[T]he great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve….We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” ~ William Shakespeare
Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” ~ William Ockham
Compelled by the clamoring crowds and after much consideration, I, Amorphous Intelligence, have chosen to appease the adoring masses and reveal my true identity to the world. My mask is removed. I lay myself bare before all. I am…William S. Razor, Ret.
As such, I’ve started a new blog—Razor’s Ramblings: The Ranting Ravings, Resounding Writings, and Romping Repartee of the Resourcefully Reasonable and Reputedly Romantic William S. Razor, Ret.
Thoughtful. Humorous. Aimless.
“Stop telling such outlandish tales. Stop turning minnows into whales.” ~ Dr. Seuss, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
“I know that this queer adventure of the Gay-Header’s will be sure to seem incredible to some landsmen…” ~ Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Introduction—The Gay American Novel
Call me (a) Dick.
But Moby-Dick, the Great American Novel by Herman Melville, is the gayest book I’ve ever read since Harry’s Peter and his “Chamber” of Secrets.*
Having said that, I should add at the outset that Amorphous Intelligence Ltd., LLC, N.A., LLD (and all its affiliates, subsidiaries, entities, and personnel, etc.; hereinafter just “AI”) is not anti-gay.
And having said that, on the flipside, AI is not, in full disclosure, personally gay.**
Let me clarify:
By “gay,” I don’t mean, as today’s youngsters do, lame (though AI is not that, either). Nor do I mean, as my grandparents’ generation did, merry. Nay, I’m sort of the “in-between” generation where that word not too long ago, according to a slightly older-edition Merriam-Webster’s, meant:
2gay (noun) \’gā\: HOMOSEXUAL; especially, a homosexual male…who uses his Moby Dick as a harpoon to thrust into the blowhole of another cetacean bull while shouting ‘Thar she blows!’ as he simultaneously ejaculates his pod of sperm whales
Examples of GAY
- A bar that is frequented by gays
- All the characters in the 1851 novel Moby-Dick are gay
Which pretty much sums up all 800-plus pages and 135 or so chapters of this loooooooooooooooooooonnnnnng…ooooooold…thick…saggy…hairy…book….
Okay, I made up the saggy and hairy bits. But it is, in fact, a book. And it’s a touch more than long, old, and thick (which are also, in fact, factual).
*Note: not by J.K. Rowling.
**If you’re gay and reading this, what is about to transpire is probably old news. For us straight “landsmen”, however, this is new news that, in Melville’s words, “will be sure to seem incredible.” So please forgive us if, from our biased heterosexual perspective, we act a little childish.
Part 1—Of Sharks and Whales and Large Minnow Tales
Truth be told, I was pleasantly surprised when I recently read this book. It’s not all just about a senile, monomaniacal curmudgeon named Ahab who mutters questionable phrases (that in my mind sound like Jimmy Stewart), “…I like a good grip; I like to feel something in this slippery world that can hold…” while coincidently having a not-so-good grip on pretty much anything—including a large, powerful, throbbing leviathan from below as it slips through his fierce grasp like a…uh…a lubed-up red spitting cobra?
I mean, yeah, it IS that. And I’ll get to that in a moment. But first I want to clarify—for my straight readers—that it’s more than that.
Moby-Dick is the 19th-century literary equivalent to Jaws; or, conversely (and more chronologically accurate), Jaws is the 20th-century cinematic equivalent to Moby-Dick. (Note: by Jaws I mean the 1975 Steven Spielberg thriller about a great white shark man-eater, not the 1976 Deep Jaws about a not-so-great but definitely white mermaid who eats out men. This distinction may sound superfluous, but as will soon be apparent, the confusion could be real.)
Moby-Dick, though, is a hell of a lot longer (by which I mean the story), and may be more titillating terrifying, since, unlike Jaws, it’s actually gay based ever so slightly in reality.
The eponymous aquatic mammal was inspired by the actual occurrences of two real-life sperm whales: one who sunk the ship Essex in 1820 (of which a book was written in 1821); the other an albino called Mocha Dick who attacked ships with great ferocity (so they say) until it was killed in the late 1830s.
Melville himself spent eighteen months on a whaling ship in the early 1840s. And having so much intimate knowledge of his subject, much of the novel’s simple plot gets inundated…almost lost from time to time with the minutiae of whaling practices; entire chapters are written like sections from a nautical encyclopedia.
Nonetheless, as you dig past those dry, archaically scholarly treaties, and with that personal and historical backdrop as well as the real-life horrors actual whalers of that day lived through (I know, poor li’l ol’ whalers), the tone of this novel is dark; it’s gritty; it’s poetic; it has a grim, Clint Eastwoodesque sense of humor lightly sprinkled throughout…
…AND it’s gay.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. That is, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s just…surprising, since the book was published antebellum and I didn’t think homosexual activity existed before the early 2000s when I stumbled one day into Tom Cruise’s closet and saw….)
Part 2—Ambiguously Gay
I should clarify a touch more: By gay, I more precisely mean ambiguously gay; as in…
…Batman & Robin…
…Bert & Ernie…
…Gilligan & Skipper…
…Ginger & Mary Ann…
…1980’s Prince & 1990’s The Artist Formerly Known as Prince…
…Starsky & Hutch…
…Starsky? & Hutch?…
…Laverne & Shirley…
…Ben & Jerry…
…Ben & Jerry’s…
…Leonardo & Michelangelo…
…Tinky Winky & Apparently Anyone Who Grew Up Watching Teletubbies…
…Rock Hudson & James Dean…
…Rabbis & Priests…
…Muslims & Sikhs…
…Robin & Richard…
…Batman & Robin…
…Vince Neil & Steven Tyler…
…Madonna & Britney…
…Mel & Danny…
…Shrek & Donkey…
…Cary Grant & Randolph Scott…
…John & Yoko…
…Siskel & Ebert…
…Chip ‘n’ Dale…
…Ben & Matt…
…Daniel Tosh & Some Creepy Old Dude…
…The Dwarf & The Six Other Dwarfs…
…and—I can’t stress this enough—Batman & Robin…
Or more to the point: Robert Smigel’s infamous SNL lampoon of The Dynamic Duo in “The Ambiguously Gay Duo.” Where everyone around these super-tights-wearing “superheroes” is constantly scratching their heads and basically saying, “Ummm…did they just say what I thought they said?…‘cause they seem oblivious….Oh no, now look what they’re doing!….Do they seriously not know how that looks?….”
Reading Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (that’s what sh…he said), I get that same sense from Melville. Like he didn’t think he was writing a gay story—it’s just that many passages, read not in the context of the author’s day but with a modern sensibility, sound gay….
Why? Because I think it’s the last thing that pokes into most people’s minds when they hear the words…
Which—when I put it like that—is all that much stranger considering it has the word “Moby” right in the title! (And “Dick,” too.) I mean, how the hell did THAT get past the censors? Maybe…it’s so obvious you don’t even notice? What’s the clichéd phrase? Hiding in plain sight?
(Imagine if Jules Verne called his famous novel Journey to the Center of The Er-other Man’s Anus. Would we—our collective consciousness—have noticed? Or if Mark Twain more accurately named his, Jungle Fever for the Pedophile: Adventures of a Precocious White Boy Named Huckleberry Finn and his “Trip” Down the “Mississippi River” with his Good—But Much, Much Older—Predatory Black “Buddy” Named Jim. Again I ask—would we have noticed?)
Part 3—The Beginning: The Dick, Page 1, Ishmael, Nantucket, All-Male Brothels, and Black Whores
So right out of the gate we have this large and blatantly obvious “Dick” waving (or poking…or throbbing…or undulating…or slapping…or, whatever) about in our faces.
Where we find Ishmael (“Call me Ishmael.”) Who, as his name implies, is a male…but shhh….
Basically he’s some naïve dude who (like a first year medical student studying gastroenterology) is young, has adventure in his heart, and is ready to head out into the big world to “explore.” His is the point of view we readers are spewed through while he narrates the story from his firsthand account of things. He starts off in Manhattan headed towards…
—Oh! That’s right!
There once was a man from Nantucket, Whose schlong was so long he could suck it. He said with a grin, While wiping his chin, ‘If back it would bend, I could f*** it!’
Ah, THAT Nantucket! Mystery solved. Basically the 19th-century municipal equivalent to our modern-day San Francisco. Which lecherous limerick, as will be seen shortly, is relevant.
Anyway, Ishmael works his way to an inn called (and here’s where that limerick starts to become relevant) “The Crossed Harpoons”. He describes this place as possibly being “Gomorrah” (as in, Sodom and Gomorrah? Where we get the word for…sodomy?). But noooo…that’s…not…quite what he’s looking for…so he pushes on to the next place called “The Spouter Inn:—Peter Coffin.”
Peter? Spouter? What’s that? I dunno, but the sign over the door has a painting “faintly representing a tall straight jet of misty spray.”
A tall straight jet? Of misty spray? Coming out of Peter’s…spouter?
I GUESS that’s 19th-century whaling terminology. I guess….
Anyhow, it’s a most curious sort of place. Or rather, as Ishmael puts it, “a queer sort of place.”
But…queer just meant “strange” in Melville’s day, not gay…right?
I THINK so….
So (five-for-five?), I’ll ignore I just read that and press on…oh, wait, maybe I shouldn’t have ignored that—or the book’s title, or the fact Ishmael’s compass needle is aiming for Nantucket of all places, or the Crossed Harpoons, or the sodomy allusion, or the tall straight jet of misty spray spouting out of some dude’s peter—because now he enters this place and discovers what can best be described in modern terms as an all-male, fully-implemented BDSM dungeon:
The opposite wall of this entry was hung all over with a heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears. Some were thickly set with glittering teeth resembling ivory saws; others were tufted with knots of human hair; and one was sickle-shaped, with a vast handle sweeping round like the segment made in the new-mown grass by a long-armed mower. You shuddered as you gazed, and wondered what monstrous cannibal and savage could ever have gone a death-harvesting with such a hacking, horrifying implement.
Shuddered and wondered, indeed! Oh, and incidentally, here’s a photo of that very wall—just in case you’re having a hard time visualizing it:
And on the other side of the room? A “number of young seamen gathered about a table.”
“Seamen”? Gathered about a table? Or swimming about a table?
Either way, he goes to the landlord to ask for a room, who answers thusly: “…avast… you haint no objections to sharing a harpooneer’s blanket, have ye? [Depends—do you have a black UV light I can look at it with first?~AI] I s’pose you are goin’ a-whalin’, so you’d better get used to that sort of thing.”
