Tuesday, February 13

A Familiar and Prescient Voice, Brought to Life


It’s been a long 10 years since we’ve heard Carl Sagan beckoning us to consider the possibilities inherent in the “billions” of stars peppering the sky and in the “billions” of neuronal connections spiderwebbing our brains.

In the day, the Cornell astronomer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of books like “The Dragons of Eden,” “Contact,” “Pale Blue Dot” and “The Demon-Haunted World,” impresario of the PBS program “Cosmos” and Johnny Carson regular was one of the world’s most famous and eloquent unbelievers, an apostle of cosmic wonder, critic of nuclear arms and a champion of science’s duty to probe and question without limit, including the claims of religion. He died of pneumonia after a series of bone marrow transplants in December 1996.

In his absence, the public discourse on his favorite issues — the fate of the planet, the beauty and mystery of the cosmos — has not fared well. The teaching of evolution in public schools has become a bitter bone of contention; NASA tried to abandon the Hubble Space Telescope and censor talk of climate change; and of course, religious fanatics crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center, leading to a war in the Middle East that has awakened memories in some corners of the Crusades.

Now, however, Dr. Sagan has rejoined the cosmic debate from the grave. The occasion is the publication last month of “The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God” (Penguin). The book is based on a series of lectures exploring the boundary between science and religion that Dr. Sagan gave in Glasgow in 1985, and it was edited by Ann Druyan, his widow and collaborator.

Reading Dr. Sagan’s new book is like running into an old friend at a noisy party, discovering he still has all his hair, and repairing to the den for a quiet, congenial drink.

“I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship,” he writes at the beginning of a discussion that includes the history of cosmology, a travel guide to the solar system, the reason there are hallucinogen receptors in the brain, and the meaning of the potential discovery — or lack thereof — of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Never afraid to venture into global politics, Dr. Sagan warns at one point of the danger that a leader under the sway of religious fundamentalism might not try too hard to avoid nuclear Armageddon, reasoning that it was God’s plan.

“He might be interested to see what that would be like,” Dr. Sagan wrote. “Why slow it down?”

Almost in the same breath, Dr. Sagan acknowledges that religion can engender hope and speak truth to power, as in the civil rights movement in the United States, but that it rarely does.

It’s curious, he says, that no allegedly Christian nation has adopted the Golden Rule as a basis for foreign policy. Rather, in the nuclear age, mutually assured destruction was the policy of choice. “Christianity says that you should love your enemy. It certainly doesn’t say that you should vaporize his children.”

When Saddam Hussein was hanged in December, those words had a haunting resonance.

It was Ms. Druyan’s impatience with religious fundamentalism that led her to resurrect Dr. Sagan’s lectures, which were part of the Gifford Lectures, a prestigious series about natural theology that has been going on since the 19th century.

Ms. Druyan, who co-wrote “Cosmos” and produced the movie “Contact,” based on her husband’s novel, runs Cosmos Studio and was a leader in the aborted effort by the Planetary Society to launch a solar sail from a Russian submarine two years ago. Among her lesser-known achievements is a kiss on the cheek of the science writer Timothy Ferris, which was recorded and included on a record of the sounds of Earth that is part of the Voyager spacecraft now flying out of the solar system. She and Dr. Sagan had planned to use his Gifford lectures as the basis for a new television show called “Ethos,” a sequel to “Cosmos,” about the spiritual implications of the scientific revolution. “I know of no other force that can wean us from our infantile belief that we are the center of the universe,” she said.

But “Ethos” never happened, and the lectures disappeared.

In the wake of Sept. 11 and the attacks on the teaching of evolution in this country, she said, a tacit truce between science and religion that has existed since the time of Galileo started breaking down. “A lot of scientists were mad as hell, and they weren’t going to take it anymore,” Ms. Druyan said over lunch recently.

Some of the books that resulted, such as Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion,” have been criticized as shrill, but Ms. Druyan said: “People like Carl and Dawkins are more serious about God than people who just go through the motions. They are real seekers.”

