September 3rd, 2010

The Marketplace of Ideas Podcast Interviews Jonathan Gottschall

Here's an interesting interview with Jonathan Gottschall, adjunct assistant professor at Washington and Jefferson College, about his book Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, in which he argues for taking a more scientific approach to literary studies. On the problems with current methodology he says:

The idea you just identified -- that what literary scholars do is go and hunt and peck around through texts for evidence that confirms their idea, no matter how far out their idea is -- is the problem. If you do that, you will find evidence for your idea, no matter how weak your idea is. I say in the book that the problem with literary methodology is it’s never wrong ... no determined literary critic has ever failed to find evidence for his preferred idea, so that’s a huge problem. If nothing can be wrong then nothing can be right.


There’s this crippling reliance on the authority of gurus -- on Freud and Lacan, Derrida, and so on. That is a bit of a scandal. It used to be that I would read papers, when I was in graduate school especially, and the first couple sentences would start with, “Jacques Derrida said, ‘There is nothing outside the text,’” and from that premise the whole argument is based, just upon what this guy said.

As an example of a more evidence-based approach, he cites his chapter The Heroine with a Thousand Faces, about using statistical analysis to evaluate claims about literature:

Feminist fairy tale scholars argue that there’s a lot of emphasis put on women’s beauty in Western fairy tales compared to men’s beauty, and little girls get the message -- and it’s a damaging message -- that in order to be valuable, in order to be the heroine in the story, you have to be beautiful. And they argue that that’s a cultural construct, it’s just made up, there’s no basis in human nature for that, it just comes out of certain historical elements of Western culture. Well, that’s an easy thing to test. What you do is you go and look at references to beauty in other folk and fairy tale traditions, and that’s what we did -- we go all around the world, across centuries, across very, very diverse sorts of cultures ... and you see it’s the same patterns pop up, and if the same patterns of gender and so forth keep popping up around the world, then it seems quite unlikely that all these different societies just happen to be culturally conditioning in the exact same way. If you find regularity across cultures in these variables then probably it has a basis in shared elements of human psychology. So for the beauty question we found that the feminists were right about Western culture -- there are a lot more references to female attractiveness than male attractiveness in Western fairy tale collections, about 6 to 1 ... but then if you look all around the world you find exactly the same pattern ... and we’re able to check in female-edited collections versus male-edited collections and the patterns are still there. This does not seem to be a product of cultural conditioning.

Robert M. Price The Bible Geek Podcast

One of the most fascinating podcasts I've discovered in the last few years is The Bible Geek, hosted by Robert M. Price. Price recently mentioned on his show that his family is in some financial difficulty and could use whatever support listeners can provide, so I figured now was as good a time as any to mention his show:

Robert M. Price The Bible Geek Podcast Logo

One thing that makes this show so fascinating is that I'm never quite sure how much of it -- if any -- to believe, as Price cheerfully admits that his views are well outside the mainstream of Biblical scholarship. He's a really interesting, quirky guy. He was raised as a hardcore fundamentalist and attended seminary, and at some point decided that the Bible was purely a product of human society and became an atheist, but he still goes to church, just because he enjoys it, and still loves talking about the Bible (and his enthusiasm is obvious), and he often puts out hours of show every week. He's also a prominent writer and editor of Lovecraftian fiction and criticism, and has a great love of old grade-B science fiction movies, as evidenced by the titles of some of his books, such as The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man.

Price was a member of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who convened in order to analyze the Gospels and separate the real history from the mythological gloss. (They received an enormous amount of publicity at the time for their method of voting on the veracity of Bible verses using colored beads.) At the outset of the project, Price had assumed, along with the rest, that there was some strata of historical data in the Gospels, and that all one had to do was strip away all the material that had plainly been lifted from earlier stories or had plainly been added in later, and the reliable history would stand revealed. As the project progressed, the group was stunned to discover just how much material could be shown to be non-historical. At this point, as Price tells it, the more conservative participants became uncomfortable with the whole endeavor and shut the project down. Price now believes that essentially nothing about the life of Jesus can be shown to be historically verifiable -- there may have been a historical Jesus, but if so no convincing evidence of this fact remains. This is what has put him on the outs with mainstream scholarship. According to Price, none of the extra-Biblical references to Jesus that have turned up really prove much. Tacitus and Josephus are both writing decades after Jesus would have lived, and Josephus seems to have been tampered with by later authors. (Josephus was a Jew, but the one passage that mentions Jesus -- and which seems to have been randomly inserted into the text -- seems to have been written by a Christian.) And Tacitus is merely reporting on what the Christians of his day believed to be the story of Jesus -- there's no implication that Tacitus is vouching for the accuracy of those beliefs, or that he would have any way of knowing anyway.

Anyway, regardless of whether you think Price is right or wrong, his ideas are weirdly fascinating, particularly for fantasy fans. One idea he's talked about on the show is the Gnostic belief that our world was created by an incompetent godlike being called the Demiurge, and that the reason our world is so messed up is because this being botched the job so badly. On this view, Jesus had come as an emissary of the true creator God, to deliver a message along the lines of, "Management is aware of your concerns and is taking steps to remedy the situation." The Second Coming, in their view, would have been the true creator God coming in to clean up the mess. In the Bible as we know it, Goliath is described as being nine feet tall -- truly a giant. But in an earlier version of the story found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Goliath is described as being merely six feet tall -- still unusually large in the ancient world, but a lot more believable. Clearly, sort of like the time your grandfather caught that fish, the story grew with the telling. When early Christians were spreading their religion, they encountered a lot of pushback from pagans who pointed out that the stories and rituals surrounding Jesus were totally ripped off from long-standing stories and rituals surrounding Osiris, Dionysus, etc. Early church fathers like Justin Martyr had an explanation for this: Satan, knowing that Jesus would come, had pre-emptively founded a whole bunch of fake religions with similar stories and rituals in order to confuse people once the real deal came along. I really can't say what I'm more in awe of there -- the ingenuity or the chutzpah.

The Bible Geek is particularly interesting for writers because you're talking about extremely close readings of stories that have been rewritten and rewritten and rewritten by countless hands over centuries. I don't think I've ever seen such detailed analysis of how and why a story might be edited, and how you can take a close look at a story and make reasonable inferences about what the previous drafts must have looked like, and what got moved where, and what's clearly a piece of an earlier version that just doesn't fit anymore. One thing that happens a lot in the Bible is that communities will get separated and their versions of a particular story will start to diverge, and then when those peoples unite again they feel obligated to maintain both versions as separate events, which is why you'll often see the same basic sequence of events repeating itself. (One example is that there are two slightly different versions of the loaves and the fishes miracle. The second time, the apostles are just as confused and astounded as they were the first time, which doesn't make sense. Obviously it's two different versions of the same story.)