Update (April 4): I just finished reading Postmodern Pooh by Frederick Crews—a hilarious spoof of modern literary criticism, by someone who was the chair of Berkeley’s English department and understands the theories he’s ridiculing as well as anyone. I actually found Crews’ fake Marxist, feminist, and deconstructionist exegeses of Winnie the Pooh far more persuasive than the “serious” scholarship he “reverently” quotes. Crews seems to be breathing life into straw opponents here: making the obscurantist literary theories much more sensible and interesting than they really are, in order to give himself some challenge knocking them down. (The real fun comes when his intentionally goofy arguments start working on you—when you yourself can no longer read innocent passages about Eeyore, Piglet, and Tigger without seeing the simmering sexual innuendo and class struggle.) For anyone who likes the sort of books I discuss in this post, I recommend Postmodern Pooh in the strongest terms.
Several commenters on my last post asked why I’d waste time with Atlas Shrugged, given its evident flaws. The reason is simple: because when there’s so little literature that gets emotional about rationality, you’re tempted to take what you can. Throughout history, the weapons of art—poetry, literature, movies—have been deployed mercilessly against scientists, engineers, and anyone else so naïve or simplistic as to think there are “right” and “wrong” answers. Other times, a work of literature will praise “scientists,” but the science itself will be cringeworthy—and worse yet, the juvenile humor at the core of how science works will be absent, replaced by a wooden earnestness more in line with the writer’s preconceptions. Occasionally, though, what you might call the “satiric rationalist impulse” (if you were writing a PhD thesis about it) has found superb expression in literature. So in this post, I’d like to celebrate a few literary works that exemplify what appealed to me about Ayn Rand as a teenager—but do so without Rand’s shrill libertarianism, suspicion of modern science, or deification of Nietszchean quasi-rapist supermen.At the head of the list is the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei. I submit that Galileo’s greatest contribution here was not his account of how it could be possible for the Earth to go around the Sun even though we don’t feel the Earth’s motion. For that achievement was far surpassed by his creation of Simplicio: the amiable doofus (standing in for scholastic astronomers) who answers Salviati’s patient explanations with pompous Latin phrases and quotations from Aristotle. Apparently the main reason Galileo was hauled before the Inquisition was not his scientific arguments, which the Church assumed most people wouldn’t understand or care about anyway. Rather, Pope Urban VIII was outraged that Galileo put his (the Pope’s) own arguments about the limits of empirical thinking into the mouth of Simplicio.I find it interesting that Galileo’s dialogues are almost never assigned in high schools, despite being not merely among the most influential works of all time, but also uproariously funny. Why is that? After 400 years, is the parody still too barbed for some people’s taste?
Next on the list is Huckleberry Finn. Unlike Galileo’s dialogues, this one is assigned in American high schools. But the final chapters—the ones where Tom Sawyer proposes increasingly elaborate and fanciful schemes to rescue Jim, rejecting as insufferably naïve Huck’s idea of simply going to the shed and freeing him—tend to be downplayed or denigrated as comic fluff that detracts from the novel’s Deep Important Message. (It’s fun to imagine critics scratching their heads in bewilderment: what could Twain have been trying to say in the final chapters? Surely he wasn’t questioning the value of obfuscating the obvious?)
As far as I know, the only person ever to win a Nobel Prize in Literature for writing that was explicitly anti-obscurantist was Bertrand Russell. (Orwell might have gotten one had he lived longer; maybe a case could also be made for Churchill.) In retrospect, Russell’s clarity seems to have been a serious mistake: had he learned to write as cryptically as his student Wittgenstein, his reputation today would’ve been vastly greater. Alas, more recent “public rationalists”—such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Richard Feynman, Steven Pinker, and Richard Dawkins—have repeated Russell’s mistake of boringly saying what they mean, and for that reason, have failed to produce any serious literature.
Any list of the world’s great anti-pomposity literature has to include Sokal’s Social Text hoax. But since the amount of ink already spilled about that illustrious hoax can only be explained using noncommutative (and hence nonlinear) chaos theory, let me address postmodernism using a more recent and less conventional choice: an interview with Priya Venkatesan conducted by The Dartmouth Review. For those with better things to do than follow academic blogs, Venkatesan is a former instructor at Dartmouth College who’s announced that she’s suing the students in her freshman writing seminar for harassment because they (1) argued with her ideas, (2) asked too many impertinent questions about French critical theory and deconstructionism, (3) didn’t accord her sufficient respect as someone with both a Masters and a PhD, and (4) submitted poor teaching evaluations. I know, it sounds like something some right-wing commentator would make up—which is why reading Venkatesan at length, in her own words, is so fascinating. The reason I put this interview on my list is not Venkatesan herself (eloquent though she is), but her interviewer, Tyler Brace. Brace seems acutely aware of his historical responsibility in interviewing this real-life Simplicio: the polite, faux-naïve questions give Venkatesan ample rope to hang not only herself, but (in my opinion) an entire academic subculture that made her possible.
My last entrant into the snarky rationalist canon is the recent poem Storm by Tim Minchin (see here for the YouTube version). It far surpasses my own feeble attempt at this sort of poetry: When I Heard the Learn’d Poet, which I wrote in 11th-grade English.
Look, there’s an obvious paradox in the idea of “rationalist literature.” Almost by definition, people who like rationality are going to want to write dry, methodical arguments, rather than novels or poems that bypass the neocortex and directly engage the emotions. But the consequence is that they’ll tend to cede the emotional field without contest to the woo merchants. If you want to defend yourself against obscurantist sharks, you need to enter the dark waters where the sharks live. That’s why, in my view, the rare efforts to do that—to right the historical imbalance, to sing Modus Ponens from the rooftops—are actually worth something. If you know of other good literature in this category, let me know in the comments section.