Tagged: A Natural History of the Senses

Science and Subjectivity

I mentioned not too long ago that I thought Diane Ackerman had a tendency in A Natural History of the Senses to make too-quick assumptions about general human feelings vis-à-vis the environment and its many phenomena– and I illustrated my discomfort by citing her assertion that “we” associate winds with destruction. Well, the following has nothing to do, really, with warnings to authors about making more humble characterizations– but it does have to do with wind, and with some fun poked at bygone naturalists with a tendency to exaggeration. Behold, some satire from Mark Twain, directed at popular earthquake reporting and forecasting:

Oct. 22–Light winds, perhaps. If they blow, it will be from the “east’ard, or the west’ard, or the suth’ard,” or from some general direction approximating more or less to these points of the compass or otherwise. Winds are uncertain–more especially when they blow from whence they cometh and whither they listeth. N.B.–Such is the nature of winds.*

I’m not sure why I almost choked on my roll at “Such is the nature of winds”– but that stifled chuckle was soon followed by another when reading just a few sentences later “Oct. 26–Considerable phenomenal atmospheric foolishness.”

US propaganda leaflet via Wikimedia Commons.

US propaganda leaflet via Wikimedia Commons.

This quotation is featured in a chapter on earthquake-centered humor in Deborah R. Coen’s book, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter. I’ve long been fascinated by earthquakes, to the point of being so charmed and surprised to find myself in one for the first time that I didn’t even think of moving to safety until the madness had already passed. (Sometimes, as in this case, the stupid get very, very lucky; that one came in somewhere in the middle range of the magnitude scale.) And so, from the start, I knew that the information in this book could even be presented in less-than-stellar style, and I wouldn’t really mind. But Coen’s scholarly exposition makes good use of humor and very human (i.e., quirky, limited, or otherwise engagingly foible-laden) assumptions from the history of disaster science. Even the crotchety Karl Kraus makes a noticeable appearance, with, among other things, his commentary on tone’s ability to convince people of all manner of falsities, citing as an example a satire of an earthquake observation accepted as the real thing by a major press.**

I’m not even halfway through this exploration of how earthquake science developed in tandem with the popular press and scientific practice and discourse as a whole– but if the rest of the book is as thick with lovely linguistic nuggets from long-gone scientists and commentators as it has been thus far,*** the rest of this sunny weekend may just be spent devouring it whole.


* Cited in Deborah R. Coen, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 58.

** I’ve long been meaning to read Kraus via more than secondary sources; now I’m doubly determined to see what he had to say about the “fake news” of his own time, and whether it might help us understand why so many people, in a day at least technologically different from his own, are still so willing to be swindled by what would seem to be obvious misinformation– or, as some might call it in certain circumstances, propaganda or ideology. Another nugget of Kraus-wisdom Coen offers us sounds like it could be a condemnation of a sizable chunk of contemporary social media users: “The idiocy that would never have thought of emerging from its life in private has discovered an opportunity for immortality; banality has been lured out of its hiding place; average humanity has been hauled out in triumph. A consuming greed to be named has taken hold of the Mr. Nobodies.” (Coen, 67.) Kraus was no friend to the average human being– but behind the sneer is nothing other than a more detailed version of the truth-kernel expressed in (what may not have actually been) Andy Warhol’s dictum, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

*** e.g., describing Iceland as one “of the earth’s great safety-valves,” or the way in which false reports were received as evidence of “the heartlessness of a belief that has been disappointed” (that latter quote coming from Kraus again). ibid., 49, 66.


Leaving the Literary Rut Behind

Admittedly, I’m currently just a tad emotionally influenced by good Scotch*– but I think even the soberest of mes would agree that few things can raise one’s mood like delving into really solid literature, especially after having forced oneself to schlep through the subpar variety. That’s right: having finally disposed of Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses** and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, *** I’m basking in Monika Fagerholm’s The American Girl. It’s early in the game with this new read, but it’s still got the shine of newness about it, and bears the extra charm of having been finally found after a few years of futile searching for it in local bookstores.

