On anachronism in literary analysis


“Austen was a game theorist” reminds me of the James Thurber story where the narrator reinvents Macbeth as a murder mystery for a lady of very particular reading habits.

But sometimes authors can really put things in books without really realizing it. The late, great computer scientist Alan Perlis once said “The best book on programming for the layman is ‘Alice in Wonderland’; but that’s because it’s the best book on anything for the layman.” Similarly, “Winnie the Pooh” has been used to explain everything from Marxism to Taoism.

I will squirrel away this line for future use:

This is a perfectly valid statement, as long as we ignore the accepted meaning of most of the words it contains.

Okay, yes, but all of those things depend upon interpretation, not the taken-at-face-value content. And if you think the difference doesn’t matter, talk to any fiction writer who made up something, only to have some self-important friend or relative decide the story was a veiled attack (even if the story was written before said friend or relative was a friend or relative).

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Stopped reading here:

That’s the latest gambit in the brave new world of “consilience,” the idea that we can overcome the split between “the two cultures” by bringing art and science into conceptual unity—which is to say, by setting humanistic thought upon a scientific foundation.

The author is obviously winding up to hang shit on the very idea, while I find the wisdom of the notion self-evident. Figured the odds of being enlightened were much longer than those of being annoyed.

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