding the world. To support such an idea, Jaynes has to regard consciousness as nonessential to human life – as a mere ability to "narratize" behavior we would have performed anyway. He goes to great lengths to convince us that consciousness is unnecessary for most human activities, pointing out, for instance, that we can drive a car without paying conscious attention to the task. But surely we need to be conscious when we learn how to drive a car; only after this skill has been habituated can we afford to drive on "autopilot," and even then we need to be able to snap back into full alertness in an emergency. The idea that such vast engineering projects as the ziggurats and pyramids could be carried out unconsciously is anti-intuitive in the extreme.

Second, Jaynes has a disconcerting tendency to quote selectively from his sources. When mining ancient literature for hints of the bicameral mind, he culls examples that buttress his point while ignoring or explaining away countless other examples that work against his position. One example of his tendentiousness is his treatment of Hesiod's Works and Days, a very early Greek poem that consists of instructions on how to manage a farm. Jaynes interprets the poem as having been dictated by the "god" side of the brain; in effect, he argues, Works and Days is a written record of the kind of voice that our ancestors heard incessantly.

But the poem itself contains scattered verses indicating a very different origin. The narrator tells us that he and his brother Perses inherited their father's farm, that Perses is shiftless and incompetent, and that having taken Perses to court and lost, the narrator has put together this instruction manual for Perses in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the farm. None of this is consistent with the bicameral mind hypothesis.

Jaynes deals with this considerable impediment to his argument by brushing it aside; the sections of the poem containing these references, he says, must be later interpolations. "The protest lodged in the crucial lines 37-39 [was] added later," he writes, providing no evidence. This special pleading is repeated in his treatment of the Iliad, the Bible, and other ancient sources. Where a passage supports (or can be made to support) his theory, he assumes it to be old and authentic. Where a passage does not support his theory, he assumes it to be newer and "modern."

Finally, Jaynes falls into the trap that awaits any specialist who ventures outside his area of expertise. As a psychologist with no special training in ancient literature, he seems to misunderstand the ancient sources themselves. A good example of this misunderstanding, and its strange persistence even in the face of a cogent argument to the contrary, is found in a question and answer period in which Jaynes participated, posted here as an Adobe Reader document.

An audience member trenchantly observes that Biblical references to idols, upon which Jaynes relies quite heavily, may be unreliable.

Questioner: ... the biblical Hebrews’ notion that the “idol worshippers’ actually believed that their statues in fact spoke to them seems to have been based on a misconception of what it was these statues did (what purpose they served) in the surrounding cultures. Kaufmann (1960) in commenting on the ancient religion of Israel claims, in fact, that ancient Jews were so far removed from idolatry that they no longer understood what it was that the idol-makers believed in. Kaufmann says of the Jews that their view of idolatry was laughably simplistic. The ancient Jews thought erroneously that idolaters, in fact, believed that their icons would speak to them, something which I think you, Dr. Jaynes, believe as well. Kaufmann, however, asserts that in idolatrous societies, the icons behaved more in the way that ... a picture of the Pope or an icon of Jesus behaves to a believing Catholic. These icons were simply icons that represented a deity, not real gods themselves that anyone in those idolatrous societies actually spoke to....

Jaynes: If I could first reply to that. Indeed, such statues are definitely called gods in the Hebrew bible.

Questioner: That’s right, but erroneously!

Jaynes: I am not making judgments.

Here, Jaynes simply fails to understand the point of the question. It is not an issue of "making judgments," but of grasping the context in which the Biblical passages were written. Jaynes makes much of Biblical writings that depict pagans worshipping their idols as literal gods, but if these writings themselves are inaccurate, and if pagan idolatry was in fact much more sophisticated, then Jaynes's arguments are fundamentally flawed. Jaynes continues:

Jaynes: I am just looking at the whole series. Nor am I just looking at the Jews. The evidence for idols, a truer term than icons, during the time period of the Hebrew Testament is considerable. Else why would so many of the prophets inveigh against them?

Again, Jaynes is failing to grasp the point. No one disputes that Hebrew prophets inveighed against idols. The question is whether the prophets correctly understood the nature of pagan idolatry.

Jaynes: Idols are particularly evident in the early books, from the elohim or gods that Laban accuses Jacob of stealing (Genesis 31:30) to centuries later when the Philistines after defeating Saul run and tell their atsabim, their idols, before they tell their people (I Samuel 31:9; I Chronicles 10:9).

