Smile Politely

Mean time

Around 4 a.m. the other day, three cub coyotes, testing their adolescent oats in the middle of County Road 500N, stared into my approaching headlights. At the last minute, when it was clear that this big thing coming at them wasn’t a burning bush or a wayward tree, they ran off together into the cornfield.

It is my impression that coyotes abandon their companions, their siblings, after a while. Deer, on the other hand, may continue to associate much longer. Even young antlered stags sometimes can be seen leaping together in pairs over fences early in the morning.

I see a lot of weird animal behaviors.  Whatever god or evolutionary force designed the waddle of the skunk had a perverse sense of humor. Rabbits zig-zag as though they were daring you to hit them, but that may be an innate protection against hawks.

What does it all mean?

I was listening to a history of globalization this morning. The author pointed out that American colonial slaves were genetically superior to their white masters. The whites died in massive numbers from the malaria strain blacks had been immunized against in their African homeland.

All kinds of things bounce around the brain at 4:00 a.m. in the countryside. One theory I have is that most of the world’s philosophy — particularly that of the last 100 years, and most particularly that of the French —  was written for entertainment rather than enlightenment.  

Probably about a century ago, about the time Wittgenstein said “that of which we cannot know, we must not speak,” the French philosophers thought, what the heck anyway.  Let’s just make complicated stuff up.  It’s all just language.  

Jeffrey  Eugenides’ new novel, The Marriage Plot, focuses on semiotics students in the 1980s.  Eugenides said in an interview that semiotics empties the text of meaning and deconstruction renders the text meaningless. And that’s a good thing.

Isn’t that another way of saying that meaning itself is mere entertainment?

Jacques Derrida is the godfather of deconstruction. Here’s my stab at summarizing Derrida:

First, there is no “outside the text.” It’s all text. Every book. Every movie. Every Occupy Wall Street. Every flinty-eyed squint. Every coyote running across the road.

Next, all these forms of language are ambiguous. There may be a central meaning and a marginalized meaning, but meanings have validity.

Then, if you take a marginalized meaning and make it the central meaning, you throw everything out of whack. That’s called deconstruction.

Deconstruction isn’t something you do to a text; it exists in the text to begin with.

Finally, if you’re a smartass, you’ll make up a pun in French. See below.

I got into a rather heated argument once with someone who assumed the title of the Susan Sontag essay, “Regarding the Pain of Others,” meant “let us consider the pain of others.” Given that the book deals with violent imagery and photography, I insisted that the essay’s title meant  “how we LOOK at the pain of others,” since “regard” (in English and especially in French) also means “to look at”. Sontag was, of course, playing on the multiple meanings of the word “regard.” The “correct” interpretation is that the meaning of the title is undecidable.  And undecidability is the final answer in the game of deconstruction.

I had spent a lot of time this summer arguing with family members about language and God.  Given the candidates faking presidential campaigns for profit and speaking about God in the process, it was necessarily a political argument as well.

I’d like to point out that the word “family” is ambiguous. I have chosen the words “kin” and “brood” to replace family here. “Kin” will refer to parents, siblings, and all the other relatives that at my age are largely relegated to greeting cards and holiday status. “Brood” isn’t the best term to use for referring to the mate and the children and any subsequent additions that may be coming down the line (not yet, please), so I’m still working on a better term for that crowd.

The kin are the ones I’ve been having the argument with, mostly about Biblical literalism. Every single last one of them, bless them, seems to believe that every word in the Bible is not only true, but that they themselves are capable of explaining what every single word in the Bible means. Or else.

Despite all the translations, multiple transcriptions, old illiterate monks with bad eyesight, centuries of corruption and changes, misprints, typos, international languages in differing alphabets, and bugs squashed against the scrolls mistaken for commandments, they still think it is all literally true, right down to the talking snake. Nothing deters them.

My most vigorous opponent in argument has been Warren, the father-in-law of my nephew, a relation for which there is no known English word. Warren is a true believer, educated and articulate. Among the things he insists are true are that Jesus will ride down to earth on a white horse, that Noah was born with white hair and red skin, that the earth is 7,000 years old at most, that the human lifespan before the Great Flood could approach 1,000 years, and that if evolution were true we shouldn’t be able to suntan.  He says he reads the Bible “the way it says it.”

If his views were in any way devastated by the recent story about the Bible Project, wherein Jewish scholars have been working for 53 years and counting to trace the evolution of the Bible, he doesn’t let on. That project has shown the many changes and mistakes in our current books of the Bible, including the “prophecies” that had been added into the texts after the events already had taken place.

Warren is a Republican, a fan of the Tea Party, and a supporter of Godfather Pizza for President.

Come to think of it, the Tea Party’s use of language actually resembles the arguments of modern French philosophers, finding new meanings for words and tap-dancing around reason.

Sarah Palin’s explanation of Paul Revere’s ride — it was a noisy warning to the British that he wasn’t going to give up his guns — might be related to Derrida’s concept of “differance,” seeing stories in a new way and reducing history to non-existence.

Senator Jon Kyle stated that “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does”  is abortion, before retracting it with the claim it was “not intended to be a factual statement.”  I actually think some people understand this explanation. They realize language is manipulable and the literal is impossible, just as the French have been saying all along.

The queen of French linguistic philosophy, Michele Bachmann, has insisted that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly” to end slavery. On the other hand, she recommends books that claim Southern slavery was a benevolent time and a good system for establishing stable Christian families.

Bachmann claims her husband Marcus pushed her into politics because she believed the Bible verse, “Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands,” explaining that the real meaning of the word “submissive” is “respectful.”

That is deconstruction par excellence.

May we accept that so-called literalism is impossible at this point?  Mais oui.

That was the French pun I warned you about.

The problem is that human animal behavior often reveals people herding together in tribal and warring packs, following like sheep the so-called authorities who play on their fears or say the things they want to hear.

Better still, they behave like frightened rabbits trapped in a pen, another word for which is a warren.

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