Trust Me

One of the easiest mistakes to make when reading a story is ignoring the narrator. Not ignoring what the narrator says, but ignoring who the narrator is. Like an eye witness on the stand in a murder trial, a narrator’s biases, perception, and credibility ought to be carefully criticized.

Among the most suspect narrators are autobiographers. Who could possibly be less reliable than somebody testifying to their own great deeds? Giacomo Casanova would likely be forgotten today if he had not published outlandish memoirs of his adventures and sexual conquests. Similarly, Benvenuto Cellini would only be known as a relatively minor Renaissance artist if not for his (quite literally) incredible autobiography which features not only daring feats, but supernatural beings. But there is good reason to question the reliability of even less outrageous autobiographers. Neither the Confessions of Augustine nor Rousseau are totally reliable since each man had a specific agenda in writing about his own life. Benjamin Franklin was notoriously self-serving in his public and professional life, so why not in his autobiography?

Even more academic work must be critically examined for author bias. Herodotus, “the father of history”, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Plutarch was similarly more interested in the stories of his Parallel Lives than the facts. (To say nothing of the fact that both Herodotus and Plutarch include anecdotes about events and conversations that they could have no way of knowing.) And how could Tacitus be objective about the lives of the early emperors of Rome when he was a member of the Senate that had lost so much of its power to those princes?

What is easier, but no less important, is to assess the biases, perceptional flaws, and reliability of fictional narrators. Faulkner has a habit of telling his stories through very unreliable narrators. The mentally retarded narrator Benjamin in The Sound and the Fury obviously has perceptional issues that make it very difficult to be sure what is actually going on. Similarly, his older brother Quentin’s deteriorating mental health makes him an unreliable narrator. In As I Lay Dying the narrators include a very confused little boy, a dead woman, and a young man sent to a mental institution. Clearly they are not all capable of telling the entire story.

Obviously the reader of any story cannot simply take everything the narrator says at face value. That is not to say that the narrator or the story itself should be totally discounted. Despite the observations above, not one of the books that I have mentioned is not worth reading. You can trust me, right?

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Beer of the week: Post Road Pumpkin Ale – Halloween is tomorrow, so we are well and truly into the season for pumpkin beer (and pumpkin everything else.) The Brooklyn Brewing Company makes some fine brews, not the least of which is Post Road. This pretty orange beer pours with a fluffy head and smells of gingerbread. The rich, full body of Post Road is balanced nicely by tingling carbonation and spice. It evokes thoughts of warm pumpkin pie without trying to taste like pie. It is still a beer, and it tastes like a beer. A good one, at that.

Reading for the week: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving – This story is a Halloween classic. What I have never considered before, however, is the fact that Irving does not tell the story in his own name. Before the story even begins, Irving tells us that it was “found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker”. Is the story more or less reliable because it was found rather than written by Irving?

Question for the week: This post is about narrators of stories and histories, but what about purely philosophical writings (if such a thing exists)? How much must one know about Kant’s background before he can seriously study Kant’s writings? How much does it matter which pseudonym Kierkegaard used for a given work?


Forget Fear

The fear of forgetting is exceedingly common. More than a few people have nightmares about forgetting to study for an exam or forgetting to prepare for a presentation or speech. And it is not difficult to see why the fear of forgetting is so serious; the consequences can be dire. Forgetting an anniversary can result in marital discord. Forgetting to turn off the stove can result in a house fire. Forgetting about a project can result in a lost job. Forgetting is scary.

But forgetting is not only scary because of it’s consequences; it can also be scary because of it’s causes. Have you waken up after a night of drinking and not remembered how you got home? That is really scary. Since you don’t remember getting home, you have no way of knowing how close you may have come to doing something extremely dangerous. It may be the merest accident that you did not get seriously hurt or die, but you have no way to know because you drank so much that you can’t remember. Isn’t that terrifying?

To me, the most terrifying thing about forgetting is the fear of deteriorating mental health. I do not have any reason to think that I personally am losing any of my mental powers, but everybody who reaches old age has reason to fear that their body will outlive their reason, and that prospect is truly horrifying. I plan on living for many more years, but I extremely anxious about the prospect of living past the point where I can remember how to feed myself or recognize my loved ones’ faces.

Forgetting, however, is not always scary or bad. In fact, sometimes remembering is even worse. There is a reason that people talk of “being haunted” by memories. Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem The Raven is about memory and the terrifying possibility of never being able to forget. The poem starts with the narrator reading a book of “forgotten lore.” And why is he reading forgotten lore? In the hopes that he can forget his lost love. He is trying to drive out his memories and replace them with something else that has already been forgotten.

