Lilith Be Gone?

One of those questions it isn’t politic to ask is “Are you Jewish?”  I get asked that once in a while but mainly by Jews.  I’m not Jewish but some people tell me I look like I am.  In any case, as a Bible editor at an academic press, the question of someone’s ethnic affiliation sometimes comes up.  The dilemma is that we can’t ask that.  And it is very difficult to know the answer if someone doesn’t tell you.  The reason that this is on my mind is that I recently watched John R. Leonetti’s horror film Lullaby.  The film was one of at least two that came out with that title in 2022.  And since it deals with Jewish themes, that question naturally comes to mind: is the director, or are the writers, Jewish?  I suspect, from the way all of this plays out that the answer is “No.” Or, if they are, they didn’t do their homework.

Lullaby is a Lilith story.  A young couple—she’s Jewish, he’s a convert for her—have a newborn.  The woman’s sister has sent to them, among other things, a book in Hebrew that contains a Lilith-summoning lullaby.  Lilith shows up and steals the baby but a tattooed rabbi gives the husband some Jewish rituals to combat Lilith.  Apart from the spurious etymology of “lullaby” as “Lilith be gone,” this rabbi doesn’t seem convincing.  His Hebrew handwriting looks as if he might be a first-year student.  And keeping a menorah lit all night is supposed to keep a demon at bay?  Not only that, his assistant can be bribed to regain the cursed book.  All of this begins to look like a gentile trying to direct a horror film in a religion he doesn’t understand.

Religion and horror go naturally together.  I’ve written several posts about Jewish horror that really works.  In those instances, it’s clear that the writers and directors understand what Judaism is.  The solution here is that the convert husband must “really believe” in order to conquer Lilith.  The rabbi tells him to have faith.  The thing is, Judaism isn’t a religion based on having faith—Christianity is.  And taking that aspect of Christianity and using it to try to make other religions faith-based is one of the most common mistakes of those who don’t study religions professionally.  Horror works well with religion when those doing it actually understand the religion they’re trying to portray.  When they don’t, it can end up looking like appropriation of the worst kind.  I watched the movie because it was about Lilith.  What I found was a basic misunderstanding of how religions work.

Inventing Chaos

A recent (in my personal interaction with time) article from the New York Times recounts two bad inventions by Thomas Midgley Jr.   Namely, leaded gasoline and the practical use for chlorofluorocarbons.  Besides making me interested in Midgley, the article got me thinking about inventors and inventions.  We never know, in real time, if innovations are good ideas or not.  We have no crystal ball and what seems like a good idea now may prove to be a catastrophe.  I’ve given a couple of talks on the Antikythera mechanism.  If you’re not familiar, it is essentially an analogue computer invented in the first century.  Experts suggest there were likely multiple such devices, but they never caught on and transformed society.  Why?  Nobody saw the practical benefits.

A replica of the Antikythera mechanism

The Antikythera mechanism was made essentially to predict eclipses and track the movement of heavenly bodies.  The fact that such a thing existed within a century of when Jesus of Nazareth lived and died is mind-blowing at first.  Still, it makes a point.  We never know when an invention will take off and change the world.  And we never know if that change will ultimately be good or bad.  There are many who suggest that the invention of agriculture was a mistake.  We eat less healthily than our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and they may have been much happier (in general) than we are.  Still, agriculture (despite creating desk jobs) has its benefits.  We live longer.  We have medical science.  And we can entertain ourselves with clever people on YouTube.  While we sit around too much and eat things that really don’t benefit us, we seem to be doing okay.  We’re living longer, at any rate.

The problem, it seems to me, is when capitalism takes an idea and blows it up into a huge money-making venture.  People just can’t take their eyes off that shiny, shiny gold.  And ideas, when they start making unreasonable demands (a new cellphone every other year?  Really, is that necessary?) tend to lead to the same results as leaded gasoline and chlorofluorocarbons.  If they can be monetized, ideas will push themselves into this unbroken feedback loop we call economy.  Often at the price of ecology.  Inventors are both necessary and dangerous.  Their efforts often make the world more comfortable, more convenient.  They might, however, cause immense harm.  Being a vegan, I’d have a difficult time surviving as a hunter-gatherer.  Gathering is more my style, in any case.  If only I had a way of tracking the movement of heavenly bodies, I might just be content.