Somehow, this sparrow courtesy of Ken Conger and Wikimedia, is on par with my mood.

Somehow, this sparrow, courtesy of Ken Conger and Wikimedia, is on par with my mood.

Then, too, there’s Osama Alomar’s Fullblood Arabian. You know if Lydia Davis was convinced enough of the poet’s work to write a forward to it, it’s going to be good– and so far, that method of judging its quality has proven sound. A mix of aphorism, super-short story, and poetry, it’s not perfect– but it’s true and unashamedly curious, and therefore, refreshing.

Top all that off with the fact that I and the guy next to me on the train this morning were digging into identical copies of The New Yorker, and it all just gets better. I realize the magazine has a gajillion subscribers, and that the coincidence is more or less meaningless– but I’ll take any evidence of solidarity between two human beings I can get these days, tenuous as it may be. He’s to you, train friend: although we never even dared to look each other in the eye, for a few minutes there, we had a good thing going.


* Don’t worry, readers; my extremely low-frequency indulgence in the products of the alcoholic kingdom, and hence, my exceedingly low tolerance, mean that my evening consisted of only one glass of Glenmorangie, nursed over a couple of hours and accompanied by a respectable amount of food. So much for my rock-n-roll lifestyle.

** Brief review: The author tries to make her point about the wondrousness involved in how humans make contact with the rest of creation by piling up a bunch of lists and making unfounded generalizations (e.g., “We think of the wind as a destructive force.” Maybe I’m odd, but the first thing I think about when the concept “wind” pops up is a pleasantly blustery day; destruction doesn’t come into my own head’s conversation about the topic until we’ve gotten well past recognition of soft breezes, for example). All in all, the book tends toward the mawkish, although I am willing to grant its moments of insights, such as the assertion that “When you consider something like death… then it probably doesn’t matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply…” Both quotes are from Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1991) 237 and 256.

*** I’m being overly harsh in calling this one subpar; maybe it was simply a combination of the book’s being too long to hold the interest of someone not really into stories of Western pioneer hardihood.

Gilding– Or Schmalzing Up– the Lily

Ho hum. I don’t know whether or not I should have known better, but Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses is doing everything it can to limit my ability to stomach more than a few pages at a time. At some point in my life, I hope to have achieved the ability to articulate with grand precision just what it is about her style that turns an inherently interesting topic– namely, the capacities we have for experiencing the world and ourselves– into something that feels just as treacly as a Krista Tippett production.

If you’re not a party to my aversion of the beloved On Being broadcaster, and the way in which her tone and manner make it impossible for me to listen to the fantastically intriguing guests she succeeds in booking, this comparison will offer zilch in the way of explanation. But it’s about the best I’ve got right now, in trying to describe why I can’t shake the sense that Ackerman’s mode of expression seems to be rooted in an almost unquestioningly celebratory approach to nature and our bodies as part of it, a willingness to view even the most unpleasant aspects of pure biology as gloriously benevolent. There’s something here of the stereotypically hippie-dippy, a phrase that the tree-hugger I am is wary of using in circles who might not understand my simultaneously being a nagging environmental defender and an often no-nonsense human who tends not to suffer fools of her fellow species gladly.

I’m probably being unfair, especially since I’ve only been able to move through this book in slow, measured doses, and do that during a week where fools seem to be coming out of the woodwork and settling themselves into the gilded thrones of power– hence, making me unreceptive, mood-wise, to things that bear even a hint of fulsomeness.dsc04308

Well– instead of complaining, I’ll focus on one good use of nature-based metaphor that I saw at a protest this weekend. Maybe if the sort of seeds this poster references really are determined to– and do– grow and put forth meaningful fruit, my mood will allow me to be a little more patient with Ackerman and her aesthetics, and to see beneath them the real and valuable encouragement to respect and appreciate all the touchable, breathable, tangible realities of ourselves and our world– realities that are especially in need these days of our support and protection. If it means using sappiness of the Ackerman sort to succeed in that project, so be it; I’ll take up a variety of tools for the cause, whether I find them personally stimulating or not.