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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

10 APRIL, 2014

Dare to Disturb the Universe: Madeleine L’Engle on Creativity, Censorship, Writing, and the Duty of Children’s Books


“We find what we are looking for. If we are looking for life and love and openness and growth, we are likely to find them. If we are looking for witchcraft and evil, we’ll likely find them, and we may get taken over by them.”

On November 16, 1983 — just two weeks before her 65th birthday and twenty years after winning the prestigious Newbery Medal — Madeleine L’Engle, author of the timeless classic A Wrinkle in Time, delivered a magnificent lecture at the Library of Congress. To celebrate Children’s Book Week the following year — the year I was born — the Library’s Center for the Book and the Children’s Literature Center published L’Engle’s talk as a slim and, sadly, long out-of-print volume titled Dare to Be Creative! (public library) — a magnificent manifesto of sorts on writing, writers, and children’s books, as well as a bold and beautifully argued case against censorship.

L’Engle begins by making a point about children’s capacity for handling darker emotions that would’ve made Tolkien proud, one that Maurice Sendak has also asserted and Neil Gaiman has recently echoed. L’Engle observes:

The writer whose words are going to be read by children has a heavy responsibility. And yet, despite the undeniable fact that the children’s minds are tender, they are also far more tough than many people realize, and they have an openness and an ability to grapple with difficult concepts which many adults have lost. Writers of children’s literature are set apart by their willingness to confront difficult questions.

For that reason, L’Engle argues, editors and publishers often attempt to remove these difficult questions from the get-go — a form of preventative censorship, the kind the great Ursula Nordstrom meant in her witty and wise lament that children’s book publishing was run largely by “mediocre ladies in influential positions” unwilling to deviate from the safe route. L’Engle recounts her own brave resistance to such pressures, even in the face of repeated rejection:

Many years ago, when A Wrinkle in Time was being rejected by publisher after publisher, I wrote in my journal, “I will rewrite for months or even years for an editor who sees what I am trying to do in this book and wants to make it better and stronger. But I will not, I cannot diminish and mutilate it for an editor who does not understand it and wants to weaken it.”

Now, the editors who did not understand the book and wanted the problem of evil soft peddled had every right to refuse to publish the book, as I had, sadly, the right and obligation to try to be true to it. If they refused it out of honest conviction, that was honorable. If they refused it for fear of trampling on someone else’s toes, that was, alas, the way of the world.

Though she did eventually find a publisher who believed in the book heart and mind, this still left the question of the general public, where ignorant self-appointed censors lurk. Decades before the golden age of mindless online comments and TLDR-mentality, L’Engle recounts a tragicomic incident:

Recently I was lecturing in the Midwest, and the head librarian of a county system came to me in great distress, bearing an epistle composed by one woman, giving her all the reasons she should remove A Wrinkle in Time from the library shelves. This woman, who had obviously read neither Wrinkle nor the Bible carefully, was offended because she mistakenly assumed that Mrs. What, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which were witches practicing black magic. I scrawled in the margin that if she had read the text she might have noted that they were referred to as guardian angels. The woman was also offended because they laughed and had fun. Is there no joy in heaven! The woman belonged to that group of people who believe that any book which mentions witches or ghosts is evil and must be banned. If these people were consistent, they would have to ban the Bible: what about the Witch of End or and Samuel’s ghost?

The woman’s epistle went on to say that Charles Wallace knew things that other people didn’t know. “So did Jesus,” I scrawled in the margin. She was upset, because Calvin sometimes felt compulsions. Don’t we all? This woman obviously felt a compulsion to be a censor. Finally I scrawled at the bottom of the epistle that I truly feared for this woman.

In a sentiment that Milton Glaser would come to echo decades later in his beautiful meditation on the universe, L’Engle drives home the point of this parable:

We find what we are looking for. If we are looking for life and love and openness and growth, we are likely to find them. If we are looking for witchcraft and evil, we’ll likely find them, and we may get taken over by them.