Finding Family

Sea Change is a probing story of learning to live with loss.  Of learning how to say goodbye.  I’m sure that I didn’t catch all that was being offered in this novel, but for those of us who did grow up without a father there’s a kind of therapy here.  I know that I eagerly awaited the end of work each day so that I could pick it up and read a bit more.  Framed as the story of the only child of Korean immigrants, the novel features Aurora (Ro), a young woman who has had to find her way ever since her father has gone missing.  And even before that, actually.  Her father, as a marine biologist, had captured an octopus (Dolores) who now lives in the aquarium where he once worked.  Ro, whose relationship with her mother is strained, takes a job in the aquarium after her father goes missing and befriends the remaining part of him—Dolores.

At the same time Ro’s boyfriend is accepted into a mission being launched to Mars.  (This isn’t science fiction, just to say.)  The loss is another deep cut to a woman who had to deal with the earlier significant loss of her father.  I won’t say much more about the plot since I think you should read the book, but it is a thoughtful, and from my experience, realistic journey through the mental states of those who cope with abandonment issues early in life.  Of course, I can’t speak to the experience of being a child of immigrants, but the novel shows we all deal with the same kinds of issues, no matter where we’re from.  At least we do in modern civilization.

Sea Change made me ponder, however, whether children raised communally would feel the same kind of loss if a parent they didn’t know was theirs left.  The mother-and-child bond is a deep one, so I guess it could be that fathers, after conception, would be expendable in such a situation.  It’s difficult to project how such a society would work.  The family unit is so deeply engrained into our experience that, unless a situation is truly dire, we know we can rely on our parents not to try to harm us, but rather to protect and love us.  Those of us who grew up without fathers (I’m not sure if that’s the case with Gina Chung or not) deal with insecurity issues that never quite go away.  This beautifully written novel was, for me, a healing kind of experience.

Planting Knowledge

In an effort not to harm other living creatures, I became a vegan about seven years ago.  Generally it’s not too difficult, although many eateries still think you have to exploit animals to eat anything.  Vegan fare is quite good, and some of it is remarkable.  Then I saw the article in Popular Mechanics, “So It Turns Out Plants Have Had Voices This Whole Time” by Jackie Appel.  Well, “voices” may be stretching it a bit, but they do make sounds.  According to the article, plants “talk” at the same volume as humans tend to, only it’s in a range that we can’t perceive.  Other animals, however, may.  That’s right, your dog may be able to hear the noise plants make.  This is one of the reasons I marvel at scientific arrogance.  Human senses simply can’t perceive all stimuli—how can we claim that what we term “supernatural” doesn’t exist?  We don’t have nearly all the data.

Meanwhile, we live with animals whose sense of smell would send us running even more frequently to the showers.  Animals who can hear plants “talking.”  Animals who can perceive magnetic fields.  We’ve evolved knowing what we need to know.  (At least in part.)  What then do plants communicate?  Can they hear one another?  The sounds plants make, if “translated” to human perception, seem to be “I’m thirsty,” “I’ve been hurt,” or “I’m fine.”  The terminology here is Appel’s but you get the idea—plants broadcast their status.  Can plants scream?  One of my students reminded me a few years back that I once wondered to her what a tomato felt when it was being sliced.  I responded, “That sounds like something I would’ve said.”

They know.

So now I’m a vegan and plants are joining the conversation.  My hope is that they don’t feel pain.  As far as we know, plants don’t have brains.  Even so, heliotropes are smart enough to follow the sun across the sky.  And even fully grown trees move—very, very slowly—to optimize the light they require.  Such intelligence in nature always leaves me in a state of wonder.  We’ve been told for centuries of human exceptionalism.  Sure, we have opposable thumbs and have figured out how to communicate intricate things vocally.  So much so that we can represent them in written form (such as you’re reading right now) and can know what someone’s saying even at great distances.  That doesn’t mean we’re the only remarkable creatures.  But it does leave me with the dilemma of what to eat.

How to Write a Book

When I worked at Routledge I was told never to mention William Germano’s name.  I’ve never been one to dabble in workplace politics, but I did wonder why.  Over time, as I tried to commission the kinds of books I knew Routledge for, I was told that they didn’t do those kinds of books.  Not since the Germano days.  Years later I still don’t know what all of that was about, but I do know that Germano wrote a book that would make nearly every academic editor’s life easier if it were handed out at every doctoral graduation ceremony.  From Dissertation to Book is a classic in the field.  Now in its second edition, in it Germano explains, in non-technical language, why and how a dissertation is not a book.  He also explains how to make it a book.

