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I read Douglas Glover’s novel Elle when it came out in 2003, and over the years I’ve continued, now and again, to read a few pages at random. It’s an excellent book – it won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award – with a remarkable narrator heroine and a curious plot, but I go back to it simply because I enjoy the story teller’s voice. The novel is based on an actual event in Canada’s history when a French noblewoman was abandoned on the Isle of Demons in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1542.
The history is simple. In 1541 Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval, a nobleman privateer, was made Lieutenant General of New France. He set sail from the old to the New France that same year and along with him and the other colonists in his charge he had his cousin, or maybe it was his niece or his sister – the record is confused – but in any case she was Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval. For some unknown reason Lieutenant General Roberval became infuriated with Marguerite and as the ship entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence he had Marguerite, plus her lover and her maidservant, put ashore on a small unpopulated island, providing them with scant hunting and fishing gear. A few years later Marguerite was rescued by Basque fishermen and by then her lover and an infant who Marguerite had given birth to had died, as had the maidservant.
Marguerite returned to France and her story became known, maybe even well known. The chronicle of Marguerite’s adventure was first put into writing by Queen Marguerite of Navarre, and other elaborated versions by other writers have followed. Douglas Glover, limiting himself to the skimpiest handful of facts, has written the most spirited and strangest story of all.
Glover’s novel opens with this three-sentence paragraph:
Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I am aroused beyond all reckoning, beyond memory, in a ship’s cabin on a spumy gulf somewhere west of Newfoundland, with the so-called Comte D’Epirgny, five years since bad-boy tennis champion of Orleans, tucked between my legs. Admittedly, Richard is turning green from the ship’s violent motions, and if he notices the rat hiding behind the shit bucket, he will surely puke. But I have looped a cord round the base of his cock to keep him hard.
Clearly, this is a Marguerite de La Rocque we haven’t heard from before. What has always intrigued me about Marguerite’s voice isn’t her charming salacious tongue, but her amazing leaps of thought. Douglas Glover is a skilled writer and one of the things I admire in his work is the unobtrusive way he packs his paragraphs. Most writers, following the instructions of their high-school English teachers, use each paragraph to perform one step, do one thing; Glover can write a paragraph that does a lot of different things at once. He gets his characters and the reader located “in a ship’s cabin on a spumy gulf somewhere west of Newfoundland” and at the same time engages the reader by presenting a dramatic sexual encounter just as it struggles toward a climax. Indeed, the dull expository fact of place – a gulf west of Newfoundland – is camouflaged by being part of the sexual scene, for the sea is “spumy” and the ship is rolling and heaving even more than the lovers – a conceit that is carried on between the lines as the scene progresses.
Both Marguerite and her lover Richard are in commonplace unheroic pain. Richard is about to throw up from seasickness and Marguerite has a colossal toothache. “My tooth feels bigger than my head, bigger than a house. My tooth has colonized the world.” So in the midst of this bout of lovemaking Marguerite prays to St. Apollonia, the patron of “toothache cures.” (Apollonia was martyred by a mob who smashed all her teeth, and such terrible tortures excite Marguerite sexually.) Marguerite can’t quite get to the climax she’s seeking and Richard, violently ill with his seasickness, has stuffed his fists into his mouth, and can’t use his hands to help her get there. “I recall, not for the first time,” Marguerite tells us parenthetically, “that the learned Democritus described coitus as a form of epilepsy.”
This story follows a woman into solitude and readers are fortunate that she has an exceptionally wide ranging and lively mind. In the midst of this sexual scene she pauses to tell us that “In Orleans, in 1542, there are forty-three tennis courts. Perhaps this is not the time to bring this up, but it makes you think. There are only thirty-seven churches. Yet we burn Protestant heretics (also horse thieves, book publishers, books themselves and the occasional impolitic author when we can get one) and not maladroit tennis players. What one is to make of this odd circumstance, I cannot say.” (That note about publishers and writers is the first of a scattering of similar remarks about books throughout the novel.) Happily for Marguerite, she remembers a certain apostate nun she saw burned the previous summer and that memory drives her to her orgasm “and I come, shouting Hail Mary.”
