Thursday, July 10, 2003

Everybody seems to have "current reading" lists. My blog is sort of feature-impoverished, in that it has no link list, no vital stats, and no reading list, but nevertheless I do read. I'm currently reading (re-reading) Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. It's interesting this time around, since I have come to a more conscious understanding of the ways in which I process art. One of those ways - in some cases the primary way - is symbolically: the work stands for or evokes something which is only somewhat related to its nominal subject matter. In some cases I think my symbols are fairly universal: the fact that Charlie's Angel's 2 evokes a fantasy world full of life, love, friendship, and beauty is I think fairly obvious to most people who have seen the movie.

In the case of Stranger what attracts me to the book is not so much what it's about (what it's about is heartbreakingly laughable) but the little nuggets of "preach it, brother!" moments that are scattered throughout all of Heinlein's writings. Attend one such:

"Jealousy is a disease, love is a healthy condition. The immature mind often mistakes one for the other, or assumes that the greater the love, the greater the jealousy - in fact, they're almost incompatible; one emotion hardly leaves room for the other."

This is a truth so elementary that I was taught it in religion classes in 6th grade (and if you've seen Chaminade's religion classes, you know that something has to be pretty elementary indeed to get included in one of them). It is nevertheless the sort of thing that I wish were copied down onto large heavy tomes whose sole purpose was to whack every human being on the planet upside the head once daily in the (vain) hope that they would then take notice of it.

Of course in Stranger things tend to go in interesting directions, morally speaking. A few paragraphs later Jubal is still talking:

"If a man swore on his own Bible that he refrained from coveting his neighbor's wife because the code forbade it, I would suspect either self-deception or subnormal sexuality. Any male virile enough to sire a child has coveted many women, whether he acts or not.

"Now comes Mike and says, 'There is no need to covet my wife ...
love her! There's no limit to her love, we have everything to gain - and nothing to lose but fear and guilt and hatred and jealousy.'"

This is a point that I happen to agree with, in a symbolic sort of way. The idea that a human being can only be in a satisfying pair-bonding relationship with one other human being seems rather silly to me. I'm not at all well-read on the relevant anthropology but I strongly suspect that the jealousy which we expect would arise in a group marriage would be a result of either cultural conditioning or (more likely) the fact that most human beings can't choose a really good mate to save their life when they're only trying to pick one. If someone like a Valentine Michael Smith really could get a group of truly mature people of character and re-write their cultural conditioning from the birthroom on up, I'd actually lay pretty good odds that he could get an honestly successful group marriage.

Except for one thing.

That one thing is the definition of a "truly mature person of character." One of the tricks I've learned about reading science fiction is that you should never assume that it takes place in your world. Even if the setting of the story is "present day" you can assume no more than the author's words allow you to infer. In the case of Stranger, even though it takes place in the early 21st century on Earth, you can't assume the existence of God. And that is the one factor that keeps this marvellous book from being a truly excellent book; it is forever a "what-if God didn't exist?" fantasy. Of course the divine is explicitly present - but it is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Peter, and Paul. When you throw that God into the equation the book's moral fantasy falls apart, as can easily be seen by the following:

Axiom: "'Love' is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own." (Jubal Harshaw)

Axiom: God is grieved (== !happy) by group marriage.

Conclusion: He does not truly love who enters into group marriage.

Of course you will notice that the second axiom is up for debate, and I'm not actually positive I believe it myself. Pornography in Stranger makes for a stronger example, but I was going with marriage so I decided not to switch gears. Nevertheless I can appreciate the symbolic essence of Mike's philosophy of sex: that it is fundamentally a goodness and ought to be delighted in, and that much of what we take for granted about the morality of sex is circumstantial at best, blind prejudice at worst. The trick for the real world is figuring the actual God into the evaluations which that basic truth calls for.

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