To repeat the point: no one disputes the fact that idols make frequent appearances in the Hebrew Bible. But whether the cultures of idol-worshipping nations were properly understood by the writers of the Bible is a separate issue. Moreover, the parallel passages from I Samuel and I Chronicles don't necessarily support Jaynes' point. I Samuel 31:9 reads, "[they] sent [the weapons of their defeated enemy Saul] throughout the land of the Philistines to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people." (NASB) There is nothing here to indicate that they "run and tell their ... idols, before they tell their people." Since the house of their idols, i.e., their temple, was obviously a center of their community, taking the weapons there would be a way of proclaiming the victory to the populace. Indeed, the very next verse reads, "They put his weapons in the temple of Ashtaroth ..."

Jaynes: To call such god-idols merely icons like pictures of the Pope is a serious misreading of the texts and contradicted in many passages (see, for example, I Chronicles l6:26).

Here, wrapping up his answer, Jaynes merely asserts that any view of idols that is different from his own is a "misreading." He offers no evidence of this claim other than yet another Biblical reference. The cited passage reads in part, "For all the gods of the peoples are idols" – which reiterates the common view among Hebrews of this period that pagans worshipped their idols as gods. But the accuracy of the Hebrews' understanding of pagan customs is the very point in contention. (An alternate translation, mentioned in the NASB's notes, is "For all the gods of the peoples are nonexistent things," which omits any reference to idols.)

Jaynes's inability or unwillingness to properly address the question, or even to understand it, suggests to me that he suffered from a condition sometimes described as "theory blindness." Having constructed a comprehensive theory by which to view the world, he was simply unable to think his way out of that mental box.

Though Jaynes continued to promote his theory for the rest of his life, his promised sequel to The Origin of Consciousness never materialized. He died in 1997, leaving it to other academics to continue his work. Few have taken up the challenge. Today discussions of Jaynes's book are found mainly on New Age Web sites, mixed in with references to the pseudoscientific writings of Velikovsky and Von Daniken.

For myself, I have come to think that The Origin of Consciousness gets history exactly backward. In Jaynes's materialist worldview (in which consciousness is a mere epiphenomenon of matter), there can be no such things as gods and spirits or any other paranormal phenomena. Thus the universal acceptance of such things in ancient (and modern) cultures is a puzzle requiring some explanation. The bicameral mind is his answer to the problem; the gods and spirits are simply a more primitive part of the brain.

But suppose there actually are paranormal or supernatural phenomena. Suppose there are spirits and what we might call gods - or God. Then the universality of such beliefs does not require complicated rationalistic explanations. If anything, it is the absence of such beliefs among the intelligentsia of the Western world today that raises questions. Rather than hunting for the gods in some forgotten corner of our nervous system, we might do better to seek out truths that "primitive" peoples knew – and which we have forgotten.

Near the end of his book, Jaynes laments misguided modern efforts to recapture the gods through mysticism, religion, poetry, and even science – "attempts to return to what is no longer there, like poets to their inexistent Muses ..."

But what if the Muses did exist, and still do - and we have simply stopped listening?

Note: This post was slightly revised and expanded on March 11, '05.

Friday, March 04, 2005

The end of books?

Not long ago I discussed problems in the paperback end of the book business that may spell "the end of paperbacks," or at least a serious reduction in the number of titles printed in that format. My main source of info was super-agent Richard Curtis, who wrote an article on that subject, published online at Backspace . Now the same Web site has a new article by Curtis, predicting that electronic media will profoundly change the nature of books.

This time, however, I'm skeptical. I've heard this song before. In the late 1980s there was a lot of excited talk about how novels would be rendered obsolete by video games. Video games were so much more dynamic than text; they could put you right inside the action; they had color and sound and animation. How could old-fashioned books compete? But books are still around, and they show no signs of morphing into video games anytime soon.

Then in the early '90s the e-book was introduced. I was a small player in this development; my novel Stealing Faces was the first book ever published in e-book form prior to its print publication date. For a while it was the number-one-selling e-book in the country. But number one didn't mean much; the book sold only a few hundred copies in electronic form, compared with more than 100,000 copies in its printed version. And sales of e-books have not risen significantly in the years since. Meanwhile all of the dedicated e-book reading devices, such as the RocketBook, have disappeared from the marketplace.

