September 2009 Archives

A Quotation from Erma Bombeck


Reading Scopes and in correcting a commonly misrepresented piece circulating through the internet and attributed to a dying Erma Bombeck, I found this wonderful small vision:

from A Column Published in 1979
Erma Bombeck

Instead of wishing away nine months of pregnancy and complaining about the shadow over my feet, I'd have cherished every minute of it and realized the wonderment growing inside me was to be my only chance in life to assist God in a miracle.

Beautiful and true.

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Another Blog, perhaps


I haven't decided ultimately, but I may be moving certain types of posts to a new blog with a title that reflects one of my all-time favorite lines of poetry. See A Momentary Taste of Being.

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Nobel Handicapping

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For those with an eye on the bookworld, this is interesting.

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An Insight from Godot


I have the feeling that Godot is much more referred to than read, so I'll share with you a thought:

"There's man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet."

And then later in the same monologue by Vladimir,

"One of the thieves was saved. It's a reasonable percentage."

Both quotations from Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

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Last night had an opportunity to speak with someone--my friend of longest acquaintance. We don't speak often, and don't share e-mail nearly often enough. While talking I had a moment--not long, but a few seconds of many years ago when we would talk for incredibly long stretches of time in conversations that would wind round and round and round and come out here. He even took me to task (quite correctly) for an opinion espoused some years ago about Hemingway. (And, it is, indeed, an opinion I hold to this day. Hemingway may or may not have been a genius, but his legion of imitators mostly have not been.) And it was refreshing to have had someone who took seriously enough what you said to be able to remember it after lo, these many years.

And perhaps that is what true friendship is about--someone who takes seriously what you take seriously and understands how very important that can be and someone who holds up a mirror and says, look closely, do you like what you see?

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Other than to acknowledge that I have read the book, it seems presumptuous on my part to make any attempt to add to the already voluminous and sometimes vitriolic field of Hemingway studies. Perhaps the best thing I can do is to record a few prejudices and impressions and let it go with that. And perhaps I should record my strongest impression up front--upon closing the covers of the book after the last page, I had the impulse to open it again and begin leafing through and rereading in whole or in part. I longed to find my old college copy so that I could mark it up in arcane ways that are not possible with a library copy.

I have never been fond of Hemingway's style nor, for the most part, of his subject matter. I don't know that much has changed in that respect. I have more patience now than I once did with the ultra-minimalism that seems at times to make the symbols stand out like boils. If one were to take this simplistically, one could read the novel as a series of parables with meaning explicated within the text (take my example of the gored steer). However, even though it is very clear when Hemingway is using an object as a symbol, and even though that symbol is often explicitly linked to a meaning, the meaning suggested in the text is not the only meaning, and there is a depth beyond the surface of a parable. It's a subtle and interesting effect.

I don't much care about the subject matter--bull-fighting and promiscuity among a set of young expatriate Americans. Oh, and let's not forget unrequited love--or requited but unconsummated and unconsummatable love. But again, what Hemingway manages in this slight novel is to give us a sense of where it began to go wrong and how. It being civilization and we being the offspring of The Lost Generation, we might refer to it as the Lost Civilization. And it comes as a somewhat gratifying surprise (or not depending on your historical perspective) that it was not the 1960s that gave it to us.

But I think the most important thing to disclose is that I enjoyed the book. Very much. Despite all of the individual things that are not to my taste--spending the time to read it carefully and properly, gave me insight into the operation of literature, and perhaps even a little insight into people.

Fiction is, to paraphrase Picasso, "the lie that tells the truth." In a way that nonfiction cannot, fiction tells the truth about eternal things. Reading great literature, real art, gives insight into that truth--a deeper insight than is possible knowing the facts about a matter. And I think that this is sometimes the most frightening and off-putting of the features and shape of fiction.

In a deep paradox one may find that one can learn more by reading the great writers of fiction (about the things that really matter) than by reading the entire psychology and sociology sections of a library. And fiction carries this advantage--it doesn't pretend to tell you how to fix things, because wise fiction knows that any fix to a situation will only bollix it up in a new way. You don't read fiction looking for solutions--if you're a student of human nature you read it to come to an understanding of what the core problem is.

