The Long View 2005-09-13: The Rapture Today; Modernity and the Arabists; Heinlein Lives

Robert Heinlein, dean of American science fiction

Robert Heinlein, dean of American science fiction

I read a number of Heinlein juveniles at my elementary school library. I think Citizen of the Galaxy was one of them. Now that I'm older, I notice more of Heinlein's weirdness, but as a kid, all that sailed right over my head, and I just enjoyed the stories. Heinlein was a great storyteller, and I'm glad I found him when I did. 


The Rapture Today; Modernity and the Arabists; Heinlein Lives

 

Here's a bit of good sense from the New York Times's Alessandra Stanley, commenting on the spate of new shows on American television with supernatural and paranormal themes:

"Supernatural," on WB, is genuinely scary. But there are half a dozen other new dramas designed to make viewers run from the room screaming, including two about aliens from outer space, and at least one sea monster. There is even a remodeled "Night Stalker."

Could it be a symptom of our times? In an era plagued with man-made perils like global warming and biological terrorism, when even natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina seem compounded by human failings, perhaps we seek the comfort of a higher scapegoat-supernatural forces beyond our control and not our fault.

Nah.

Indeed, to paraphrase Instapundit. I also note that recent untoward events seem to have done little to enhance apocalyptic expectations, so much so that Terry James of Rapture Ready had to offer this defense of the imminence of the Endtime:

Some people write me to argue that the Black Death (1330-40 AD) and the great Galveston hurricane of 1900 invalidated birth pangs. When Jesus mentioned the precursors to His return, He wasn't citing calamities that had never happened before. Disasters like earthquakes, war, floods, and hurricanes have been around since the fall of Adam and Eve.

The birth pangs we should be looking for are normally record-setting events. When you read reports of the most "most deadly tsunami in recorded history" and the "most destructive Atlantic hurricane" you know they're talking about our generation.

Well, maybe, but Rapture Ready's invaluable Rapture Index (produced from a basket of indicators of social distress) now stands at 161. The high for last year was 157. The high for the year before that was 177.

Michael Barkun has theorized about a relationship between disaster and millennial movements, but he says the gap between the former and the latter is half a generation. The idea is that disasters prove the fragility of the ordinary world, thereby making its overthrow more plausible to young adults who had experienced the disaster as children. The model has no obvious current application.

* * *

Speaking of eschatology, my Latin Mass group is organizing a major concert-liturgy for All Saints Day. I was drafted to do a poster. I produced three options: Chant Text, Poltergeist, and Ramp.

Chant Text

Chant Text

Poltergeist

Poltergeist

Ramp

Ramp

Guess which one the choir did not like.

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the War on Terror, I came across a piece by Michael Hirsh from November of last year, Bernard Lewis Revisited. Actually, Lewis is not so much revisited as excoriated, because, we are told, it was his fault that:

The administration's vision of postwar Iraq was also fundamentally Lewisian, which is to say Kemalist.

The better view, Hirsch suggests, is held by a new school of revisionists, who are in wonderful accord with the consensus in the Arabist academy that prevailed before 911:

For centuries, [Richard] Bulliet argues, comparative stability prevailed in the Islamic world not (as Lewis maintains) because of the Ottomans' success, but because Islam was playing its traditional role of constraining tyranny. “The collectivity of religious scholars acted at least theoretically as a countervailing force against tyranny. You had the implicit notion that if Islam is pushed out of the public sphere, tyranny will increase, and if that happens, people will look to Islam to redress the tyranny.” This began to play out during the period that Lewis hails as the modernization era of the 19th century, when Western legal structures and armies were created. “What Lewis never talks about is the concomitant removal of Islam from the center of public life, the devalidation of Islamic education and Islamic law, the marginalization of Islamic scholars,” Bulliet told me. Instead of modernization, what ensued was what Muslim clerics had long feared, tyranny that conforms precisely with some theories of Islamic political development, notes Bulliet.

On the merits of this argument I will not comment here. Rather, look at what happens when I do a bit of mischief with the find-and-replace tool:

For centuries, [Richard] Bulliet argues, comparative stability prevailed in the Catholic world not (as Lewis maintains) because of the French success, but because Catholicism was playing its traditional role of constraining tyranny. “The collectivity of religious scholars acted at least theoretically as a countervailing force against tyranny. You had the implicit notion that if Catholicism is pushed out of the public sphere, tyranny will increase, and if that happens, people will look to Catholicism to redress the tyranny.” This began to play out during the period that Lewis hails as the modernization era of the 19th century, when Western legal structures and armies were created. “What Lewis never talks about is the concomitant removal of Catholicism from the center of public life, the devalidation of Catholic education and Catholic law, the marginalization of Catholic scholars,” Bulliet told me. Instead of modernization, what ensued was what Catholic clerics had long feared, tyranny that conforms precisely with some theories of Catholic political development, notes Bulliet.

I have never met anyone who believes the first version of this paragraph, though I will take it on faith that they exist. I have, however, met a few who believe the second. I thought I would just point out the parallel.

* * *

The disturbing thing about Robert Heinlein is that, though long since dead, he seems still to be publishing books at a respectable rate. In any case, I am still finding books by him that I have not read yet (books in new editions, mind you) that are quite as good as the ones that made him famous. Sometimes these are hitherto unpublished works, but sometimes they are reprints. Among the latter is Citizen of the Galaxy, first published in 1957 but reissued this year. It is reviewed at length here; Amazon link here.

It's set in your average galactic future, about a slave boy who is rescued and turns out to have a remarkable ancestry. As other readers have noticed, you could the story is made up of plug-and-play elements from Heinlein's other stories. There are elements of it that I gag on now, which perhaps I would not have done if I had read the book when I was a member of the juvenile readership for which it was published. Even today, I am willing to suspend disbelief on the matter of spacecraft that travel at superluminal speeds. What I can't get my head around now is the idea that it might be economic to transport vegetables from star system to star system. Surely anyone who could build the transport ship could also build a greenhouse to grow the vegetables?

Still, the book reminded me of why Heinlein still wears well. Anyone can write a story, like this one, that begins in a slave empire, whose capital is well-stocked with whores with hearts of gold, and then moves on to Earth, which seems to be inhabited mostly by stupid rich people. Only Heinlein would close down the action for two pages so that a skipper could discuss with his burser how to characterize the cost of an identity search. The notion of a ruinously expensive search for information has become anachronistic, of course, but even the anachronisms provide food for thought.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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