It turns out that readers are conservative types. They are resistant to major changes in either the content or form of the books they buy. And I suspect they will resist the electronic revolution that Curtis foresees.

Curtis pins his hopes for the e-revolution on blogs, noting that blogs have become influential very quickly and that it's possible to make money off a blog by running ads on it. But there is less to this story than meets the eye. Of the tens of thousands of blogs that exist (with thousands more being started every day), only a handful have any real following. And even the most successful blogs don't seem to make much money from advertising. Two of the most-read blogs, National Review's The Corner and Andrew Sullivan's blog, have repeatedly held "pledge drives" in PBS fashion, pleading with readers to donate money to keep the blogs going. Many others have no doubt done the same. It's hard to argue that blogs are wildly profitable when even the most popular ones have to beg for alms.

I think the truth is that blogs are simply another niche in an expanding communications universe that will still include traditional books. People don't want to spend all their time staring at a computer screen, no matter how nicely it is packaged. There is something relaxing about a traditional printed book, something comfortable and homey. Years ago, a book called Megatrends observed that as society grows more high-tech, it also grows more "high-touch" - consumers, weary of being surrounded by mass-produced items, seek out handmade furnishings, original art, and other old-fashioned purchases.

Curtis includes one troubling example in his essay:

Hyper-exposed to audial and visual media, the new breed of publishing animal seems to exhibit diminished confidence in the power of words alone to stimulate the imagination. For many jittery young people, printed texts on a stack of paper are, as one editor said, “kind of boring.” “If all it is, is a book, merely words” he elaborated, “it’s hard to get excited. I ask myself, ‘What else is it besides a book? Is it a video game? A movie? A web site?’ It’s got to be more than a book to turn me on.”

Now, I realize I run the risk of being seen as hopelessly retro, but in my opinion, anyone who finds "printed texts on a stack of paper" to be "kind of boring," and says it's "hard to get excited" about "a book, merely words," is someone who should not be working as an editor. No doubt there are many exciting opportunities open to this anonymous young (I presume he is young) gentleman, offering him many chances to be creative and clever, but the field of publishing is not among them.

For better or worse, the book business is all about words - "merely words." Odds are, it will stay that way for a very long time.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

A little knowledge ...

... can be a dangerous thing. I am certainly aware of this maxim, since on many subjects I have only a very little knowledge, yet I persist in having opinions about them which may or may not be valid.

But I'm not the only one. Recently I was reading a book by Deepak Chopra called How To Know God - a bestseller, like all his books - when I came across a fairly common example of a little knowledge that has been inflated into a big (but probably wrong) conclusion.

Chopra writes,

[Y]ou could never capture [an] electron anyway, since it too breaks down into energy vibrations that wink in and out of existence millions of times per second. Therefore the whole universe is a quantum mirage, winking in and out of existence millions of times per second....

You and I exist as flashing photons with a black void in between each flash.... In other words, we are being created, over and over again, all the time.

I have encountered this image in other books, notably Michael Talbot's The Holographic Universe. Since Chopra has read and often recommends Talbot's book, he may have found this alleged datum of quantum physics there. The trouble is, it's probably not true.

The confusion stems from the fact that there are two kinds of subatomic particles - real particles and virtual particles. The virtual particles do wink in and out of existence all the time; they have no stability, and persist only long enough to carry out energy transfers between the real particles.

The real particles, on the other hand, do persist over time. They don't wink on and off like the lights on a Christmas tree. Electrons and photons, the two examples Chopra cites, are real particles. When Chopra says that these particles are winking, blinking, or flashing, he is probably just wrong.

Why do I say "probably"? Because it is always possible that the real particles are winking also, but at a rate so fast we can't measure it. This option can't be ruled out, but as far as I know, there's no evidence for it.

Thus, the universe is probably not winking on and off millions of times each second, and does not have to be perpetually re-created. The gigantic conclusion Chopra draws from his premise is wrong, because the premise itself is wrong.

This doesn't invalidate the rest of his book, which is interesting and provocative, but it does show that we must take pronouncements on science by non-experts with a grain of salt.

A warning that definitely applies to any science-related posts you read in this space ... including, of course, this one.