And perhaps that is where Hemingway is most successful. Because so much is stripped down and laid bare, it is relatively easy to see where the problem lies. To quote another wise man, "The fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves." And the problem is that it isn't a "tragic" flaw of enormous proportions--overweening pride, lust, avarice. No, for most of us, as demonstrated in Hemingway's book, the fault is in the single choices made one by one that lead us away from the center. Most of us never leap into full-fledged rebellion, rather we find ourselves outside the gates by inches--by single choices, single bad choices, made over time--one-by-one. Choices of which we choose to be unaware, but if we were to take the bearings of them, we would find send us subtly off-course. And choices that always seem at the time innocuous or even good. This is the Devil's most successful work--to transform us into martyrs of the moment and allow us to think that the errors we commit are noble sacrifices.

Interestingly, and perhaps most appealingly, it seems that most of the characters in Hemingway's book do not manage to convince themselves of their own innocence. They look at their choices and say they have no choice (a different form of deception), but they don't lie to themselves and say that the choice was good.

So, as you see, not an analysis of Hemingway, but just a note to say that I enjoyed the book despite myself, found much more in it than I could ever have done as a college student, and I recommend it to the attention of all. It is not a struggle to read and it has moments of insight that are startling--particularly when you never expected to see yourself in a book by Hemingway.

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I've recently reconnected with a long-time friend who writes a very interesting process-and-business oriented blog that offers some interesting advice for people who do too much.

Some things I have read there gave me pause. Actually, a great many things have given me pause and caused me to examine what I am reading and why and what the place of reading is in my life. Reading is not life. But for some of us reading is more than a leisure-time activity. Reading is real work--it is part of the formative work that goes into writing and it is a form of shifting from the day-job mind into the relaxation/replenishing mind. The creative required by reading is of a different type than that exercised during a day of putting out fires.

What I've discovered is that I receive less and less pleasure from things that do not present some form of challenge. I've spent a lifetime in "leisure" reading--absorbing all sorts of fun things that almost immediately slip out of my head and make no real difference in my understanding of the One Thing Necessary (soon to be trademarked).

Add to that another discovery--what I read in college as an obligation or a class-fulfillment requirement can be read both for enjoyment and for the very different challenge these works propose to people who have had a bit more life experience. Young and callow moving purposefully toward a goal can only make so much sense of some of the great works of literature, which, I've become convinced required at a minimum a deeply attentive read, and more than likely a slow-read. Speed-reading Ulysses can give you a blurred view of a distant and weird Dublin. Slow reading reveals the texture, richness, and care of composition--they show a deeply human and humane work which exposes us all for our strengths and our foibles.

I'm sure there are some rapid readers who can absorb everything in their flight through works of literature. But, I am not among them. And so, now I find myself focused on these works--works that really teach us how to be human and how to be alive. More on this later.

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Who is the Gored Steer


You probably don't care much about my reading, but it seemed good to share some of these thoughts about the book along the way. This passage may be one of the most evocative and sad of the entire book, and may give us a key to understanding much of what goes on. Then again, my reflections on it may simply be overwrought.

from The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway

The steer was down now, his neck stretched out, his head twisted, he lay the way he had fallen. Suddenly the bull left off and made for the other steer which had been standing at the far end, his head swinging, watching it all. The steer ran awkwardly and the bull caught him, hooked him lightly in the flank, and then turned away and looked up at the crowd on the walls, his crest of muscle rising. The steer came up to him and made as though to nose at him and the bull hooked perfunctorily. The next time he nosed at the steer and then the two of them trotted over to the other bull.

When the next bull came out, all three, the two bulls and the steer, stood together, their heads side by side, their horns against the newcomer. In a few minutes the steer picked the new bull up, quieted him down, and made him one of the herd. When the last two bulls had been unloaded the herd were all together.

The steer who had been gored had gotten to his feet and stood against the stone wall. None of the bulls came near him, and he did not attempt to join the herd.