That sort of…“thing”?
Ishmael at first says he’s not into…that sort of “thing,” but rather quickly decides he’s willing to give it a shot. That is, if the other harpooneer is someone he likes. And this other harpooneer he’s promised? A “dark complexioned chap” who (and I further quote) “never eats dumplings…he eats nothing but steaks, and he likes ‘em rare.”
Armed with this insight, Ishmael reasons through it: “I made up my mind that if it so turned out that we should sleep together, he must undress and get into bed before I did.”
How the bedevil?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?
Uh…oh…okay…sure, why not? It’s your first time, Ishmael. You’re gun shy. But be forewarned: Once you go black, you never go back (so they say).
Or is it—once you go gay, there’s no other…way?
Soooooo…when you combine both those elements into a one-off event (like a firing squad AND a hanging)…end of story?
Before getting down to monkey business for the night, however, Ishmael decides to “spend the rest of the evening as a looker on.” Makes sense. Considering this is apparently a commitment from which there is—like circumcision, or death—no return. So after noticing the “fine stature” of one “seaman” amongst this group of “seamen” as they participate in “orgies” with other “seamen” (in which surprisingly no mention of pet swallows was brought up), Ishmael either is truly conflicted or at least pretends to hesitate on whether he wants to go through with it: “The more I pondered over this harpooneer, the more I abominated the thought of sleeping with him.” But with a little persuasion from the landlord he ultimately decides he’s ready to head up to the room: “perhaps we may become jolly good bedfellows after all,” he reasons to himself.
However, his promised “dark complexioned” harpooneer is not around. Where could he be? And if he does show up, Ishmael asks himself (and I quote), “how could I tell from what vile hole he had been coming?”
Annnyyyyhow…shortly thereafter, Queequeg does, in fact, show up. This is him, the “dark complexioned” harpooneer Ishmael had had reserved by the…landlord?…pimp?…lordpimp? So, yet another seaman dude. Take note: two dudes—two “seamen” dudes, right? Who for the first time LITERALLY…MEET…IN…BED…!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????????????
Yes, they meet in bed, at an inn with tall straight jets of misty spray spouting out of someone’s peter, right next to The Crossed “Harpoons”—emphasis on “Harpoons”…AND “Crossed”—where perhaps anal probing was alluded to while other “seamen” of “fine stature” are having “orgies” in this man-cave while surrounded by some seriously heavy-duty bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism toys.
And heaven only knows from what “vile hole” Queequeg had just been “coming.” Or did he mean…cumming?
But this was before public schools offered sex (or spelling) education standards. So naturally these two seamen dudes sleep together, I’ll presume without any protection:
Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife….My sensations were strange.
As are mine. I can only assume they enjoyed it, because they do it again…and again…and again…and….
Do what, exactly, your collectively filthy minds ask? Good question. To preface the answer to this…delicate…issue, I found this quote from Wikipedia rather telling: “In Moby-Dick, Melville employs stylized language, symbolism, and metaphor to explore numerous complex themes.” (You forgot euphemism, double-entendre, innuendo, single-entendre, and tres-amigos-style ménage à trios.)
Symbolism? Metaphor? Complex…themes? (Tres-amigos-style ménage à trios?)
Let’s briefly fast-forward to a wee-bitty, obscure paragraph in chapter 89 that I think gives us a way to interpret some of Melville’s symbolism and metaphors. In talking about one’s legal possession of property, our narrator mentions an interesting court case as an example. During the trial of this case, the defense lawyer for it alluded to yet another recent case:
…wherein a gentleman, after in vain trying to bridle his wife’s viciousness, had at last abandoned her upon the seas of life; but in the course of years, repenting of that step, he instituted an action to recover possession of her….[The defense lawyer] supported it by saying, that though the gentleman had originally harpooned the lady, and had once had her fast, and only by reason of the great stress of her plunging viciousness, had at last abandoned her; yet abandon her he did, so that she became a loose-fish; and therefore when a subsequent gentleman re-harpooned her, the lady then became that subsequent gentleman’s property, along with whatever harpoon might have been found sticking in her.
Hmmmmm….many a-harpoon in this lady. This…“loose”…lady…
And speaking of harpoons—turns out, as I learned from the above, they aren’t just for whales anymore. Literally. In fact, as we are about to learn, they aren’t just for ladies anymore, either. Which brings a whole new dimension of understanding to this entire “Crossed Harpoons” place. So with that enlightening interpretive note, I appeal to Ishmael’s symbolic, metaphorical words to help clarify this…“complex theme”…taking place between these two harpooneers, back in the bedroom:
[Queequeg] still hugged me tightly…I now strove to rouse him…I then rolled over, my neck feeling as if it were in a horse-collar; and suddenly felt a slight scratch….[T]hought I; abed here in a strange house in the broad day, with a cannibal….At length, by dint of much wriggling, and loud and incessant expostulations upon the unbecomingness of his hugging a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of style, I succeeded in extracting a grunt….[H]e drew back his arm….[He was] stiff as a pike-staff….Meanwhile, I lay quietly eyeing him, having no serious misgivings now, and bent upon narrowly observing so curious a creature. When, at last, his mind seemed made up touching the character of his bedfellow, and he became, as it were, reconciled to the fact;
I was having a hard time visualizing this affectionate scene since it’s probably symbolic or metaphorical for something…“deep.” So I drew a little diagram to help wrap my straight mind around this complex text:
Some days later, however, with time and practice, Ishmael describes their sleeping together in more relaxed, comforting terms. Like this:
We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy were we;
Isn’t that nice. Nonetheless, again having a hard time visualizing this, so drew another diagram:
So, these two dudes really seem to like each other. So much, in fact, they eventually embark on a 3 to 5 year voyage of each other’s rectums the sea on board a whaling sailboat along with basically the entire lineup of the Village People: we have some black dudes, some white dudes, some Indians, some Navy sailors, some construction workers (or at least a carpenter and blacksmith)….Hell, for all I know, there may have been a cop, a cowboy, a biker, and an electrician, too.
But what I do know is this: on board was a suave swashbuckler called “Starbuck”…
…which I took to be a nickname he was given for some bodily feature readily apparent to the other seamen. (As an aside, we later learn Stub enjoys eating, and this is word-for-word from the text, “Whale-balls for breakfast.” Maybe he figures because these balls come from whales, they will—like Jack’s beans—magically transmit their essence of enormity and turn his stub into a…ummm…giant beanstalk?)
It’s important to note this crew because our two original homos heroes, Ishmael and Queequeg, had at least three ships to choose from, and they picked this one: “this was the very ship for us.” Some of the highlights of Ishmael’s description of it:
[H]er masts stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne….She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies.
So these seamen set sail on this bejeweled, effeminate, flamboyant ship dubbed the Pequod (pronounced PEE-quad), where quad, as we all learned in gym class, is another word for…thigh? And pee…hmmm…pee-pee? Penis? Penis flopping on thighs? So the Village People are sailing the high seas on a bejeweled, effeminate, flamboyant thigh-flopping penis vessel? And as one would expect from a ship of this leaning, “seamen” are “swabbing the deck” while talking almost exclusively about “whales,” one in particular called “Dick.”
Naïve Ishmael turns out to be not so naïve, after all. At this point he seems to know (…surprise!…surprise!…) a great deal about “whales.” But he allegedly acquired such (carnal) knowledge merely from books.
He systematically proceeds to describe to us the various “whales” of the ocean. Such as the “hump-back,” which as best as I can determine is a seaman idiom for what us ordinary straight land folks simply call “doggy style.” Which makes sense, considering he goes on to say this whale makes “gay foam,” which is another seaman idiom for what modern gays now call “santorum” (in honor of Rick Santorum).
He also talks about a sperm whale called “Long-John” who gets his name because of his loooooooooonnnnnnnng…john…son? Well, Ishmael says it’s from his long “fin,” yet, oddly, he doesn’t call him…I dunno…Long Fin? He IS sometimes called “Tall-Spout,” though. I can only guess why: because his squirting spout, much like Old Faithful (or Ron Jeremy), is very, very mind-numbingly tall? But I don’t have to do much guess work with that “fin,” as Ishmael describes it in mesmerizingly stunning detail:
This fin is some three or four feet long, growing vertically…of an angular shape, and with a very sharp pointed end. Even if not the slightest other part of the creature be visible, this isolated fin will, at times, be seen plainly projecting from the surface.
Good to know.
Moving on, he also talks about a whale he calls “Black Fish” whose “lips are curved upwards.” And, “Though their blubber is very thin, some of these whales will yield you upwards of thirty gallons of oil.” By which I think he means, thirty gallons of…“oil.”
Pretty much in all these whale discussions, proportions, sizes, and quantities are gargantuan!
Such as with the narwhale, a “creature [that is] is some sixteen feet in length, while its horn averages five feet, though some exceed ten, and even attain to fifteen feet.”
And speaking of short and long narwhale horns: much like the male reproductive organ, some chapters in this book are laughably short, while others are grotesquely long. Chapter 35 is one of the long ones. Which is apt, considering it is entirely about just that—long ones. More specifically, long “mastheads.” Again in mesmerizingly stunning detail, he goes through the entire history of long “mastheads,” beginning with the first (metaphorically speaking, I guess)—the tower at Babel. Seriously.
In Ishmael’s (and Melville’s) eyes, it would seem phallic symbols everywhere abound. Like when Melville writes, “Of erections, how few are domed like St. Peter’s!”
Imagine if Melville lived long enough to see the erection of the CN Tower!
Or if he ever went on a hike through Arches National Park in Utah!
With such innumerable distractions erecting everywhere, Melville struggles to keep the plot going. But he shakes his head and resolutely pushes on. We finally learn a little about the namesake of the book, Moby Dick himself, in chapter 36. He is described as a sperm whale, but a “white whale” who “fan-tale[s] a little curious…before he goes down….”
Hmmm…anything else we should know about this…Dick?
Yes: “[He has] a curious spout, too…very bushy…and mighty quick….”
I see. Repugnant. But I see.