She adds an important disclaimer on the difference between censorship and discernment:

We all practice some form of censorship. I practiced it simply by the books I had in the house when my children were little. If I am given a budget of $500 I will be practicing a form of censorship by the books I choose to buy with that limited amount of money, and the books I choose not to buy. But nobody said we were not allowed to have points of view. The exercise of personal taste is not the same thing as imposing personal opinion.

With a riff on T.S. Eliot’s famous line from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” — “Do I dare disturb the universe?” — L’Engle reflects on the role of reading, and taste in reading, in her own life:

The stories I cared about, the stories I read and reread, were usually stories which dared to disturb the universe, which asked questions rather than gave answers.

I turned to story, then, as now, looking for truth, for it is in story that we find glimpses of meaning, rather than in textbooks. But how apologetic many adults are when they are caught reading a book of fiction! They tend to hide it and tell you about the “How-To” book which is what they are really reading. Fortunately, nobody ever told me that stories were untrue, or should be outgrown, and then as now they nourished me and kept me willing to ask the unanswerable questions.

She offers another autobiographical anecdote that sheds light on how our righteousness works:

One time I was in the kitchen drinking tea with my husband and our young son, and they got into an argument about ice hockey. I do not feel passionate about ice hockey. They do. Finally our son said. “But Daddy, you don’t understand.” And my husband said, reasonably, “It’s not that I don’t understand, Bion. It’s just that I don’t agree with you.”

To which the little boy replied hotly, “If you don’t agree with me, you don’t understand.”

I think we all feel that way, but it takes a child to admit it.

That righteousness — which bears the markings of the fundamentalism Isaac Asimov memorably bemoaned — is what L’Engle believes flattens culture and robs us of its richness:

We need to dare disturb the universe by not being manipulated or frightened by judgmental groups who assume the right to insist that if we do not agree with them, not only do we not understand but we are wrong. How dull the world would be if we all had to feel the same way about everything, if we all had to like the same books, dislike the same books…

Perhaps some of this zeal is caused by fear. But as Bertrand Russell warns, “Zeal is a bad mark for a cause. Nobody had any zeal about arithmetic. It was the anti-vaccinationists, not the vaccinationists, who were zealous.” Yet because those who were not threatened by the idea of vaccination ultimately won out, we have eradicated the horror of smallpox from the planet.

L’Engle examines the heart of zeal, often driven by our failure to grant ourselves the “uncomfortable luxury” of changing our minds. She agrees with Bertrand Russell’s assertion that we are zealous when we aren’t completely certain we are right, in a reflection that brings it all back to children’s books and the art of disturbing the universe:

When I find myself hotly defending something, wherein I am, in fact, zealous, it is time for me to step back and examine whatever it is that has me so hot under the collar. Do I think it’s going to threaten my comfortable rut? Make me change and grow? — and growing always causes growing pains. Am I afraid to ask questions?

Sometimes. But I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children’s books ask questions, and make the reader ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone’s universe.

Like Asimov, who found in science fiction a way to make points he otherwise couldn’t, L’Engle sees in fiction a sandbox, a safe place for asking those uncomfortable questions:

Writing fiction is definitely a universe disturber, and for the writer, first of all. My books push me and prod me and make me ask questions I might otherwise avoid. I start a book, having lived with the characters for several years, during the writing of other books, and I have a pretty good idea of where the story is going and what I hope it’s going to say. And then, once I get deep into the writing, unexpected things begin to happen, things which make me question, and which sometimes really shake my universe.

L’Engle makes a heartening case for the presently accepted idea that what makes science interesting — what makes it meaningful and culturally significant — isn’t its certitude and all-knowingness, but its “thoroughly conscious ignorance,” the very not-knowing that Donald Barthelme memorably argued was also at the heart of writing. L’Engle reflects:

I’m frequently asked about my “great science background,” but I have no science background whatsoever. I majored in English Literature in college. We were required to take two languages and one science or two sciences and one language, so of course I took two languages and psychology. Part of my reluctance about science was that when I was in school, science was proud and arrogant. The scientists let us know that they thought they had everything pretty well figured out, and what they didn’t know about the nature of the universe, they were shortly going to find out. Science could answer all questions.