You see, academic editors, such as yours truly, see more dissertations than the most ambitious professor.  The doctoral student, flush with the praise of his or her examination committee, sends off their thesis, largely unchanged, and wants it to be published.  Hey, don’t be embarrassed—that’s what I did too.  The truly amazing thing to me, as someone who’s been both professor and editor, is how little publishing and academia know about each other.  If I had to guess who knows whom better, I’d have to say publishers take an edge over academics.  Their knowledge is far from perfect, however.  Academics have to publish for promotion and tenure, but they don’t bother to learn about how publishing works.  Germano’s book would help them too.

For many years well-known academics have been stating in highly visible places that academic writing is poor writing.  It is.  Germano explains why in this little book.  Better than that, he gives solid advice on how to improve your chances of getting published.  I’ve been working in academic publishing for a decade and a half and I learned quite a lot from this little book.  Dissertations are written to prove yourself to a committee.  Books are written for a wider readership that wants to be able to understand what you’re talking about.  Day in and day out, people like myself read dissertations.  Generally there’s a kernel of something good there.  (Sometimes, honestly, there’s not.  Not all theses are created equal, although that’s not one of the ninety-five.)  Germano’s book offers a way to find and plant that kernel so that it grows into something any editor would be pleased to receive—the proposal for an actual book.  It should be read widely—much more widely than it is.

Monsters of Mystery

Sunn Classic Pictures was responsible for much of my young movie viewing.  Or at least a reasonable portion of it.  As I predicted, I ended up watching The Mysterious Monsters in the wake of Boggy Creek, and that got me curious about this unusual production company.  As a film distributor, the company began in 1971.  One of its early films was the aforesaid Mysterious Monsters.  Unlike other film distributors, their practice was to rent out a theater (this was before multiplexes) and take all the profits for the run of their film.  This was no risk to a theater owner and apparently it worked for Sunn.  They sponsored documentaries on unusual topics, likely because of the tastes of one of the founders, Charles Edward Sellier Jr.  

In addition to cryptids, the company also made films of the Bermuda Triangle and Noah’s Ark.  They even had a hand in a television version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  Ever since my college days, I’ve tried to figure out whether they had a religious motivation.  I suppose it was In Search of Noah’s Ark that made me wonder.  They even distributed work by Alan Landsburg, who would go on to initiate the series In Search of…, which claimed many of my childhood viewing hours.  Sunn lasted only a decade before being bought out by Taft International Pictures, but what a formative decade it was!  As I’ve noted in a couple of my books, the bestselling nonfiction book of the seventies was Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth.  That level of interest firmly fixed the Apocalypse in the American imagination.  I even saw the 1978 film (not Sunn Pictures)  in the same theater that’d housed Mysterious Monsters.

Come to think of it, the Drake Theater in Oil City had an outsized influence on my thinking.  The Drake is now gone.  It served the Oil City area for many years.  I saw Star Wars there for the first time, as well as Clash of the Titans.  We didn’t have much money, which may be why the escapism of movies was so important to my young self.  Now that I’ve finished my third book about movies it seems that perhaps I missed my calling.  Life is all about finding something someone will pay you to do.  The most fortunate find meaning in it as well.  The rest of us generally have to wait for the weekend to have the time to watch movies.  But like the Drake, Sunn Classic Pictures is gone, leaving memories of formative ideas behind.

Golem Events

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It doesn’t have a title yet.  At least not one that’s announced.  Still, when a friend pointed out this article that Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket, is writing a horror film about a golem, I sat up straight in my chair.  Since I don’t tend to dwell on children’s topics here, it may not be obvious that I was a real fan of A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket, back when they came out.  Alerted to this series by a cousin who was my daughter’s age, we made this bed-time reading for a few years.  Handler, in the early days, did a pretty good job of keeping his identity secret.  He’s written some adult fiction, and those of us who write know that readers want more of the same thing from a writer—if you want to survive you do what they ask.

