National Commission on the Humanities Formed

February 18, 2011

The humanities have a hard time getting respect, if by respect you mean funding. Sure, we’re (often) the ones teaching the basic research, thinking and documentation skills that underpin the rest of a valuable education…blah blah whine. I often think that popular apathy toward the humanities, especially literature and cultural criticism, stems from the topics to which we choose to apply those important, cross-disciplinary skills. That is to say, that students often resent, say, that we are looking at the business culture of the Renaissance or the works of Theodore Dreiser or 17th-century Norwegian mysticism or whatever. Yes, these are the topics that float the boat of the instructor, who has devoted his or her life to the study of these topics. I know that I picked my areas of study, war and literature and extraordinary claims because I’m fascinated about them, but I certainly do not expect my students to love those topics with the myopic, passionate intensity that I devote to them. At the same time, however, I expect them to recognize that the research practices, habits of thought and underlying curiosity I bring to the study of, say, conspiracy theory, has value in all areas of education.

The incessant beating that the humanities seem to get as university budgets shrink fundamentally undermine the mission of the university. We’re not trying to crank out people as effete, feckless and dull as we are. We’re trying to arm our students with the ability to become self-directed, fulfilled, lifelong learners, as well as college students worth bragging about.

A number of muckety-mucks from Research-1 institutions are pooling their brainpower to give the humanities a boost, according to the Chronicle. This is swell and all, but I agree with the first comment that other types of schools need to be represented. I have a feeling that the smart students are the ones who are going to be taking their core courses, including the core humanities courses, at less expensive institutions of higher ed before moving on to the R1s. Their instructors will be a part of the field and should be included.

Thus ends my mid-afternoon proclamation. Perhaps I will see folks tonight at Virtual Drinking Skeptically? I think Eve will be participating as well.


Excellent Tribute to an Awesome Soldier

February 17, 2011

In the spirit of my current class, Writing about World War II, I thought I would pass along the following announcement. Early this year, Maj. Dick Winters of the 101st AB died at age 92, I think he was. His story and that of Easy Company was depicted in the Spielberg/Hanks/Ambrose collaboration Band of Brothers. We’ll be watching parts of the series later in the semester.

Well, the cast of Band of Brothers is coming together again to raise money for a monument to Winters in Normandy. They are going to jump out of planes, and donations go toward sponsoring parachutes. If you don’t donate, I presume the cast of Band of Brothers splatters.

I great, creative, and appropriate fundraiser, I thought. Will they remember to yell, “Curahee!” I wonder?


The Great Gatsby for NES

February 17, 2011

It is, in a word, awesome. You’re Nick and you are looking for Gatsby. The only thing between you and your objective is an army of waiters and flappers. Luckily, you have booze on your side!

Love it.


The Week in Conspiracy: 14 Feb 2011

February 14, 2011

Forget what I said last week. That’s just peanuts compared to how important this week was in the unfolding of global events that will lead to our inevitable doom! Shall we?

  • You can almost hear Philip Jones resisting the urge to type this entire story in capital letters and centered in the middle of his page. Luckily, reason won out: “Google: Zionist Engine of Mind and Genetic Control.”
  • In a sinister turn of events, Long Island Sky Watch, your source for news about the chemtrail menace, has discovered…schmutz in snow! DUM DUM DUMMMMM!
  • From WorldNetDaily comes the warning that Islamists are invading CPAC! Yes, it is the silliest thing ever written, folks.
  • Alex Jones: “Texas hippies: ‘Give us uranium'”:


Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

This week it’s not a conspiracy that caught my fancy so much as a parody of Glenn Beck’s conspiracies. Behold the Glenn Beck Conspiracy Theory Generator!

Also, I would like to thank Glenn Beck for going a conspiracy theory too far with his socialist caliphate conspiracy this week! That cracked me up!


The books on my nightstand…

February 14, 2011

I like books. Love the things. Have stacks of them. My shelves are lined 2 or 3 rows deep, and they sag under the weight of all the damned books. As you might expect, I often read more than one book at a time. Right now is an especially bad time, as I am working on…I think a half-dozen.

I am currently reading three books about the so-called “science wars,” that is, (certain) postmodernists’ almost New Agey assault on science. This is in preparation for a panel about science and literature I am sitting on in New Jersey this April. I’m excited about this conference because, hey, science and literature! I’ll be talking about the responsibilities, as I see them, of scholars in the humanities when discussing science. That conference will end with a trip to NECSS for me. Yay!