Many years later, after I was out of school, married and had children, the new sciences absolutely fascinated me. They were completely different from the pre-World War II sciences, which had answers for everything. The new sciences asked questions. There was much that was not explainable. For everything new that science discovered, vast areas of the unknown were opened. Sometimes contemporary physics sounds like something out of a fairy tale: there is a star known as a degenerate white dwarf and another known as a red giant sitting on the horizontal branch. Can’t you imagine the degenerate white dwarf trying to get the red giant of the horizontal branch?

L’Engle ties this not-knowing back to the question of censorship in writing for children:

Perhaps one of the most important jobs of the writer whose books are going to be marketed for children is to dare to disturb the universe by exercising a creative kind of self-censorship. We don’t need to let it all hang out. Sure, kids today know pretty much everything that is to be known about sex, but we owe them art, rather than a clinical textbook. Probably the most potent sex scene I have ever read is in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary where Emma goes to meet her lover, and they get in a carriage and draw the shades, and the carriage rocks like a ship as the horses draw it through the streets. How much more vivid is what the imagination can do with that than the imagination-dulling literal description!

I do not believe that any subject is in itself taboo, it is the way it is treated which makes it either taboo or an offering of art and love.

It is the writer’s duty, L’Engle argues, to continue reclaiming complex ideas from the grip of simplistic taboo:

The first people a dictator puts in jail after a coup are the writers, the teachers, the librarians — because these people are dangerous. They have enough vocabulary to recognize injustice and to speak out loudly about it. Let us have the courage to go on being dangerous people.


So let us look for beauty and grace, for love and friendship, for that which is creative and birth-giving and soul-stretching. Let us dare to laugh at ourselves, healthy, affirmative laughter. Only when we take ourselves lightly can we take ourselves seriously, so that we are given the courage to say, “Yes! I dare disturb the universe.”

The whole of Dare to Be Creative!, should you be so luck to track down a surviving copy, is a masterpiece of thought and spirit more than worth a read. Complement it with famous writers on censorship and Voltaire’s thoughts on the subject.

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10 APRIL, 2014

Mary Oliver on the Mystery of the Human Psyche, the Secret of Great Poetry, and How Rhythm Makes Us Come Alive


“Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter.”

“Poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world,” James Dickey wrote. “The way to develop good taste in literature,” Joseph Brodsky advised, “is to read poetry.” Wordsworth believed the poetic form to be “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge.”“a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity.” But hardly anyone has captured the mesmerism of poetry more perceptively and, well, poetically than the inimitable Mary Oliver — winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, once described by The New York Times as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet,” and nothing less than a secular modern mystic of the written word. In her altogether magnificent 1994 book A Poetry Handbook (public library), Oliver teases apart the mechanisms by which poetry enchants us, exploring the magic of rhythm as not only the fire in the belly of poetry but also a gateway into a profound human longing.

Mary Oliver (b. 1935, right) with her partner of over forty years, photographer Molly Malone Cook (1925–2005) at the couple's home in Provincetown, Massachusetts

Oliver considers the intricate courtship between poetry and the soul:

If Romeo and Juliet had made their appointments to meet, in the moonlight-swept orchard, in all the peril and sweetness of conspiracy, and then more often than not failed to meet — one or the other lagging, or afraid, or busy elsewhere — there would have been no romance, no passion, none of the drama for which we remember and celebrate them. Writing a poem is not so different—it is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind. They make appointments with each other, and keep them, and something begins to happen. Or, they make appointments with each other but are casual and often fail to keep them: count on it, nothing happens.

The part of the psyche that works in concert with consciousness and supplies a necessary part of the poem — the heart of the star as opposed to the shape of a star, let us say — exists in a mysterious, unmapped zone: not unconscious, not subconscious, but cautious. It learns quickly what sort of courtship it is going to be. Say you promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself — soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.

Why should it? It can wait. It can stay silent a lifetime. Who knows anyway what it is, that wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem can live? But we do know this: if it is going to enter into a passionate relationship and speak what is in its own portion of your mind, the other responsible and purposeful part of you had better be a Romeo. It doesn’t matter if risk is somewhere close by — risk is always hovering somewhere. But it won’t involve itself with anything less than a perfect seriousness.