I’m a very eclectic reader—that may be one reason I don’t have many followers on this blog.  People like the same thing time and again.  (I’ve always been suspicious of genres.  One of the reasons, I suspect, that my students found my lectures interesting is that I drew from my eclectic reading, but that’s ancient history now.)  In any case, A Series of Unfortunate Events was formative in my own writing.  The movie remains one of the most gothic available, but it pales next to the novels.  Yes, they’re written for young readers, but they’re also very well written for young readers.  I discovered Snicket, or Handler, was Jewish when he wrote The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming.  And now he’s turned his attention to one of my favorite monsters.  The golem has been part of horror from the earliest days of the genre (that word!).

Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen’s The Golem, part of a trilogy, came out in 1915.  Before the Universal monsters.  Even before Nosferatu.  The legend of the golem—which may have inspired Frankenstein—has a long history.  While not biblical, the golem does go back many centuries.  Unfortunately these early horror films are lost, or mostly lost.  The Golem and the Dancing Girl, from 1917, is a lost comedy horror.  The third film, The Golem, How He Came into the World, from 1920, survives and is sometimes called “The Golem.”  I wrote earlier about the excellent 2018 film The Golem by Doron and Yoav Paz, sensitive to Jewish issues in the seventeenth century.  This sub-genre of golem movies may be starting to come into its own.  It remains to be seen what Handler will do with it, but if his previous work is anything to go by, we may be in for a real treat.

Boggy Down

Okay, so after watching The Creature of Black Lake I realized that I’d never seen The Legend of Boggy Creek.  I did watch The Mysterious Monsters, a documentary that came out in 1975, in the Drake Theater in Oil City.  I was struck by Peter Graves’ serious tone and the information the film conveyed.  I’d not knowingly heard of Boggy Creek then (Graves does list “the Fouke monster” as another name for sasquatch), and besides, Arkansas was far, far away.  Well, to make an honest man of myself, I decided I’d better see it.  The opening of Boggy Creek is clearly the inspiration for the opening of Black Lake.  Their opening shots are very similar.  (I guess I watched them in the wrong order.)

Although Boggy Creek does have a guy in a costume (better makeup than Black Lake), many of those in the film are the actual eyewitnesses to the events it portrays.  They’re clearly not professional actors.  Interestingly, the narrator constantly insists that there’s only one such creature and that it acts out of loneliness.  If there are sasquatch they, out of biological necessity, must have a breeding population.  There had to be a Mrs. Boggy Creek somewhere in the picture—at least on a national scale.  In any case, this movie has become a cult classic, but I can’t help but think it’s so that people can laugh at it.  The acting’s not great and the long, long shots of hunters getting their dogs out of the truck  show the problems with the pacing.  Then there’s that folksy song (also echoed in Black Lake) about the lonely monster.

Boggy Creek came out in 1972, making it one of the earliest Bigfoot documentaries.  Given that sasquatch has gone mainstream (lawn art and Christmas ornaments featuring Bigfoot are common), the movie perhaps started a new cultural meme.  In the movie the poor critter gets shot several times, engaging viewer sympathy (but maybe not enough to write a song about it).  The narrator reflects if this particular southern hospitality might not’ve been overkill.  After all, some of the armed witnesses said they couldn’t shoot it because it looked too human.  The pacing was slow enough to make keeping my weekend weary eyes open a challenging prospect a time or two, but overall it’s a film worth watching.  I have the feeling, however, that this chain of events might lead me back to The Mysterious Monsters.

Day of Earth

One of the questions thoughtful and mission-based publishers ask is why books on environmentalism don’t sell.  Since it’s Earth Day (by the way, Happy Earth Day!), I thought I’d ponder it here.  My own amateur sense, as a personal eco-warrior, is that younger people are very focused on fixing environmental issues.  In fact, it is often THE issue for them.  And honestly, reading books about our many, many failures to sustain our environment is downright depressing.  I’ve read several, and seldom do I put the book down without a profound sense of grief and hopelessness.  Many of us do what we can while watching others thoughtlessly carrying on as if our modern lifestyle is normal.  I don’t advocate getting out of the matrix and hunting mammoths with spears, but I do wonder how to get through to those who don’t think about it.

I’ve been on the “Green Committee” at work for many years.  I sense the hopelessness there as well.  Our business has gone about as green as it can but unless you can convince other, less concerned industries to reduce their footprints too, we’re all still walking through the new carboniferous age.  Little things matter.  Some of us may not be able to afford an electric car, but hybrids are somewhat reasonably priced (in as far as car prices are ever reasonable).  LED lightbulbs have dropped from over $10 a pop to two for a buck.  And why are we still using natural gas when electricity can be produced by wind?  My young next-door neighbor has been encouraging us to get solar panels.  We would, but we have to get the garage roof fixed first.  And so it goes.

