Sunday, July 28, 2019

Old Books from my Library #7: The Natural History of Nonsense

     Stupidity wasn't born into the world on June 16, 2015, you know, heralded by Donald Trump's descent on that escalator at his garish Fifth Avenue high rise. 
     It has a long, deep, rich history and, as someone who interacts constantly with the often credulous and boggled public, my job has, by necessity, acquainted me thoroughly with the deep roots and widely spreading branches of the Tree of Idiocy. The choice being to continually bemoan the fact or instead study it, appreciate it, almost savor it. I choose the second route.
     About 20 years ago, I wrote a book on the subject, "The Alphabet of Modern Annoyances." Needless to say, I was not the first person to do this, and in conducting my research I assembled a small library of books on human misapprehension of reality.   
     I first thought, for today's final installment on old books, to discuss Paul Tabori's The Natural Science of Stupidity, published in 1959, and The Art of Folly, following in 1961. Tabori was a scholar who spoke several languages, and the books are rich exploration of the idiocies of ages past. It was through The Natural Science of Stupidity's chapter on the law that I discovered one of my favorite books, E.P. Evans' 1906 The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. 
      But something about Tabori, a certain denseness combined with his scholarship, struck me as a wrong note to end this week's series. Then I noticed a book with a lighter touch,  shelved right next to Tabori (I try to shelve my books thematically, to aid in retrieval). That is the last and most recently-published old book I'll address this week, Bergen Evans' 1946 The Natural History of Nonsense.
      Evans, a fellow Ohioan, was no slouch either: he attended Harvard and went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. A professor of English, he explains the origins of the book this way. In 1934, he picked up a hitchhiker. "He was friendly and above all talkative, and I was at first amused then awestruck at the immensity of his ignorance. It was not that he was wrong about so much as that he was so colorfully wrong, so militantly wrong!"
      That rings a bell, huh? Perhaps he had encountered some time traveller from our present era, when aggressive stupidity, united by the internet, has taken on a power and authority of its own and, needless to say, elected our first ignoramus president. 
     Evans is a sharp writer—he taught English at Northwestern for 40 years—and the problem with addressing his book is the temptation to just quote the whole thing. It begins with the good news, acknowledging our culture's slow crawl toward sense:
    Until about a hundred years ago rational men live like spies in an enemy country. They never walked abroad unless disguised in irony or allegory. To have revealed their true selves would have been fatal. Today this status is more that of guerillas. They snipe from cover, ambush stragglers, harass retreating rear guards, cut communications and now and then execute swift forays against detached units of the enemy. But they dare not yet risk an open engagement with the main force; they would be massacred.
     In that sense,  we live in a better time. It is at least a struggle, sometimes an evenly-matched one, the forces of reason and the forces of delusion occasionally meeting on equal ground, Godzilla and Rodan, grappling for control of our culture. 
      For being 73 years old, the book is astoundingly current, particularly when it comes to the resilience of folly.
     "The sudden emergency of presumably extinct ideas reminds us, in a similar manner, how near to darkness we really are," Evans writes.
      Or, to put the above into current vernacular: Look, Nazis are back.
      Evans marches through myths about animals, the tendency to anthropomorphize them and project all sorts of human qualities, like "chivalry," upon them. For instance, the once-popular idea that oysters take cues from a dynamic leader.
     Moving on to human follies, we encounter some current in the immediate post-World War II era, now entirely forgotten: women war workers worrying that welding would make them sterile, or they might become pregnant by handling the material that went into fire extinguishers. Earlier, women were told they could conceive after bathing in a tub that a man had used. We also explore the long history of women claiming to give birth to animals; litters of rabbits, for instance.
     The book builds toward that most pernicious form of ignorance, then and now: bigotry, demolishing untruths about black people (Evans shocked his contemporaries by taking Ralph Bunche to lunch at the Northwestern Club). It makes for squeamish reading, as Evans outlines beliefs so vile we can hardly bear to articulate them nowadays. Then it's on to Jews, and the general tendency to embrace what flatters your biases and reject what doesn't. Turns out this did not begin with Trump either.
     "Many tests have been devised to determine whether race and intelligence can be correlated," Evans writes. "And those who believe that they can and that the  white race is intellectually superior to all other races have seized with triumph upon those results that support heir belief, while rejecting with indignation those that do not." 
     Evans shares a quote from John Stuart Mill the particularly resonates: "Of all the vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences."
     Good thing we've put that nonsense behind us.
     He concludes by pointing out that while a minor error can be amusing, "no error is harmless," particularly when related to groups of people and affairs of state.
     "Obscurantism and tyranny go together as naturally as skepticism and democracy," he writes. "Belief is the antithesis to thinking. A refusal to come to an unjustified conclusion is an element of an honest man's religion."
    Evans died in Highland Park in 1978. You can read his very interesting New York Times obituary here. He was once a presence on television as well.
      Since I began with the opening lines of the book, let me conclude with its final sentiments. There is no need for me to underscore their current aptness. Take the average person:
      In being asked to believe without evidence, he is being asked to abdicate his integrity. Freedom of speech and freedom of action are meaningless without freedom to think. And there is no freedom of thought without doubt. The civilized man has a moral obligation to be skeptical, to demand the credentials of all statements that claim to be facts. An honorable man will not be bullied by a hypothesis. For in the last analysis all tyranny rests on fraud, on getting someone to accept false assumptions, and any man who for one moment abandons or suspends the questioning spirit has for that moment betrayed humanity.
    Sorry, I have to highlight that one line: "All tyranny rests on fraud." Ain't that the truth?


  1. Many prefer certainty to doubt and so they embrace their prejudice as others would principle.

  2. Sounds like a great book. I would just add the minor point that sometimes ignorance comes in the trappings of erudition, using its words, formats and patterns. Example: "The Bell Curve," a pseudo-scholarly treatise on how "the white race is intellectually superior to all other races," or at least the black one.


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