Tagged: Mark Twain

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.

The Good Girl as Author

So, a repeat interview on NPR this morning with poet Stephen Dunn had me returning to a question that recirculates in my head every now and then. At Dunn’s admission that he “was not a particularly good student,” I couldn’t help wondering if excellent writing has some necessary link to its creator’s having not really bought into the whole school thing. And that proposition woke a semi-regularly occurring flurry of concern– because, and this is said without the pride one would think should attend such a statement, I was a kick-ass student. I dutifully did all my assignments, often slaving to a disturbing degree to please whoever was at the receiving end of those formulas and essays and exams. I loved imbibing knowledge and memorizing dates and putting it all together, from kindergarten right through to my doctoral exams. But at some point in high school, I started to feel a sneaking suspicion that I was turning into some sort of caricature, or at least some pigtailed irritant out of Mark Twain.

When I first entered college, the best I could come up with, in terms of addressing that suspicion, was pretending not to care about grades, throwing out unoriginal phrases such as “D for Diploma,” in an attempt to be accepted as a normal human being. (In addition to all the usual reasons that particular plan was stupid, it was also doomed to fail, since I kept on studying like a maniac, even while assuring people I was just, to quote Dazed and Confused‘s Wooderson, “l-i-v-i-n.”) And secretly, I worked at what I’d always wished I could be good at; I kept writing bad poetry and little bits of stories, and kept getting frustrated at the fact that everything felt stilted and maudlin and overwrought, and that I could never possibly show anything of what I produced to the truly easy-going writers who showed up to class half-awake, smelling like stale cigarettes and without a clue as to what they were supposed to have read. (One of the benefits of age, I’m realizing, is that all the supposed brilliance that came from the pens of those people I was assured at eighteen would be the next big literary thing– well, it was most likely just as crappy as what I was putting out, just less ashamed of itself.)

But I kept going with my day job: I kept churning out dutiful academic treatises, because that was at least a route to a pat on the head, even while the only things I truly loved were beautiful fantasies by apparently not-very-nice people who at the very least laughed at duty, typically defined: Henry Miller, Kerouac, Nabokov. What did they need twenty years of official education for, when they could so clearly portray everything around them, both out in the open and unwillingly revealed? Theory and impeccable grammar would have killed it all– would have turned it into something I’d written.

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron assures her faithful readers that writerly success does not necessitate drug addictions, alcoholism, lack of sleep, & etc. My general feelings about that handbook will have to be saved for another day, but I’ll just note here that I don’t remember her saying anything to negate the possibility of having educated oneself out of a creative writing career, or of destroying the prospect of achieving authorial skill by squandering one’s abilities in youthful conformism.*

As I said, this bundle of anxiety only rears its weird head every now and then, and I’m not truly concerned anymore about churning out the Great American Novel. And I’ve also just chosen to accept my love of learning, and the dorkdom that goes with it. But I do have to wonder: what might I have become, if I’d taken trig functions and the periodic table and Strunk & White just a little less seriously in my formative years? Fortunately or un-, forward is the only way I can go, and I’ll just have to leave the past to muddle over itself.


* N.b.: none of this rule-following, on my part, at least, equates to being a good person; the discussion of what the differences are between doing one’s assigned duty and acting in truly ethical/moral fashion is an old and daunting conversation, to be taken up another time. For a personal glimpse, though, I’ll just say that I pass at least a dozen homeless people every day without sharing anything with them, even a hello, and feeling like a complete asshole. For another thing, while even a snippet of the Eric Garner video empties my stomach and boils my blood and starts tears flowing faster than I can even identify what’s happening, here I am blogging in my living room, having signed a few petitions, while people are out for the third night in a row marching in the streets. Bergman could so easily have used me and my guilty Protestant conscience in any number of features…