For the would-be writer of poems, this is the first and most essential thing to understand. It comes before everything, even technique.

Mary Oliver in 1964 (photograph by Molly Malone Cook)

She goes on to explore the spellbinding power of rhythm:

The reader, as he or she begins to read, quickly enters the rhythmic pattern of a poem. It takes no more than two or three lines for a rhythm, and a feeling of pleasure in that rhythm, to be transferred from the poem to the reader. Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter. When it becomes reliable, we are in a kind of body-heaven.

And yet, as in life itself, much of the vitality in poetry comes from artfully disrupting the smooth cadence of that steady, predictable rhythm:

Lines of good poetry are apt to be a little irregular. A prevailing sense of rhythm is necessary, but some variation enhances the very strength of the pattern. The singsong poem is a dull poem. Variation wakes us up with its touch of difference, just as a cadence of drums in a marching band keeps two things going at the same time: a strict and regular beat and a few contrapuntal accents, flourishes, and even silences… Within the poem, irregularities may occur for the sake of variation; they may also occur because of stresses required by the words themselves, for accuracy, for emphasis, etc.

Rather than opposing forces that tear asunder the aesthetic experience, Oliver reminds us that these seeming polarities of rhythm and irregularity actually exist in the osmotic synchronicity that lends poetry its power:

The name itself — free verse — implies that this kind of poetry rose out of a desire for release from the restraints of meter, or the measured line, and strict rhythmic patterns… Free verse is not, of course, free. It is free from formal metrical design, but it certainly isn’t free from some kind of design. Is poetry language that is spontaneous, impulsive? Yes, it is. Is it also language that is composed, considered, appropriate, and effective, though you read the poem a hundred times? Yes, it is.

Mary Oliver with one of her beloved dogs (photograph by Rachel Brown)

Above all, however, Oliver advocates for poetry as a sandbox for exercising that elusive yet essential willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery (a subject of which she has written beautifully) and make peace with the ambiguity of the unresolved — a concept John Keats famously termed “negative capability.” Oliver, with a spectacular simile, riffs on Keats:

Poetry cannot happen without it, and no one has talked about it more usefully and marvelously than Keats; his commentary is as up-to-date as a sunrise.

A Poetry Handbook is a fantastic read in its entirety, with ample wisdom not only on poetry itself but on all writing, the essence of which applies to just about every field of creative endeavor. Complement it with Oliver’s soul-stirring Dog Songs, one of 2013′s most wonderful books celebrating animals.

Hand-lettered illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

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07 APRIL, 2014

Isaac Asimov on the Thrill of Lifelong Learning, Science vs. Religion, and the Role of Science Fiction in Advancing Society


“It’s insulting to imply that only a system of rewards and punishments can keep you a decent human being.”

Isaac Asimov was an extraordinary mind and spirit — the author of more than 400 science and science fiction books and a tireless advocate of space exploration, he also took great joy in the humanities (and once annotated Lord Byron’s epic poem “Don Juan”), championed humanism over religion, and celebrated the human spirit itself (he even wrote young Carl Sagan fan mail). Like many of the best science fiction writers, he was as exceptional at predicting the future as he was at illuminating some of the most timeless predicaments of the human condition. In a 1988 interview with Bill Moyers, found in Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas (public library) — the same remarkable tome that gave us philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility — Asimov explores several subjects that still stir enormous cultural concern and friction. With his characteristic eloquence and sensitivity to the various dimensions of these issues, he presages computer-powered lifelong learning and online education decades before it existed, weighs the question of how authors will make a living in a world of free information, bemoans the extant attempts of religious fundamentalism to drown out science and rational thought, and considers the role of science fiction as a beacon of the future.

The conversation begins with a discussion of Asimov’s passionate belief that when given the right tools, we can accomplish far more than what we can with the typical offerings of formal education:

MOYERS: Do you think we can educate ourselves, that any one of us, at any time, can be educated in any subject that strikes our fancy?

