Sunday, June 01, 2014

Random Book Post

I'm still plugging away at Paradise Lost. Very, very slowly--I only pick it up once or twice a week and usually a couple of pages is enough of a plow. One day the kids asked me to read some and when I paused they wanted to know what it was about and they wanted me to read more. (They are all great fans of poetry. We have been reading Longfellow in school. After The Wreck of the Hesperus, Deux said, "I hate that poem." The next day he asked to read it again.)

I do agree that the depiction of God in Paradise Lost is not very appealing. So far he just sits around explaining himself. It's a Puritan weakness, I think, the attempt to *explain* God. Instead of coming across as a Person (let alone the most interesting Person), he comes across as a textbook. In depicting the rest of experience he does better--the good angels are quite interesting, as is Adam. (Eve is a bit objectified.) But they all have things to *do.*

It seems like to create an effective depiction of the divine, an author needs to be willing to leave the explaining out and simply focus on the personality. We cannot hope to understand God; but we can learn to trust him. George MacDonald never tries to explain why Irene's grandmother doesn't just step in and deal with the goblins herself. Or even why she doesn't step in and make the obstinate servants understand things. But he does show us a person who is profoundly worth knowing, which lets us trust that she does have good reasons for her lack of direct action.

Horror is not one of my usual genres, but I'm giving H.P. Lovecraft a try. I'm finding it hard to be horrified. I don't know if it's just not something that resonates me, or if there's some other reason. One thing is that Lovecraft isn't much on twists and turns. The basic plotline is: There's rumors of something really, really horrible. People at first pooh-pooh it and then decide to go investigate and see if it really is horrible. Yep, it's horrible. This lacks the startling emotional punch. (OK, there was one story where, after being horrified by discovering a town of people slowly turning into amphibious fish-monsters and barely escaping with his life, he discovers that his ancestry traces to the same town and he's turning into a horrible fish-monster too--and he embraces it. That was a little horrifying.)

I tend to find horror more vivid if it crops up in places and ways that ought to be safe. I suppose one could look at Lovecraft as doing this, being as he sets most of his adventures in the idyllic New England countryside, but he does his level best to convince you from he first that all those hills and streams and decaying farmhouses are brooding pits of horror, so you are never off guard.

Probably the bigger reason, though, is that Lovecraft has been parodied so often and so thoroughly that it's just hard to read him seriously. Reading about an invisible monstrosity that crushes barns and consumes the cows inside sounds more like a Far Side cartoon. (Crunchy outside! Tender bovine insides!) Anything involving tentacles immediately invokes the wizards of Unseen University. It's the peril of being an icon in your field. I have no desire to protect Lovecraft from this fate, but I consider it my sacred duties to protect my children from Tolkien parodies until they have gotten to know Tolkien well for himself.

(This is all preparatory to our next adventure campaign, which is going to be horror-themed, as designed by DOB. I'm not sure where on the good/bad parenting scale playing a horror RPG with your children falls, but I can assure you that it will not give the children nightmares. The only one prone to nightmares is Dot, and her own innate imagination is so disturbing that it would be difficult to top it. DOB is loosely inspired by the Lovecraft mythos, but apparently Lovecraft held it as a cardinal rule that the horror could not make sense; that, DOB believes, is an impossible condition for a game. So it will make sense, if we are lucky enough to survive and figure it out.)


On a lighter note, Rocketboy convinced me to read Simon Green's Blue Moon fantasy series, which has been a lot of fun. He told me the second book was much darker than the first, and since the first involved the probable end of the world under the control of the Demon Prince, I was curious to see how that could be. I read it and thought, "This isn't darker. It's just middle-aged." The youthful hero and heroine of the first book are now world-weary thirty-somethings, and alliances and choices are murkier. It just seemed more realistic to me.


Every once in a while I read something by Howard Gardner, just to keep up with more mainstream educational thought. It's hard to say how much I agree or disagree with him; we come at the topic from very different angles. I read The Unschooled Mind, which essentially boils down to saying that what people learn in school makes little to no impression on how they actually think about the world--generally they stick to their pre-school impressions no matter how faithfully they can regurgitate the school answers on the quiz. It's nice to see it well-documented, but it's not exactly an earth-shattering revelation for those of us who are not professional educators. He then offers some ideas or different models that he hopes might help, but he admits that they are not really tested and that assessment is difficult.

And that really is the heart of the matter--there's no way to ascertain, in a standardized way, whether someone actually understands something, or is simply good at test-taking. Yet our society insists on standardized answers. Like the little boy with the lost quarter, we keep looking on Fifth Street, where the light is better, even though we lost the coin on Third Street.

He offers some models which he hopes would be better (apprenticeship and museums); if the essence of each of those is the presence of an adult who is actually interacting with the child's knowledge, and the child taking personal responsibility and interest in what they learn, then I agree that those are helpful approaches towards gaining understanding. On the other hand, I'm doubtful that his insistence on a national curriculum would help with that (especially since, in America, we are congenitally dreadful at doing internal policies at the national level--it's just not the way our system is set up to operate).

On a broader level, though, his focus in education is still essentially skill-based and utilitarian. It's about gaining understanding in the disciplines, not about becoming a whole person. So it is useful but limited.


I have more books I want to talk about, but this post is becoming unconscionably long.

1 comment:

Diary of an Autodidact said...

Your take on Lovecraft is hilarious - particularly the Far Side comparison. Bonus points for that. I also smiled at the kid whose imagination is worse than any literary nightmare.

I do hope you will be posting more about Paradise Lost. I agree that he spends too much time trying to explain God, and found God to be a bit, shall we say, defensive? Jesus gets far better treatment, in my opinion, as he actually gets to do something and show recognizable emotions.

I'm glad that your kids like poetry. I worry that it is becoming a lost pleasure, as very few adults I know read it regularly.