This passage is followed near on by a fairly aggressive verbal attack by Mike (Brett Ashley's present husband) against Robert Cohn (her one-time pickup) in which Mike uses the following line:

"Tell me, Robert. Why do you follow Brett around like a poor bloody steer?"

So, an obvious and overt reference. However, the passage above has stronger and more lingering resonances within the work as a whole. Jake Barnes has suffered a wound during the war which makes it impossible for him to consummate his relationship with Brett. Thus he is the physical steer of the group. It is also possible that his animus toward Robert Cohn is a result not of his jealousy of Brett, but of his jealousy of and confused thoughts about Robert. This is more tentative, and only gotten at by straining against some of the borders of the text. However, it is provocative that the chief sign here is that of the gored or penetrated steer. This same steer is excluded from the crowd in a way that both Robert and Jake are excluded. But Robert continually makes feeble attempts to join the herd, and Jake while more accepted does see himself standing outside.

Another point that this attraction (if it exists) might help to explain is the reference, quoted in the passage yesterday to being a bad Catholic and possibly never being a good one. If the matter were merely Brett Ashley, it is possible that Jake could think of himself that way--especially as the passion is adulterous. But the hope of being a good Catholic is not forlorn, knowing that Brett is fickle and likely to run through another husband or two in time. But if there a mixed and uncertain feelings about Robert as well, that would clinch the deal.

I won't push this as an understanding of the book, merely as a possibility suggested by this key passage. Obviously other parts of the work would need to be brought forward to support the thesis. It may not sustain close scrutiny, but the thought that Jake may entertain thoughts, perhaps not overtly homosexual, but perhaps a certain attraction to Cohn for looks, character, and ability, does help to explain why he ultimately betrays Cohn by presenting Brett to Romero (also attacking at the same time the obnoxious Mike, who, as noted in the passage above, attacks Robert). It's complex, but it isn't out of the question. The question is, will a close reading of the rest of the book support it. If not, it is at least an interesting speculation arising from the close juxtaposition of passages and symbols.

Oh, and it is an interesting coincidence of no meaning whatsoever, that the gored steer stands against the stone wall (Stonewall). (What other sort of wall would there be in Pamplona in the late 20s early 30s--but still, amusing if one wishes to force a reading on the text--Hemingway as prophet.)

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in Hemingway. . .

from The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway

At the end of the street I saw the cathedral and walked up toward it. The first time I ever saw it I thought the facade was ugly but I liked it now. I went inside. It was dim and dark and the pillars went high up, and there were people praying, and it smelt of incense, and there were some wonderful big windows. I knelt and started to pray and prayed for everybody I thought of, Brett and Mike and Bill and Robert Cohn and myself, and all the bull-fighters, separately for the ones I liked and lumping all the rest. then I prayed for myself again, and while I was praying for myself I found I was getting sleepy, so I prayed that the bullfights would be good, and that it would be a fine fiesta, and that we would get some fishing. I wondered if there was anything else I might pray for, and I thought I would like to have some money, so I prayed that I would make a lot of money, and then I started to think how I would make it, and thinking of making money reminded me of the count, and I started wondering about where he was and regretting I hadn't seen him since that night in Monmartre, and about something funny Brett told me about him, and as all the time I was kneeling with my forehaed on the wood in front of me, and was thinking of myself as praying, I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic, but realized there was nothing I could do about it, at least for a while, and maybe never, but that anyway it was a grand religion, and I only wished I felt religious and maybe I would next time; and then I was out in the hot sun on the steps of the cathedral, and the forefingers and thumb of my right hand were still damp, and I felt them dry in the sun. The sunlight was hot and hard, and I crossed over beside some buildings and walked back along side-streets to the hotel.

(Chapter 10--Jake Barnes speaking)

What a lovely passage. Not poetic--angular and repetitive and driving, but lovely.

