Non-Current Events

Non-Current Events

Something is wrong with my brain, lately; I can't engage with current events. I thought instead I would write about some things I've been reading. First, inspired by the NPH's lovely Christmas gift of five George Eliot novels set to DVD, I began re-reading one of my favorite novels, "Middlemarch." I have a nice copy with one of those ribbons attached to the spine that can be used as a page-marker. What terrific brief portraits Eliot paints of even her secondary characters. This is Mrs. Cadwallader, the rector's wife, expostulating with her amiable but somewhat wiggly landowning neighbor, who was developing a taste for politics in the early 19th century just as Reform was gathering steam:

. . . Such a lady gave a neighbourliness to both rank and religion, and mitigated the bitterness of uncommuted tithe. A much more exemplary character with an infusion of sour dignity would not have furthered their comprehension of the Thirty-nine Articles, and would have been less socially uniting.

Mr Brooke, seeing Mrs Cadwallader's merits from a different point of view, winced a little when her name was announced in the library, where he was sitting alone.

"I see you have had our Lowick Cicero here," she said, seating herself comfortably, throwing back her wraps, and showing a thin but well-built figure. "I suspect you and he are brewing some bad politics, else you would not be seeing so much of the lively man. I shall inform against you: remember you are both suspicious characters since you took Peel's side about the Catholic Bill. I shall tell everybody that you are going to put up for Middlemarch on the Whig side when old Pinkerton resigns, and that Casaubon is going to help you in an underhand manner: going to bribe the voters with pamphlets, and throw open the public-houses to distribute them. Come, confess!"

"Nothing of the sort," said Mr Brooke, smiling and rubbing his eye-glasses, but really blushing a little at the impeachment. "Casaubon and I don't talk politics much. He doesn't care much about the philanthropic side of things; punishments, and that kind of thing. He only cares about Church questions. That is not my line of action, you know."

"Ra-a-ther too much, my friend. I have heard of your doings. Who was it that sold his bit of land to the Papists at Middlemarch? I believe you bought it on purpose. You are a perfect Guy Faux. See if you are not burnt in effigy this 5th of November coming. Humphrey would not come to quarrel with you about it, so I am come."

"Very good. I was prepared to be persecuted for not persecuting -- not persecuting, you know."

"There you go! That is a piece of clap-trap you have got ready for the hustings. Now, do not let them lure you to the hustings, my dear Mr Brooke. A man always makes a fool of himself, speechifying: there's no excuse but being on the right side, so that you can ask a blessing on your humming and hawing. You will lose youself, I forewarn you. You will make a Saturday pie of all parties' opinions, and be pelted by everybody."

"That is what I expect, you know," said Mr Brooke, not wishing to betray how little he enjoyed this prophetic sketch -- "what I expect as an independent man. As to the Whigs, a man who goes with the thinkers is not likely to be hooked on by any party. He may go with them up to a certain point -- up to a certain point, you know. But that is what you ladies never understand."

"Where your certain point is? No. I should like to be told how a man can have any certain point when he belongs to no party -- leading a roving life, and never letting his friends know his address. 'Nobody knows where Brooke will be -- there's no counting on Brooke' -- that is what people say of you, to be quite frank. Now, do turn respectable. How will you like going to Sessions with everybody looking shy on you, and you with a bad conscience and an empty pocket?"

"I don't pretend to argue with a lady on politics," said Mr Brooke, with an air of smiling indifference, but feeling rather unpleasantly conscious that this attack of Mrs Cadwallader's had opened the defensive campaign to which certain rash steps had exposed him. "Your sex are not thinkers, you know -- varium et mutabile semper -- that kind of thing. You don't know Virgil. I knew" -- Mr Brooke reflected in time that he had not had the personal acquaintance of the Augustan poet -- "I was going to say, poor Stoddart, you know. That was what he said. You ladies are always against an independent attitude -- a man's caring for nothing but truth, and that sort of thing. And there is no part of the county where opinion is narrower than it is here -- I don't mean to throw stones, you know, but somebody is wanted to take the independent line; and if I don't take it, who will?"

"Who? Why, any upstart who has got neither blood nor position. People of standing should consume their independent nonsense at home, not hawk it about. And you! who are going to marry your niece, as good as your daughter, to one of our best men. Sir James would be cruelly annoyed: it will be too hard on him if you turn round now and make yourself a Whig signboard."

I usually like to have an upstairs book and a downstairs book. I've just finished a book I've been meaning to read since someone here recommended Matt Ridley, oh, a year or so ago. The recommendation actually was for his newest book, which I haven't read yet, but I picked up two earlier ones first: "Genome," which was quite good, and this one, "The Origins of Virtue." Many books treating human ethics from the perspective of evolutionary biology drive me crazy, but I did enjoy this one. Ridley covers developments in game theory that I know you've all heard about elsewhere, and often here, such as the wrinkles on the Prisoner's Dilemma and modifications such as "tit-for-tat" and "tit-for-tat-with-forgiveness." What he added that I hadn't run into before was attention to game theory experiments in which the players were allowed to play repeatedly and develop reputations, coupled with the freedom to agree or refuse to play with certain players. He ends with a theory of what cooperative characteristics are peculiar to humankind. Not specialization and the division of labor, because insects do that, too. Not the ability to form coalitions and use cooperation as a weapon in social relations, including the defense of territory or assets by a group, because chimpanzees do that. Not even the use of alliances between groups to combat third groups, because bottlenose dolphins do that. What he thinks only humans do is exploit the law of comparative advantage between groups: that is, specialize at the group level, and engage in trade between groups. For him, therefore, the free market is the essence of humanity, which makes him a man after my own heart.

Here's a book I've been slowly reading for a very long time: "Power, Sex, Suicide," by Nick Lane, subtitled "Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life." Power, because mitochondria, which started life as separate bacteria-like organisms that were engulfed and internally "farmed" by other bacteria, are today the powerhouses of our own cells, pumping protons tirelessly across membranes. Sex, because of something that I haven't understood yet about the need to avoid recombination of mitochondrial DNA from our own DNA, which has led to the concentration of mitochondria in the egg and its strict exclusion from the sperm, which is the biological essence of gender distinctions. Suicide, because mitochondria brought with them the mechanism for orderly cell death that is crucial to the welfare of a multicellular organism if each cell is not constantly to attempt a selfish coup d'etat in the form of cancer. You can't go wrong with a popularized science work by Nick Lane. He's a fine writer who knows how to organize his ideas.

But I think I'm going to set all these aside for a while and read a couple of romps that just came in the mail. One is "War in Heaven," by Charles Williams, a Holy-Grail Brit whodunnit from the 1960s that is the anti-Da Vinci Code, and the other is "Night of Thunder," by Steven Hunter, a Nascar-sniper mashup. I recently read about both of these on Lars's excellent site, Brandywine Books.

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