Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pride and Prejudice

The little known story of women, especially African American women, who played a key role in the early days of the space program has been rescued from obscurity by Margot Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures.  Thanks to Maria Popova's Brain Pickings newsletter for alerting me to this.

We can now belatedly applaud the work of these women who, like their counterparts at Bletchley Park in England decoding the Nazi Enigma machine, were human computers (before there were such things as computers).

At NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia in the 1940s and 1950s, black female mathematicians and scientists like Katherine Johnson did the hard work of calculating the launch windows of the Apollo space mission.
Who knew?

Well, Margot Shetterly, who grew up near the Center, assumed as a child that, since she knew so many black people working in science and technology, this is what African Americans did.  She did not know then of the stereotype I grew up with: the black as waiter or maid, shoeshine "boy" or train porter. I never encountered educated or professional African Americans; and, sadly, many people today continue to stereotype blacks as poor, likely criminals.

The first five black women came to Langley in 1943 and forty years later, there were more than fifty of them, along with many unheralded white women whose knowledge and skill were essential in the race to  space.  I assume they worked in segregated offices in those pre-civil rights days.

By interesting coincidence, I saw a docudrama last night about Alan Turing, credited belatedly with having developed the idea behind the computer.  "Codebreakers" tells his tragic story, which is better known now than that of the women in Virginia but equally an object of prejudice and hatred instead of the pride he deserved to feel.

Because Turing was honest about being gay at a time when this was strictly illegal in Britain, he was arrested and chemically castrated in a brutal display of state-sponsored homophobia. It was the cold war and homosexuals like Turing were  seen as high security risks.  He committed suicide at age 41 in 1954 after playing a key role at the Bletchley Park codebreaking project and while teaching at a university in Manchester.

His was one of the most brilliant and original minds of the 20th century, and his life was cut short by hatred, his contribution to science until recently forgotten. Like the gifted women at Langley, he should have been honored for his pioneering work as the father of the computer and made proud of his work instead of condemned by fear and hatred.

It seems to me we, as a nation, have made much progress in overcoming official homophobia but less progress in racial understanding--as the current election campaign sadly reminds us.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Understanding your audience

Understanding who makes up your audience is fundamentally important for any writer or speaker. I was reminded of this today in an otherwise boring talk on a topic far from boring (Sherlock Holmes) because the speaker read, verbatim, to an audience of non-experts a lecture designed to be read by scholars. It was written to be published in a journal, not delivered orally.

This practice is all too common at academic conferences. Instead of talking in clear language, scholars generally write a paper that is really an article in disguise, full of long sentences and abstract language ("narrative strategies deeply informed by hermeneutics....") that seems designed to put people to sleep within fifteen minutes.

The speaker's problem today was that he had no idea to whom he was speaking. He wanted to sound impressive, I suppose, and ending up wasting our time, or at least mine.

The lesson is something I always consider in communication. I cannot write without deciding, Who will read this? Where can I send this (for publication)?  If I picture certain readers I know, or imagine someone like myself as the ideal reader, I have an audience, and the communication process works. I have a reason to write.

Without an audience of readers, I am lost as a writer, unable to do anything.

Consider this blog: Who is my audience? I get only hints since so few readers ever leave comments.  The fine people at Goog'e BlogSpot give me a tally by country of those who have clicked onto one of my posts, and I am amazed to find readers in China, Russia, Europe and the U.S. (rarely in Canada or Australia, for unknown reasons). 

Beyond location, I know nothing much about these readers except that certain topics elicit more attention than others. I have to imagine who they are since a writer's audience is always a fiction, as Walter Ong once wrote n a famous article.

Just knowing taht at least one or two people "out there" in cyberspace might read what I write gives me the motivation to communicate. So I remain grateful to Google for this service and to the presence of unseen readers who make possible what I do on Writing in the Spirit.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Loneliness as Poverty

Speaking in 1975 about the many people who are unwanted and forgotten, Mother Teresa, who was made a saint officially today, stated, "Love them. Loneliness is the greatest poverty."  She knew of what she spoke.

News accounts of the darkness she experienced often register surprise, that someone so close to God, so holy, could have been depressed, lonely.  Yet how could she not be?

First, surrounded daily by dire poverty, hunger, neglect, and an uncaring world--and by the duties of running a large community of women. Then the isolation she must have experienced as the mother superior, with no one to confide in, no intimate friendship to relieve the burden of constant work.

Can we love God if we have no human love in our lives? That is a question someone like Mother Teresa must have dealt with.

So naturally, worn out emotionally, she turned in her prayer life and often found, apparently, an emptiness, a dark night of the soul; this, for the great mystics, is often a prelude to light, the negative way leading to the positive way. That is, the sense that God is absent and unknowable and distant is the first step in finding, through contemplation, the opposite: a sense of the presence of a loving God.

This process is found in the late poetry of T. S. Eliot, who was widely read in the mystical tradition of Christianity, and many others, including Thomas Merton, have discussed these states of the soul.

Part of the process surely is emotional, the feeling of being alone and unloved: even though many people admire you and praise you, do they know you?  Do they listen to your innermost self?  St. Teresa of Kolakata, as she now is, had a confessor and used her personal writing to express a poverty greater than material want: the feeling of being unloved.

Surely part of her greatness, as with many other saints, is that she suffered inwardly, feeling, like Jesus on the cross, abandoned by God, and unable to pray, even to believe for a time. Ultimately, it seems in the end to have brought her closer to God.

Knowing about this darkness makes Mother Teresa all the more human.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Trapped by Fear

Fear plays a greater role in our experience than we tend to admit. It is often the unstated motivational force in stories and films, as in life.

In researching the life of T. S. Eliot recently for an upcoming talk, and in reading Philip Roth's 2008 novel, Indignation (made into a recent movie that I've not yet seen), I see the ironic confluence of anxiety, especially the kind passed on from father to son.

First, Eliot: When I taught the major poetry of Eliot at the university, I referred to his life, his troubled marriage in particular, but focused mainly on the ideas, as I tried to help students cope with the challenge of his poems. Now that I have read three important biographical studies of Eliot by Lyndall Gordon, I can see how fear governed his life.

As one of his friends said of him: Tom, like his character J. Alfred Prufrock,  is enveloped in "frozen formality." He was not merely shy and reserved, but fearful of people, of women in particular, of sexuality--this the heritage of his Puritan New England grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, whose influence on the family seems to have been significant.  The poet's father registered a disgust with sexuality. And the upper-class world of Tom's upbringing taught him to be suspicious of outsiders and especially of feelings. So he turned inward, to poetry and philosophy.

We now can see that "The Waste Land" and Eliot's other poems and plays are the direct result of his disastrous first marriage to a hysterical woman, later institutionalized. His true love (Emily Hale) was turned into a muse, as Beatrice was for Dante. Tom ran away from emotional conflicts and found some comfort in his faith as well as in his literary career.

The poet's various torments had much to do with the Eliot family; the same is true of the young protagonist in Roth's novel, the 18-year-old son of a kosher butcher--about as remote from the occasionally anti-Semitic world of Eliot as one could imagine--whose father is so worried about his son's safety that he runs away from his Newark home to an Ohio college, where he is unhappy, tense, restless, and worried much of the time.

The consequences of the father's high anxiety are tragic for the young man, yet the tone of the novel, as in much Jewish American fiction, is comic because the feelings are so extreme.

This masterful short novel by Roth has nothing in common with the work of Eliot except one basic thing: the centrality of fear and how, when passed on from one generation to another, it can ruin one's sense of happiness. But it can also create great literature, which always stems from more than ideas: it comes from the emotional experience of the author, shaped and transformed into art.