I have never much cared for Hemingway--and perhaps that has been a bit of immaturity on my part. I have difficulty with artists with whom I have substantive disagreements regrading morality or general life-issues. I've never much cared for the "man's man" attitude in much of Hemingway. But perhaps that is because of my misreading, because I am quite enjoying The Sun Also Rises. Perhaps I've decided not to continually deprive myself of potentially great work because of arbitrary fiats on my own part. We all do this, most unconsciously, but I'm trying to uncover the roots of my dislike and impatience and do away with them systematically. Why? I honestly don't have any idea whatsoever--it just seems like I have too long been arrogant about my likes and dislikes with no legitimate reason.

My prejudices against certain authors have really blocked access to substantive work that is potentially a source of great insight into the human condition. And the better we know that, the better we are equipped to help ourselves and others to overcome it and to assume the more Divine Nature that the Father wants to grant us even as we live today.

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System maintenance is now complete.


Thanks, readers, for your patience during the system maintenance Friday evening.

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The Dilemma of The Dying Animal


Philip Roth poses us a dilemma in The Dying Animal. If you read The Professor of Desire, you get the story of David Kepesh up until say the mid seventies. And quite a story it is too, young life in a menage a trois, wife for eight years, almost as many recovering from wife, girlfriend with whom, at the end, he feels a dying passion.

In The Dying Animal (at least mid-way through) meet David Kepesh, who now mysteriously has a son with his first (and apparently only) wife, who came of age in the 1940s (when it was before clearly the 1960s) and who is master of the erotic and disgusting arts. He is obsessed not even with sex but with passion. His life drive is pure passion as passion.

Which of these two represent the story of David Kepesh? Or taken together are they intended to make up a now-tired commentary on the nature of the fictional world in that it is fictional and infinitely malleable.

I'll post more later. There is a particular passage in the book that I want to share but I have to figure out how best to do that without offending your, and my own, sensibilities. It's good to have read the two of these in close juxtaposition. Now I can begin to explore how they mean together.

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The Seventh Heaven--Naguib Mahfouz


I finished this book several days ago and only now have gotten around to saying a few words about it. To start with it is useful to reiterate a statement I made when I quoted from this book a few days back. Naguib Mahfouz is a difficult writer--not so much in the complexity of his prose as in his regionalism. His concerns are, rightly, the concerns of his country in its time and sometimes it takes a pretty thoroughgoing knowledge of recent Egyptian history to make out where Mahfouz is going and what he is saying. There are parts of his work (I'm thinking here of a work like Karnak Cafe) where the particulars important for fully understanding the story are not particularly generalizable.

The Seventh Heaven, however, has something to say to anyone who has interest in matters beyond affairs of state and recent history. The subtitle is Supernatural Tales, although, this is not an entirely accurate description, perhaps something more like Tales of the Fantastic and Supernatural might be more appropriate and would better encompass a story like that of the hotel room in which a Grand Matron is holding court. As she converses more and more and more people join her until the room is packed so full and the people eating so much that one expects a climax rather like the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera. One does not get it, instead having a bizarre, macabre, and even inhuman twist.

In the title story, a murdered man is taken into the First Heaven and tried, only to be found wanting--not so wanting as to be condemned, but enough that he must serve as spirit guide for a person on Earth. This leads to disaster and the man is ultimately condemned to relive life. The story works itself out in a tale of revenge and renewal and it is a suitable start to an interesting collection.

The book includes stories in which Satan speaks to confess that there is a man in the land who utterly defeated him. A young boy who grows up fearing a nearby wood because of its supposed haunting by demons, turns into a teen who learns that there are no demons in the wood--but then are there?

I quoted the other day from what may well be my favorite story in the collection, "Beyond the Clouds," in which a young man enters the realm of the afterlife, undergoes purgation and is set at a task appropriate for the occupation of eternity, only to meet the person with whom he was deeply in love on Earth.

You don't need to know a lot about Egypt (although it is occasionally helpful) or its politics and history to enjoy the stories in this book. They may be slight, perhaps not a master's best work, I have not read extensively enough to be able to comment on this; however, they are a good entree if you're interesting in broadening your reading horizons and including one of the more recent Nobel Prize winning authors in your reading list. This may be a place to start rather than the more famous Miramar or the more political (but highly relevant) Karnak Cafe.