The poem’s titular character, the raven, is the embodiment of the narrator’s inability to forget. Try as he might, the narrator will never rid himself of the bird just as he will never rid himself of the memory of “the rare and radiant maiden” whom he has lost. Even when he feels that he is on the verge of forgetting, when he gets distracted by other thoughts, he is brutally and unexpectedly forced to remember by the ominous fowl. And the worst thing about the raven is the knowledge that the narrator will be able to forget nevermore.

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Beer of the week: Ghost Ship White IPA – With Halloween just around the corner, a beer that is advertized as “scary good” seems appropriate. This cloudy orange brew comes from Capital Brewery in Wisconsin. It pours with a sticky white head. The aroma is of strong hops with a hit of grapefruit. The smell, however, is a bit misleading; the body of the beer is lighter and the flavor is less hoppy than I expected based on the aroma. Although the flavor is surprisingly slight, the finish has a pleasant spice and a bit of a tingle from the citrusy hops.

Reading of the week: The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe – Surely this is one of the most famous American poems ever written. In The Raven, Poe does not mention beer, but he does mention nepenthe. Nepenthe is an ancient Greek potion to induce forgetfulness and chase away sorrow. Sounds like beer to me.

Question of the week: What fear is worse: forgetting something important, or the inability to forget something devastating?


Conspicuous Consumption of Killian’s

When I worked in an Italian restaurant, a customer remarked by way of compliment that “it’s clear that there are real immigrants working in the kitchen.” I confirmed that the cooks were, indeed, immigrants and that I would pass on the compliment to the chef. I neglected to mention where the immigrants in question came from originally; I suspect very strongly that the customer would have been less effusive in her praise of the food if she knew that the chef was not Italian, but Mexican. Preconceived notions have such a peculiar way of effecting perception.

Some years later, it was my duty (nay, honor) to purchase kegs of beer for campus-wide college parties. Substantial though my allotted budget was, it was not inexhaustible. To save money for very good beer at the biggest parties, I purchased cheaper beers throughout the year. For the most part, people seemed to like this plan, but I occasionally got complaints. I was always surprised when people had the nerve to whine about having to (or, more properly, getting to) drink Yeungling or PBR at a party. Everybody’s favorite beer should be free beer.

One way that I avoided complaints was to purchase Killian’s Irish Red. Killian’s certainly seems classier than PBR or Bud Light. I personally think that it tastes better as well. The twist, however, is that a keg of Killian’s is no more expensive than a keg of Coors Light. (Which is not surprising when you learn that Killian’s is brewed by the same giant company.) Many of the students who complained about cheap macrobrews applauded my decision to serve this cheap macrobrew, simply because they didn’t know how cheap it was.

Thorstein Veblen wrote of fashion that people have a strong bias against anything cheap. People of taste will reject a beautiful, well-made garment as soon as they realize that it is not expensive. “[The garment] loses caste aesthetically because it falls to a lower pecuniary grade.” The same (and its reverse) is often true of beer: if it is 50¢ per can, people believe that it can’t be good, and if it is $15 per bottle, people believe that it can’t be bad.

Part of why I favor drinking from a glass is so that the label (and the price tag) don’t distract you from the beer.

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Beer of the week: George Killian’s Irish Red -Killian’s is ruby red and certainly more eye-catching than a domestic light beer. The roasted malt that provides the color (at least I hope that the color comes from the malt rather than food coloring) also imparts some flavor. To be sure, it isn’t a great beer but it does have decent body and some good bread and caramel notes. I definitely recommend it if you want a beer that seems more fancy than it is.

Reading for the week: The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen – Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe the myriad ways in which people indulge in luxury goods and activities (and let everybody else know it.) In this excerpt Veblen discusses how fashion can show off wealth. Not only can a man in a tuxedo afford to buy a tuxedo, the pristine cleanliness of his tuxedo makes it obvious that he does not have to perform any manual labor.

Question for the week: Not that many people would be willing to admit this, but have you ever liked something until you found out that it was cheap and only then decided that you did not like it?


Navy Beans

Economics and morality have strange intersections. Many people cannot help but assign moral value to commercial transactions. “It is wrong for athletes to be paid so much while the beer vendor is paid so little.” “It is wrong for bottled water to cost so much.” “It is wrong to sell mustard gas at any price.” For the first two examples, the complaint might as well be against the laws of supply and demand themselves. Baseball players make as much money as they do because the demand for top-level athletic ability is very high and the supply is very low. There is relatively little moral ambiguity in that case. The mustard gas example, however, reaches something beyond economics.

In Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Adam’s son Caleb gives him a gift of $15,000. Caleb insists that he came by the money honestly, having invested in bean futures in anticipation of America’s entry into the First World War. Adam refuses the gift. He makes two claims about why he can’t accept the money: first, the money was stolen from the farmers who could have realized that profit themselves if Caleb hadn’t bought the futures; and second, war profiteering is morally reprehensible.