About a year ago, Ms. Druyan went looking for Dr. Sagan’s lectures, eventually finding them filed under “Ethos” in his archive at Cornell, which occupies 1,000 filing cabinets and includes things like his baby pictures and report cards.

Rereading them, she said, “I couldn’t believe how prophetic they were.”

It took about a day for her editor at Penguin to decide to publish them, she said.

She retitled the book — Dr. Sagan had named his lectures “The Search for Who We Are” — as a nod to William James, whose Gifford lectures in 1901 and 1902 became the basis for his book “The Varieties of Religious Experience.”

Ever the questioner, Dr. Sagan asks at one point in his lectures why the God of the Scriptures seems to betray no apparent knowledge of the wider universe that “He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is” allegedly created. Why not a commandment, for instance, that thou shalt not exceed the speed of light? Or why not engrave the Ten Commandments on the Moon in such a way that they would not be discovered until now, à la the slab in “2001: A Space Odyssey”?

If such an inscription were found, people would ask how it had gotten there, Dr. Sagan writes. “And then there would be various hypotheses, most of which would be very interesting,” he adds dryly.

Near the end of his book, Dr. Sagan parses the difference between belief and science this way: “I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.”

The search for who we are does not lead to complacency or arrogance, he explains. “It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us.”

Dr. Sagan was many things, but shrill was not one of them.

The last word may as well go to Dr. Dawkins himself, who in a 1996 book nominated Dr. Sagan as the ideal spokesman for Earth. In a blurb for the new book, Dr. Dawkins said that the astronomer was more than religious, having left behind the priests and mullahs.

“He left them behind, because he had so much more to be religious about,” Dr. Dawkins wrote. “They have their Bronze Age myths, medieval superstitions and childish wishful thinking. He had the universe.”

Sunday, February 11

Interested in Andy Warhol? Don't see _Factory Girl_

How _Factory Girl_ insults Andy Warhol.

By Jim Lewis

There's a moment about midway through Factory Girl, the latest rehashing of Edie Sedgwick's life and Andy Warhol's career, when the movie suddenly goes from being merely very bad to being truly revolting. The setup is this: Sedgwick, a lovely but very unhappy girl from a wealthy but very unhappy family, comes down to New York from Boston in search of attention and the excitement of art. She finds both in Warhol's studio: Andy has started making films; Edie is both photogenic and game. He turns her into an underground star, and she, in turn, finds a place in Warhol's coterie of drag queens, drug addicts, gay men, hustlers, fashion mavens, socialites, and assorted hangers-on. So far, so good: All of this is true enough, as Hollywood movies go, anyway.

Then she meets … well, it's a little hard to say who, exactly, she meets. The character is obviously meant to be Bob Dylan, with whom Sedgwick apparently did have some kind of brief affair, but Dylan threatened to sue the filmmakers, and the character is given a ludicrous pseudonym: "the Musician."

In the movie, the Musician is everything that Warhol is not: a good, red-blooded American boy, heterosexual, motorcycle-riding, and what's more, a poet—no, a prophet—and a paragon of anti-materialism and truth-telling. In short, he's an insufferable prig, a smug and arrogant philistine, and it's no wonder Dylan disavowed him vehemently.

Edie, on the other hand, seems to fall in love with him and so, alas, do the filmmakers, who concoct a brief and improbable moment of wholesomeness for the two of them. They ride the Musician's motorcycle upstate; he ditches it in a lake to show how little he cares for the toys his wealth has brought him; they talk about her childhood; they make love, in front of a fireplace, no less; and then Edie goes horseback riding.

All of this would be silly enough; what makes it disgusting is a brief cutaway, lasting about nine seconds, showing Warhol sitting all alone in his vast, cold studio, rapturously watching a film of Sedgwick that he's projecting on the wall. The movie cuts back to Sedgwick and the Musician romping, and I realized at once that I wasn't watching a film about Andy and Edie at all; I was watching an allegory of the Evil Fag, who battles with the Good Man for the soul of the Lost Girl. The Evil Fag, you see, is simply a failed heterosexual, frustrated and rancorous; the Lost Girl is well-meaning but confused; and the Good Man does his best to set her straight.