ASIMOV: The key words here are “that strikes our fancy.” There are some things that simply don’t strike my fancy, and I doubt that I can force myself to be educated in them. On the other hand, when there’s a subject I’m ferociously interested in, then it is easy for me to learn about it. I take it in gladly and cheerfully…

[What's exciting is] the actual process of broadening yourself, of knowing there’s now a little extra facet of the universe you know about and can think about and can understand. It seems to me that when it’s time to die, there would be a certain pleasure in thinking that you had utilized your life well, learned as much as you could, gathered in as much as possible of the universe, and enjoyed it. There’s only this one universe and only this one lifetime to try to grasp it. And while it is inconceivable that anyone can grasp more than a tiny portion of it, at least you can do that much. What a tragedy just to pass through and get nothing out of it.

MOYERS: When I learn something new — and it happens every day — I feel a little more at home in this universe, a little more comfortable in the nest. I’m afraid that by the time I begin to feel really at home, it’ll all be over.

ASIMOV: I used to worry about that. I said, “I’m gradually managing to cram more and more things into my mind. I’ve got this beautiful mind, and it’s going to die, and it’ll all be gone.” And then I thought, “No, not in my case. Every idea I’ve ever had I’ve written down, and it’s all there on paper. I won’t be gone. It’ll be there.

Page from 'Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life'

Asimov then considers how computers would usher in this profound change in learning and paints the outline of a concept that Clay Shirky would detail and term “cognitive surplus” two decades later:

MOYERS: Is it possible that this passion for learning can be spread to ordinary folks out there? Can we have a revolution in learning?

ASIMOV: Yes, I think not only that we can but that we must. As computers take over more and more of the work that human beings shouldn’t be doing in the first place — because it doesn’t utilize their brains, it stifles and bores them to death — there’s going to be nothing left for human beings to do but the more creative types of endeavor. The only way we can indulge in the more creative types of endeavor is to have brains that aim at that from the start.

You can’t take a human being and put him to work at a job that underuses the brain and keep him working at it for decades and decades, and then say, “Well, that job isn’t there, go do something more creative.” You have beaten the creativity out of him. But if from the start children are educated into appreciating their own creativity, then probably almost all of us can be creative. In the olden days, very few people could read and write. Literacy was a very novel sort of thing, and it was felt that most people just didn’t have it in them. But with mass education, it turned out that most people could be taught to read and write. In the same way, once we have computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries, where you can ask any question and be given answers, you can look up something you’re interested in knowing, however silly it might seem to someone else.

Asimov goes on to point out the flawed industrial model of education — something Sir Ken Robinson would lament articulately two decades later — and tells Moyers:

Today, what people call learning is forced on you. Everyone is forced to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class. But everyone is different. For some, class goes too fast, for some too slow, for some in the wring direction. But give everyone a chance, in addition to school, to follow up their own bent from the start, to find out about whatever they’re interested in by looking it up in their own homes, at their own speed, in their own time, and everyone will enjoy learning.

Later, in agreeing with Moyers that this revolution in learning isn’t merely for the young, Asimov adds:

That’s another trouble with education as we now have it. People think of education as something that they can finish. And what’s more, when they finish, it’s a rite of passage. You’re finished with school. You’re no more a child, and therefore anything that reminds you of school — reading books, having ideas, asking questions — that’s kid’s stuff. Now your’e an adult, you don’t do that sort of thing anymore…

Every kid knows the only reason he’s in school is because he’s a kid and little and weak, and if he manages to get out early, if he drops out, why he’s just a premature man.

Embroidered map of the infant Internet in 1983 by Debbie Millman

Speaking at a time when the Internet as we know it today was still an infant, and two decades before the golden age of online education, Asimov offers a remarkably prescient vision for how computer-powered public access to information would spark the very movement of lifelong learning that we’ve witnessed in the past decade:

You have everybody looking forward to no longer learning, and you make them ashamed afterward of going back to learning. If you have a system of education using computers, then anyone, any age, can learn by himself, can continue to be interested. If you enjoy learning, there’s no reason why you should stop at a given age. People don’t stop things they enjoy doing just because they reach a certain age. They don’t stop playing tennis just because they’ve turned forty. They don’t stop with sex just because they’ve turned forty. They keep it up as long as they can if they enjoy it, and learning will be the same thing. The trouble with learning is that most people don’t enjoy it because of the circumstances. Make it possible for them to enjoy learning, and they’ll keep it up.