Not only does no one know why the historical Marguerite was among those sailing to New France under the command of General Roberval – whatever his family relationship to her – also, no one knows what caused him to abandon her with her lover and her maid on a desolate island. As happens in one of the earliest accounts of this event, Douglas Glover has her lover, Richard, leap from the ship to the small boat carrying her ashore. In this version the ardent Richard misses the boat and plunges into the water, but emerges to share her fate, which was his intention.
The author invents freely and believably the circumstances of her being among those colonists in a chapter called What Do You Do with a Headstrong Girl? in which Marguerite describes herself as not only headstrong, but too sensual, too curious, too brave, too forward, and especially as having a too great an interest in books. Her exasperated father wanted to be rid of her and she wanted to escape her home; her going was a convenience for both of them.
Marguerite doesn’t suggest any reason for her punishment beyond bad behavior. As for the nature of the punishment, she says at one point “I am particularly reminded of the Greek princess Iphigenia, whose father Agamemnon put her to death on a lonely beach on the shaky theory that this act would ensure decent sailing over to Troy, where he hoped to win back his brother’s runaway wife Helen (another woman led astray by her heart in a world of men). It’s a male thing, I suppose, not to be persuaded from murder by the threat of revenge, pangs of conscience, pity, justice, the tug of family affection, not to mention the purely unscientific basis of the premise that killing a virgin will cause sunshine and warm, westerly breezes.”
Other aspects of this novel that set it apart are its fascinating surreal passages. Very few novels depicting historical events are also, in part, surrealist fictions. I recall a novel by Curzio Malaparte, La Pelle, that came out shortly after the second world war, a novel in which the real horrors of the war joined easily and smoothly with surreal passages. Douglas Glover makes similar moves in Elle, transitioning from the factual terrors of being marooned on a small island in a merciless Canadian winter to Marguerite’s hallucinations to the presence of a real magical bear – or maybe it’s a real bear.
By the way, the surrealism in Douglas Glover’s novel isn’t just another name for authorial invention. In an earlier brilliant and underappreciated novel, The Life and Times of Captain N., published back in 1993, the author presents a horrific vision of battles in Mohawk Valley during the American Revolution, but the nightmarish visions in that book are nailed to the commonplace world of human violence in realist fashion. In both novels, Glover mangles and distorts the facts to get at the truth.
Douglas Glover is a Canadian writer, but Canada isn’t far from the United States and if you live in a Northern state it’s quite close. Glover resides on both sides of the US-
Canada border and teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Our paths crossed many years ago when we were both teaching in upstate New York. That was so many years ago I cannot recall actual dates, but I was on the faculty of the State University of NY at Albany and Doug was hosting The Book Show, a weekly half-hour literary interview program. If it’s possible to remain in contact with another writer simply by reading his books – even when you haven’t seen each other for years — then I can say we’ve remained in touch.
In this little essay I’ve quoted a lot from the opening pages of Elle, because I know of no equally sensuous way to convey the voice of this narrative. Of course, the voice in Elle belongs to Marguerite and is merely transcribed by Doug Glover who has his own voice. And, naturally, it varies from novel to novel and from one short story to another. Though it may be impossible to find the writer’s own personal voice in his fictions, you can meet his literary mind directly in his non-fictional book on Cervantes, The Enamoured Knight. To be precise, the book isn’t about Cervantes but about his novel, Don Quixote – and, actually, and it’s not so much about that novel, as it is rather on Glover’s theory and craft of fiction writing. In addition to writing and teaching, Doug Glover also is the editor of the online literary magazine Numero Cinq which, despite it’s name, is in English. Finally, I must add that Douglass Glover is obscure. Let me quote from the masthead of Numero Cinq:
Douglas Glover’s obscurity is legendary; he is mostly known for being unknown. He has been called “the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive” (Maclean’s Magazine, The National Post). But for sheer over-the-top hyperbole, nothing beats the opening of a recent piece about him in Quill and Quire in Toronto, which elevates his lack of celebrity to the epic: “Certain mysteries abide in this world: the Gordian Knot, the Holy Trinity, and the literary obscurity of Douglas Glover.”
We’re happy to reprint the following essay by Robert Gray which appeared in Shelf Awareness, the online journal essential to critics and booksellers.