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From Saul Bellow


And how very sad it is:

from Seize the Day
Saul Bellow

It made Wilhelm profoundly bitter that his father should speak to him with such detachment about his welfare. Dr. Adler like to appear affable. Affable! His own son, his one and only son, could not speak his mind or ease his heart to him. At least Tamkin sympathizes with me and tries to give me a hand, whereas Dad doesn't want to be disturbed.

I often wonder of how many American children the same can be said--how truly, bitterly sad.

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The Professor of Desire--Philip Roth


I finished the book listed in the title of this on the flight from Orlando to Washington D.C. I had to endure the cab ride to Silver Spring before I could open and finish the last two pages of the book, and with it fresh in my mind, I'm not certain that I'm ready to say anything helpful about it.

Let me start with nonessentials--having finished this book, I now have three that I brought with me to choose from--Saul Bellow's Seize the Day, the next in the David Kepesh saga--The Dying Animal by Philip Roth, or Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim. Or I can choose from the plethora of reads on my Kindle including current perusal of Ulysses or The Ambassadors.

Back to Roth--while I enjoyed the book, I was ambivalent about how I felt about the main character at the end. It was very similar to my experience with Isabel Archer at the end of Portrait of a Lady. Though for quite different reasons. Isabel comes to her ruin through her enormous pride--wanting her complete freedom, she more thoroughly destroys it than would be otherwise possible. Reading The Professor of Desire one is left with two possible conclusions regarding David Kepesh, and unfortunately I know which one I favor. The first is that early formative experiences, including a sexual liaison in his early twenties with two women at the same time, which nearly destroys one of the participants, so thoroughly colored his experience of sexuality and life that his subsequent choices were shunted down progressively more destructive paths. The second is that David Kepesh is stuck in a permanent romantic adolescence in which passion is everything and the possibility of settling into a relationship in which passion and its sexual expression were not a constant succession of progressively more pyrotechnic and cataclysmic encounters was not thinkable. This latter is a state too many men in America found themselves permanently bound up in, if one is to believe the divorce statistics and the activities of even supposedly devout Catholics.

As I said, I doubt that anything here could guide a reader one way or another with regard to the book. I need to consider it longer, more deeply, and more broadly to come to any sort of conclusion at all.

But, oh, what magnificent and controlled language, what beautiful sentences. Not lyrical in the John Updike way, but in some ways better, stronger, more filled with tension and life--more New York, less Boston. The language really is a wonder to behold, even when reading about subjects that in the abstract and by themselves are not particularly uplifting.

I'll try to write more about this when I have a better idea of what would be helpful and meaningful to say.

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A Toast for the Day


Welcome everyone, and thank you for coming to help us celebrate this most auspicious occasion. It is my great privilege and delight to say that no celebration, no matter how well and meticulously planned, no matter how elaborately conceived or festively given, no matter how richly appointed or grand, can compare to the real, honest, every day joy of being able to return home to my wonderful wife Linda and my son Samuel. May it continue so for many years, and may all of you know this quotidian delight--for this is the true delight and the true joy of life--the joy of every day anew.

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A Personal Note


I am inclined to be too easily persuaded to another's point of view, particularly when their's is a negative view. Ah well.

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With regard to blogging. . .


I guess I must go with Chesterton--"If it's worth doing, it's worth doing poorly."

So, how am I doing? Is it worth doing?

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So today. . .


Linda has concocted some excruciatingly big bash to celebrate our anniversary/her birthday. Fortunately, just as at the wedding, my job is to show up--and maybe carry some stuff. That much I can deal with--especially if it makes for a memorable day for her.

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Scenes from a Professoriate

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I wrote the other day of my disillusionment with John Updike--that despite his truly amazing technical aplomb with words, I found much of his fiction sterile and pointless. That is NOT to say that it is sterile and pointless, but rather that I am not the right person to find the point of an Updike tale.

I used to think the same of Philip Roth. Perhaps even more of Philip Roth because it seemed to me that he was so singly focused on one aspect of the human condition. And perhaps that is because the aspect of his focus is of particular interest, and Roth engages in it with a lustiness that certainly takes the timid New England adulterer and turns him on his head.