In response to the first of Adam’s objections, Caleb rightfully denies that the farmer’s were robbed. The farmers were paid nearly 60% over market price for their beans. The profit that Caleb realized on his investment only reflected the risk that he took on himself. If the US had not entered the war and bean prices had remained stable, Caleb would have lost a sizable part of his investment.

The second objection, however, is much sticker. Adam is a member of the draft board. He signs orders sending young men to go and die in a foreign land. Profiting from such a terrible thing as war is, in Adam’s mind, utterly unthinkable. This complaint does not go away simply by saying that somebody was going to profit from the war, so why not Caleb? But is selling beans to the army any different from selling mustard gas to the army? Maybe it is all just supply and demand.

It really is hard to think about this rationally because Caleb is so sympathetic. All Caleb wants is his father’s love. He is convinced that he has done a good job, but his gift is rejected. It is so easy to side with Caleb and to find fault with Adam’s rejection, but maybe there really was something wrong with Caleb’s gift. Maybe it was wrong to profit from the war.

Boot TreadBeer of the week: Boot Tread Belgium Amber Ale – This beer comes from Martens NV, brewers of Willianbräu, Hackenberg, Kinroo Blue, and Damburger. Boot Tread is a pretty amber beer available at the discount grocery store down the street. Even a nation with as proud a brewing tradition as Belgium has its cheap beers, but I suspect that this particular brew is for export only. There is a bit of sweet caramel in the aroma, though not much. Overall, this is a standard, inoffensive cheap ale. Not much more to say.

Reading for the week: War is a Racket by Major General Smedley Butler – After a long career as hired muscle for American economic concerns, Butler finally decides to speak out against the military industrial complex. He maintains that Woodrow Wilson went back on his campaign promise to keep the United States out of the First World War to appease American bankers and manufacturers who stood to lose loads of money if Germany won the war. In this chapter, Butler reviews the obscene amounts of money made by the du Ponts, Bethlehem Steel, and other profiteers during the First World War. Needless to say, Caleb’s $15,000 pales in comparison.

Question for the week: Assuming that it is morally wrong to sell mustard gas to the army because it may be used to kill innocent people, is it morally wrong to sell beans to the army because the soldiers who eat the beans may be used to kill innocent people? What about selling beans to the factory worker who makes the gas? What about selling beans to the mechanic who fixes the car of the factory worker who makes the gas? How far removed must the transaction be before it is no longer “profiteering”?


A Pointillist Theology

A high school religion teacher once remarked to me that the only proof of God’s existence that she needed was to look out the window. “How could anybody look upon the wonder of creation,” she wondered incredulously, “and not believe in God?” I was not convinced.

Are not the awe-inspiring beauty and order the universe even more awe-inspiring if they are organic rather than miraculous? That is to say, isn’t nature more impressive than creation? Creation could have been anything that God chose, but nature had to be the way it is. Rather than focusing on the single miracle of creation, why not focus on the ever-accumulating individual discoveries of the world around us? If God created the butterfly instantly and miraculously, that would not make it any more beautiful. But the fact that the butterfly evolved over millions of years and is the distant progeny of the first spark of life, that is beautiful and awe-inspiring.

Nietzsche would say that my teacher had an “old fashioned eye” that preferred “beautiful, decorative, intoxicating and perhaps beatific” myths to “simple truths, ascertained by scientific method.” But reason and scientifically discovered truths are every bit as beautiful as the old world views and aesthetics. In fact, they are even more beautiful. This is because the old views are static and limiting, but the “the richness of inner, rational beauty always spreads and deepens.”
Fiddlehead Kölsch

Beer of the week: Fiddlehead Kölsch – Fiddlehead ferns are a neat example of naturally occurring logarithmic spirals. Their geometric (near) perfection can be viewed as proof of an ordered universe. The quality beers from Fiddlehead Brewing Company are also proof of an ordered universe. This pale, cloudy ale has a soft, round bouquet with hints of pineapple. Although it is not overly hoppy, it is surprisingly bitter for its style and aroma. This is certainly a good beer, but for my taste the hops leave the mouth feeling a bit too dry in the end.

Reading of the week: Human, All Too Human, Appreciation of Simple Truths by Friedrich Nietzsche – Reading leads to reading. Reading Emerson led me to read Greenough and Landor. Reading Mencken led me to read Nietzsche. And reading Nietzsche led me to read more Nietzsche. This paragraph of Human, All Too Human directly follows the reading from two weeks ago.

Question of the week: Are the ideas of creation and evolution truly opposed?