When Moyers asks him to describe what such a teaching machine would look like — again, in 1988, when personal computers had only just begun to appear in homes — Asimov envisions a kind of Siri-like artificial intelligence, combined with the functionality of a discovery engine:

I suppose that one essential thing would be a screen on which you could display things… And you’ll have to have a keyboard on which you ask your questions, although ideally I could like to see one that could be activated by voice. You could actually talk to it, and perhaps it could talk to you too, and say, “I have something here that may interest you. Would you like to have me print it out for you?” And you’d say, “Well, what is it exactly?” And it would tell you, and you might say, “Oh all right, I’ll take a look at it.”

But one of his most prescient remarks actually has to do not with the mechanics of freely available information but with the ethics and economics of it. Long before our present conundrum of how to make online publishing both in the public interest and financially sustainable for publishers, Asimov shares with Moyers the all too familiar question he has been asking himself — “How do you arrange to pay the author for the use of the material?” — and addresses it with equal parts realism and idealism:

After all, if a person writes something, and this then becomes available to everybody, you deprive him of the economic reason for writing. A person like myself, if he was assured of a livelihood, might write anyway, just because he enjoyed it, but most people would want to do it in return for something. I imagine how they must have felt when free libraries were first instituted. “What? My book in a free library? Anyone can come in and read it for free?” Then you realize that there are some books that wouldn’t be sold at all if you didn’t have libraries.

(A century earlier, Schopenhauer had issued a much sterner admonition against the cultural malady of writing solely for material rewards.)

Painting of hell by William Blake from John Milton's 'Paradise Lost' (click image for more)

Asimov then moves on to the subject of science vs. religion — something he would come to address with marvelous eloquence in his memoir — and shares his concern about how mysticism and fundamentalism undercut society:

I’d like to think that people who are given a chance to learn facts and broaden their knowledge of the universe wouldn’t seek so avidly after mysticism.


It isn’t right to sell a person phony stock, and take money for it, and this is what mystics are doing. They’re selling people phony knowledge and taking money for it. Even if people feel good about it, I can well imagine that a person who really believes in astrology is going to have a feeling of security because he knows that this is a bad day, so he’ll stay at home, just as a guy who’s got phony stock may look at it and feel rich. But he still has phony stock, and the person who buys mysticism still has phony knowledge.

He offers a counterpoint and considers what real knowledge is, adding to history’s best definitions of science:

Science doesn’t purvey absolute truth. Science is a mechanism, a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature. It’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match. This works not just for the ordinary aspects of science, but for all of life.

Asimov goes on to bemoan the cultural complacency that has led to the decline of science in mainstream culture — a decline we feel even today more sharply than ever when, say, a creationist politician tries to stop a little girl’s campaign for a state fossil because such an effort would “endorse” evolution. Noting that “we are living in a business society” where fewer and fewer students take math and science, Asimov laments how we’ve lost sight of the fact that science is driven by not-knowing rather than certitude:

MOYERS: You wrote a few years ago that the decline in America’s world power is in part brought about by our diminishing status as a world science leader. Why have we neglected science?

ASIMOV: Partly because of success. The most damaging statement that the United States has ever been subjected to is the phrase “Yankee know-how.” You get the feeling somehow that Americans — just by the fact that they’re American — are somehow smarter and more ingenious than other people, which really is not so. Actually, the phrase was first used in connection with the atomic bomb, which was invented and brought to fruition by a bunch of European refugees. That’s “Yankee know-how.”

MOYERS: There’s long been a bias in this country against science. When Benjamin Franklin was experimenting with the lightning rod, a lot of good folk said, “You don’t need a lightning rod. If you want to prevent lightning from striking, you just have to pray about it.”

ASIMOV: The bias against science is part of being a pioneer society. You somehow feel the city life is decadent. American history is full of fables of the noble virtuous farmer and the vicious city slicker. The city slicker is an automatic villain. Unfortunately, such stereotypes can do damage. A noble ignoramus is not necessarily what the country needs.

