Friday, May 11, 2007

The world's first computer

At the New Yorker, John Seabrook has a magically good piece about the Antikythera Mechanism. (Also there's a very good piece by Burkhard Bilger on guitar-making, not available online--that guy's such a good writer...)

The Antikythera Mechanism is one of those things that shouldn't even exist, based on our understanding of the ancient world, and yet it does--and it sounds ravishingly beautiful, I have a spartan decorating aesthetic and basically want zero stuff (except that I must buy a bicycle and a wetsuit!) but if I could get a working model of the Antikythera Mechanism it would totally make me break my no-stuff rule. If I had read this article when I was nine years old, I would have basically just lobbied to be allowed to quit school and go to Greece to become an archeologist, which was always one of my obsessions in any case (I remember being obsessed at that age with Linear B). Anyway, there's a slideshow also and here's the website for the wonderfully named Antikythera Mechanism Research Project. But it's the article itself that's so special, it perfectly captures the magic of the machinery...

Science is the "true" thing that gives me the same sense of wonder I associate with novel-reading, it must be said, and "science-fictional" is one of my highest compliments (I've been using it most recently to describe a really mind-bending book of literary criticism on Jane Austen). There are a lot of different things we might mean when we say something's like being in a novel--depends for one thing on the kind of novel (often things happen in my life that make me feel I'm in a satirical novel about academia--one of the reasons I have little urge to read such novels!). But what I'm most likely to mean is that heightened sense of interest and excitement that accompanies our turning the pages of a good novel.

I was thinking the other day, too, about why I like fantasy novels so much, and really it's because of the way that genre lets the writer make the stakes very high in ways that are non-naturalistic but psychologically compelling. We do not have a good vocabulary in the secular world for, oh, writing about someone whose soul is at stake! Fantasy does it better. It's that stakes-being-high feeling, then, that seems to me what's most worth seeking out in life. You can have it in unpleasant situations as well as pleasant--you know, when you're helping someone out in an emergency of one kind or another--but often in quite ordinary ones, like having a funny conversation with someone's small child. I have it very strongly when I'm thinking about training to run in a race or learning to be a better swimmer!

The other place I have it very strongly--this will be easiest for me to explain associatively--is in teaching. It's partly a luxury of the kind of teaching I do, it's not that many actual hours a week in the classroom, but I have a not-so-secret principle that every minute that I'm teaching (and the same thing goes if I'm giving a talk somewhere) I have to be at the very highest level of energy and attention. Frances Burney has a really wonderful passage in a letter about Edmund Burke that I think of often in this context (here's a link with the text):

How I wish my dear Susanna and Fredy[1] could meet this wonderful man when he is easy, happy, and with people he cordially likes. But politics, even then, and on his own side, must always be excluded. His irritability is so terrible upon politics that they are no sooner the topic of discourse than they cast upon his face the expression of a man who is going to defend himself against murderers!

My irritability is certainly not at all terrible upon politics, and I never have the expression of a person about to defend myself against murderers, but I love the passage because of the ways it shows that everything's always at stake for Burke. My enthusiasm is so torrential upon thinking that books and ideas are no sooner the topic of discourse than they cast upon my body a spell of energy more appropriate for a dramatic staged sword-fight in a production of Macbeth! When I find myself giving a talk in a slightly staid and decorous location, I become aware of the inappropriateness of this, but fortunately we are allowed to set our own tone in the classroom. I am never so tired that I cannot work myself up to an insane pitch of enthusiasm within minutes....


  1. But his politics were perhaps a bit conservative. "It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision."
    (I remember this fragment of Burke from studying Brian Friel's play "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" at school. Recommend finding a copy of the 1975 film version, for full astringent and depressing effect.)

  2. A complicated question, Burke's politics! I saw the Irish Rep production of "Philadelphia, Here I Come" a couple years ago & was absolutely hilariously delighted at finding that quotation there, I teach the "Reflections on the Revolution in France" all the time...

  3. An interesting point about fantasy. I'm not sure I agree, and in fact wonder if this isn't fantasy's weakness, but definitely interesting to think about. Unfortunately, I'm not very good at reflecting taxonomically, to my great despair.

  4. It's a weakness if we think of it as a melodramatic amplification of quite ordinary struggles, and of course bad fantasy is unredeemable in that sense: and I see why reviewers so often praise unorthodox fantasy fiction for NOT being about, oh, whether the world is going to get saved or not. Modesty of stakes is in this sense a refreshing change. But you see what I mean, don't you, about the way it looks from the other point of view? Especially when you are so to speak a young adult, but perhaps even throughout life in general, it does FEEL as if the world is going to come to an end, or as if everything will turn on a single decision, so that fantasy gets at the emotional truth of that in a way that realistic fiction does not...

  5. Yes, I definitely see what you mean, and I don't doubt that you've hit on something. However, realistic YA fiction certainly can portray this youthful sense of urgency and high stakes - and often does - which in fact may be one of its attractions to adult readers. In other words, is this really the defining difference between fantasy and realistic fiction, at least YA fiction? I'm simply not sure...