Caring for the environment is a big job.  These days, however, we also have to keep an eye on politicians who get elected to serve only themselves.  And Supreme Court justices who do things that would get many of us fired for bribery.  Here’s the thing: justice doesn’t work unless it applies to everyone.  We share this planet.  It’s difficult to build forward momentum to save our home when corruption is so deeply entrenched among those who control budgets and who have so many unthinking followers.  Even so, we as individuals can do what we’re able.  We may not be able to afford to repair that garage roof yet to get solar panels installed—it really is in a prime location with uninterrupted southern exposure—but we can compost.  And be conscious of our energy use.  And even, if we’re brave enough, read some books on how to help make things better.  The earth, it seems, is something worth saving.

Image credit: NASA

Black Lagoon, er, Lake

There’s value in watching bad movies.  For one thing, it’s a learning opportunity.  (For another, they’re more likely to be found for free on streaming services.)  The Creature from Black Lake drew me in with its title similar to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and its very low price tag.  It kept me watching with its poor dialogue and obviously low budget.  One of the spate of “Bigfoot movies” that came out in the seventies, this one is the story of two (unintentionally) inept college students looking into a Louisiana swamp creature, based on the beast of Boggy Creek legend.  They end up in Oil City (I had to keep watching now), Louisiana where the local sheriff warns them off and where his daughter is, naturally, attracted to them.

I won’t spoil it for you (although the creature of this creature-feature is so clearly a man with a gorilla mask) but the movie does have a cast of some recognized B-list (or C-list) actors.   And it was a very early effort by Dean Cundey, a cinematographer who went on to work with horror auteur John Carpenter on Halloween and The Thing.  (And also The Fog, although that one’s lesser known, but covered in Holy Horror.)   You’ve got to start somewhere and the premise is good enough, being “based on a true story”—something the movie doesn’t claim for itself since the events, as portrayed, never happened.

Riffing off the earlier Legend of Boggy Creek—a cryptid docudrama from three years earlier (1973), it fictionalizes the Fouke monster incident.  The Fouke monster (which my autocorrect hates) was a creature reported around Fouke (no, I don’t mean Fluke), Arkansas, starting in the 1940s.  This earlier film went on to become a cult classic.  Black Lake suffers from poor direction and even worse writing.  College students, one obviously suffering from post-traumatic Vietnam issues, try to make out with girls they know are in high school only to be saved from criminal offense by a monster attack?  They wind up in jail anyway only to be released by a tough but gullible sheriff who simply trusts them to leave Oil City since he told them to.  I grew up near the earlier and, I’m tempted to say, original Oil City, and I know of no movies set in that town with all its drama and weirdness.  Even with its issues (Jack Elam is a delight to watch, however) this film is a bit of bad movie homework that’s hard to pass up when it’s free.

Funny about Irving

The successful writer, John Green, has been on a tuberculosis kick lately.  You see, writers swing that way.  As the writer of books few people read, I’ve had my own little Washington Irving obsession lately.  So it is that I read Martin Roth’s Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving.  Roth knew a lot about comedy and he framed Irving’s early work as burlesque, rather than the more usual categorization as satire.  In doing this, he groups Irving together with other writers in the genre such as Laurence Sterne (who sounds like a fascinating character) and François Rabelais, among others.  (Jonathan Swift and Oliver Goldsmith also make appearances.)  Irving is analyzed in comparison to these other writers and his comic style is considered as polite satire, political satire, and domestic humor, as well as burlesque.

Insightful while occasionally assuming quite a bit on the part of the reader’s background, Roth provides quite a bit of good chewing here.  Roth was, by reputation, an unorthodox thinker.  He sounds like the kind of professor you would’ve wanted to have had in the classroom.  A book trying to parse comedy is a good sign, I suppose.  I learned a lot from reading it, and was pleased to see that I had independently come to some of the same conclusions he had.  That signals to me, anyway, that I’m not too far off track.  The benefit for those interested Irving is that, while critical, Roth isn’t judgmental.  It has always seemed odd to me that the premier biography of Irving had been written by a scholar who really seemed to hate him.  Roth, on the other hand, likes a good laugh.