(What might Asimov, who in 1980 voiced fears that the fundamentalists coming into power with President Reagan would turn the country even more against science by demanding that biblical creationism be given an equal footing with evolution in the classroom, if he knew that a contemporary television station can edit out Neil deGrasse Tyson’s mention of evolution?)

'The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden' by William Blake from John Milton's 'Paradise Lost' (click image for more)

But when Moyers asks the writer whether he considers himself an enemy of religion, Asimov answers in the negative and offers this beautifully thoughtful elaboration on the difference between the blind faith of religion and the critical thinking at the heart of science:

My objection to fundamentalism is not that they are fundamentalists but that essentially they want me to be a fundamentalist, too. Now, they may say that I believe evolution is true and I want everyone to believe that evolution is true. But I don’t want everyone to believe that evolution is true, I want them to study what we say about evolution and to decide for themselves. Fundamentalists say they want to treat creationism on an equal basis. But they can’t. It’s not a science. You can teach creationism in churches and in courses on religion. They would be horrified if I were to suggest that in churches they should teach secular humanism as nan alternate way of looking at the universe or evolution as an alternate way of considering how life may have started. In the church they teach only what they believe, and rightly so, I suppose. But on the other hand, in schools, in science courses, we’ve got to teach what scientists think is the way the universe works.

He extols the “thoroughly conscious ignorance” at the heart of science as a much safer foundation of reality than dogma:

That is really the glory of science — that science is tentative, that it is not certain, that it is subject to change. What is really disgraceful is to have a set of beliefs that you think is absolute and has been so from the start and can’t change, where you simply won’t listen to evidence. You say, “If the evidence agrees with me, it’s not necessary, and if it doesn’t agree with me, it’s false.” This is the legendary remark of Omar when they captured Alexandria and asked him what to do with the library. He said, “If the books agree with the Koran, they are not necessary and may be burned. If they disagree with the Koran, they are pernicious and must be burned.” Well, there are still these Omar-like thinkers who think all of knowledge will fit into one book called the Bible, and who refuse to allow it is possible ever to conceive of an error there. To my way of thinking, that is much more dangerous than a system of knowledge that is tentative and uncertain.

Riffing off the famous and rather ominous Dostoevsky line that “if God is dead, everything is permitted,” Asimov revisits the notion of intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards — similarly to his earlier remark that good writing is motivated by intrinsic motives rather than external incentives, he argues that good-personhood can’t be steered by dogma but by one’s own conscience:

It’s insulting to imply that only a system of rewards and punishments can keep you a decent human being. Isn’t it conceivable a person wants to be a decent human being because that way he feels better?

I don’t believe that I’m ever going to heaven or hell. I think that when I die, there will be nothingness. That’s what I firmly believe. That’s not to mean that I have the impulse to go out and rob and steal and rape and everything else because I don’t fear punishment. For one thing, I fear worldly punishment. And for a second thing, I fear the punishment of my own conscience. I have a conscience. It doesn’t depend on religion. And I think that’s so with other people, too.

'The Rout of the Rebel Angels' by William Blake from John Milton's 'Paradise Lost' (click image for more)

He goes on to extend this conscience-driven behavior to the domain of science, which he argues is strongly motivated by morality and a generosity of spirit uncommon in most other disciplines, where ego consumes goodwill. (Mark Twain memorably argued that no domain was more susceptible to human egotism than religion.) Asimov offers a heartening example:

I think it’s amazing how many saints there have been among scientists. I’ll give you an example. In 1900, De Vries studied mutations. He found a patch of evening primrose of different types, and he studied how they inherited their characteristics. He worked out the laws of genetics. Two other guys worked out the laws of genetics at the same time, a guy called Karl Correns, who was a German, and Erich Tschermak von Seysenegg, who was an Austrian. All three worked out the laws of genetics in 1900, and having done so, all three looked through the literature, just to see what has been done before. All three discovered that in the 1860s Gregor Mendel had worked out the laws of genetics, and people hadn’t paid any attention then. All three reported their findings as confirmation of what Mendel had found. Not one of the three attempted to say that it was original with him. And you know what it meant. It meant that two of them, Correns and Tschermak von Seyenegg, lived in obscurity. De Vries is known only because he was also the first to work out the theory of mutations. But as far as discovering genetics is concerned, Mendel gets all the credit. They knew at the time that this would happen. That’s the sort of thing you just don’t find outside of science.