Anyhow, up to this point in the book we have only briefly heard, in passing, of the aloof and mysterious Captain Ahab, who turns out to be the real protagonist (or antagonist?) of the story. We don’t actually hear him speak, though, till this same chapter—36. And it soon becomes apparent he’s an old pro. At what, exactly? Well, I guess that’s for each reader to decide for him or herself. I only relay the facts. Which facts are these:
After they’d been at sea for some time and no one on board having actually spoken with the captain, he mysteriously and suddenly spews out of his cabin, quickly gathers all the seamen round him, then delivers his first speech, which, in its symbolic, metaphorical way, illustrates a great deal about the man and his mission (and bear in mind what Melville meant when he used the word “harpoon”—and I suppose by extension(?), “lance,” “weapon,” “iron,” and anything else that’s long…and hard):
[Ahab] turning to the harpooneers, he ordered them to produce their weapons. Then ranging them before him near the capstan, with their harpoons in their hands, while his three mates stood at his side with their lances, and the rest of the ship’s company formed a circle round the group…
“Drink and pass!” he cried, handing the heavy charged flagon to the nearest seaman. “The crew alone now drink. Round with it, round! Short draughts—long swallows, men; ’tis hot as Satan’s hoof…ye mates, flank me with your lances; and ye harpooneers, stand there with your irons; and ye, stout mariners, ring me in, that I may in some sort revive a noble custom of my fisherman fathers before me…Advance, ye mates! Cross your lances full before me. Well done! Let me touch the axis.”
So saying, with extended arm, he grasped the three level, radiating lances at their crossed centre; while so doing, suddenly and nervously twitched them…
At this point, right after Ahab “twitched” the lances, they basically all drink…something…“fiery waters”?…jizzing from each other’s “harpoon sockets.” When suddenly, as fast as they drink, Ahab, like a typical man, is exhausted and loses interest. Just as quickly as he had emerged, like a shy turtle he now “retired within his cabin” while everyone else, probably confused at whatever the hell they just did with each other, “dispersed.”
We turn the page to chapter 37 where Ahab, while secluded in his cabin, then revisits this queer (by which I mean strange AND gay) event as he describes to himself what just occurred: “’Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve.”
When I first read that, I was just as dumbfounded as the seamen. But then I realized it did, sort of, sound familiar…
—Ohhhh…yeah! Saw this once before in Brüno:
Moving on to chapter 38, Ishmael, Queequeg’s twinkie (as Diesel is to Brüno), quickly learns he doesn’t like the cut of his creepy-old captain’s jib. He describes him as “a madman!” who “drilled deep down, and blasted all my reason [i.e. santorum~AI] out of me!” It then appears Ahab turned Ishmael into his own personal Wez…or gimp: “the ineffable thing has tied me to him; tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut.”
The captain, it turns out—unbeknownst to the happy crew until long after they’ve been trapped at sea, where no one can hear them scream—is basically the 19th-century villainous equivalent to…Lord Humungus? Or maybe, more equivalent to Zed…
Either way, how did he become such a raping fiend?
We learn that Ahab had, once before, met Moby Dick, who, being the larger of the two, bit off the captain’s “leg,” making it…smaller (I guess like the seaman they call “Stub”).
Believe it or not, this biting-off-of-another’s-appendage is actually not as uncommon in nature as you might think. Those loveable critters we all affectionately call the slug, it turns out, are largely born hermaphrodites—both male and female parts (sort of a Swiss Army knife of reproductive organs). To remedy this…predicament?…the larger slugs bite off the smaller slugs’ penises, thus creating harmony and balance among all living things by forcing the existence of a submissive “female” bitch for the dominating “male” son-of-a-bitch.
(If the picture to the right seems confusing, that’s because their erections are coming out of their heads. Autofellatio, anyone?)
Ahab, it turns out, is (or thinks he is) a round peg, and was not so submissive with being forced into this square-hole role of Moby Dick’s be-otch. So the now (round) peg-less seaman set sail on this large, prosthetic strap-on called the Pequod with the sole intention, with an unaware crew, of returning the favor to the marine butch by ramming what’s left of his munched-off round peg into the white whale’s square hole till the beast dies a most painful death.
(Of course the other option was to perform a donkey punch. That’s nearly fatal every time. So I’ve heard).
And speaking of white whales, or just “white,” Ishmael in chapter 42 drones on and on—ad infinitum in yet another of these looooooooooooonnnnnng chapters (kind of like this blog post)—about the grandeur of this color (or absence thereof): white pearls…white elephants…milk-white steeds…the white forked flame…the snow-white bull…the sacred white dog…the white tunic…the white robes of St. John…the white robes of the four-and-twenty elders…the great white throne…the white Holy One sitting upon the great white throne….
But for some reason, this whale named Dick, who is also white, just seems wrong to Ishmael: “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.”
But…why, Ishmael? Why is it so appalling? If white is so magnificent on everything else, what is soooooooo wrong with a white Dick?
Hmmm…let’s think about this for a sec…‘cause a second is all it takes. Recall with me, if you will, the beginning of the story where a young, virgin Ishmael has his first encounter with…who was it? A “dark complexioned chap”?
I guess it IS true what they say: Once you go…
As we read on, against our better judgment, it becomes apparent that the crew of the Pequod have nowhere else to go, and nothing else to do. So all basically submit to Captain Ahab as his little Wezs and gimps forced to search for the hideous great white Dick. In essence, Ahab is to his crew what Moby Dick is to Ahab: a large, dong-munching bastard—and paying it forward.
And as everyone slowly becomes more aware AND psychotic, wandering aimlessly around in the high seas in their search, they tell stories to keep their morale (among other things) up. By chapter 54 we hear the tale of a vessel called the “Town-Ho.” Yes, you read correctly—the “Town-Ho.” (Take note Merriam-Webster: You say the first recorded use of “ho” as slang for whore was in 1965? Try 1851.)
So what town is this…ho…from, you ask? By now, the answer should be all too obvious:
There once was a ho from—
Anyhow, we hear about this Town Ho, and it turns out to have a hole—a leaky hole—because “a sword-fish had stabbed her.” Which I guess would be a common enough problem for town hos from Nantucket. But maybe more so for this capital “T” and capitol “H” Town Ho—which I take to mean it’s like the headmaster of all town hos. Especially in light of it being another “whaling” ship. As was made amply clear back in chapter 32, when using whaling metaphors, the enormity of the sizes involved are veritable and nothing to laugh at. Clearly great bodily harm is a common theme in this story.
Which brings us to the mutinous de facto leader of this particular vessel—“Steelkilt.” At first I thought he was called this because he wore like a Scottish chastity belt of some sort; you know, to protect from unwanted advances of, say, a wandering narwhale “horn”…or a swordfish’ “sword.” That is until he started speaking with (and I quote Ishmael), “gay banterings.” Yes, gay banterings. Such as, “let me mount you a moment.”
Oh, wait. Just re-read that. He actually says, “let me board you a moment.” But in our modern world (and even in Ishmael’s less-than-modern world), that still fits within the rubric of “gay banterings.”
Leaving the story of the Town Ho behind (like the town ho it is), and back to reality (of a fictional story, where the first rule of writing seems to apply: write what you know), the Pequod periodically crosses paths with other vessels. They bump ‘n grind into one in chapter 81 called the Virgin. Simultaneously, these two ships, the Peqoud and the Virgin, spot a sperm whale and both competitively go in for the kill. The Peqoud “spears” the whale first. Needless to say, the Virgin, sadly, remained that day, still a virgin. I guess it has a reputation to keep.
Unlike the reputation of the Bachelor. Another ship the Peqoud cops a feel of as it grazes past in chapter 115. This vessel is explicitly described as being “gay” with a captain who “stood erect.”
But enough of these other ho, virgin, and gay ships. Let’s get back to the virgins, hos, and intrepid sailors on our gay ship. In which chapter 56 is all about our brave seamen whiling away their down time by looking at what I can best describe, using modern language, as…whale porn—drawings of whales and seamen doing unthinkable acts with each other, such as one of a whale with a (and I quote) “pole inserted into his spout-hole.”
What I will say, though, is that a large swathe of this book, maybe as much as a quarter, is dedicated to the intimate details of the capture and dissection of some ordinary, ho-hum whales, where ambiguously gay things are shouted starboard and larboard. Such as in chapter 73, where we are introduced to the not-so-PC phrase, “fagged whale.” Which I feel inclined to interpret, no matter how incorrectly, as a 19th-century nautical term for a whale that has been buggered.
But by whom? Another whale? Another seaman? The latter seems feasible since one of the seamen, we’re told by chapter 78, “has to ram his long pole harder and harder, and deeper and deeper into the [whale]…”
At least two whole chapters, 67-68, are all about how these seamen skin a whale—turns out you peel ‘em like an orange: “Now as the blubber envelopes the whale precisely as the rind does an orange, so is it stripped off from the body precisely as an orange is sometimes stripped by spiralizing it.” Melville goes into lengthy, intimate particulars about this process, describing it in a way that seems almost like a Jonathon Swift allegory to circumcision, with a mythical land of little people capturing, tying down, and cutting away the foreskin of this MOTHER-FREAKIN’ GINORMOUS MALE GENITAL METAPHORICALLY CALLED THE BIGGEST CREATURE KNOWN TO HUMANKIND—A DAMN FRIGGEN WHALE…BRAZENLY…NAMED…“DICK”!!!!!!!! ANYONE???????????
Chapter 91 tells a…interesting?…tantalizing?… story. This one takes a bit of explaining, but it’s worth it. So bear with me:
The Peqoud comes across a French whaling ship trying to haul in what’s called a “blasted whale,” which is “a whale that has died unmolested.” I don’t want to get into the particulars of whatever the hell Melville may or may not have meant by that, but suffice to say that, ostensibly at least, whales that die “unmolested” are inferior; i.e. they don’t have enough “oil” left in them to be worth a damn. So the Peqoud gropes up alongside this French vessel, and Stub shouts to them they are wasting their time. Some French dude, the chief mate (basically the rank of Riker from Star Trek: TNG), shouts back in English that he knows, but is unable to convince his inexperienced captain of this. Stub wastes no time—he shouts to the French chief mate: “[M]y sweet and pleasant fellow,” he says. Then he mounts him—by which I mean Stub mounts the French boat—to talk more intimately with him. The chief mate in return seems to take to liking Stub pretty much immediately, as he instantly reveals to Stub, “his detestation of his Captain as a conceited ignoramus”. As a result of their instant bromance, these two guys, on the spot, concocted a dangerous love-triangle game to play, as follows:
When the French captain, who did not speak English, came out, Stub said facetious nonsense; then the French chief mate pretended to interpret for his captain while all the while really saying his thoughts; namely, that hauling in this “unmolested” whale was a waste of time.
Now here’s where it gets really interesting (i.e. gay): Among the things Stub had been saying in English and pretending to be intended for the French captain but really goofing around with the chief mate, one was this: “tell him I’ve diddled him….”