But, perhaps what I need to learn to do is to read properly, and to ignore the overtly offensive, understanding that my offense is really a measure of my resistance.

Take this passage from Roth:

from The Professor of Desire
Philip Roth

What little spirit smolders on in me during the last months of the marriage is visible only in class; otherwise I am so affectless and withdrawn that a rumor among the junior faculty members has me "under sedation." Ever since the approval of my dissertation I have been teaching along with the freshman course "Introduction to Fiction," two sections of the sophomore survey in "general" literature. During the weeks near the end of the term when we study Chekhov's stories, I find, while reading aloud to my students passages which I particular want them to take note of, that each and every sentence seems to me to allude to my own plights above all, as though by now every single syllable I think or utter must first trickle down through my troubles. And then there are my classroom daydreams, as plentiful suddenly as they are irrepressible, and so obviously inspired by longings for miraculous salvation--reentry into lives I lost long ago, reincarnation as a being wholly unlike myself--that I am even somewhat grateful to be depressed and without anything like the will power to set even the mildest fantasy in motion.

"I realized that when you love you must either, in your reasoning about that love, start from what is higher, more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their usual meaning, or you must not reason at all." I ask my students what's meant by these lines, and while they tell me, notice that in a far corner of the room, the poised, soft-spoken girl who is my most inteeligent, my prettiest--and my most bored and arrogant--student is finishing off a candy bar and a Coke for lunch.

You must read the rest for yourself. But what is here is beautifully, roundly written, with sentences that roll and flow out, filling up and expanding, meaning at first little, but when reread, becoming more revealing, more inviting, more explanatory of the difficulty of David Kepesh. And while these difficulties are more often than not spelled out in the sexual relations of Mr. Kepesh, they stem from a deeper source, an unexamined stream--a place that Mr. Kepesh, to this point at least, refuses to go and refuses to see.

What evolves is an amazingly convoluted, but full portrait of a man in his dissatisfaction. And while one might expect such a portrait to be depressing, perhaps to weigh one day more than it ought--this never seems to happen. Mr. Roth by the power of language alone, carries us along and amuses us. Indeed, this story at least is by turns amusing and dark--and the wonderful point is that the amusement itself is rarely dark. It stems in part for the realization that they people Roth writes about are much like ourselves--that we all (men that is--I can't imagine that Roth's writing has much appeal for women) live in much the same unexamined way. Oh, those of us who are introspective selectively examine the faults and virtues we wish to acknowledge. But we are actually like that overstuffed closet that, when the door opens, we struggle and struggle to push everything back in and seal the door behind it. We can never completely seal the door and the next time it bursts open, we're back in the mess. And there is something delightfully lifelike and refreshing to find others in similar predicaments, although not necessarily for exactly the same reasons.

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Interesting Insights Along the Way


The following entry was originally posted by Paul Draper on his facebook site. I think the thought, while perhaps a bit simplified, is a starting point for an excursus into the understanding of the interface of science and religion.

The Marvelous Tale of Chaperonin, the Patron Saint of Useless Proteins
Paul Draper

September 9, 2009 at 1:08pm

I know next to nothing about biology, and I yesterday I heard the most amazing thing, mentioned almost in passing. I was struck dumb by it, but I get the feeling that if I said, "Wait a sec, that's extraordinary!" a biologist would say, "Oh, yeah, crazy s&$# like that happens all over the place in biology." And I'm going to try to explain this in the way I understand it, not the way a biologist would understand it, because... well, I'm not a biologist.

Proteins are made of long chains of amino acids, which are little T-shaped molecules, and where the left tip of the cross-bar of the T of one molecule connects with the right tip of the cross-bar of the T in the next molecule, leaving all those vertical legs sticking out of the side of the chain. There are 20 different kinds of those vertical legs, and they all have different chemical widgets at the ends. Some have the chemical equivalent of velcro side A, some velcro side B, some hooks, some eyes, some magnetic north poles, some magnetic south poles, some little oily bits that recoil from water, and so on.