As a used book my copy had lots of pencil marks in it.  So many that I had to erase them so that I could spot my own.  When I worked in the theology library at Boston University one summer I was introduced to the electric pencil eraser.  This was a device for heavy-duty removing of the marks of thoughtless patrons.  Before working for the library I stared in wonder when I would see students (perhaps not the brightest) sitting in the library, underlining in books they’d pulled off the shelf.  I think I was always too well aware that library books were not my own.  Because such folks, I’m sure, the electric pencil eraser was invented.  None of this took away from my enjoyment of Roth’s book.  I learned quite a bit about Irving’s context and, as an added bonus, got to remember using an electric eraser.

I would like to have had an image of the book cover, but mine lacks the dust jacket and finding it without violating copyright was difficult. I tried to trace this image to its origin, but I found it on Pinterest and the link didn’t take me back to the original poster. If you see and own this and want me to erase it, just let me know.

Pondering Origins

I’m not a numbers guy.  I never had any interest in statistics, and I tremble when I see my accountant’s number pop up on my phone at tax time.  But exponential sequences have an inherent fascination.  Think about your ancestry (I recently wrote about genealogy and that got me pondering).  You have two parents.  And they each had two parents.  By the time you get back to ten generations (eight greats before grandparents) you have 1,024 ancestors of roughly the same generation.  That’s a lot of people just to make one individual.  Think of all the circumstances that might’ve led to any two of them having been kept apart—then where would you be?  Of course the numbers double each generation which is where my reasoning capacity shuts down.

At some point, doesn’t it seem, that there wouldn’t be enough people available to make you?  I know that’s not true—you’re reading this and that proves this false—but it does make each individual life a thing of wonder.  Or even at the level of your own parents.  If you have siblings you know how different even biologically similar people can be.  And there are many others who could’ve been conceived instead of you or me.  The chances are astronomical that we’re here at all.  I often wonder if such circumstances are why our minds seek religious answers.  People are meaning-seeking creatures.  And against such long odds, it seems that maybe we’re a miracle after all.  Naturally, a driving force behind it all suggests itself.

Photo credit: NASA

Science has been a real boon for the billions of us alive today.  There’s no doubt that dispassionate, rational thought can lead to amazing outcomes.  At the same time, the doubt creeps in that this is the only explanation.  It occurs to me when watching the birds in the spring.  How do they know their own species and with whom to mate?  Is all of this driven by that notorious fudge factor we call “instinct”?  I have no answer to what the source of that will to keep life going is.  Biology tends to be among the slipperiest of sciences.  Life is difficult to define when we don’t even know everything that’s out there in our infinite but expanding universe.  The numbers are just too massive.  All I know is that by the time you get back to twenty generations (eighteen greats) it took over a million people to make just one of us.  And that’s by the numbers.

Human Humanities

The New Yorker, if it didn’t take so much time to read, would be on my magazine list.  I’m primarily a book man, and there’s so little time these days that magazines seem mere ephemera.  However, someone at work pointed me to a story on the end of the English major that was really about the end of the humanities.  It was most disturbing.  Making the case that college students really prefer the humanities, they nevertheless go to STEM because that, and business, are the only place to find jobs.  In a world where work increasingly demands more hours a day, these young people take employment that kills their souls in order to keep their bodies alive.  The “starving artist” is no joke.  Society has deemed humanity unimportant.

The Rebuke of Adam and Eve, by Charles-Joseph Natoire, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, via Wikimedia Commons

What happens when we cease to be human?  Artificial intelligence and robots and capitalism.  It’s a cold world where only numbers matter.  I’m not a great one for metrics and “evidence-based” humanities.  No, Romanticism is not dead.  The world where imagination reigns and Adam Smith is not even a shiny shekel in his great-grandfather’s blue eye.  How do I know it was blue?  Imagination.  You see, I’ve written a few novels (unsuccessfully), and I know a few (very few) colleagues who do as well.  Mainly I know that because their novels find publishing houses that know how to get them in the public eye.  I jealously guard those friendships because I’m a Romantic.  I tilt the electronic windmills telling me all of life is statistics and figures.  No, those slowly spinning blades are liable to chop your head off, if you let them.

My friends often express surprise when I reveal that I’m a Romantic.  Books should be evidence enough.  Ideally, work would allow us to bring our gifts to the table—or more accurately, screen.  It would find a way of saying, “be human here because we really mean what we say about diversity and inclusion.”  Instead, evaluations are metrics-based.  The numbers.  The bottom line.  At moments such as these, I throw off my hat and let my thoughts run free.  I daydream about the books I’ve read and those I’ve written.  I imagine life as a place to truly be human.  The humanities are all about understanding what it means to be authentically human.  And let me tell you something—it’s not all about numbers.  In fact, if I had it all to do over again, I think I would be an English major.  With no regrets.