I must confess, I was unfamiliar with this word. But it sounded gay. So I had to look it up. In Merriam-Webster’s. I discovered several meanings, two of which are totally different yet both perfectly applicable in the context. One is to “fool,” which Stub was indeed doing to the French captain. The other meaning is “to copulate with,” which Stub was not doing (I don’t think) but maybe…wanted to be doing? To the French captain?
I can only imagine Melville sitting around by candlelight with quill in hand writing this fictional conversation, and thinking to himself:
Looky here! My boy Stub wants to have coitus with this French captain, but I couldn’t possibly get away with writing that outright without risk of being tarred & feathered, pilloried, and burned at the stake—living as I do in 19th -century puritan-descended New England and all.
What to do…?
What to do…?
Is there a word…that I could use…that means to “fool”… but ALSO means…to “copulate”? So if anyone ever calls me out on it I’ll simply play dumb and say, “Oh heavens to Betsy! Goodness gracious me! I had NO IDEA! Are you telling me that word also means THAT?!?!?”
Well I’ll be! Today must be my lucky day! Because here’s the very word I was looking for—
How perfect! Oh I love Love LOVE the ambiguous English language!
Yes you do, Mr. Melville. Yes you do….
Such as in chapter 94. This is a…sticky?…chapter. Appropriately called “A Squeeze of the Hand.” The crew of the Peqoud by this point had captured yet another generic sperm whale. In the process of dissecting and extracting the oil, we find this fine gem of Ishmael’s thoughts within those gooey pages (in what I imagine a ruggedly masculine Richard Simmons’ voice):
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
One commenter on The Straight Dope message boards perfectly sums this up:
[T]his ‘sperm’ is spermaceti which is not really whale semen but people used to think it was, despite its being found in the animal’s head. It is a form of wax and you can, among other things, make candles out of it. Long, thick candles…
Touché, my online friend. Touché.
As we read on, it is clear that Captain Ahab has become a ripe bastard. It’s never perfectly clear as to why…that is until Ishmael in chapter 115 points out something revealing—almost too revealing: “…everything was filled with sperm, except the captain’s pantaloons…”
ED much, Ahab? Stick around for a hundred-fifty more years—our modern apothecaries can do wonders for you.
Part 5—Marsellus and Zed
So, as you can imagine, we get to the end of the book, and lo! Ahab indeed finds the white whale. With all the captain’s pent up anger, he goes in for the kill, personally lunging his special “harpoon” into him…
…only to have this Dick not only survive, but—to add insult to injury, as if biting off his “leg” all those years prior wasn’t bad enough—the whale then in turn bites off Ahab’s peg leg strap-on!
Yes! I know! Who’s your daddy NOW, you SONABITCH!
Oh, and incidentally, guess who still does not have sploog in his pantaloons? Hint: it’s not Moby Dick, for he left the surface of the water, with Ahab floating in it, “…creamed like new milk….”
Though, I guess in a gallows-humor sense, Ahab in fact did end up with love juice in his britches—albeit not his. Nonetheless, I would like to say the story ended on this happy note. But it actually gets better, surprisingly.
Oh, do read on:
I won’t go into the details of how, but basically Ahab—like Ishmael before, now in a perfect what-goes-around-comes-around moment—gets tethered to the watery beast and towed out to sea as Moby Dick’s gimp. We’ll never know for sure, but perhaps for one fleeting moment, Ishmael’s earlier words to describe Ahab flitted through the madman’s mind as the whale dragged him under: “the ineffable thing has tied me to him, tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut.”
What Ahab-slash-Zed didn’t seem to realize is that Moby Dick was never gimp material. Ahab may have TRIED to make the whale his sex slave, but that big-ass motha’ fricken’ Dick, aside from being white, was really more Marsellus Wallace material—and yes, he got medieval on Ahab’s ass.
Be that as it may, and needless to say—Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.
I’ll wrap this up more or less how I began:
Is Herman Melville gay?
Is Moby-Dick written intentionally to be metaphorically or allegorically gay?
But when viewed with a modern sense of things (as well as looking at passages somewhat out of context), is this canonical Great Book of the Western World ambiguously gay?
Does Stephen Hawking have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?
Is Charles Manson crazy, crazy insane?
Is Saddam Hussein…just resting?
Is Snooki an orange, skanky, Oompa-Loompa-like ho?
I won’t answer these…difficult…questions for you. But what I will do is conclude with one final quote from the book which I think will shed some light on this hard(?) question. Bear in mind, these are Herman Melville’s words, not mine. So I mean no disrespect. I only add this:
Mr. Melville, I humbly present to you your own words, lifted from chapter 108, as a mirror reflection of your innermost soul:
[H]e’s queer…that one sufficient little word queer; he’s queer…he’s queer—queer, queer…all the time—queer—sir—queer, queer, very queer.
Fool me once…shame on…shame on you?….Ya foo me ya can’t git fooed agin!” ~President George W. Bush
Here at Amorphous Intelligence, we’ve always advocated for consumer protection. With that rich tradition under our belts (?), today is no exception.
Let me tell you a true story.
Not long ago, I noticed a co-worker (at my other job) wearing a snazzy-looking bracelet. “Say,” I said, “isn’t that a Power Balance?”
“No,” he said with a grin, “this is iRenew. It gives me energy and restores my sense of balance.”
“All the pro baseball players are wearing these.”
“Really?” I said, I think with a genuine-ish inflection, but pretty sure I thought with ever so slightly an SNL-Weekend-Update-“Really!?! with Seth and Amy”-segment inflection.
“Yeah,” he said, with a little less pep, perhaps noticing my dubious thoughts having inadvertently leaked into my tonal modulation.
I detected a wee lull in the conversation, so picked up the slack: “Pro baseball players are kind of a…superstitious bunch, aren’t they?”
“I heard of some who still play in the same underwear they wore in high school because they had them on during a good game.”
“So it stands to reason.”
“And I’m not talking the same brand. I mean the exact…same…unwashed breeches—brown streaks and all.”
“Anyhow….how much you pay for that thing? 60 dollars?”
“Noooo, no, no, no….It was only $19.99.”
Okay, so I may have over-exaggerated the underwear thing a touch, but it’s in essence true. What’s more, the 60-dollar question wasn’t totally uncalled for. I vaguely remembered hearing about Power Balance who sells silicone wristbands which are basically marketed the same way as the iRenew for some outrageous price that, I honestly thought at the time, was 60 dollars. Which upon further investigation I now see are, in fact, 60 dollars—in Australia. But in the U.S. they’re merely listed at $29.95 (right, 30 dollars).
There are others. Such as the silicone Eken Power Bands which sell for $39.95 USD. (My friend’s iRenew, it turns out, really is a bargain for only $19.99, as it comes with a free second one. Free or not, do we really want a second one, when, according to Kim’s customer testimonial posted on the iRenew website, “…after wearing it for a week, I noticed my middle fingers were hurting, so I took it off and wait [sic] a few days and the pain started to go away….”?) I wouldn’t be surprised if there are many, many more brands—silicone or not.
Regardless, to add perspective to this, while I find them nauseating now, at one point I thought the silicone LiveStrong bracelets were kind of snazzy, too. (And there are other snazzy products made from silicone, some that can be implanted inside the human body, and look totally…natural? But I digress.) However, unlike the iRenew Energy Balancing Bracelets the Power Balance wristbands and the Eken Power Bands, the LiveStrong bracelets sell for $1 USD—in case you missed that, that’s ONE SINGLE STINKING U.S. DOLLAR—a piece. And, rightly so, they make no claim to improving your energy, strength, flexibility, endurance, restfulness, and/or balance.
Alright, enough jibber-jabber. Let’s get down to brass tacks.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about up to this point, then whatevs. If you want to get up to speed, however, spend a few minutes watching these mind-numbing sales pitches.
First, iRenew Energy Balancing Bracelets:
Next, Power Balance wristbands:
Thank you, Shaq. A bastion for rational, scientific thought if ever there was one.
And finally, Eken Power Bands—which really is not much different than the previous two commercials, so I’ll just add the link here. Feel free to skip.
Up to speed? Take note of how slick those videos looked. (Maybe not that last one.) I know what you’re thinking…they weren’t that slick. Granted. But compared to the rebuttal videos I’m going to show….they are. Which only goes to demonstrate how much more powerful the forces are that are out to swindle your hard-earned dough with modern-day snake-oil pitches compared to those trying to protect you. Which has been the case ever since olden times, as is evidenced by the fine documentary of the historical figure—and consumer-protection advocate—The Outlaw Josey Wales, who famously spat tobacco juice on a pristinely-dressed snake-oil salesman’s white suit, then asked him if his miracle elixir was any good at removing stains:
And that’s exactly the kind of consumer-protection activism we advocate here at Amorphous Intelligence: “How’s it with stains?”.
Let me introduce you to a modern-day Josey Wales—Richard Saunders, co-Vice President of the Australian Skeptics, founder of Sydney Skeptics in the Pub, co-host of The Skeptic Zone podcast, and basically no one you would have ever heard of (unless you’re an avid follower of Australian skeptics, which the odds are stacked against). In essence, this is his documentary of “spitting tobacco juice” on the “pristinely-dressed snake-oil salesman’s white suit”:
Okay, the mic work was lacking. And he may be a bit less confrontational than Josey Wales. But like I said.
Anyhow, watch this one which shows it in the context of what skeptics and scientists call a “blind experiment”:
And if you have 10 more free minutes, as we all do, watch this next video which goes into more detail of how the deceptive trickery works, but explained in the context of “Applied Kinesiology” as practiced by mind-body-spirit/new-age types (and not to be confused with the legitimate medical practice just called “kinesiology”):
(For those of you more interested in a legitimate medical examination of these energy bracelets, check out Dr. Harriet Hall’s Science-Based Medicine‘s review.)
Now, as I see it, since I just saved you 60 dollars (as I had absolutely nothing to do with these videos, but I did take the time and energy to post them on my blog), you are indebted to me for, let’s say…half that amount? You can write your check out—to me—for 30 dollars. And scribble in the memo line, “Consider us both 30 dollars richer :-)” (and dot the i’s with little ♥’s), just in case you forget why you’ve cut the check.
And when you go out into the cold, dark world, wandering aimlessly about all by yourself not knowing who to trust or who’s deceiving you, just remember to always ask yourself the simple question, “How’s it with stains?”
Recently [Author’s note: that adjective was more accurate last year when I originally wrote this—AI], I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final installment of the seven-volume epic by J.K. Rowling.