In Factory Girl, it all comes to a showdown. The Musician shows up at Warhol's factory for a screen test. Warhol coos and does his best to be accommodating; the Musician says things like, "No, man, don't sweat it," and then makes fun of Warhol's work. And so on: It all goes very badly. At one point, the Musician tries to pass a joint to Warhol, who didn't do drugs and who therefore demurs. "Do you smoke, man, or do just that faggy speed shit?" he asks, managing in one short sentence to sum up the film's loathsome combination of sanctimoniousness, hypocrisy, and bigotry. Luckily, one of Warhol's cronies immediately replies, "Just the faggy speed shit"—the only line in the movie that made me smile. As Dave Hickey once said, in a not dissimilar context, I'll take the real fake over the fake real any day.

Finally, the Musician walks out, with Edie following in tears. "What the hell was that?" she asks. "He's my friend."

"Baby, your friend is a bloodsucker," the Musician answers, though I suspect "cocksucker" was the word he was looking for.

It's all downhill from there. Edie makes the mistake of going back to Andy, but soon she's been passed over for the next Factory Superstar, and then she does a lot of drugs, moves to California, gets clean, and then suddenly ODs and dies, and let that be a lesson to you: The Evil Fag destroys women. The last we hear from the Musician, he's instructing his manager to help Edie out with some cash. The last thing Warhol says is "I never really knew her," and if you think that makes him sound like Judas, you're getting the idea.

Watching Factory Girl is like sitting through some risible remake of Laura, the great '40s noir that brought Clifton Webb, in the role of Waldo Lydecker, hissing and drawling opposite Gene Tierney, until she's rescued by Dana Andrews. The difference, of course, is that 1944 is not 2007; that Webb attacks his role with such energy and élan that one can't help but root for him; and that Lydecker is not, after all, a real person.

I should be pointing out that Warhol was a great artist and a great filmmaker, that he made paintings and movies the likes of which no one had ever seen before—and so he did, though you'd never know it from Factory Girl. I should be telling you that he was also, and not surprisingly, an exceedingly complicated man, that Edie, for all her winsomeness and beauty, was a suicide looking for an excuse, and that Dylan was such a minor character in that scene that it's bewildering to find him in this movie at all, and preposterous to portray him as Warhol's tormentor. I should be reminding you that the times were, by all accounts, hectic if not hysterical, and that Sedgwick was not the only one who paid the price. Warhol was shot, almost to death, by one of his more unstable hangers-on, but you wouldn't know that from watching the movie, either.

But I want to say something else, instead. The visual arts have traditionally been a refuge for marginal people: queers and misfits, fragile and disobedient people, the flamboyant and the terminally shy, some brilliant people, some shallow people, and quite a few con artists; and Warhol's Factory was open to all of them. There's a great deal more to art than that, of course; there's hard work and scholarship and as much to think about as there is in poetry or novels or philosophy. But many of us first came to the art world because decades earlier Warhol had made it seem like a wonderful place to be, and besides that, a home. So Factory Girl isn't just a bad movie, it's a 90-minute insult to the culture it pretends to be capturing, and what I really want to say—as I would almost never say of anything I see or read or listen to—is that I hated it.

Jim Lewis is the author of three novels, most recently, The King Is Dead.

Tuesday, February 6

It’s Only Language

Being the offspring of English teachers is a mixed blessing. When the film star says to you, on the air, “It was a perfect script for she and I,” inside your head you hear, in the sarcastic voice of your late father, “Perfect for she, eh? And perfect for I, also?”

In these days of just about enough perils facing our nation, there is plenty of evidence around to conclude that our grip on our glorious language may be loosening. And the current administration, as in other matters, is not among the good guys. Let’s get everybody’s favorite example out of the way: the leader of the free world’s goofy inability to pronounce what is arguably the most important word in his vocabulary: “nuclear.” What is so hard? A school kid botching it Bush’s way — “nuke-you-lur” — would have to stand in the corner. Fortunately, an oval office has no corners.