A Day for Eugene Mirabelli
You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.
Then they stay dead.
–From “Distressed Haiku” by Donald Hall
Grief is a funny thing. I thought about beginning this column with the previous sentence, then decided not to, then decided I would after all because grief is funny, as in perplexing and mystifying and singular. Anyone who has experienced deep personal loss understands this, but an occasional reminder somehow always has the power to stun and haunt anew. This happened to me recently during a bookstore author event.
November 4 of this year was proclaimed Eugene Mirabelli Day in Albany, N.Y. In her proclamation, Mayor Kathy M. Sheehan noted that in his most recent book, Renato After Alba–a sequel to his 2012 novel Renato, the Painter (both published by McPherson & Co.)–the 85-year-old author “touches upon universal aspects of human existence by creating lovably flawed characters who subtly express the full range of human emotion and experience, from great joy to crushing loss, from deep love of life to rage against the inevitability of death. All written with clarity and cleverness and craft.”
As part of the celebration, the Book House at Stuyvesant Plaza hosted an event last Friday, with renowned author Joseph Bruchac interviewing Mirabelli. I stopped by the bookstore to learn more about Renato Stillamare before–and after–Alba, but what I heard was something extraordinary about how one writer mourns… and works.
When I read Mirabelli’s two novels back to back not long ago, I was struck by how intricately, and intimately, woven together they were, despite being in many ways quite different reads. Renato, the Painter’s narrator is a 70-year-old scoundrel of an artist, still hungry for fame and not particularly averse to temptation. In the sequel, Renato is 12 years older and trying to reorient himself after the loss of his beloved wife, Alba, a striking presence in the first book and a stunning absence in the second. The borderline between these two novels is life and death.
“Anybody who’s written a first-person novel knows that you’re going to be identified with the narrator,” Mirabelli told his audience. “My wife died after I’d written the book that precedes it. She had read everything in that first Renato book. We were about to go down and see the publisher, in fact, when she passed away. And I had a great sense of revulsion against that Renato, the Painter because I knew instinctively that people were going to identify me with him and I hated the idea. I took the galleys of the book and threw them in the garage, which is usually the stop that precedes being thrown away entirely. And it took about a year before the publisher and I got together and went ahead with that publication.”
Although he acknowledged that he could have written a memoir after his wife’s death, Mirabelli recalled that “for two or three years I didn’t feel like writing at all. And my friends said, ‘Oh you’re a writer, you’ll write.’ That was the last thing on my mind. I did after a few years come to the point where I wanted…. not to write so much, but I wanted to have the feeling I used to have when I did have a piece of work I was writing. I really liked that feeling and wanted it back again.
“And sooner or later I did write a short story and another short story, but whenever I sat down to write my head was suddenly filled with death, and it became apparent finally that I couldn’t write anything unless I wrote something about death. Something about grief. So the question was what…. And one of the things that had happened to me during that early period, very early, was the recognition that what happened to me, which astonished me, was happening to people every day. All over the globe. I wasn’t unique at all. Grief is a strange emotion…. But grief is something you’ve never felt unless somebody you love has died. It’s a remarkably unique emotion…. One of the curious things is how similar people’s experiences can be while being unique in all the details.”
Mirabelli added: “It’s funny, or ironic that when I wrote Renato, the Painter, I decided that I wanted to write a really life-affirming book. At the end of that book, everybody who could possibly get pregnant is pregnant. I wanted that. Renato is a deeply flawed, but very creative person. I think it’s a life-affirming story…. I didn’t intend to write this book. No one would ever intend to write a book like Renato After Alba. But when I did start to write it, it was kind of weird… I went back to Renato, the Painter and there were all sorts of things that I found in the book that made sense in this book. And I don’t know how that happened, but it just happened.”
His publisher, Bruce McPherson, told me: “I’ve been working with Gene for about five years, and, for whatever reason, I think he’s been an underrated and unjustly overlooked author for too long. Renato Stillamare is a remarkable creation, the literary offspring of a comic tradition dating at least from Fielding’s Tom Jones through Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth and Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, with a touch of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. But for all of his irrepressible life force and cranky artistic sprezzatura in Renato, the Painter, Renato is most completely realized and fully human in Renato After Alba, where he ultimately overcomes terrible suffering with wonderment toward life and creation. I now see the two books as necessary to one another, a perfect balance.”