I realize I’m quite possibly the second-to-last person living to do so (which is why I don’t feel too inclined to point out this review does contain spoilers, but only for that one dude, who probably can’t read anyway). But at least I finished it. And before the corresponding movie (which was wisely done in two parts). Now that I’ve read all seven, my thoughts:
It started off weak.
By the time I clued in to the enormous popularity of the books, the first movie was already released and the fourth volume was in print. Following the herd, I saw the cinematic adaptation…and enjoyed. Not necessarily in my top 50…but enjoyed.
Naturally, it was about that time I felt if I was going to amount to anything at all in this fast-paced, cold, unforgiving world, I had to read the Harry Potter books—or otherwise with certainty be left in the cut-throat, fantasy-world dust trampled mercilessly underfoot.
So I read the first one…first. It was kind of a letdown. I’m not saying it was bad. Just with all the built-up hysteria, it ended up seeming like a pretty straight forward, simple narrative for the youngsters; not the complex, brutal, and—so far—untouchable Lord of the Rings’ reincarnate I was envisaging. True, it had smatterings of clever wordplay (“Diagon Alley”/“diagonally”). But in the immortally pithy words of music-critic Simon Cowell, I was like, “So what.”
To be fair, I reminded myself there were more stories yet to come. I couldn’t honestly critique until I’ve read all.
So I trudged on, usually neck and neck with the release of the corresponding theatrical interpretation. Sometimes I read a book before the motion picture; sometimes after. And each tome progressively got thicker, more complex, more mature, and, frankly, better. (The movies don’t necessarily progress that way, but such is the curse of the inflexible time-limit of the cinematic format.) By the time I was on the third or fourth volume I started to comprehend the public’s hype. From there on, the books’ waxed pleasurably, and I was hooked.
My mind started to grasp minor metaphors: Harry Potter as an archetype of the young King Arthur; and the mighty wizard Albus Dumbledore? An archetype of the great wizard Merlin (the wise, powerful, white-bearded old-man being a typical archetype of many a story, including, but not limited to, Gandalf, Santa Claus, or the ubiquities God). I read somewhere or other (probably in Wikipedia) the understatement that Rowling is fond of T.H. White’s children’s tetralogy The Once and Future King (whose first book published in 1938 is the familiar The Sword in the Stone, which was more like the sword in the anvil on the stone, and is, obviously, the same upon which Walt Disney based his classic 1963 animated film).
White is by no means the first to write about the Arthurian legends. But he may be the most popular and influential for the past century. His influence on Rowling (not to mention Monty Python; and perhaps Bernie Taupin/Elton John; i.e. The Candle in the Wind) is apparent when comparisons are drawn—and I don’t just mean the obvious use of her initials as her penname: “T.H.,” “J.K.” Both stories largely take place in the English country; in and around an ancient castle furnished with four-poster beds, paintings that animate to life, and surrounded by deadly forests; with wizards, witches, & mythical creatures surrounding the plot (ogres, griffins, unicorns, dragons, talking trees, giants, etc.); and themes vacillating between times both ancient and modern.
The hero of White’s story, “the Wart” (a.k.a. King Arthur), like Potter, was orphaned and raised by relatives who treated him as less important than their own son, Kay (whose loose counterpart in the Potter stories could maybe be Dudley). Wart was friends with the pet owl named Archimedes; whereas Potter had a pet owl named Hedwig. Archimedes was Merlin’s pet bird; Dumbledore’s pet bird was the phoenix named Faux. Wart lived at and was educated in the Castle of the Forest Sauvage; Potter lived at and was educated in the castle Hogwarts (itself having the name “Wart” in it). Wart had the opportunity one day to morph into a fish and swam in the mote around the castle; Potter one day grew gills and webbed appendages and swam as good as a fish in the lake adjacent to the castle. Wart morphed into a peregrine Falcon one day, a thrush another, learning how to fly; by comparison Potter also learned to fly, whether by broomstick, enchanted car, hippogriff, or a dragon. Another day still, Wart spent time as a snake speaking snake talk with another fellow legless reptile; Potter spoke fluent parseltongue (snake talk) and frequently inhabited the body of Nagini, Voldemort’s personal pet serpent. On that same day, Wart spent time in “a secret chamber;” whereas Potter spent time in “the Chamber of Secrets.” And a different day altogether, Merlin used his magical powers on himself and Wart to instantly swirl them both to a different far-off place (teleportation; White calls those who do this “apparators”); Dumbledore and Potter also instantly swirled to different far-off places, whether by touching port keys, going through the flu network or, as most closely resembles White’s story, by what Rowling calls “apparition.” When Wart pulls the sword from the anvil (on the stone), it is pointed out how it chose him; by comparison, Potter’s wand, it is explained piecemeal throughout all seven books, chose Potter. The three main protagonists, close friends, and quarreling lovers of White’s stories are Arthur, Guinevere, & Lancelot; using a similar dynamic, in Rowling’s stories it’s Potter, Hermione, & Weasley. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table at one point famously retrieved the near-unbreakable sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake; similarly, at one point Potter and Weasley retrieved the near-unbreakable Sword of Gryffindor from a lake. When Potter, Weasley, & Granger retrieved the horcrux that was a gold cup, it seemed reminiscent of King Arthur and his Knights in search of another gold cup, more famously known as the Holy Grail. White’s slimy character Mordred (whose name sounds morbid since it literally sounds like the word “morbid”) could easily have been inspiration to Rowling for such comparatively slimy characters as Snape (sounds like “snake”) and the Malfoys (similar to “malfeasance,” i.e. wrongdoing or evildoing; not to mention the morbid name Draco which is Latin for dragon, though some have suggested Rowling meant it to connote with the ancient Athenian ruler Draco and his cruel Draconian laws). In White’s stories, King Arthur married Guinevere who was called Ginny by her closest friends; Rowling’s stories end with Potter also marrying a Ginny, which was the nickname derived from her true first name: Ginevra.
Although fantasy is not my favorite speculative fiction, at times I enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed Lord of the Rings, and to a lesser extent The Chronicles of Narnia, His Dark Materials, and The Once and Future King. But I feel more comfortable about the genre if I know the author is aware it is make-believe and doesn’t think this kind of supernatural magic exists in the real world (such as the case with the realist Phillip Pullman). And I’m even more comfortable if the author at least sort of tries to hint at that to their readers. (Although J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis knew their respective stories were make-believe, they thought of them as allegories to reality when in fact they are mostly allegories of mythologies. At least Lewis was open about the allegory; Tolkien denied his was—but, like the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, Gandalf the Grey was risen from the dead as the more powerful Gandalf the White. Need I say more?)
Although on the surface the Potter stories don’t seem it, the more I read the more I was of the opinion Rowling is (like Pullman) mostly on the side of reality. One example to illustrate this is Hermione Granger, which character I suspect Rowling has written, perhaps, as a reflection of how she envisions herself when she was that age: a studious know-it-all, adept in sound logic. If we can truly infer Rowling’s view of reality through the prism of her descriptions of Granger, there is a superb example in chapter 21 of Deathly Hallows when she is reading from The Tales of Beedle the Bard out loud to Potter, Weasley, and Xenophilius Lovegood. Potter seems surprised about the book’s personification of death. Granger responds, “It’s a fairy tale, Harry!” Perhaps Rowling knowingly saved the use of that simple expression for her final Potter book to remind her devout fans to apply it themselves to her books lest they get too piously carried away in delusion. These stories are only fairy tales, not to be taken literally.
Granger goes on in that same chapter to demonstrate her reasonable grasp of logic when she asks Lovegood how the Resurrection Stone could be real. “Prove that it is not,” he curtly and matter-of-factly answered. Lovegood’s belief in the Resurrection Stone is based on the logical fallacy dubbed argumentum ad ignorantiam; that is, the argument from ignorance, or the appeal to ignorance (which can be read about more in-depth here, here, and here). This fallacy is often summed up with the phrase, “You cannot prove a negative.” What that means, is, negative (or non) existence of evidence is not evidence (or proof) of existence; or, the converse, as Carl Sagan famously said it, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” These are ultimately statements of inconclusiveness—not proof either way. Statistical probabilities can be inferred, however, depending on the subject matter. For instance, the existence of life beyond earth and the solar system, though currently no direct evidence exists, many scientists consider not necessarily plausible but at least statistically probable based on the extrapolation of circumstantial evidence (i.e. we know life exists in this solar system, we know there are billions upon billions of other galaxies and stars in the seeable universe that obey the same laws of physics we do, and we now have direct evidence some of those stars have planets similar to ours in the “Goldilocks Zone”). Lovegood’s Resurrection Stone, like Russell’s Teapot (below), however, while their existence may or may not be possible, the lack of even circumstantial evidence makes them statistically improbable. With that in mind, Granger calls Lovegood out on his argumentum ad ignorantiam (though, alas, without calling it by name):
But that’s—I’m sorry, but that’s completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove it doesn’t exist? Do you expect me to get hold of—of all the pebbles in the world and test them? I mean, you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist!
Rowling via Granger seems to be channeling the well-known parable called Russell’s Teapot. It was explained in 1952 (five years before the first human-made object was launched into earthly orbit—Sputnik 1, 1957—nine years before the first human in outer space—Yuri Gagarin, 1961—and thirteen years before the first spacecraft flyby of Mars—Mariner 4, 1965) by scientific philosopher Bertrand Russell:
If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.
Nonsense, indeed. Or, as Granger smartly noted with Lovegood’s rationale for his belief in the Resurrection Stone, “completely ridiculous!”
If Rowling truly is a realist, then, why write stories about unreal things? Answer: I think she simply utilizes fantasy as a hook; as sugar to help the medicine go down (to borrow a phrase from another Disney movie). It’s a means of conveying a coming-of-age story; and a brilliant tactic to get the younger generation—who are used to stories being presented via the multisensory, multimedia formats of TV, movies, and video games—to simply learn to enjoy the written word; and to recognize the importance of hard work, courage, & sacrifice, getting a good education with critical thinking skills, to learn to think independently yet interdependently, and to recognize that dealing with problems is not always clear-cut or black-and-white.
No doubt Rowling enjoys the notoriety and enormous wealth, too. But I suspect her primary motivation was at first the sheer joy of writing stories. With success, that may have shifted to her concern of combating declining literacy, which is a noble cause. She seems to have made a sizeable dent in that arena, too, to which I applaud her.
But it wasn’t until the sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, that I finally clued into a much deeper message—something more profound that, I suspect, Rowling has been trying to convey in these stories all along, whether consciously or not.