Eve and I have been talking about doing a series of posts on The Da Vinci Code, and so I’ve been reading for that. We decided that in order to write about it, we should each have read the novel as well as Holy Blood, Holy Grail (the alternate history the novel is heavily based on) and a book about topics covered in the novel, which I happened across in a used bookstore a few weeks ago. Before I go to sleep, I’ve been reading encyclopedia entry length essays about various topics in classical, medieval, and Renaissance history that Dan Brown failed to understand. Last night, I was reading about the Merovingians. I was happy to see a Merovingian named Sigebert, because I suspect that his name is etymologically the same as Eve’s last name, Siebert (victory bright). It’s the little things, really, that keep me going.

On top of that, I have started on a Voynich Manuscript kick that I can’t seem to, uh, kick. Gotta scratch that itch. I had not posted to Skeptical Humanities for a few days, and I was looking for something quick and easy to do, and, damn it, I came across someone writing total bollocks about the Voynich Manuscript. I will, of course, have to write about it at some length now, because it is such an interesting, inscrutable object and so easy to completely misunderstand. Georgia Tech, my current academic mothership, does not have an extensive humanities collection, so I was off at Emory’s library this morning, where the boughs sag low under the weight of humanities databases. I gathered a couple of articles for review, including some seminal ones from the 1930s. In the stacks, I found a copy of the original academic “translation,” and were it not for a nagging sense of reality I would have brought it home with me to read. (I already have one book about the manuscript here. And, yes, I am reading that one too.) Emory’s catalog claimed to have a copy of a report by NSA cryptographers about the manuscript, but when I went to the government documents section, there was nothing remotely similar to it to be found on the shelves.

It’s probably just as well, what with the two book projects I picked up.

The first will be a chapter-length contribution to a undergraduate-level collection of criticism about technology in literature. That’s due at the end of the semester. The second is more closely related to the stuff I am doing here. I’m not going to announce it here because it is only just past the “good idea” phase (I’ve only had one meeting about it). The other writing project is the article about TruthCon, which I have been working on tonight.

Tomorrow morning, I take my classes to the University Archives. In the evening, at 5:00, I’ll be screening episodes of The Pacific. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get a little work done in the 5 hours between the end of class and the beginning of the movie. (I think I have committee meetings, however….Dang.)

I love my job. It’s a great gig. I just have almost no time! Hopefully tomorrow night I’ll have a new week in conspiracy up for you. There were some real humdingers this week!


The Green Knight Code

February 10, 2011

Well, I finished re-reading The Da Vinci Code. Then I drank some beer in an attempt to kill the brain cells where awareness of it is stored, but that failed. Then I read a well-written mystery novel and had a nap, and now I feel a little better.

From the moment of its publication, people have been writing refutations of the “facts” presented in the book, so, at least for the moment, I will confine my comments to the general category of “random stuff that irritated me.” Today’s topic is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK), an Arthurian romance from the fourteenth century and one of the glories of the so-called Alliterative Revival (I say “so-called” because it was really more of a survival than a revival). Brown mentions SGGK twice. Both mentions are brief, but annoying.

I’ll deal with the second reference first. In the exciting and suspenseful database-search scene (chapter 95), a computer, having been fed the search terms “knight,” “London,” “Pope” and “tomb” within a 100-word proximity of the terms “grail,” “rose,” “sangreal” or “chalice” (p. 381), spits out the title, “Grail Allegory in Medieval Literature: A Treatise on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” As far as the plot is concerned, this result is irrelevant–“Not many mythological green giants buried in London,” as the librarian says (389)–so one has to assume it’s an attempt by the author to tie SGGK to the grail/bloodline of Jesus/sacred feminine fantasy he’s been weaving.

There’s something a bit odd about the title though. Certainly, the poem can be read as an allegory (of the Christian variety),and like many medieval grail stories, it is a quest romance. But it is not a grail romance. There’s no grail: the word isn’t even mentioned. Granted, it is one of the premises of The Da Vinci Code that references to Mary Magdalene and her descendants had to be hidden in allegory (or “symbology”), but it must be hidden very well indeed in SGGK. Not only is there no mention of Mary Magdalene or her bloodline, there is no reference to the grail which symbolizes the bloodline. If the grail exists in the poem at all, it is through allegory. So something (I have no idea what) represents the grail allegorically, and the grail allegorically represents Mary’s womb. The Gawain-poet was one sneaky, clever dude.

In the first reference to SGGK, Brown makes the connection between the poem and Mary Magdalene even more explicit.  Langdon tells Sophie,

“The Grail story is everywhere, but it is hidden. When the Church outlawed speaking of the shunned Mary Magdalene, her story and importance had to be passed on through more discreet channels…channels that supported metaphor and symbolism.” [ellipsis in original]

“Of course. The arts.”