(Does Bush’s atom have a nuke-you-luss? Does it work in reverse? Is Bush’s railway a foo-nick-lee-ur? Let’s bet.)

Andy Rooney tried to nail this matter on “60 Minutes”. Andy wondered as I do why the literate Laura doesn’t do something. Every time the president commits this verbal blunder, she must wince along with the rest of the world. Bush’s “the French have no word for ‘entrepreneur’ ” is guaranteed immortality.

The French make fun of him, of course, and by extension, of us. I say let’s irk them back by continuing with our clanging mispronunciations of their sacred tongue, such as: “Vichy-SWA,” “coo-de-GRAH” or “double enten-DRAY” — and best of all what we did to the French “chaise longue,” dyslexically turning longue (long) into “lounge” and chaise (chair) into “chase.” A fox hunter’s chair, perhaps? (Let Froggy puzzle it out.)

I think we’re just stuck with the president’s individualist English. This is the man who gave us, “I know how hard it is to put food on your family,” and who told Brian Williams, regarding his alleged Camus studies, “I have an ‘eckalectic’ reading list.” Until he was nice enough to repeat it, I was sure he had said “epileptic,” which at least would have been a word. I prefer the three-syllable version “eclectic,” but then he is The Decider.

Donald Rumsfeld and about half of his military pals seem to feel that hidden weapons are found in a “cash-AY” [cache: from Fr., hiding place; pron. kash], provoking further giggles from our busy French detractors. The cashiered secretary of defense is equally hard on his own language, as with, “It wasn’t wrong. It was just miss-CHEEVY-us.” “MISS-chuh-vuss” is of course what he was after. Oh, and with all due respect Mr. Erstwhile Secretary, a medal can be called a memento, but not a MO-mento. Princeton, class of what again?

Getting a little thing like words right, is it so important?

The right answer is: Yes. As when poorly worded road signs cause fatalities. Sloppy language leads to sloppy thought, and sloppy thought to sloppy legislation. And why not a sloppy war? What if someone big, issuing an order of earth-shaking potential, made the (tiny) error of confusing the last letters of Iraq and Iran?

Another whole category of language abuse is the stating of untruths which, when shown to be untrue, are repeated. As in Dick Cheney, the man who recently said to Wolf Blitzer, “We’ve had immense successes in Iraq,” adding “and we will have more immense successes.” Blitzer looked, well, blitzed. Instead of lowering a large butterfly net over his guest, he got his breath and, charitably, did not request examples. And what of Condoleezza Rice? The same Condi who was willing to contribute “a mushroom cloud” to the Scare America campaign now insists that an escalation be called an “augmentation.” What, in her new tea-time vocabulary, would she call the W.M.D. that caused the cloud? An “Instrument of Considerable Inconvenience”? What are the war dead in her sanitized lexicon? “The indisposed”? Or simply “those whose coffins may not be photographed.” Once dead, our brave soldiers are an embarrassment.

Incidentally, are Jews still Semites? Or are they suddenly “Semets”? For years now the boo-boo “anti-se-MET-ic” has gained ground, even among rabbis, as well as TV talking heads, big-name news people and the literati. Where did it come from? Listen for it. Try the Sunday morning shows for a likely catch.

And what about the various distortions of the easy word “heinous.” From lawyers especially you get “hayney-us,” “heeny-us” and even “highness.” Look, guys and gals, it’s easy. It rhymes with a well-known two-syllable word which some might consider not nice, but I guarantee will stick the correct pronunciation in your brain, especially if you compose a silly rhyming couplet. (“His behavior was heinous/ And … etc.” — which, by the way is not pronounced “ECK-cetera.”)

And then there’s the poor little “kudo.” It’s a word Variety has used incorrectly — as in “DeNiro received many kudos for his performance” — for enough decades that it is now forgotten that “kudos” (Greek for praise) was already singular. There never was a kudo. Will Variety eventually take the word “pathos” and extract a “patho”? Stay tuned.