Female Future

One thing we repeatedly heard during the early days of the pandemic is that people couldn’t wait for things to get back to business as usual (BAU, in corporate speak).  I told others then that we shouldn’t strive for “as usual,” but we should try for something better.  I got that same sense from Mary Beard’s Women and Power: A Manifesto.  Beard is a classicist.  She’s studied ancient Rome and earned her reputation in that area.  Women and Power is the publication of two public lectures on, broadly speaking, why women aren’t ever truly allowed to share power.  The first essay focuses on how women’s voices are routinely silenced, as they have been since classical times.  The second essay, more akin to what I was hoping about the rebuilding of society, is that we need to redefine power and how it is ascribed.

You see, as a society we have the opportunity—mandate even—to decide what’s truly important.  Electing angry old men like Trump only served to set back our progress by refusing to address the problem.  The idea, and this has been true throughout history, is that what men value is more important than what women value.  And we can’t assume all women value the same thing.  In other words, some serious thinking has to be done.  It doesn’t surprise me that some of this thinking has been undertaken by a classicist.  Those of us interested in how ideas began can have insights into why things are the way they are.  That won’t hand us the answer to the dilemma—as Beard says, hard thinking must be done—but it does show that we can begin to understand.  Beginning to understand is the first step to coming up with a solution.

Biology, and the history of biology, has something to do with the dilemma.  Childcare is a necessity and although we might be able to train brains, it does seem that women tend to have more empathy than men.  History tells us that prior to the invention of baby bottles women had to be available to unweaned children to meet their nutritional needs.  Meanwhile, men had to provide  the social structure that made the agricultural revolution possible.  As far as we can tell, hunter-gatherers (and there’s no going back to that) were more egalitarian.  Beard is right—we haven’t hit an impenetrable wall.  There are ways forward.  Equitable ways.  Different ways.  We need to stop longing for “business as usual” and imagine a better future.

What Kind of Night?

“It was a dark and stormy night.”  If you’re like me, this evokes images of Snoopy sitting atop his doghouse, clacking away at his typewriter, trying to write the great American novel.  Many of us have tried a hand at that.  And as a writer, finding that allusive incipit, or opening line, is a major preoccupation.  For many years I believed the sentence “It was a dark and stormy night” originated with Edward Bulwer-Lytton since his 1830 novel Paul Clifford begins with this sentence.  Now considered melodramatic prose of the purplest kind, it may have been serious back then.  1830 was early in the days of novel writing.  Then I found the phrase from an even earlier work, Washington Irving’s A History of New York, from 1809.  Had Bulwer-Lytton read it?  Irving was quite popular in the pre-Dickens days.

This raises a question encapsulated in the other old phrase, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”  Unless someone tells us explicitly that they read something—journals and footnotes often convey this information—it’s difficult to know.  There’s a whole genre of history books these days that examine the libraries of deceased historical individuals to determine what they read.  I suppose in the days before mass book sales there was a better chance that owning a book meant you’d read it, but not necessarily.  In college I worked as the secretary for the chaplain, Bruce Thielemann.  When he read a book he wrote a category of note in the margin and paid a secretary to go through and write the citation under a heading in a set of looseleaf binders he kept, with several pages dedicated to each category.  For sermon preparation he’d look up his theme and immediately see what he’d read.  I knew he’d read those books.

So, was Washington Irving the origin of the phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night”?  Many websites, many of them authoritatively, insist that the credit goes to Bulwer-Lytton.  I located an edition of A History of New York that replicates, word for word, the 1809 edition.  You see, Irving, like many writers, revised after publication and not all (or even most) modern editions tell you which version they use.  Irving indeed used the phrase in 1809, I confirmed.  The internet is wrongly giving credit to Edward Bulwer-Lytton for a phrase first printed by Washington Irving.  The two were contemporaries and ironically, Wikipedia points out that Irving first used “almighty dollar,” another phrased credited to Bulwer-Lytton.  It doesn’t however, point out that “it was a dark and stormy night” also belongs to Irving.  Something to ponder on a dark and stormy night.