Book: A canticle for Leibowitz - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: A canticle for Leibowitz
Tuesday, 12 August 2003 at 07:23 pm
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Author: Walter M Miller Jr

Details: (c) 1959 Walter M Miller Jr; Pub Orbit 1997; ISBN 1-85723-014-0

Verdict: A brilliant book, moving, complex and intelligent. Wow.

Reasons for reading it: It's vaguely famous, and M's talking about it jumped up the priority of a vague intention to read it at some point.

How it came into my hands: lethargic_man lent it to me.

A canticle for Leibowitz is one of the most impressive books I've read in ages, certainly since I started this blog. I was gripped from the first page; aCfL does just about everything right: flowing prose, new ideas explored rigorously and interestingly, an exciting story, etc.

Although aCfL is much more a book about ideas and situations than people (it doesn't really have a protagonist, as such), every single minor character is absolutely believable. That alone would generally let me like the book a great deal, but aCfL has many other good features as well. The narrative voice is never intrusive either; there are many possible messages that a reader could take away from reading aCfL.

As a portrayal of the horror of nuclear war, this is absolutely unsurpassed by anything I've read. The book opens several centuries after the end of the devastation that everybody expected at the height of the cold war, and recounts how the remnant of humanity claws its way back to cvilization... and back to nuclear capacity and proliferation. This makes the second nuclear holocaust in the final chapter all the more horrifying, partly because it is the second time round. But there is far more to aCfL than anti-nuclear polemic.

In many ways aCfL is a religious piece; the Catholic church plays more or less the rôle expected for a protagonist. I am of course not qualified to say whether it presents a realistic portrait of (pre-Vatican II) Catholicism, but it most certainly presents a highly plausible potrait of a religion. The Church is portrayed in a very balanced way; there is a very clear sense of both the positive and negative aspects of an entrenched religious institution, as well as the religious impulse in various characters' lives. Religion in aCfL is not reduced to a simplistic message, but is morally complex enough to be sustainable for real people in a morally complex world.

There are all kinds of elements in aCfL, and I got the impression that every little detail was very carefully placed and contributed something symbolically. I'm sure that a more literary sort of person than me would get even more out of it, but it never felt pretentious because it works so well on a simple story level as well. I think a lot of it is elements of Christian mythology reinstated in a new context: the Wandering Jew keeps showing up, and there's a very weird interpretation of the Immaculate Conception.

I loved the glimpses of society and the monastic community within it at different stages, the equivalents of the Dark Ages, the Renaissance and the modern period. Again, everything felt plausible and solid, and not just a vehicle for the story. In a sense it's alternate history, but the repetition is a key element, it's not just an excuse for the alternate-ness.

As well as taking great delight in reading such a well-written piece, I was very moved by aCfL. I really cared about the fate of indivuals and also of humanity as a whole. The book avoids easy emotional tricks, and provides neither a happy-ever-after ending nor total despair.


Moooood: impressedimpressed
Tuuuuune: Renaud: Oscar
Discussion: 21 contributions | Contribute something
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wychwood: default
From:wychwood
Date:August 16th, 2003 02:49 pm (UTC)
20 hours after journal entry
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Oddly enough, I read this a week or so back for the first time, and again, I was blown out of the water by it. I found the very beginning a bit hard going, but overall I loved it. I felt the whole book was very *angry*, in many ways. I could see the author just being so infuriated by the threats of the Cold War that he went off to write this.

I also liked the religion, and the presence of the Jew as well as the Catholics; it was a nice balance in some of the arguments. The Catholicism seemed mostly quite convincing to me, as well, and I liked the idea of the monasteries as the repositories of culture, for once, rather than the Christians as invaders, corrupting and destroying the pre-existing world system, which seems to be the standard sci-fi usage. This was post-Roman Europe rather than the Conquest of the New World, you know?

Finally, I don't know if you've ever watched any Babylon 5, but this book was a strong influence on one episode - 4.22 "Deconstruction of Falling Stars", in case anyone cares. I saw the episode first, and read the book at least in part because I'd heard they were related, and both have some very interesting comments on the issues of historical preservation, the nature of humanity, and possible futures. I'd strongly recommend the episode as a kind of cross-reference, assuming you've seen enough B5 to recognise major characters and events...
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:August 17th, 2003 03:50 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 04:50 pm (livredor's time)

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Oh cool, thanks so much for this thoughtful comment, Wych.

I found the very beginning a bit hard going
I didn't, I got into it almost immediately. But I generally don't have a problem with slow beginnings, to be fair.

but overall I loved it
*bounce* Isn't it just breathtaking?!

I felt the whole book was very *angry*
I think it was quite angry, but it managed to avoid letting the polemic swamp the story. The whole Cold War scenario, feeling that the whole of civilization was liable to be wiped out by politicians who didn't want to lose face, must have been quite angering. But there are far too many books that jump up and down clamouring 'nuclear war is bad', which, however true, doesn't make very interesting reading.

The Catholicism seemed mostly quite convincing to me, as well
And you'd be far more likely to see flaws in that than I would. Cool cool. I agree that Christianity is very often portrayed negatively in SF.

This was post-Roman Europe rather than the Conquest of the New World, you know?
Very acute comment! aCfL is definitely drawing parallels with the historical Dark Ages. But it's also true that Christianty is probably unjustly blamed for a lot of the sins of colonialism. The fact that most of the colonialists were Christian or nominally so I feel is only partly relevant.

