Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Few Notes About This Course's Textbooks

If I may put on my Professor's cap for a moment.

It's not that I'm better at teaching anything than anyone else, but I've realized that this blog has become sort of my own classroom, and my own life (though I'm nowhere near retirement age) has lessons that I would be remiss in not giving out) is the lesson I'm teaching.

We all have lessons like that. But I'm digressing, once again.

This course has a beginning but no end, and the only test you'll ever have to pass is realizing that retaining registration in the Republican party is the closest thing to a self-inflicted Extinction Level Event there is, and waking up to the fact that pretty much everything they say they do (Clear Skies Initiative, "Right-To-Work" Laws) results in the opposite, and the only thing the Republican party is about is the Republican party.

Don't like the Democrats? Fair enough. Register non-affiliated.

Anyway, this course has two essential textbooks. They are classics of American literature, and have important lessons to teach us.

1. Frank Herbert's Dune

The first required textbook, Frank Herbert's Dune, is all about power politics and how a single motivated individual with the right qualities, placed in the right place at the right time, can completely change the game with the passionate help of religionists. But I don't offer it as a suggestion for Democrats and Liberals, but a caution.

The book (I'm going to give away the ending here, but there's enough elements of the Hero's Quest in this that the book telegraphs its ending rather well) tells the story of a power struggle over two commodities upon which the galaxy-spanning human race of 20,000 years hence absolutely depend. For the Imperium, it's the drug-like substance known as spice, which confers longer life, heightened awareness, and without which interstellar travel cannot happen. Because, while humanity of the far future has cracked the secret of faster-than-light travel, without the limited prescience provided by the spice, you might come out anywhere. There's no point to it.

For the Fremen, or the natives of the planet Dune, the crucial thing is water. Arrakis ... the planet known as Dune ... is as dry as the Atacama in Chile and hasn't seen a free drop of water in possibly millions of years. It is the dream of the Fremen to recreated Dune as a green and fertile world, which is shown is possible. What the Imperium does not understand, though, is it's the peculiar ecology of Dune which makes the spice necessary at all.

The person of Paul Atreides, known by the Fremen as Paul-Muad'Dib, is the catalyst. About a third of the way into the novel, after the Atreides family becomes ensnared in the treacherous trap laid by their mortal enemies, the House of Harkonnen, the House of Atreides is thought extinct. However, Paul has gone native–and a good job too, as the cultural forces that have preceded them through 10,000 years of human history has prepared a fertile seed-bed for the seed that would grow into the Prophet Muad'Dib.

Adding the spark of the genetically-advantaged Paul-Muad'Dib to the gas tank that is the Fremen–a culture based on the modern-day Muslim Bedouin–proves to be the spark that causes the explosion that fells the complacent, corrupt, decadent Imperium.


While there is a sense of justice and exhilaration in Muad'Dib's and the Fremen's defeat of the Harkonnens and the deposition of the Emperor from his throne, it must always be remembered that the book ends with Paul thinking with dread about the jihad that his Fremen are locked and loaded to sweep across the Empire, purging the unfaithful, and that despite him being thier mahdi, thier messiah, he is absolutely powerless to stop it.

He has ended one injustice, only to possibly create a greater one.

Modern parallels abound. Ecological change, a civilization's pivotal dependence on a single commodity, brutal power politics augmented by religious passion ... it's also a ripping good story, written with deep mind and passion itself. Even though you may have heard the ending, the story's soaring intellect and imagination make it worth reading again and again. I've finally worn out my copy and have had to replace it.

2. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four

It's understandable to assume that we adopt this classic melodramaticly as a cautionary tale about security states, the decay of society by autocratic rule, the beggaring of the individual in the name of the state, etc, etc.

And actually the obvious and endlessly, tediously cited detriments to the human spirit that comes of being a citizen of Oceania are things that one must be aware of. Orwell had the right of it there.

I feel the importance of Orwell's classic goes well beneath that obvious surface however. The crushing, hopeless, dreary life of 6079 Smith W didn't just happen, of course. Newspeak didn't just happen, MiniLuv, MiniTrue, MiniPax, and MiniPlenty didn't just happen. Even though they are remarkably visible and appalling things, they are like societal melanomas; they may be a small spot on the skin, but they indicate a great deal wrong that you can't see.

And I'm not even talking about the ruthlessness of the Party or the general hypocrisy that is Ingsoc. It even goes deeper than that.

The exegesis of the book hinges on a combination of the viewpoint provided by Emmanuel Goldstein's famous Book, Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, which tells the story of the Party with a straightforward truth that suggests that the Party probably wrote it itself; and the expositions on power that O'Brien regaled Smith with during the weeks (months?) of his interrogation and conditioning.

Famously, the Thought Police storm in on Julia and Winston just after Winston has put down The Book, just as he is about to read the sentence which states what the Party's object is. But O'Brien, through his tender ministrations, make it clear just what that object is:

Power. Pure power. Power for its own sake.

Just like the Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four, todays Republican party is more than drunk on power, they're addicted to it, in the way a meth addict is addicted, and when power is taken away from them, they get chaotic, jittery, scary (just like the Republican party is acting). We suppose the only difference between Ingsoc and Republicans is that Orwell's Party has moved in and accepted its addiction. The Republicans, on the other hand, haven't accepted that they are addicts yet, so they complain about how thier not being in power is a Bad Thing™ for the People as though they actually believe it, and seem chagrined when people don't believe in them or agree with them.

3. In Summary and In Conclusion

Now, that was some dry exploration. If you've gotten this far with me, I congratulate you.

If your eyes have glazed over, though, here's the lessons, short and sweet:

Dune is valuable because it demonstrates what happens when economics, ecology, power politics, and religion combine and how brutal it can all be.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is valuable because it shows the utter corruption a power-addicted group can wreak on not just a society, but humanity in general.

In my experience, the human animal has always been the most dangerous.

1 comment:

  1. Good choices, but Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" is worthy of inclusion in your distinguished list of teaching tools (and probably quite a few other books, as well). There are lessons to be learned in all great works of fiction, but even minor works of contemporary and popular fiction often contain precious nuggets of insight and essential wisdom.