Monthly Archives: February 2013

A Real Canard of a Post

In the early 18th C, the Frenchman Jacques de Vaucanson greatly desired that a fully digesting, mechanistic duck should exist in the world. To his credit, he built a number of machines that were slightly more practical, including the first automated loom. However, to return to the duck, it “ate” grains and then “defecated” them for the lofty purpose of advancing science, which is as noble a purpose as any. I can almost envision the skeptical expression settling in my readers’ eyes about now, the one that asks, is science really as noble as, say, saving all the Polynesian dogs from a scourge of rabies? The man created a defecating duck! Need I say more? (No, I have no idea whether Polynesian dogs are especially prone to contracting rabies, but if you’re inclined to believe they are, due to the tropical environment or what-have-you, please donate to my Pay Pal fund.)

Living in a post Enlightenment world, it’s difficult for us–even those of us who are of a metaphysical bent–to imagine a pre-Newtonian world, where mechanics couldn’t adequately explain the mysteries of the universe. In our rational society, we accept mechanics because they’re beholden to mathematical principles, which most of us, in turn, accept because most of us don’t understand them. How do those silly equations we learned in high school actually apply to the world around us? Who knows, but some genius discovered that the math works, so we bow to the power of those numbers that [many of us] don’t understand.

On one level, I have to admit that explaining the world by means of mechanics is awfully neat and tidy. Storing the constant stream of information input into organized, objective boxes is refreshing to the mind in the same way spring cleaning is refreshing to the….um, to the….soul? No, I imagine the word I’m searching for is house, which is philosophically the soul, even if it’s, thankfully, built on solid, mechanical principles involving a lot of numbers. On the other hand, boxes are about as objective as any other visible objects in space, and there is always this nagging sensation that what we call objective may not actually be, but that, in the background somewhere, gleaming with the glow of initial causes, true objective reality waits for us. Or perhaps it doesn’t wait for us. Why would it? We’re so infernally slow!

Last night, I went to a faith and science meeting, which spawned all these mechanized thoughts in my brain. One scientist wanted to engage with a metaphysical universe; the next would rather have defined everything we don’t understand with quantum physics (if that’s even possible). However, the next spoke of intelligent ideas such as feedback loops, and all I could think to do was to remind him that feedback loops no longer exist once you send e-mails, and especially once you send important communicative e-mails within companies and universities. Ultimately, we all must contend with our lack of knowingness, after e-mail communiques and other such delights. I speak broadly, my words pertaining to collectivity. There are just as many people who don’t want to know anything as there are people who do. There might be more people of the former than the latter; it’s hard to tell after all these years of forced public education.

To end this canard, as it were, I’ll turn into the airhead I’ve learned to be with finesse, and was last night when I quoted Joni Mitchell to the scientists: [Because] we are stardust (and not to mention golden), we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden. And on another note, Vaucanson’s canard was French, as well as aptly named. It didn’t eat, and it didn’t defecate. Instead, it was possessing of a hidden compartment where the, um, falsified shit was stored. But it had over 400 moving parts, including wings! It had to be real! No, I’m afraid you’re wrong. It was a robot.

p.s. After reading this through–thankfully!–I realized I had written two things which might have been considered racist or ethnic slurs, which I didn’t at all intend. I wasn’t calling the Polynesian people mutts; I was literally talking about dogs, not people, and so changed my wording to reflect four-legged beasts that live on the Polynesian islads. I didn’t, however, change my wording on Vaucanson’s canard being French and, therefore, not eating or defecating. I thought that if my readers couldn’t understand my intended meaning, which was that the duck was literally called a canard because it was created by a Frenchman, then I might as well stop writing. Sigh.


On Melancholia and Media

“I hear news every day, those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions,. . . .and such like, which these tempestuous times afford. . . .New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion &c.”* –Robert Burton on melancholy

In 1621, the Vicar Robert Burton published a gem of a scholarly work titled The Anatomy of Melancholy. Although the book, in a broad sense, is supposed to be a medical text, Burton’s approach was to gather literary quotes and create a philosophical treatise that drew from varied disciplines such as psychology, astronomy, meteorology, theology, astrology, etc. I would conjecture that Burton’s gathering of the pieces became a philosophical journey in and of itself. And, in fact, Burton claimed to have written the book as a way to dispel his own melancholy.

I’m no stranger to melancholy. Angst may be a term overused by lazy poets, but it’s also an indicator of melancholic bile, as well as an apt descriptor of the place where my mind dwells. The words above, inspired by Burton’s philosophical (if not jocular) mindset in the early 17th C, give insight into, not only my small world, but our modern 21st C reality, which throws many of us into the same splenetic fits as men suffered from 400 years ago. Think about this for a moment. You’re no doubt already aware that the character of humans hasn’t changed much over the centuries–not at core–yet we view our modern technological age as vastly different from Burton’s era. Despite that, we have, on record, an early 17th C man claiming that his private life was inundated by media. If you read the entire preface to the work where the quote is culled from, you will find that this section rambles on with the full spectrum of news–wars and rumors thereof, plagues, entertainments and entertainers, etc.