Maybe you don’t frequent the Oxford Dictionaries site and you missed their choice for Word of the Year. The folks at Oxford Dictionaries don’t just put a bunch of neologisms into a hat and blindly pick one. In fact it took a lot of discussion, debate, and research before they chose post-truth as the Word of the Year — it’s an adjective they define as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. ”
The lexicographers at Oxford Dictionaries are cool. They aren’t working in an ivory tower, remote from the rhetorical muck and fantasy of our eighteen-month campaign for president. They had this to say about the hyphenated word: “The concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade, but Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics.”
There was a time when post-truth meant “after the truth has come out.” No more. Now the word is used to mean a disregard and discounting of facts and an embrace of whatever you wish to believe. So, greetings to post-truth, the Word of the Year, and to the weird politics of the year 2016..
Anil Menon is a writer whose most interesting book you probably won’t find in your local bookstore. Menon, born in India’s tropical Kerala state, has gained broad attention in this country as a writer of speculative fiction. As a kid he aspired to be an accountant – his father was an accountant who delighted in his work – but when that kid had completed his undergraduate education he went to Syracuse University in non-tropical upstate New York.
At Syracuse, Menon entered a PhD program and emerged to write papers on evolutionary algorithms. If you can imagine a computer program that mimics the blundering processes of Darwinian evolution to achieve its ends, you might consider exploring the field of evolutionary algorithms. Menon still does work in mathematics, but he has written more and more fiction, short and long, and now defines himself as a writer of speculative fiction. In fact, he’s a writer of complex intelligence, verve and wit.
There can be a playfulness in mathematics akin to the wittiness you hear in Mozart or Bach — and that same playfulness is everywhere in Menon’s recent novel. Half of What I Say, a 436-page work in English, was published in India by Bloomsbury’s New Delhi office, the independent publisher and innovative writer making a good match.
Half of What I Say is structured as a roman policier in which Vyas, an agent of the nation’s powerful Lokshakti security apparatus, is tasked with investigating people involved in making a subversive but unreleased movie based on the Ramayana. At the same time, Vyas himself is desperate to recover a letter he wrote to his wife expressing doubts about the role of the Lokshakti, and the letter apparently had been in the possession of a high-profile intellectual who was murdered, presumably by another branch of the omnipresent Lokshakti. As the story gets going, the author introduces, one by one, a number of apparently unconnected characters who later turn out to be linked in an intricate chain which includes a bright university woman, a wealthy industrialist and his beautiful wife, an exceedingly popular movie actress, an sexually neutral poet, an upcoming computer entrepreneur, plus their sidekicks, subordinates and dependents further down the social food chain.
It’s a real-world fact that Lok Shakti (People Power) was a political party that rose to prominence in the late 1990s in Karnataka, a state bordering Menon’s Kerala, but the Lok Shakti eventually sank in significance, partially absorbed by a another political movement. Lokshakti, as a single word, is Anil Menon’s invention. Menon told an interviewer in the Indian Express that the novel grew out of his antipathy toward Kisan Baburao (Anna) Hazare’s anti-corruption movement. “Many of my Indian friends were in favour of it,” he said, “but the more I learned about Hazare, the more convinced I became that the proposed cures were worse than the disease.” Menon believes that tyrannies are mass movements gone wrong, and that such movements get started because people are easily led by stories. And those stories can be simple falsehoods, national myths, legends from the past, slanted news items, popular movies – in other words, stories of any kind.
The India that Anil Menon portrays is counterfactual — an India where the anti-corruption movement has succeeded and there’s now a central agency, not answerable to anyone, dedicated to rooting out corruption. Half of What I Say comes to the reader first as a police story, but it’s clearly a critique of trends which Menon sees in India’s political world. The author’s deeper, recurrent preoccupation in Half of What I Say is the role of story in the political life of the nation. Of course, Half of What I Say itself is fiction, so, yes, we have a bit of postmodern gymnastics going on here, too.
At this point we might puzzle out the book’s title which is cut down from the sentence “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you.” In Europe and America, the phrase is most often attributed to the Beatles song, “Julia,” by John Lennon and, possibly, Menon may have had that in mind, but if so, he probably also had in mind the same lines from Kahlil Gibran’s Sand and Foam. So the question arises as to which level of this layered novel was the author’s throw-away part. The danger in writing an adventure tale in order to critique political dynamics is that your reader may simply read for the police story and not take in the criticism at all, or may take in the critique, and merely wonder what the repeated references to story are intended to convey. Many reviewes were content to talk about plot and not much more.
Anil Menon’s very large cast of quickly sketched characters, the broad stretch of society he looks at, his rapidly shifting scenes and the use of public as well as private events to propel the plot — these bring to mind the sweeping novels of John Dos Passos. Menon has said he’s familiar with Dos Passos and, indeed, Menon’s work has many of the virtues and flaws as Dos Passos’. For readers in the United States, the big difference between these two authors is that Dos Passos wrote about the life in the States whereas Menon is writing about India — a country most Americans know very little about and half of what they do know is often wrong.
Despite the very large cast, each person is fully named, and doubtless those names suggest or convey information to Indian readers that American readers wouldn’t be able to grasp, such as where those characters come from, maybe their particular religious affiliation and social class. People in this book sometimes switch from English to Hindi or their home dialect and we have no idea what those nuances might convey to an Indian reader. (There are twenty-two official languages in India and many more that are not official — but you knew that already, right?) Then there’s the question of dealing with any foreigner as to whether his or her behavior is typical of the culture or unique to the person. It’s hard to figure out whether the boorish sexual groping displayed by some men in this novel is typical of India or is intended to demonstrate class or caste or ignorance or simply to show the guy’s an oaf.
There are wonderful things in Half of What I Say. Anil Menon loves ideas and they pop up, page after page, from the conversation of his characters. Indeed, maybe there are too many allusions to this or that intellectual position; some critics are as upset as cook over a pan of exploding pop corn. But Menon has a deft sure hand at dialog and the conversations of his Indian characters — the vocabulary, the zigzags, the allusions and witticisms — might just as well have taken place among Americans on a university campus in Indiana.
The range of reference is remarkably far reaching. Victor Dorabjee, a general in the Lokshakti, in a talk with his subordinate, Vyas, refers to Charles de Gaulle’ attitude toward the electorate and then asks Vyas what he thinks of The Giving Tree. Vyas replies, “Pretty much identical to Raja Harishchandra, sir.” Readers here probably know about Charles de Gaulle and if they’re acquainted with children’s literature they might well know Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. But they probably don’t know the legend of Raja Harishchandra, though it’s found in both the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
It’s hard to understand how people living in the India revealed everywhere in this novel can also be so Western, so at ease with the lingo, the attitudes and intellectual references of the with-it intellectual class in the United States. Half of What I Say offers a fascinating glimpse – alas, only a glimpse — into an elite Indian society that sounds remarkably American. At one point in this novel, Vyas alludes to a trip he and his wife took to the United States. Vyas tells the reader, I was also curious to study the American in his native habitat, and she was curious, I think, to see if she could pass for one.
He goes on to say:
The main thing that surprised me about the United States was the remarkable similarity with India. The same preening self-satisfaction, the same narcissistic disinterest in the world, the same multiplicity of idols, and the same passion for violence, masked with the same hypocritical claims to a superior morality. It gave me a lot of hope; there’s no reason why our toilets couldn’t be raised to the same superior standards.
Bloomsbury Publishing, headquartered in London and with an office in New York city, probably made the right decision not to issue the this novel in the United States. But readers here can hope that Anil Menon will write a novel with an American readership in mind. We need it.
April 26 was Intellectual Property Day. World Wide! It got right by you, right? That’s understandable, I suppose. It got past President Obama, too. Of course, he has the excuse of being really, really busy these days. And you’ve probably forgotten about WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization of the United Nations. Or maybe you never even heard of it. Well, now you know.
If you were a member of the Authors Guild, as I am, you’d have received an invitation to jot down a list celebrating “the creativity and innovation of the American people.” I scribbled out my list a couple of days ago. Barack Obama got around to jotting down his list today and it includes, among other things, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Thomas Edison’s electric light bulb, and for innovative sports team, the Chicago Bulls — no surprise there.