“….Some of today’s most enduring art, literature, and music secretly tell the history of Mary Magdalene and Jesus.”

Langdon quickly told her about works by Da Vinci, Botticelli, Poussin, Bernini, Mozart, and Victor Hugo that all whispered of the quest to restore the banished sacred feminine. Enduring legends like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur, and Sleeping Beauty were Grail allegories….(p. 281)

So SGGK definitely has something to do with the grail, Mary and Jesus and the sacred feminine. It’s hard to see what, though. Let’s take a look at the sacred feminine’s representatives in the poem. There’s Morgan le Fay. In some modern Arthurian tales, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, Morgan is presented in a favorable light. SGGK, however, is not a modern tale. When she first appears, she is described as old and unattractive: her eyes are bleary, her skin wrinkled, her chin black, her body short and thick and her buttocks swollen and broad (ll. 947-969). When her identity is revealed, she is called a “goddess,” (l. 2452), but she seems more like a typical sorceress. She has transformed an ordinary knight into the Green Knight and sent him to Arthur’s court in order to frighten Guinevere, hopefully to death.

The other prominent woman in the poem is the wife of the Green Knight (or Sir Bertilak as he’s known when not enchanted). On her husband’s orders (and according to Morgan’s plans, presumably) she visits Gawain in his room on three successive mornings and attempts to seduce him. When the seduction fails, she tempts him to accept a green girdle which will supposedly protect him from harm. Gawain and Bertilak have agreed to exchange whatever they acquire during Gawain’s stay (Bertilak spends each day out hunting a different animal). Gawain fails to give the girdle to Bertilak. As a punishment for this minor failing, the Green Knight gives Gawain a slight nick with his axe (rather than beheading him or seriously injuring him as he would have done if Gawain had succumbed to the seduction).

It’s not really looking very good for the sacred feminine–one hag and one seductress. Gawain’s speech in which he gives examples of men who have been brought to sorrow through the wiles of women doesn’t help the case much either (he mentions Adam, Solomon, Samson and David). He concludes that men would be better off if they could love women well, but not believe them (ll. 2407-2428).

To be fair though, there is one unambiguously positive female in SGGK. And her name is Mary. And she is associated with the pentagram, which, as all readers of The Da Vinci Code know, represents Venus and the sacred feminine. Gawain bears a pentangle on his shield. He wears the pentangle because, as an endless knot, it represents the perfection he aspires to as a knight. The five points also have symbolic significance. Gawain is said to be faultless in his five senses; he never fails with his five fingers; he puts his trust in the five wounds of Christ; in battle, he receives strength from contemplating the five joys that the Virgin Mary had in her son; he has five virtues (generosity, fellowship, purity, courtesy and pity). He is so devoted to the Virgin Mary that he has her picture painted on the inside of his shield (ll. 619-670).

So, there you go: SGGK does encourage devotion to Mary. Wait, that’s the wrong Mary, isn’t it? As with his references to the Holy Grail and the bloodline of Jesus, the Gawain-poet kept his theological unorthodoxy very well hidden indeed.



Andrew, Malcom and Ronald Waldron, eds. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript. Rev. ed. Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies. Exeter: U of Exeter Press, 1987. My apologies to Ronald Waldron, whose name got cut off the scan above.

Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. New York: Anchor-Random, 2003.

Shakespeare and Skeptoid

February 8, 2011

In a recent episode of Skeptoid, Brian Dunning answered questions from students around the world. One student, Stephen from California, asked Dunning’s opinion about the Shakespeare authorship question. Briefly, Dunning concludes that “all available evidence supports Shakespeare as a real living author, and the only support for the opposing viewpoint is supposition.” He also notes that the authorship question “may be worthy of its own complete Skeptoid episode.”

I agree with Dunning’s conclusions, and think Shakespeare does warrant an episode to himself. If Dunning does choose to devote an episode to the authorship question, however, I hope he does better research and uses better sources than he did in this episode. The two sources he cites in this episode are from those two great literary heavyweights, Scientific American and*. Why must skeptics appeal to science even when discussing the humanities? The Scientific American article was written by Michael Shermer, who has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology/Biology, a Master’s in Experimental Psychology and a Ph.D. in the History of Science. He also seems to want to make history into a science: “But reasonable doubt should not cost an author his claim, at least not if we treat history as a science instead of as a legal debate.” He was responding to former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ use of legalese in making his argument for the Earl of Oxford. But history is neither of these: it is its own field with its own methods and standards for scholarship. It may be messier than science and more open to interpretation, but that is largely unavoidable. It can’t be fixed by trying to make it into a science.