The modern glorification of media, its beauty and deceits, has come to us as a legacy from the days of the Enlightenment. Certainly, journalism and news weren’t new concepts even then; however, the 17th and 18th centuries marked a rise in printing and literacy that has not stopped rising since. Well, perhaps, literacy rates have tapered off over the years, but written words have continued to increase exponentially. Most people would call this progress, and I wouldn’t disagree with them. I love information. I love researching and sifting for ideas in a vast sea of them. Sometimes, though, I wish I could shut it all out and live as a media-less melancholic hermit in my desert home.

Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever have to remind yourself of how literacy and access to published works have enriched your life? I feel it, even if I want to shut out the noise at times. I’m quick to remind myself that the noise, or parts of it, will leave a record for posterity. As a female, I feel a great sense of relief having been born into these modern days, 400 years after Burton. I’m grateful that women are currently leaving their own record for the future.

Have you ever noticed that the early feminist movement seemed to mysteriously blossom at the same moment in history that literacy rates soared alongside of increased access to presses and printed works? I often hear the claim, usually from naysayers, that feminism is a destructive modern movement whose ideals are unknown to history. That’s a peculiar claim, really, because the core of femininity hasn’t changed over the years any more than the core of masculinity has changed (which I didn’t exactly prove without a shadow of a doubt earlier, but still, who is naive enough to believe otherwise?). With access to media, women have simply been given the voice to express who they are, and they’ve been doing so for the last few centuries. Sadly, their expressions of self aren’t always pretty or nice. But neither are the expressions of men.

My rambling thoughts at four a.m. have come full circle, it seems, with the acknowledgement that people aren’t always nice. Hence, media outlets aren’t always nice. Accordingly, it throws many of us into splenetic fits, if not irrational knee-jerk reactions to the way the world is going to hell all around us. Wars and rumors of wars. Religious controversies. Political intrigues. Paradoxes. Women. Feminism.

*Although the quote comes from the preface to The Anatomy of Melancholy, which you can find free all over the internet, I copied this tidy version of it from James Gleick’s Isaac Newton. I preferred his focus to my own. I was tempted to copy Burton’s entire paragraph because I like the whole rambling mess of it. Apparently, Gleick wasn’t tempted that way. Well, maybe he was, but, alas, he had an editor (a person I need).


Anna and Her Dragon, as well as mine

Some time back, I announced I was giving up the fiction-writing life to be an engineer. I felt enormous relief after having applied at my local geek-science-school. The baggage of fiction writing–the utter need to be what I’d told myself I would be since childhood–was pulling me down. Now, of course, I’ve started school again and, although I’m only taking one math class this semester, I’m already suffering the effects of stress. Stress isn’t always negative. In this case, it isn’t. I’m enjoying my class and looking forward to taking at least three classes come fall. Since I already have one completed degree, there are a number of classes I don’t need to take this time around. Therefore, I’ll be able to focus on my major rather than the myriad of niceties that goes along with any degree these days. I’m going into mechanical engineering because it’s a diverse engineering field that will enable me to find exciting work (hopefully). Talking to electrical engineering majors, I have learned that the E.E. department requires its students to take “depth” classes in philosophy or sociology at the 300 level or higher. Thankfully, the M.E. department doesn’t require such integrity from its majors! Who needs philosophizing engineers in this world, eh?

As you well know, I do enough philosophizing on this blog, which I’ve had trouble keeping up with this past week. I have a lot going on. Yes, allow me to tell you about my life. Thanks for asking. I’ve been working a little here and there on editing my book, the one I plan to throw up as an e-book as soon as possible to get it off my mind and heart forever [deep breath]! I have long called this book either White Ladder or Franklin’s Ladder depending on my mood. Recently, I decided it had to be changed to Anna’s Ladder in order to reflect Anna as the protagonist, as well as to pictorially demonstrate the palindrome in the cover art. However, the ‘s destroys the palindrome, and, in the context of the book, the ladder isn’t Anna’s except on a purely psychological level, as the entire book is Anna’s psychological reality. To make a short story long, I’ve finally concluded that I’ll call the book what I’ve long wanted to call it anyway: Anna and the Dragon. In the early days, when I queried friends and family with this title, nobody liked it. It was too plain or childish or something. But lately, I began wondering why I should care what others think. I’m not going to market this book, nor even shell out the dollars for a professional edit. I’m not locked into doing what an editor thinks best. Anna and the Dragon it will be because that’s what I want, and I’m tired, frankly, of capitulating to others. And you know what? Suddenly everybody likes Anna and the Dragon as a title. It’s mythic. It’s simple. It allows for an unbroken palindrome.

Okay, so there you have it: If dragons represent the shadow aspect of being, then being an engineer and self-publishing my books with my chosen titles, written the way I want them to be written, are my dragons. They’re what I’ve always wanted, but have never had the nerve to admit it. Autonomy is my shadow, and it’s so enormous that if I don’t watch it, it will consume me. I’ve got my eye on the dragon, though, on the sneaky beast who doesn’t know that I know that he knows…what? I don’t know, but even if I did, it would be a secret.