The theme for Intellectual Property Day this year is Digital Creativity: Culture Reimagined. The Director General of WIPO, Francis Gurry, observed that the internet provides a great opportunity for creators to interact with their audiences. “Now, with the Internet, the audience has become potentially the whole world. That is an enormous creative opportunity. It’s an enormous cultural opportunity. And it’s an enormous economic opportunity,” That’s certainly true.
Unfortunately, it’s also true that digital media, especially the internet and most especially the World Wide Web, provide a great opportunity for theft of intellectual property.The movement to legitimize theft of intellectual property loves the phrase “Knowledge Wants to be Free!” That’s a great slogan if knowledge refers to such things as the French Language, the location of Los Angeles, the shape of a maple leaf, or the atomic composition of water, but it’s not so smart when it refers to a recently composed song or novel. Our slogan is Stamp Out Starving Writers, Buy Their Books!
Probably the most notorious example of theft of intellectual property is Google’s wholesale copying of copyrighted books. It does this for “the public good.” Which is admirable. But Google also gets revenue which it would not get if it didn’t display the books to get readers to the Google web site — and, of course, the authors of those books get no money at all from Google.
Some people — usually not authors — will point out that being accessible on Google makes the work more likely to sell, and raises the writer’s profile. That’s certainly possible. Writers and other artists sometimes do present their work, or some part of it, free to the public, but as the creator of those works the artist wants to be in charge of what is offered free and when. As Google turns a profit from making the books available online, the writer wants a slice of that, too.
In October 2015, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that Google’s use of the books without compensation was “fair,” because the search engine’s “primary intended beneficiary is the public.” To many of us, the primary intended beneficiary of whatever Google does is Google — that’s the way capitalism works. The public does benefit, but that’s secondary — Google isn’t incorporated to serve the public good.
Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild, has pointed out that “Authors are already among the most poorly paid workers in America; if tomorrow’s authors cannot make a living from their work, only the independently wealthy or the subsidized will be able to pursue a career in writing, and America’s intellectual and artistic soul will be impoverished.”
Yes, we’re grumpy about that.
Jo Page, a friend who has contributed occasional posts to Critical Pages, has now written a lively and engaging book, Preaching in My Yes Dress. Ms. Page is a Lutheran pastor and this publication is partly a memoir and partly a personal report of what it’s like to deal with the bright and dark moments of pastoral work.
The story begins with friendly simplicity — “As Sister Luke in The Nun’s Story, luminescent Audrey Hepburn makes convent life masochistically chic – all that pious obedience and semi-sexual mortification of the flesh. As a little girl, I wanted to be Sister Luke.” The movie made a deep impression on the girl who, when she was nine years old, sensed a cause-and-effect relationship between her own sinfulness and the death of her father. Jo Page moves deftly back and forth between the troubled inner life of that little girl and the zig-zag plot of the movie, keeping the tone precise and light. That same deftness comes into play throughout the book as the author moves from tragic to comic events in her childhood, or from wanting to “get on God’s good side” as a youngster to enrolling in a seminary as an adult with a husband and two children.
The author avoids solemnity, but doesn’t hide or dodge serious problems when they arise in the course of her story. The full title of this memoir is Preaching in My Yes Dress: Confessions of a Reluctant Pastor. And that means Pastor Page is startlingly honest in depicting her doubts and the questions that arise, no matter her role – “Who can really tell what God’s will for us is anyway? Or if there really is such a thing as God’s will? Is it the will of God that we suffer? I just don’t believe that. But we do suffer. Sometimes it seems as though God is strangely distant, strangely silent. That’s when we end up making excuses for God for allowing the world to be as it truly is.”
Preaching in My Yes Dress is thoughtful, refreshingly candid and provocative. And though it touches on subjects such as the rise of the religious right, the patriarchal nature of scripture and church organization, it’s never heavy or belligerent. You can’t tell a book by it’s cover, but the the title of this one is a pretty good giveaway as to what’s inside. Actually, the cover is damned good, too.
Maybe you know about Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, a very bright young mathematician who worked with the older scientist, Charles Babbage, when he was developing the first programmable computing machine — a precursor of the contemporary computer. If you know a bit more, you know that the machine, which was never actually built, was to be programmed by punched cards, similar to the punched cards that were used a hundred and more years later in the early computers of the 20th century. And if you’re like most people who know about Ada, that’s about all you know of her.
Ada’s life has the elements of a good gossipy story, and that’s the way it’s treated in James Essinger’s biography, Ada’s Algorithm. Or, as the book’s subtitle says, How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched The Digital Age. Ada’s father was as notorious for his bad-boy behavior as he was famous for his poetry, and Ada wasn’t able to escape the celebrity of his name. Probably the most decisive effect of having Byron for a father was that Ada’s mother constructed an educational program for Ada that was designed to stamp out any fanciful or imaginative tendencies the girl might have inherited from dreadful dad. Lady Byron gave birth to Ada on December 10, 1815, and thirty-five days later she folded back the covers from her side of the bed, slipped from her sleeping husband’s side, then bundled herself and her daughter in warm clothes and, with a maidservant, left their London house.
Ada never saw her father after that. George Gordon, Lord Byron, was a great poet but he wasn’t cut out to be a husband or father.
James Essinger’s light and chatty biography provides brief sketches of Ada’s parents and grandparents and, what’s more to the point, it gives the reader a good sense of how mother and daughter behaved in regard to each other. Lady Byron’s plan to protect Ada from whatever imaginative tendencies she might have inherited from her father included a good dose of mathematics. As it happened, Ada did very well in mathematics. Indeed, she excelled in that field and eventually directed her own studies and became a fine mathematician — not an easy feat for a woman in the early 19th century. She had a lively interest in science and technology, too. In 1833 Ada turned 18 and, following the custom of her class, she was formally introduced to society as a marriageable young woman. Young women of high social status were often presented at court and so it was with Ada who, wearing white satin and tulle, and accompanied by her mother, curtsied to the king and queen, and hobnobbed with the dignitaries there on that day in May. (more…)
In the aftermath of the slaughter in Paris our instinct is to condemn the killers and mourn their victims and to defend — defend to the death, as some have said — the right of editors and cartoonists to write and draw what they please. If they want to satirize Moses or the Pope or Jesus or Mohammed, fine, let them do it.
The offices of Charlie Hebdo had been firebombed in the past by Islamic extremists, so the editors and cartoonists there knew what they were doing. Workers on the magazine weren’t constrained by prudence or the unwritten rules of ordinary decent behavior, such as civility, politeness, and live and let live. They were, as their publication says of itself, irresponsible. We know that.
We also know that safe speech that offends no one, and safe cartooning that ridicules only the conventionally ridiculous, doesn’t maintain or test the limits of free speech. People on the social margin — anarchistic, pornographic, outrageous and disobedient — people working at the disreputable edge, they’re the ones who keep the mainstream free. We have no qualms or quibbles, no questions about any of that.
But we do question whether they had the right target when they lampooned Muhammad. Every nation engaged in fighting Islamic extremists has said over and over again that it is not at war with Islam — it’s at war with Islamic extremists. French President François Hollande has distinctly and emphatically said it many times this past week. About 18 percent of the French population is Muslim. Those Muslims aren’t visitors; they are citizens of France, they are French.
Satirists have generally aimed their barbs at the rich and powerful, at the people in charge who lord it over the poor and downtrodden. But in creating cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, Charlie Hebdo offended all French Muslims — a group made up, by and large, of poor and marginalized citizens. Yes, yes, the cartoons were visual statements against Muslim extremists and terrorists. But extremists and terrorists don’t change their behavior by being bashed in a low circulation satirical magazine. Charlie Hebdo’s broad brush cartoons injured the religious sensibilities of all Muslims.
In France, as in the United Sates, there aren’t laws prohibiting the publication of magazines such as Charlie Hebdo. Open, pluralistic, democratic societies don’t pass laws against publishing satirical cartoons, no matter how offensive, nor do they punish editors for adolescent rebelliousness or gross misjudgment. They don’t even pass laws against cartoonists for being offensive simply for the sake of offending. An open and democratic society puts up with a lot. It’s worth it.