I realize now these stories are an allegory for real-world conflicts of social inequality and discrimination of races, ethnicities, and minorities; inhumane treatments of animals (the non-human kind); and the social injustices of, perhaps, this planet’s worst nationalistic conflict: World War II, Hitler, and the Nazi regime.
Allow me to explain:
The stories loosely divide the characters into two groups, the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” or the socially fair and the socially unfair. This division is also reminiscent of the Allied Forces (good guys) and Axis Powers (bad guys) of World War II. The protagonists of the story, although not without faults, largely are fighting for equality. Whereas the antagonists of the story, though not necessarily in lockstep (or goose-step?) or even in alliance with one another, are fighting for power for specific groups of people at the exclusion of others; i.e. discrimination.
I will list three examples that I think demonstrate my points:
1) The family that raised Harry Potter, the Dursleys (being “muggles”—or non-magical—who would roughly be part of the antagonistic group), constantly make negative remarks about wizards and witches, the group our main heroes of the story—Potter, Granger, & Weasley—belong to. This sub-plot is a constant theme of tension, particularly in Potter’s life. It serves as a microcosm of the much larger macrocosm throughout this fictional world of tension between muggles and magicians (not to mention the tensions between humans, giants, centaurs, dragons, dementors, succubi, spiders, werewolves, merpeople, goblins, etc.). And it strikes me as suggestive of the real-world tensions of racism in all its various forms. Potter serves as the epitome of a minority group of one born as a magician, of which he had absolutely no choice, forced to be raised by the majority group of muggles who dislike magicians, epitomized by the Dursleys. If Potter himself was the one in power, he would love more than anything for magicians and muggles to get along in harmony and equality, but he’s forced to live with discriminatory treatment under the hands of the bigoted majority entirely because of his magical…race? ethnicity? (Rowling seems to think of magicians as a race as the stories use the phrase “the magical race.”)
2) There is the cause that the lead heroine of the story, Hermione Granger, takes up beginning with volume three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and is carried over into the proceeding books. She is of the very minority opinion—even her own best friends are not terribly supportive—that house-elves are treated not only unfairly, but inhumanely. She starts up an organization to counter this, called SPEW (Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare). This, to me, smacks of at least two organizations in the real world in the last couple of decades fighting for more humane treatment of animals, whose acronyms bear much similarity: The SPCA (Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and perhaps PETA (People for the Eating of Tasty Animals…er, I mean, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
(Though I myself prefer humane treatment for animals, I’m not a fan of PETA’s tactics as lead by Ingrid Newkirk, who seems to be more interested not in equality—which alone might be pushing the matter a bit far—but placing animals in greater importance above humans, which I don’t agree with. My animal sensibilities are more in alignment with the SPCA, a division of the Humane Society. We should strive to treat animals humanely, but they are not necessarily equals. Whether in the real world Rowling is more of a PETA or SPCA supporter, I know not.)
3) This third example is the biggest source of conflict throughout the story and hits me as quite connotative of the Allied Forces versus the Axis Powers of World War II. The dark wizard Lord Voldemort, the pinnacle bad guy of the Potter stories, seems to be an allegorical character for German chancellor and dictator Adolph Hitler, largely perceived in the real world as the pinnacle bad guy of the twentieth century. Voldemort raises an army of Death Eaters whose sole mission seems to be to use whatever means possible, including murdering innocents ruthlessly, to have ultimate power over everyone else. The criteria that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has set to join his army seems to be 1) having magical powers, and 2) be a “pure blood,” meaning none of their ancestors can have been muggles (i.e. non-magical). This last criterion, being the most stringent and socially unfair, is, oddly, at odds with Voldemort personally, who, as it turns out, is a “mudblood” himself, an epithet often thrown at Hermione Granger. (While Voldemort is of mixed magical race or ethnicity—i.e. one parent being magical, the other muggle—Hermione was born with magical powers even though both of her parents are muggles. This pejorative “mudblood” is a recurring insult throughout the stories, especially as frequently invoked by the school bully Draco Malfoy, who later joins alongside his father as one of Voldemort’s Death Eaters.) The power-hungry contradictions of Lord Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters can be likened to the power-hungry contradictions of Adolf Hitler and his army of Nazis. Hitler, as it is well known, wanted a Germany and ultimately a world controlled by what he thought of as the pure “Aryan race,” a sub-race of the larger Caucasian race. He is most notorious for the systematic execution of those not of his pureblood race, particularly the attempted genocide of the Jews, a race which, apparently, Hitler himself—like Voldemort—had ancestral ties to.
A couple more thoughts that also support my points but are of much minor themes in the stories and not expressed in allegory: Clearly having Hermione Granger as the lead heroine of the story, Rowling, a woman herself, was interested in showing that the female population should be viewed as socially equal and as capable in many if not most areas to the male population. Surely this has not gone unnoticed by many girl readers. And lastly, by revealing during a Q & A that in her mind Albus Dumbledore (without question the pinnacle “good guy” of the stories and seemingly without a married partner) is a homosexual, Rowling seems to be expressing, albeit timidly, her support of antidiscrimination and social equality for those of minority sexual preference; i.e. gays, lesbians, etc.
To recap, the Harry Potter books are, on the surface, fun coming-of-age fantasy stories, perhaps most inspired by T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, understood to be works of fiction (“It’s a fairy tale, Harry!”) They progressively get more mature, complex, deeper, and better with each volume. They have inspired a whole new generation to simply love to read, and have overtly taught them the importance of hard work, courage, & sacrifice, getting a good education with critical thinking skills, to learn to think independently yet interdependently, and to recognize that dealing with problems is not always clear-cut or black-and-white. (And the discussion of God and religion, unlike White’s stories, are seemingly absent from Rowling’s pages. Without quite crossing the line into the argumentum ad ignorantiam fallacy, it is reasonable at least to ask if this silence is a timid, covert commentary by Rowling? While a professed Christian herself, does she regard those beliefs as personal and to be kept discreet? Perhaps fundamentally unnecessary for the good society at large?) But in conjunction with that, the real genius of these tales is they serve as allegories of the current real world which has been and continues to struggle for social equality, antidiscrimination, and justice for all.
As a secular-humanist, that’s a cause I can stand behind. And I bow down to Rowling for having subtly and covertly influenced (perhaps) a whole younger generation to think this way—even if they are not fully aware of it yet, and while simultaneously being under the radar of those who are opposed to such social fairness.
Such is the advantage of metaphor and allegory. (There are disadvantages, too, like misinterpretation. But that’s a different story altogether.)
Just finished Into the Rectum and through the Bowels of the Universe with Stephen Hawking, my more-titillating and slightly-longer made-up title of what is really called Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking. Which is a new 2010 cosmology series on Discovery Channel (and not to be confused with Hawking’s also-good but slightly outdated 1997 PBS six-part series Stephen Hawking’s Universe, nor to be confused with the so-so Jon Krakauer book and utterly pointless film adaptation Into the Wild).
It appears, as far as I can discern at this point, to be in three parts: 1. “Aliens” (1 hour), 2. “Time Travel” (1 hour), and 3. “The Story of Everything” (2 hours). It seems to me the order should have been the other way around, but I was not consulted.
Regardless, for those intrigued by the big questions of the universe, where it came from, where it’s going, our place in it, what science currently has to say about such things, and if you have four hours to spare, I highly recommend watching. (Unfortunately, science is unable to answer the “why” question as of now, but many—yes, there are many other highly intelligent scientists alive today who are equal to Hawking in brain-power, believe it or not, they just aren’t as high profile because they don’t have badass synthesized voices—who are working hard at cracking that tough nut, and some exciting breakthroughs seem to be just on the cusp.) It’s well grounded while also being imaginative. With computer-generated imagery of rational extrapolations of possibilities of alien life (highly likely, both primitive and intelligent, though we haven’t found either, yet, sorry V fans), time travel (highly unlikely, or at least possible but traveling back in time does not seem to bode well for the living, sorry Back to the Future fans), and what the future may hold (both good and bad in the short to long term, depending, and definitely bad in the 30-billion-years-away really long term, sorry Jehovah’s Witnesses fans).
I’ve been following Hawking like a hawk since A Brief History of Time in 1988. (I realize this is ambiguous and could just as well mean: 1. I’ve been following Hawking’s work since 1988; 2. I’ve been stalking Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair-bound corporeal body since 1988; or 3. I’ve been following Hawking’s work since I read A Brief History of Time sometime after 1988—maybe 2000ish—which was published in 1988. You choose.) Science has learned much since then (1988? 2000ish? When I allegedly began stalking? Again, you choose)—and will continue to learn much more henceforth. Hawking stays on top of these latest developments and weaves it all together in a sensible framework of empirical realism mingled with childlike dreaming. This documentary also seems to be the pinnacle of his efforts over the past few decades to make these grand, sweeping, complex questions-and-answers easier to understand for as many people as possible. (I say “pinnacle” as I’m unsure he has much longer to live. We’ll see.) He uses the hooks of aliens and time travel to draw us in. Then he sustains that attention by using simple, every-day language, up-to-date analogies, and new cinematic techniques to engross us all visually and stimulate us intellectually.
But if you don’t give a damn about being engrossed or stimulated by a man with no self control over his bodily functions due to an incurable motor neuron disease causing him to drivel incessantly over his personal pictures of Marilyn Monroe (no joke, look it up), then never you mind, my child.
Never you mind.
In 1726 in his The Political History of the Devil, Daniel Defoe penned, “Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believed.”
Benjamin Franklin’s wording, however, in his 1789 letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, is the more recognized expression: “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
In truth, there is literally nothing that can be done about the inevitable certainty of death.
Taxes, however, aren’t as solidly set in stone. They just seem to be, which explains why the humorous proverb has endured all these centuries.
Some, however (Wesley Snipes comes to mind), call into question this enduring adage by simply not paying the revenue collectors. These same upstanding citizens usually end up paying, instead, with jail time (again, Wesley Snipes pops into my head), just not in dollars and cents.
Some pay, but inwardly protest (unlike Wesley Snipes). And others pay, but outwardly protest. (Again, excluding Wesley Snipes here as there’s a conflict with the actual paying part.)
These days, some of these outward protests take the form of the extravagant “tea bagging parties” in commemoration of the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773 (which was neither a party nor did it involve Boston tea).
I’m not terribly thrilled about paying taxes, either. But I pay. Nor am I ecstatic about the prospect of a painful demise—though I look forward to a potentially painless one.
Believe it or not, however, these days there’s something just as inevitably certain as death and taxes, but sticks in my craw far more….
