Friday, January 23, 2009

Some Kind of Reformation Going On...

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be....

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "In Memoriam"

In addition to a normal historical interest, I have an extra "Lutheran" fascination with the development of Gutenberg's printing press because about sixty years after its invention it was used to publish Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses (and everything else Luther wrote), resulting in Luther's becoming the most famous person in Europe in his own lifetime. (The printing press undoubtedly also played a role in rescuing Luther from the fate of Jan Hus, the Bohemian priest who was burned at the stake for teaching -- one hundred years earlier -- the same things Luther taught.) The history and success of the Protestant Reformation and the book are inextricably entwined. 

I thought of this as I watched founder Jeff Bezos deliver an engaging (to me) introduction of the "Kindle," Amazon's new digital reader, on CSpan. (Here's a YouTube version.) At the conclusion of the piece, I was raving "I want one!" Although I later settled down and had second thoughts (because it is currently limited primarily to best-sellers), Bezos' presentation seemed like a charmingly subversive hint of significant things to come -- like a change of Gutenbergian proportions. 

The Kindle is no Printing Press, but it certainly is one of many technological advances portending the end of the book as the primary medium of information. Yes, of course, I bemoan this. But if I do, I'm contributing to my own grief, for what I really want is the Kindle for convenience and the ability to order any volume I desire in book form. (Will this not become increasingly possible as yet another niche in on-demand on-line marketing? Order up a printed copy of "East of Eden" and have it delivered in three days.) I would never be satisfied with only the digital existence of the poetry of John Donne (for example -- and hundreds of others). I want the Kindle and the classic book-lined room. I want it both ways.

I'm not observant or far-seeing enough to predict what Reformation-like change may parallel this new technology, but some societal event will certainly occur (is occurring) that someone -- writing five hundred years from now -- will claim couldn't have happened without the transition from paper to digital information. 

What was literally unthinkable to me just a few years ago (the end of the era of the book!!??) now seems as though it has always been inevitable -- why should we expect that this "little system," like its predecessors, wouldn't have its day and be succeeded by the next.

What was the change like five hundred years ago? Here's a clever video depicting the introduction of the book to a skeptical medieval scholar.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Swedes Have Nothing on Milton

A glossy magazine-style illustrated Bible from Swedish publisher Dag Soderberg has caused a minor sensation with its sexy, pop-culture color photographs, and the editing-out of some of these photos for a supposedly more sensitive American readership. The appearance of Swedish super-model Victoria Silverstedt (as Eve?) in one of the photos reminds me of the almost sensuous depiction of Satan's first encounter with Eve in Milton's "Paradise Lost:"

   He sought them both, but wished his hap might find
   Eve separate; he wished, but not with hope
   Of what so seldom chanced; when to his wish,
   Beyond his hope, Eve separate he spies,
   Veiled in a cloud of fragrance, where she stood,
   Half spied, so thick the roses blushing round
   About her glowed, oft stooping to support
   Each flower of slender stalk, whose head, though gay
   Carnation, purple, azure, or specked with gold,
   Hung drooping unsustained; them she upstays
   Gently with myrtle band, mindless the while
   Herself, though fairest unsupported flower,
   From her best prop so far, and storm so nigh.
   … and in her look sums all delight:
   Such pleasure took the Serpent to behold
   This flowery plat, the sweet recess of Eve
   Thus early, thus alone: Her heavenly form
   Angelick, but more soft, and feminine,
   Her graceful innocence, her every air
   Of gesture, or least action, overawed
   His malice, and with rapine sweet bereaved
   His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought:
   That space the Evil-one abstracted stood
   From his own evil, and for the time remained
   Stupidly good; of enmity disarmed….

Now there's a picture for an illustrated Bible: Satan, gawking "stupidly" from the bushes at the jaw-dropping beauty of Eve as she stoops to support each tender flower. So beautiful and innocent that he almost -- almost -- repents of what he's about to do. As with David's discovery of Bathsheba (in 2 Samuel 11), it would earn an "R" rating in the movies.

I like to think I'm a sophisticated guy, but I suppose I have enough Lutheran modesty in me to wonder how graphic such illustrations ought to be. I just might have to get a hold of one of those Swedish Bibles to do a little more research....

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Quiet Angst of APOD

For five or six years my home page has been APOD, NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day." Although some of these are images such as unusual shots of the moon as seen from earth or the earth as photographed from inside the bay of the space shuttle, the great majority of them are intensely beautiful photographs of deep space taken by the Hubble Telescope (with a brief explanation by a professional astronomer). The image above is a random example (NGC 1569: Starburst in a Dwarf Irregular Galaxy ).

I am almost always awed beyond my ability to express the awe, and more and more I find that the pictures also produce in me a sense of unfulfilled, sorrowful desire--the knowledge that the place or object photographed actually exists, but I will never get any closer to it than staring into a 13-inch screen on my laptop.

And if I could go? I think I'd feel like the Jodi Foster character in "Contact," who presses her face against the glass as she soars among galaxies, space, and time, and whispers, sobs, "They should have sent a poet..."

Here's a poet (Mary McCaslin):

The astronomer has even gone to bed;
The stars and distances grow dim inside his head.
And, just like me, he doesn't care too much....
He's tired of looking at those stars he cannot touch.

                                                            ~Goodnight Everybody

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Is The Infinite, By Definition, God? gives its interview with biologist Stuart Kauffman the title, "God Enough," meaning -- as Kauffman explains in a very interesting and profound conversation with interviewer Steve Paulson -- that the "ceaseless creativity of nature" fulfills for him the role of what has traditionally been understood as God. Says Kauffman, "One either does or does not take the step of saying God is the creativity of the universe. I do. Or you say there is divinity in the creativity in the universe."

If by "ceaseless" Kauffman means "eternal" or "infinite," then he is taking seriously a kind of elephant-in-the-room topic that I find missing in the arguments of the so-called "new atheists:" Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. These writers (whose rants are, for the most part, against the church rather than the existence of an eternal God), fail to deal with those age-old questions of "what was there before there was something?" and "why is there something and not nothing?"

Dawkins posits (and many others seem to assume) a kind of random eternality (my phrase) out of which the universe springs of its own accord, but this, it seems to me, begs the question. If you are going to bypass the prime mover or "first cause" argument of Aristotle and Aquinas (that which is material and finite must by necessity have been brought into existence by that which is non-material and infinite) and go straight to an eternal material universe, then are you not defining the divine ? That which is infinite, by any name, is God. (And by "God" I mean a creative power without beginning or end -- not necessarily the divinity of Judeo-Christian tradition.) Reader, where is the flaw in this thinking?