Moyers, in his typical perceptive fashion, then asks Asimov why, given how much the truth of science excites him, he is best-known for writing science fiction, and Asimov responds with equal insight and outlines the difference, both cultural and creative, between fiction in general and science fiction:

In serious fiction, fiction where the writer feels he’s accomplishing something besides simply amusing people — although there’s nothing wrong with simply amusing people — the writer is holding up a mirror to the human species, making it possible for you to understand people better because you’ve read the novel or story, and maybe making it possible for you to understand yourself better. That’s an important thing.

Now science fiction uses a different method. It works up an artificial society, one which doesn’t exist, or one that may possibly exist in the future, but not necessarily. And it portrays events against the background of this society in the hope that you will be able to see yourself in relation to the present society… That’s why I write science fiction — because it’s a way of writing fiction in a style that enables me to make points I can’t make otherwise.

Painting by Rowena Morrill

But perhaps the greatest benefit of science fiction, Moyers intimates and Asimov agrees, is its capacity to warm people up to changes that are inevitable but that seem inconceivable at the present time — after all, science fiction writers do have a remarkable record of getting the future right. Asimov continues:

Society is always changing, but the rate of change has been accelerating all through history for a variety of reasons. One, the change is cumulative. The very changes you make now make it easier to make further changes. Until the Industrial Revolution came along, people weren’t aware of change or a future. They assumed the future would be exactly like it had always been, just with different people… It was only with the coming of the Industrial Revolution that the rate of change became fast enough to be visible in a single lifetime. People were suddenly aware that not only were things changing, but that they would continue to change after they died. That was when science fiction came into being as opposed to fantasy and adventure tales. Because people knew that they would die before they could see the changes that would happen in the next century, they thought it would be nice to imagine what they might be.

As time goes on and the rate of change still continues to accelerate, it becomes more and more important to adjust what you do today to the fact of change in the future. It’s ridiculous to make your plans now on the assumption that things will continue as they are now. You have to assume that if something you’re doing is going to reach fruition in ten years, that in those ten years changes will take place, and perhaps what you’re doing will have no meaning then… Science fiction is important because it fights the natural notion that there’s something permanent about things the way they are right now.

Painting by William Blake from Dante's 'Divine Comedy' (click image for more)

Given that accepting impermanence doesn’t come easily to us, that stubborn resistance to progress and the inevitability of change is perhaps also what Asimov sees in the religious fundamentalism he condemns — dogma, after all, is based on the premise that truth is absolute and permanent, never mind that the cultural context is always changing. Though he doesn’t draw the link directly, in another part of the interview he revisits the problem with fundamentalism with words that illuminate the stark contrast between the cultural role of religion and that of science fiction:

Fundamentalists take a statement that made sense at the time it was made, and because they refuse to consider that the statement may not be an absolute, eternal truth, they continue following it under conditions where to do so is deadly.

Indeed, Asimov ends the conversation on a related note as he considers what it would take to transcend the intolerance that such fundamentalism breeds:

MOYERS: You’ve lived through much of this century. Have you ever known human beings to think with the perspective you’re calling on them to think with now?

ASIMOV: It’s perhaps not important that every human being think so. But how about the leaders and opinion-makers thinking so? Ordinary people might follow them. It would help if we didn’t have leaders who were thinking in exactly the opposite way, if we didn’t have people who were shouting hatred and suspicion of foreigners, if we didn’t have people who were shouting that it’s more important to be unfriendly than to be friendly, if we didn’t have people shouting that the people inside the country who don’t look exactly the way the rest of us look have something wrong with them. It’s almost not necessary for us to do good; it’s only necessary for us to stop doing evil, for goodness’ sake.

Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas is a remarkable tome in its entirety. Complement this particular sample-taste with Asimov on religion vs. humanism, Buckminster Fuller’s vision for the future of education, and Carl Sagan on science and spirituality.

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