I’m genuinely, wholeheartedly appalled—nay, disgusted—at our commonly accepted culture, the unyielding social pressures, and the near full-throttle coercion of the restaurant industry to pay tips.
Here’s a tip for ya: Expect to get paid what your menu lists your prices for—no less, no more.
My grandfather—when he was alive, bless his soul—hated to pay tips. He got ragged on about that a lot. While there are many things I can rag on my late grandfather over, his objection to tip-ation without representation is not one of them. In fact, that is one of the few—if not perhaps the only—issues he and I really agreed on. Seriously. And who can deny that rare bond between a grandfather and his grandson? What demonic beast dares shatter that one, truly good memory a lone grandson clings to over his deceased grandfather?
Let me tell you a true story. I had a co-worker once who worked part-time for our transportation company and part-time elsewhere waiting tables. He told me he was going to go full-time waiting tables since, in his words, he made four times as much from tips than in the business of which he and I shared. He did go full-time at the other job. And I shortly thereafter visited the restaurant. By chance, he served me. And in light of his previous (and somewhat secretive) divulgence of making four times— four times!—what I did, I almost felt like asking him to pay me the tip. But I guess he already did.
Lest I sound like a monster, though, I in fact did—and do—pay the standard gratuity. (It is still 10%, right?) But when I get home afterwards, I invariably vomit and convulse for several excruciating hours. Usually each hour of writhing in agony on the floor is in direct proportion to each dollar of tip I involuntarily left. It’s almost enough to drive me to a tip teabagging party.
But my usage of “teabagging” here is that of the youngsters. Unlike those who use the tea bag as a symbol of that historical event where actual bags (or chests, technically) of minced herbs were dumped into the harbor of Boston all those centuries ago, I, on the other hand, don’t mean this kind of traditional beverage that you drink. Well, you sort of drink it. But it’s more like a hard, hairy, and sometimes sweaty, swallow. (Here’s a mildly censored live demonstration, if you need one.) Yeah, I know. The thought of it sends a piercing chill down my spine, too.
But then again, so does the thought of paying tips. The difference? The teabagging—whether the kind you drink or the kind you swallow—is, by all intents and purposes, not socially coerced.
Like Defoe and Franklin of old, I’ve come to accept the certainty of death and taxes. So I guess it boils down to the slow but inevitable loss of those social liberties that never used to be so certain.
I was on Facebook the other day.
I happen to be “Friends” with one Jim Bennett, second son of the junior U.S. Senator from Utah, republican Bob Bennett.
(I’m also “Friends” with the senator himself. I put “Friends” in quotation marks to emphasize this is a Facebook designation, which definition seems to be broader than the traditional one. In reality, I’m merely an acquaintance with the Bennett family. I have not seen or spoken with them in person for years. Having said that, though, to be clear, I have always liked the Bennetts, and still do to this day. Years ago, members of my family were close friends with members of their family, and probably still would be if not for time, distance, and sundry responsibilities. I have no personal animosity towards the Bennetts whatsoever; nor them, as far as I know, towards me. Only fond memories.)
So I saw that Jim Bennett had posted on his Facebook wall a “Life On Gold Plates” book review of his father’s new book Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of the Book of Mormon, published this year by Deseret Book. I assumed since Jim had posted the link with no further commentary, that he considered the review at least mostly favorable, if not reasonably accurate. There was, so far, only one “Friend” comment, which said: “Wow, this sounds like a book I would like to read!”
So, I clicked the link myself and read it. This is the first I had heard of this book. I knew nothing more.
I decided to make a comment on Jim’s wall as to what seemed to me a thought worthy of consideration. Believing that Jim is a believing Mormon, portions of my language were intentionally simplified based on an understanding of what I suspect him to already know. My comment went as follows:
According to this reviewer, [Senator Bob] Bennett’s [book] title, “Leap of Faith,” is based on the conclusion that there is no solid empirical evidence for or against the authenticity of the BofM [Book of Mormon]; therefore, [Senator] Bennett claims, it is just as much a leap of faith not to believe as it is to believe. But consider Bertrand Russell’s parable of the celestial teapot: There is no 100% empirical evidence to prove or deny the existence of a teapot floating in orbit around earth. [Russell presented this idea before human space travel, so perhaps it is more appropriate now to say the teapot is in orbit around the solar system.] Is it just as reasonable to believe such an object exists as it does not exist? Is the “leap of faith” a 50/50 equiprobable consideration in either direction? I think not, because in order to believe in such an object one has to reject the more probabilistic and parsimonious evidence that such an object is unlikely. While the celestial teapot’s existence is not impossible, it is, rather, improbable, making the “leap of faith” far greater for the believing side than the non.
Jim shortly thereafter responded as follows:
[Amorphous Intelligence], your analogy is deeply flawed. Unlike the celestial teapot, the Book of Mormon is here, real, and visible to all. The question is not, like the teapot, whether or not the Book of Mormon exists, but how it came into existence.
The book establishes that to believe that it did not come into existence by the means Joseph Smith claimed, you have to ignore a great deal of internal and external evidence that suggests otherwise.
I found it silly that he tried to pin me to such a ludicrous position as denying even the very existence of the Book of Mormon. If I was in his shoes and truly thought my opponent believed such an absurd delusion, I would not have even bothered to respond. I don’t think Jim really believed I thought that, though, but was more going for a laugh at my expense. (He has close to 800 Facebook “Friends” to giggle—or rage—at his joshing.) And what I don’t think he realized is his (possible) jovialness was committing the “straw man” logical fallacy, which is where one argues a much weaker—or in this case, a totally absent—position the opposition is making. (You can read more about the fallacy here, here, and here.)
Nonetheless, the format of Facebook is such that one can only convey so much information per post; i.e., the amount of characters per comment is some finite number. (I’m not sure what it is, but it’s not large.) So, in my limited response space, and rather than try to appear like I was posturing to attack Jim by pointing out his logical fallacy—as what I was really interested in here was an honest, sensible dialogue on this issue—I responded in a positive, common-ground-establishing way that I felt would be conducive to that:
Jim, I agree with you. It’s a good thing I was not arguing whether or not the Book of Mormon exists, as that would be deeply flawed indeed. (I happen to own several copies myself.) My first sentence about the “authenticity of the BofM [Book of Mormon]” was merely another (perhaps, admittedly, oversimplified) way to ask what you said, “how it came into existence,” not whether or not it does exist. I did not intend the parable of the celestial teapot to be analogous to the existence of the Book of Mormon, but [rather] to the “leap of faith” of believing in one claim of how it came to be versus another claim in the absence of solid empirical evidence either way, as the reviewer of Leap of Faith suggested why the book was given that title. Thanks for helping me to clarify.
Jim immediately responded:
I’m not sure if you did clarify, though. I’m now very confused as to your position. With the teapot, disbelieving is easy. With the Book of Mormon, if you consider it on its merits, you have to have faith in some wild coincidences to discount it.
What I had realized from his first response, but was now more convinced of from this second, is that he seemed to be arguing a position different from his father (or at least different from his father’s book, or at least different from the position the book review lead me to believe it was taking). I found this peculiar in light of the fact that as recently as the day before our back-and-forth, Jim’s Facebook status said, “Jim Bennett, according to some random commenter on the Deseret News website, is an attack dog! I’ve never been an attack dog before! You gotta admit, that’s pretty cool.” I read the Deseret News article, and the random commenter specified Jim (who is his father’s campaign chairman) as an attack dog for his father: “[Senator Bob] Bennett must be worried if he is sending out his attack dog son….” Jim’s response to this sounds like he took pride in the designation, which further lead me to surmise that he and his father share quite similar if not near identical positions on issues of this nature (i.e. politics, religion, science, etc.). But perhaps not, as heaven knows that as much as my father and I love each other and get along splendidly and will protect each other to the death, we have many differing views on politics, religion, science, etc. Regardless, my comments were not directed to any claim to any position Jim had made, but really only to the position that I derived from the book review (that Jim positively presented to all 800 of his Facebook “Friends.”) But for the second time, Jim defended a position that was not even being discussed by me; namely, whether or not there is more empirical evidence for or against Joseph Smith’s claim of the ancient and supernatural origins of the Book of Mormon.
Again, I didn’t want to sound negative or appear like I was posturing to attack, because in my mind I was not. I felt I was just amicably chit-chatting. Just considering other possibilities for anyone willing to consider. So I responded in, again, what I thought was a positive and honest tone. At the same time, without overtly saying it (partly because of space restraints, partly to not come across like a douche bag), I subtly tried to impress upon him that he was arguing a position different from what appeared to be his father’s position:
Obviously this is not the format to discuss all possible evidence for and against the [ancient and supernatural] origin of the Book of Mormon. I was merely commenting on the review of the book Leap of Faith, which says: “[Senator Bob Bennett’s] argument is that he can discover no definitive empirical evidence for that claim [of Joseph Smith’s origins of the BofM]. At the same time, he feels that no smoking gun has been discovered showing the Book of Mormon is a fraud. Thus, a decision either way requires a ‘leap of faith,’ hence the title….When [Senator Bennett] uncovers a seeming ‘draw’ he notes the need for critic and believer alike to make a ‘leap of faith.’” I was simply commenting that it seems to me that this “leap of faith” argument is not as equiprobable as this review (and possibly the actual book itself) leads us to believe. The celestial teapot was my reasoning for that. Hopefully that is clearer.
I think by quoting directly from the book review—rather than paraphrasing as I had been, which I assumed was all that was needed since I figured Jim had read it, but maybe he hadn’t, which would be a questionable tactic—Jim was more aware of the distinction between the position he was taking with me versus the position his father was allegedly making and whose position I was actually commenting on. And because I, intentionally, pointed this out as gingerly as I could think at the moment, this allowed Jim to process it better (I think) since he probably did not feel like I was attacking. And it appears he may have, at that point, realized the differences, as his final succinct response to me was:
I suppose it is, although the point of the book is to make the case for equiprobability.
I took from this that he supposed my position was clearer for him. I also took from this that by acknowledging the book’s case for equiprobability, he was—perhaps—acknowledging the distinction of arguing about faith claims versus arguing about empirical-evidence claims.