Last week during hearings, at least two of our star-spangled generals spoke of a “dim-you-nition” (diminution, perhaps?) of troops. Does ammunition then become “ama-nyoo-shun”? Let it pass.

It’s gotten so bad for “lie” and “lay” that if a candidate got the votes of only those who don’t know the difference, it would be a landslide. Upon hearing, “He was outside laying on the lawn,” I remember being glad my dad thought I was worldly enough to get it when he asked, “And who was under him on the lawn?” Wouldn’t anybody just know you wouldn’t “lie it on the table”? Try playing it as it lies. It works just as well.

When the flight attendant would say, “We will be landing in Chicago momentarily,” I used to enjoy replying, “Will there be time to get off?” But I see the forces of darkness have prevailed, and this and many wrong uses are now deemed acceptable by the alleged guardians of our language, the too-quickly supine dictionary makers. Are they afraid of being judged “not with it”? What ever happened to, “Everybody does it don’t make it right”?

Certain misquotes are rooted in marble. It would take another act of Creation to restore “gild the lily” to Will Shakespeare’s “paint the lily.” (“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.”) There are hundreds of these. And there’s, “The senator literally exploded with laughter.” Who cleaned up the mess?

Then there is that common ailment, the tin ear, and its possessor’s knack for rendering sublime quotations drab, often through insensitivity to the music of the words and their proper order. A good example is the great but frequently wounded quote of Mark Twain’s on writing, a quote that causes, when done right, my forearms to horripilate.

Here it is: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between lightning bug … and the lightning.”

Recently, an after-dinner speaker botched it. He got all the words in, but not in the master’s order, ending with “the lightning and the lightning bug.” I had to go out and walk around a while. Word order is everything. Anyone who doesn’t hear that it’s imperative to end with the majestic word “lightning” would probably argue that nothing’s wrong with “The Sierra Madre’s Treasure,” Milton’s “Lost Paradise,” “The Opera’s Phantom,” “Music’s Sound,” “The Sea and the Old Man” and, who knows, “The Island of Gilligan.” (Have I beaten the point to death yet?)

(Let us note: the hapless speaker was at the DAY-us — dais — not the DYE-us.)

But let’s be charitable. I soon learned it isn’t necessary to correct. I quickly learned to bite my English teachers’ boy’s tongue and let a lady guest refer to an “elicit” affair. But if I ever find myself once again with the senator who spoke of his “incredulous” experiences, I shall pop him one.

I don’t see the future as bright, language-wise. I see it as a glass half empty — and evaporating quickly. Almost daily irritants, like the dumb cluck’s beloved, “between you and I” will never be expunged, it seems. “Loathe” and “loath” will continue to change places, and “phenomena” and “phenomenon” will still be used interchangeably. But, finally, what the hell? It’s only language. It’s only what we live by.

conservative intellectuals on campus

To the Editor:

I respect Mark Bauerlein's appeal for more scholarly attention to conservative intellectuals....

But I suggest a different reason for the neglect of serious conservative thinkers in the academic world: Many conservative intellectuals today have discredited their predecessors through distorting their ideas into rationalizations for Republican politics, which the earlier thinkers would have found repugnant. Prominent scholars such as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams — along with journalists such as Irving and William Kristol, George Will, P.J. O'Rourke, and David Horowitz — pose as acolytes of Leo Strauss or Friedrich A. von Hayek but are in reality cynical publicists for the Republican machine, oligopolistic corporations, and vulgarian billionaires like Richard Mellon Scaife and Rupert Murdoch.

The most modest proposals for liberal reform, like President Clinton's ill-fated national-health-insurance program, are demonized by these intellectuals. Conservative economists at think tanks like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation have responded to liberals' evidence to the contrary mainly by evading it with sophistic studies. ...

Bauerlein hints, but never quite admits, that the current paucity of first-rate conservative scholars may be due less to liberal bias than to the many conservatives themselves who have chosen to become well-rewarded propagandists rather than intellectuals of integrity.

Donald Lazere
Professor Emeritus of English
California Polytechnic State University
San Luis Obispo, Calif.