And what happens is that this long chain tends to kink and twist and fold up, controlled completely by the velcro side A on one amino acid finding the velcro side B on another, the hook on one finding the eye on another, and so on. You get phone-cord spirals and bobby-pin bends and loom-shuttle sheets first, and then it tangles up some more. The thing is, how it tangles up, and the final shape of the tangled up mess is EVERYTHING to how the protein works. It's got to have that pocket lined with strips of velcro, or that knob with magnet poles, to be the enzyme it's supposed to be or the cell membrane ion channel it's supposed to be. If it doesn't fold up to that shape, then it's useless, and the key is that what shape it will tangle into is completely controlled by that sequence of T's with different widgets.

Now, you can imagine how evolution plays here. Sequences that fold up into a shape that isn't useful will be eventually culled, and sequences that fold into a shape that do something useful will be kept. So there's a natural mechanism for sorting out what in the end gets made and doesn't get made. Evolution is a heartless taskmaster, and proteins that don't do anything worthwhile get the pink slip.

But wait! There's a very complex protein called chaperonin, and it is another thing that folds up to serve a specific purpose. It looks like a snake-charmer's basket, complete with a lid. And what it does is this: It opens its lid and accepts an amino acid chain AND HELPS THAT CHAIN FOLD ITSELF CORRECTLY TO BE USEFUL. That is, it takes a protein that, on its own, would fold itself into something that is useless, and it helps it instead fold itself into something that is useful.

The question at the heart of this is: who ordered the chaperonin?

How does evolution, the heartless taskmaster, look at a useless protein and figure out that maybe there's inner value to that protein, if only there were a guardian angel that could help it do what it can't do on its own? What evolutionary happenstance created the patron saint protein whose sole purpose is to elevate more humble proteins to useful purpose?

This is the kind of thing that, the more you look at it, the more you marvel at how beautiful it is. There is soul in even the coldest machine, if you walk slowly enough to notice it. That's the way I see it, anyway.

Below is my original response to Paul:

Beautifully said, nicely explained. And only one of many things that argues against strict exaptation or even strict empiricism. When we come to a point like this, we enter into the realm of the philosophical subtext of science and we are no longer on the ground of what can be proven--merely what can be observed. Thank you for the note.

I would add to it that while some of the details may not be exactly on target, I think the overall discussion accurate for a layperson and insightful.

I don't think the conclusion is ultimately "intelligent design." But rather that God is imprinted on all of creation--without exception. In this way, I am far closer to Francis S. Collins than Michael Behe. But now we've gotten to the unstated philosophy that underlies any given theory. And philosophy, of itself is not subject to the rigors of the scientific method--such a method is incompatible with the means and ends of most philosophical investigation and most objects that philosophy purposes to examine. That is to say, the observations and explanations of the natural world are certainly subject to the rigors that science brings---however, the underlying whys may not always be amenable to the methods of science.

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From Naguib Mahfouz


from "Beyond the Clouds"
in The Seventh Heaven
Naguib Mahfouz

He took me by the hand and led me through a lush forest to a lake of light, and told me to immerse myself within its waves of rays. I complied with the order--floating for a few seconds, before beginning to sink, slowly and without pause, until I settled in the innermost depths of the lake. The waves penetrated deep inside my being, cleansing me thoroughly. A chain of sins and errors that I had committed during my life stretched out before my sight. Each time a a sin or error would vanish, an accompanying pain would vanish with it. My weight lessened accordingly, so that I rose from my submersion little by little. This bathing went on for hours, or days, or years, until eventually I was floating once more upon the lake's surface. Finally, I alight on the land with nimbleness and glee--then entered my house.

This beautiful vision of purgatory may only have been possible in Egypt--the land that from ancient times gave us the symbol of the weighing of the heart against a feather, combined with the influence of all three of the "Abrahamic" religions. While Dante gave us the "poetic" Purgatory with its whips and goads, it may be that this gentler vision is one that more reflects the mercy and the goodness of the God we know and love.