This experience strikes me as a good example of how easy it is to be misunderstood, especially if the opposition feels he/she is being attacked. I got the impression Jim felt, at first, I was attacking him or his father’s book. So rather than honestly consider what I was saying, he immediately attacked me with jokes and logical fallacies. (Admittedly, not severe attacks by any means. No harm done. No feelings hurt. No financial ruin. Bennetts and Intelligences [pseudonym, obviously] can still be friends—without quotation marks. No worries there, as far as I’m concerned.) While I did point out, what appears to me, to be a flaw with the book’s reasoning on the equiprobable nature of claims of faith, I tried hard to make that clear and I honestly think I was being clear. I think I was being misunderstood not for lack of clarity on my part, but for the initial lack of willingness to understand on Jim’s part. Such is frequently the case when one has a knee-jerk, emotional reaction. It’s human nature to dig in and unfairly argue rather than honestly discuss and understand.
At that end there, though, I think Jim finally may have understood me. If so, I give him credit for fighting beyond the initial knee-jerk reaction of the misperceived attack. I applaud him for ultimately coming to, perhaps, understanding. (I also applaud Senator Bob Bennett for writing a book that allegedly acknowledges no empirical evidence for the ancient and supernatural origin of the Book of Mormon, even if I disagree with his equiprobable faith claim. This is a rare feat of acknowledgment by most believing Mormons, in my experience. Jim Bennett’s position that there is ample scientific evidence for the ancient and supernatural claims of the Book of Mormon is much more the norm among believers, rather than his father’s claim that it should be believed based exclusively on faith since the empirical evidence is not there.) In the end, I doubt Jim agreed with me, but at least I think he finally sort of understood me. And that’s a good start, especially with such highly-charged, emotional matters as faith—or the lack thereof.
(For a more in-depth explanation of the non-equiprobable nature of faith claims, see Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, particularly chapter 2 “The God Hypothesis,” and more specifically pages 49 to 54 in hardback, 69 to 77 in paperback.)
My good buddy Brian Dunning has decided to venture out beyond his weekly Skeptoid podcast and start doing a series of short videos (about 3 minutes each) called “inFact.” Here is one in which he points out the foibles of wheatgrass juice being marketed and sold (expensively) as not only a health food, but a “super food.” In the simpler good ol’ days, this ipecac syrup could have been exposed as snake oil. So drink up…bottoms up…and to your…health?
The only quibble I have with this is at the end he suggests taking a vitamin pill to get vitamins. (It’s possible he meant if you’re deficient, as his language is a bit ambiguous here.) While that will work, the medical consensus shows that the human body metabolizes most—not all, but most—vitamins best through the foods we eat. (Brain Dunning is, of course, perfectly aware of this, as is evidenced by this excellent essay he wrote on that very topic.) If people (and this is not tough in developed countries like the U.S.) simply eat a daily diversity of grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy, proteins, etc. (i.e. “a well-balanced diet”), and get enough sun light, then if they don’t have a specific medical condition, they are not likely to be vitamin deficient—and hence no need for vitamin supplements. (Your doctor can easily check for vitamin deficiency by drawing a small vile of your blood and testing it.) So save that vitamin-pill money for something more worthwhile than the toilet (if not potentially hypervitaminosis), as that’s exactly where your excess vitamins go when you urinate.
Radio personality Dennis Prager’s third and latest installment of his “Prager University” YouTube videos, entitled “God, Part 1: What Would Make You Believe in God?”, argues for belief in God. (Presumably the Judeo-Christian concept of God; I know enough about Prager to know that’s the God he believes in.) He does this in just over five minutes. See for yourselves:
That’s not much time to cover all the myriads of arguments devised over the millennia to attempt to persuade such a belief. But his goal is to keep these on-line video “lessons” short and to-the-point for as large an audience as possible. Perfectly understandable. Pithiness is a virtue.
In that vein, then, I will try to do so likewise. But unlike Prager, I will try to be more intellectually honest. By that I mean I will refrain from using speculative arguments; I will avoid casting serious questions aside with a mere figurative wave of my hand; and I will not resort to “straw man” or any other logical fallacies.
Speculative arguments? Dismissivness? Straw man logical fallacies?
By matter-of-fact stating that if God himself literally and physically appeared before every human being, this phenomenon would not convince them to His existence, Prager is being quite speculative indeed. The fact that there is no testable, verifiable evidence that the Judeo-Christian God has ever appeared to anyone—let alone everyone, repeatedly for each generation—is speculation number one. And to compound that, there is no testable, verifiable evidence of how any or all humans would react to such a visitation, being speculation number two, whilst simultaneously dismissing a serious question: How would people react? And apparently God curing everyone of, say, cancer wouldn’t be convincing enough to His existence, either, Prager continues for his third speculative argument while framing it as such an obvious fact.
How could Prager know—and unquestionably know, at that—the answers to these questions? Is it intellectually honest to give answers to claims such as these without having actually tested the claims first? What if I said your car won’t start because your battery is dead? Would you assume I didn’t just pull this claim out of thin air but had actually tested the battery somehow to know this? But what you may be thinking is, that’s a silly comparison since the kind of thing Prager is talking about is simply un-testable. And you’d be absolutely right. Which, in such cases, seriously limits us to two options: 1) we can state it as unknown and perhaps ultimately unknowable, which is admittedly unsatisfying but nonetheless the intellectually honest approach; or 2) we can make the answer up out of thin air (or perpetuate an answer that someone else made up out of thin air), which for the majority is more satisfying to at least have an answer but is, notwithstanding, the intellectually dishonest approach.
Sadly, Prager chose the latter.
If I was to consider Prager’s question of “What Would Make You Believe in God?” (and I have considered this long before Prager posed it), I would say his suggestions sound very convincing, indeed. I’m not speculating, let’s be clear, as I’m speaking on my own behalf of what I strongly feel would convince me, personally. As such, it shows I at least am open-minded to being convinced. And I’m not alone. The well-known British scientist and atheist Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was asked a similar question and gave a similar response. And my experience is that most rational-thinking atheists and agnostics agree.
But what if the tables were turned? What would convince Dennis Prager there is good reason to doubt God’s existence? Is he open-minded enough to accept that possibility—just the sincere possibility?
Is he willing to understand that since there is no testable evidence of the God he worships (such as God himself actually appearing before us all, and solving life’s ills, as Prager proposed as possible evidence) that that is reason enough to doubt?
What of all those people who have seen God, you ask? I would answer, just because they say they’ve seen God, does that provide compelling evidence they actually have? Lots of people say lots of things, and both common experience and scientific evidence teaches us not everyone should be a hundred percent believed in everything they say, for good reason. People can genuinely be deceived, and they themselves in turn are capable of deceiving, whether they know it or not. And since every claim to actual visitations from God—from Abraham to Moses to Mohammad to many others—is fraught with inconsistent and even contradictory descriptions and doctrines and commandments and theologies (not to mention, in these specific instances, unverifiable historical records), then there is good reason to be skeptical of these claims. They could very potentially be delusions, frauds, hoaxes, shams, and so forth. Scientific evidence clearly demonstrates how extremely susceptible human beings are to these kinds of occurrences, and likewise how common they are in our everyday lives.
But this blog post is not about that. It’s about Prager’s specific arguments in this video for theistic belief. In which he concludes his “lesson” with this thought: Some have stated that if enough monkeys were plunking away at typewriters and were given enough time, at least one of the monkeys would—eventually—type out word-for-word the Shakespearean play Hamlet. “Scientists” tried this, he continues, and the results were the monkeys defecated on the keys without even getting as far as typing simple English words such as “the” or “it.”
I’m not crystal clear on what Prager thinks the connection is with this thought and theistic belief or disbelief in his Lord, as he doesn’t outright say here. But in the context of this video, the not-so-subtle implication is he thinks, or at least wants his listeners to think, there is a connection. And the implying connection he seems to be making is that those who question the literal existence of the Judeo-Christian God is based, at least in part, on the grounds that literal monkeys should be able to literally type at least some words? And since the “scientists” have shown us that literal monkeys only soil literal typewriters, there’s no good reason to doubt the literal existence of God?
Prager is either naively unaware or purposefully invoking the “straw man” logical fallacy (which, briefly, is to attack a weak opposing argument rather than attacking the much stronger argument the opponent is actually making; you can read more in-depth about it here, here, and here). This “Infinitely Typing Monkey” hypothesis is not a serious argument used by those who thoughtfully doubt the literal existence of the Biblical Almighty, or any other literal all-knowing, all-powerful deity for that matter. (And this blog post is not about those reasons, as that would take an entirely different, very lengthy post.) What’s more, this “Infinitely Typing Monkey” hypothesis is not a theological doctrine, nor a philosophical concept, nor a political ideology, nor a scientific theory or law. Rather, it is merely a metaphorical mathematical exercise infrequently employed to illustrate enormous spans of time. It’s an analogy, if you will, to aid in visualizing massively mind-boggling amounts of numbers, usually invoked these days in reference to the “Theory of Evolution”—which is a scientific theory which requires a lot of numbers, and speaks nothing whatsoever about belief or disbelief in an Ultimate Man-Like Creator.
The intellectually honest approach to this issue of theism versus atheism (or agnosticism) would be to truly discuss the actual issues as to why some doubt and why some believe in the literal existence of the Judeo-Christian God. And to do this without resorting to rampant speculation, careless dismissals, and logical fallacies. While maintaining his format of brevity, Prager could easily have summed it up as those who believe do so ultimately on faith. This is belief without evidence. And those who don’t believe do so (or don’t do so?) ultimately on lack of faith. This is skeptically withholding belief until compelling evidence is presented. Matters of faith are ultimately un-testable beliefs, and as such there is no good reason for conflict between believers and disbelievers in these matters. Disbelievers have no testable evidence to contradict faith just as believers have no testable evidence to support faith. End of argument. It’s only in the false claim that matters of faith can be tested is where conflict arises. But since Prager avoided the more intellectually honest discussion here and tried to blur his un-testable faith with so-called science, this shows me that he’s more interested in propaganda with these so-called university lessons. He doesn’t appear to be searching for real honest answers here. As such, clearly his target demographic in this is twofold: those who already believe as he does and those he wants to convince to believe as he does. For those who already believe as he does, he is reinforcing that belief with misinformation rather than opening their minds to other genuine possibilities. And for those who don’t know enough about this issue to know whether or not they believe as he does, he is persuading them to believe as he does with, once again, misinformation.
And that’s a pity.
Scientists call insignificant pattern recognition that is made out to be significant “pareidolia.” For example, seeing animals or faces in clouds, the man on the moon, the face on Mars, satanic messages when playing Beatles’ or Led Zeppelin music backwards, etc. But this pareidolia (YouTube clip below) might better be described with a more commonplace interjection, such as, I don’t know, perhaps, “holy sh*t!” See for yourselves: