Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Book Bits #2: There is No Novelist of History

I think I’ll make this a semi-regular feature! I recently provided a little snippet from a biography of Anne Hutchinson, and here I am again, offering not a full review of a work but just a few thoughts on a single passage within. In this case, I haven’t even read the work in question [!] (though I have read the exchange in question (this has all of the important links) and watched some interviews with the author. There are so many problems with this book in general that I wouldn’t even know where to begin; happily, Coyne and others have risen to the challenge.

I here address only Wright’s contentions regarding irony, which he refers to as “moral irony” but which, mealy mush aside, is more accurately depicted as historical irony. Here’s the quotation Jerry Coyne provides from Wright’s book:

This is the moral irony of the Koran. On the one hand, it is vengeful; people who read it after hearing only whitewashed summaries are often surprised at the recurring air of retribution. Yet most of the retributive passages don’t encourage retribution; almost always, it is God, not any Muslim, who is to punish the infidels. And if we confine ourselves to the Meccan years – most of the Koran –Muslims are encouraged to resist the impulse of vengeance.
Coyne’s response:

Here, as in much of his reply, Wright seems oblivious about the disparity between what scripture actually says, and how it bears on his main thesis. He admits that the Meccan verses are not only written earlier than the Medina ones, but are also superceded by the Medinan verses (in light of this, it’s completely irrelevant which verses make up “most of the Koran”). So what’s the point of emphasizing the sunny verses if they’re rendered obsolete by darker ones? And who cares whether it is God rather than the Muslims who is to punish the infidels? As Wright insists throughout The Evolution of God, it’s how the scripture is interpreted by humans that’s important. If Muslims, in the end, see the Qur’an as mandating vengeance, then Islamic theology has grown less moral.
Whenever I hear “irony” in reference to history, I reach for my…critical faculties. Coyne is completely correct, but I wish to raise a broader question – Is there such a thing as historical (or moral) irony? I’ll go out on a limb and say there isn’t. I think Coyne is right: the key issue is the historical reception of the relevant passages. But another question is – Can this historical reception really be ironic in any meaningful sense? I don’t think so. “[M]ost of the retributive passages don’t encourage retribution…God rather than the Muslims…is to punish infidels” is claptrap, which ignores the ways in which ideas have been interpreted. “Marxist-Leninism merely suggested that the kulaks were doomed by History. It's a historical irony that millions were deliberately killed”; “I merely said that homosexuals were engaging in sinful behavior that is repulsive to the Lord. I never told anyone to go out and beat them up.” The history of people believing themselves agents of the forces of necessarity/teleology is so evident that only the most naïve theorist would ignore it.

And that’s what we have here. Someone so enamored of his thesis that contrary evidence is not recognized as such, but viewed as irony. I’ve long considered it a rule of thumb in writing about events in the past and present that if I find myself resorting to claims of irony I should rethink my thesis. Irony only makes sense as a deviation from a narrative script – a literary device. There are no historical scripts.

I’m happy to hear arguments to the contrary or to discuss concrete examples of what people see as historical irony. I don’t see irony as having any place in the physical/natural/social sciences.

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