In introducing the article, Dunning says:

Perhaps the most compelling reason to accept Shakespeare as the real author is his unique and recognizable writing style, which does not match that of the authors to which his works have been attributed by doubters. And this is not merely an unreliable, subjective opinion: It’s backed by hard science.

Again there is a suggestion that the humanities are only trustworthy when science is involved. Of course science can be a useful tool in literary studies. In this case, literary scholars used computational stylistics to detect Shakespeare’s hand in various works. That is to say, they used a computer program to compare Shakespeare’s diction, syntax, etc. to other writers from the period. For instance, a scholar would look at a work whose authorship is disputed and use the computer program to compare it to works by many different authors. The frequency with which certain typical features of a certain author appear in the disputed work suggests a likely attribution.

Obviously, a computer can sift through a huge amount of data at great speed. Still, it builds on work done for years by literary scholars who have painstakingly studied the language and usage of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. In addition, it is wildly optimistic to assume that such computer analyses will actually settle many questions. Someone else is bound to say, “Oh yeah, well my computer program said Shakespeare wrote this unattributed play.” Indeed, some of the conclusions drawn by the group headed by Arthur F. Kinney, director of the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies at UMass Amherst, have already been questioned.  Kinney, for example, claims in the article cited by Dunning: “I have now proven that Shakespeare is part-author of Arden of Faversham. They guessed that in the 19th century but no one would believe it in the 20th century. Now we know.” He makes this argument at greater length in Shakespeare, Computers and the Mystery of Authorship. Sir Brian Vickers, however, has argued, based on his own computer analysis of the play, that Thomas Kyd is the sole author.**

Based on the thumbnail descriptions of studies in the article, some of the conclusions just seem…odd. For instance, in regard to the play Sir Thomas More, we learn that

Timothy Watt at last proved that Hand D in the manuscript of a play called The Book of Sir Thomas More is Shakespeare’s own handwriting and so extends examples of his writing past the seven signatures which alone have been attributed to him.

In the first place, there are only six signatures that are more or less universally regarded as genuinely Shakespearean (I assume the seventh refers to a copy of William Lambarde’s Archaionomia. If that signature were considered genuine, it would prove that Shakespeare did indeed own at least one book. Although a number of eminent scholars have accepted the signature as likely genuine, the attribution is still in question). Moreover, how could a computer program that evaluates authors’ styles conclude that the passage was in Shakespeare’s handwriting? It seems, based on the article in Computers, Shakespeare and the Mystery of Authorship, that Watt concluded that Shakespeare was the author of the Hand D passage. At the end of the article, Watt argues that “[s]ince the nature of the manuscript indicates an author at work–correcting and amending along the way–rather than a scribe making a fair copy,” if Shakespeare is the author of the passage, it logically must be in his hand. In other words, the handwriting isn’t being used as evidence of Shakespeare’s authorship; Shakespeare’s authorship is used as evidence of his handwriting. At any rate, the study has not quelled questions about Sir Thomas More.

Another assertion in the article concerns one of Shakespeare’s putative sources:

Kevin Petersen noted that although people think Shakespeare was influenced by Montaigne’s skepticism in his work from Richard II through Hamlet to The Tempest, and was the source of his skepticism in parts of many of his plays, in fact there is no indication of any Montaigne – in French or in the popular English translation.

This article did not make it into the book, so it is hard to judge. It is possible that the brief description misrepresents the argument, but, as stated, it just doesn’t make sense. In the first place, while many of Montaigne’s essays have been suggested as sources for Shakespeare, very few of them are widely accepted. Many of the most compelling arguments for Montaigne’s influence on Shakespeare concern The Tempest. In 1781, Edward Cappel suggested that Gonzalo’s “commonwealth” speech in Act 2, scene 1 of The Tempest very closely resembles a passage in John Florio’s 1603 translation of Montaigne’s “Of the Cannibals:”

I’ th’ commonwealth I would, by contraries,
Execute all things, for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty–
Seb.                                       Yet he would be king on’t.
Ant.  The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.
Gon.  All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of it own kind all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
Seb.  No marrying ‘mong his subjects?
Ant.  None, man, all idle–whores and knaves.
Gon.  I would with such perfection govern, sir,
T’ excel the golden age.  (2.1.145-66)

Here is Montaigne’s description of life among the Brazilian cannibals:

It is a nation…that hath no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate nor of politic superiority, no use of service, of riches or of poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividences, no occupation but idle, no respect of kindred but common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn or metal. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulation, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon were never heard of amongst them. (“Of the Cannibals,” Bk 1, ch. 30 of The Essays by Michel de Montaigne, tr. by John Florio. Included in Orgel’s ed. of The Tempest, pp. 230-31)

No one claims that Shakespeare got his ideas for Gonzalo’s commonwealth from Montaigne–they were not original to Montaigne. It is the way those ideas are expressed: primarily in negatives. Neither Montaigne nor Shakespeare describes his Utopia in terms of what it is or what it has, but rather of what it is not and what it doesn’t have. In addition, many of the details are the same. And you do not need a computer program to point out the verbal parallels. Indeed, if a computer were to tell me that the verbal parallels did not exist, I’m afraid I would have to disbelieve it.

Computational stylistics is a useful tool, but it is naive to think that science can definitively answer questions that literary studies have failed to answer.  It can lend credence to arguments that Shakespeare had a hand in a particular work (or that a collaborator had a hand in a work generally attributed to Shakespeare alone), and it can question other attributions. It is less useful in the argument that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. A particular disputed work, such as Arden of Faversham or Sir Thomas More, can be compared to Shakespeare’s acknowledged works, but when the entire corpus is disputed, to what can we compare it? One of the anti-Shakespeareans’ main arguments is that we have no works that can be definitively attributed to Shakespeare (this is not true, of course, but that’s the argument). Admittedly, we can compare “Shakespeare’s” works to those by Oxford, Bacon and Marlowe, but, with the exception of Marlowe, none of the main candidates wrote in the genres for which Shakespeare is known, which makes comparison more difficult. Not impossible, of course. Many idiosyncrasies are likely to be the same, regardless if the poet is writing drama or lyric poetry, but it’s certainly not going to be good enough to satisfy Oxfordians (not that anything is).


*This article is taken word for word from a press release from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

**I have not yet read this article (I have ordered it from Inter-Library Loan), so I am basing my interpretation of it on second-hand accounts.

Further Reading:

Craig, Hugh and Arthur F. Kinney, eds. Shakespeare, Computers and the Mystery of Authorship. Cambridge UP, 2009.

Hodgen, Margaret. “Montaigne and Shakespeare Again,” Huntington Library Quarterly 16 (1952-53): 23-42.

Montaigne, Michel de. “Of the Cannibals.” The Essays. Tr. John Florio. 1603. Included in Orgel’s ed. of The Tempest, pp. 227-238).

Paster, Gail Kern. “Montaigne, Dido, and The Tempest: ‘How Came that Widow in?’” Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 91-94.

Prosser, Elaine. “Shakespeare, Montaigne, and the Rarer Action,” Shakespeare Studies 1 (1965): 261-64.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Stephen Orgel. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford UP, 1987.

Vickers, Brian. “Thomas Kyd, Secret Sharer.” Times Literary Supplement 18 Apr. 2008: 13-15.

10:23 campaign appears on NPR

February 8, 2011

Glad to see it! Sorry I missed it. But this weekend I came across something that is not even homeopathy. You’ll hear about it.  Teehee.


Favorite souvenir from the TruthCon

February 6, 2011

I can almost guarantee you that none of the other conferences I’ll attend this year will have as nifty a badge!


The Week in Conspiracy (3 Feb 2011)

February 3, 2011

This weekend, I will be attending TruthCon, which brings together all sorts of energy healers and people interested in UFO disclosure and 9/11 conspiracy theorists and…oh, everything. It’s like a paradise for me and will likely be the most interesting conference I attend this year (all love to NeMLA and NECSS, btw!). Regardless, since I am going to be really busy this weekend, I thought I would write up the week that was weak a little early.

Forget two weeks ago. And last week. And three weeks ago. THIS week, without a doubt is the most important week in the history of the human species, if conspiracy theorists are right.

Conspiracy theory of the week:

Honorary conspiracy theory of the week:

Not a real conspiracy theory, but my brother totally got me with a facebook post about the GIGANTIC STORM OF DOOM (which, in the end, never materialized in St. Louis):

“NEWS FLASH!! Area Man Convinced Blizzard The Work Of Muslim Extremists: “I don’t know how exactly, but these fellas have found a way to manipulate our weather patterns. They really will stop at nothing to disrupt our American way of life.”

Well played, sir. Well played.

And that’s it for now, friends. I’m off into the breach!