(Naguib Mahfouz is an Egyptian writer who some years ago won the Nobel Prize in literature. He is no longer with us, but his work lives on--some of it beautiful, some of it vaguely confusing, some of it so wrapped up with concerns central to Egypt as to be nearly incomprehensible in its subtleties. But everything I've read so far has been worth the time.)

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John Updike

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I probably spill too much virtual ink over John Updike. And yet since the blog is mine, and I'm not disturbing the peace of too many people recently, I'd like to spill some more as I talk a little about the paradox Updike represents for me.

Updike's style, the sheer strength and sinuosity of his sentences, the beauty of his prose ranks second to none in the modern world for me. Any writer I like better is already dead--Waugh, Joyce, James, Woolf, Faulkner. Updike's prose, for me, stands up to these.

The paradox is that almost nothing he has written strikes me as being worth reading once I finish it. (I except here his nonfiction--unusual for me.) At this point I have read, or started nearly all of his novels, tens of short stories (some of these I would also except from the general rule I'm about to articulate) and a handful of poems. I have never failed to finish a novel and wonder, "So what was the fuss all about?" Rabbit, Beck, Witches, Sundays, Roger, you name it, and I find myself wondering how I got left out.

The subject matter should be interesting enough--after all sex and adultery in America with a Protestant spiritual edge should be material for glazed-over reading. But I reach the end of a novel to discover that sex (at least as experienced by other people) is dull beyond redemption, pointless, and is the leading cause of divorce when it occurs frequently within marriage. How odd. That really hasn't been my experience of the matter.

So I find myself picking up another book, and once again hooked by language and entranced by sheer prose mastery. And, oh dear, it's the same thing all over again. What was the point of that? Occasionally, I feel like I have a slippery hold on a revelation, but it slips away.

I understand the Swedish Academy when they talk about American literature being too "provincial." What they actually mean to say is "too obsessed with a kind of adolescent prurience about sex that doesn't really open up meaning, message, or the art to new and interesting ideas." (Not that what the academy selects is all that much sophisticated in most cases.)

But I know that in this case, I'm just not seeing it. The prose is luscious--even some of the stories promising, and yet I get to the end and am nearly always disappointed. Is that really Updike's fault, or is it, more likely, a fault in the reader?

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With an eleven-year-old who is heavily into Japanese anime, it is not reasonable to think that one would be spared a theater visit to see the most recent Hayao Miyazaki opus. And, of course I was not.

My general feelings about anime run the gamut. Some seem tremendously long, complex, and arcane (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away), others seem to be very young (Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro) and still others seem odd, disjointed and filled with mysterious almost sensible things (Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away [redux]). All of the ones I have seen have been beautiful.

Ponyo falls into the young, weird, and beautiful category. Our hero is a five-year-old who unaccountably can identify species of Devonian fish at a glance through the water. He encounters an odd goldfish princess (who wants to become a real girl--sound familiar) and her even odder parents--some sort of sea-wizard and a lovely rainbow colored set of diaphanous flowing garments with a beautiful face typified by some sailors as "The Goddess of Mercy."

The story centers around the desire of the young goldfish princess to become a real girl. In her quest she releases some enormous power that drags the moon out of its orbit toward earth. To save the earth and achieve her goal, she (Ponyo) and her young boy-friend/brother-to-be set out on an epic quest through storm and tsunami.

The moving is charming, beautifully wrought, and filled with the mysterious and nearly incomprehensible blend of Shinto and Buddhist sensibility that seem to inform many of Miyazaki's films. And perhaps that is the appeal of most of them--there is always a deeply spiritual element, which is sometimes difficult to understand, but often involved with the spirits of nature and correcting some imbalance that results from an out-of-balance relationship with nature.

Ponyo seemed long (like most anime does to me). But it wasn't long in the tedious, dull sense--more like in a suspended time-sense. And it was undoubtedly beautiful in every frame.

One of the joys of having a child is being able to share for a few moments their vision of the world. I think Miyazaki may actually capture this experience better than any novelist, artist, or filmmaker I know. Ponyou is from beginning to end, charming, beautiful, and oddly captivating. It is certainly appropriate for all audiences and serves as a wonderful introduction to the world of anime.

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This page is an archive of entries from September 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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