I don't know if you've ever watched any Babylon 5
Nope, sadly. I saw a couple of episodes on TV years ago, and never really got into it. I'm very loyal to Star Trek; a lot of other stuff just seems like the same themes rehashed, but without the nostalgia value of crap special effects, meaningless technobabble, predictable plots and 60s sexism.
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wychwood: default
From:wychwood
Date:August 17th, 2003 04:22 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry
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I felt the whole book was very *angry*
I think it was quite angry, but it managed to avoid letting the polemic swamp the story. The whole Cold War scenario, feeling that the whole of civilization was liable to be wiped out by politicians who didn't want to lose face, must have been quite angering. But there are far too many books that jump up and down clamouring 'nuclear war is bad', which, however true, doesn't make very interesting reading.

That's very true. The anger doesn't detract from the story, it's just *there*. Kim Stanley Robinson uses a similar technique; his books tend to involve lots of stuff about sustainable ecologies and environmental damage, in a way which makes you think about the issues without having them shoved down your throat.

This was post-Roman Europe rather than the Conquest of the New World, you know?
Very acute comment! aCfL is definitely drawing parallels with the historical Dark Ages. But it's also true that Christianty is probably unjustly blamed for a lot of the sins of colonialism. The fact that most of the colonialists were Christian or nominally so I feel is only partly relevant.

Yes, that's exactly the sort of thing I was thinking of. I get fed up in sci-fi and also in fantasy of Christianity - and obvious parallels - so often being the "bad guy". Bad things were done, but not everywhere, at all times, by all Christians. This book, The Sparrow (by Mary Doria Russell) and a handful of B5 episodes are the only sci-fi sources I can think of which paint Christianity in anything other than a negative light.

Oh, and I recommend B5. Of course, I'm obsessed with it, but it's really a great show. Not that I don't love Star Trek, but B5 was something really different in TV sci-fi.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:August 19th, 2003 04:09 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 12:09 pm (rysmiel's time)
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I get fed up in sci-fi and also in fantasy of Christianity - and obvious parallels - so often being the "bad guy". Bad things were done, but not everywhere, at all times, by all Christians.

And even if they were, a lot can be forgiven for Bach..

This book, The Sparrow (by Mary Doria Russell) and a handful of B5 episodes are the only sci-fi sources I can think of which paint Christianity in anything other than a negative light.

The Priest's Tale in Hyperion, perhaps ? And much of James Morrow's work handles Christianity in a sympathetic, if not uncritical light. And there's always Blish's A Case of Conscience, which is wonderful. And C.S. Lewis. And Good Omens ? More will probably occur to me when I get home, this is something of an obsession interest of mine.

I thought The Sparrow was utter tripe, myself.

Oh, and I recommend B5. Of course, I'm obsessed with it, but it's really a great show. Not that I don't love Star Trek, but B5 was something really different in TV sci-fi.

I was very fond of it at the time, not near so much now; it had a lot of promise, but the demands of the structure did weird things to it.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:August 20th, 2003 04:58 pm (UTC)
4 days after journal entry, 12:58 pm (rysmiel's time)
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More will probably occur to me when I get home, this is something of an obsession interest of mine.

And lo, I forgot The Book of the New Sun.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:August 21st, 2003 12:05 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 01:05 pm (livredor's time)
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I get fed up in sci-fi and also in fantasy of Christianity - and obvious parallels - so often being the "bad guy".

I rather agree here, though I probably don't take it quite so personally as you do. Actually I think I wouldn't mind a negative portrayal if the alternative presented were halfway plausible. The sort of 'Christianity bad, fluffy harm none neo-pagan waffle good' paradigm irritates me. As does the assumption that all Christians are hypocrites and follow their religion out of routine, while all fluffy new-agers are completely sincere and perfect exemplars of the ideals of their faith. Yes, your made up religion looks lovely, but that's because you've never thought through how it would mesh with the real world and real people.

and I recommend B5
Well, I'm more interested to get into that than bloody Buffy. If I ever do get round to getting a TV or DVD player that will certainly be on the list.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:August 19th, 2003 04:02 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 12:02 pm (rysmiel's time)
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I also liked the religion, and the presence of the Jew as well as the Catholics; it was a nice balance in some of the arguments.

Oh yes, very lovely to have him there, and the degree to which he's not explained is just right.

I liked the idea of the monasteries as the repositories of culture, for once,

I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the association of that with mainstream Catholicism, though, when the historical parallel is not only well pre-Reformation, but most strongly associated with a strand of Celtic Christianity that had an indetity of its own which Rome did not take kindly to and eventually more or less wiped out, to simplify the situation somewhat.

This was post-Roman Europe rather than the Conquest of the New World, you know?

Well, both of those occurred under the auspices of people who thought of themselves as Christians; I'm more inclined to think of this value of survival of civilisation as under the auspices of Pallas Athena myself, the Christian message has a lot of positive things in it but respect for history and civilisation have never struck me as being explicitly among them.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:August 21st, 2003 12:20 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 01:20 pm (livredor's time)
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I know very little about Celtic Christianity, I freely admit.

Sombody kept literacy going in Europe through the Dark Ages, though, and that's usually presented as being mainstream Catholic monastic orders (not dissimilar to the situation portrayed in aCfL, I think). Maybe you'll tell us that that was really Celtic Christians and Rome just took the credit after they'd eliminated anyone whose version might have disagreed?

I'm more inclined to think of this value of survival of civilisation as under the auspices of Pallas Athena myself
*blinks* It would never even occur to me to take Pallas Athena seriously as a shaper of history. Which just shows that I have deeply ingrained monotheist reflexes, not something that is terribly surprising, really.

I would argue that Classical culture (including the respect for learning that was so integral to it) has largely been transmitted to us through the filter of Islam and Christianity, though. The fact that the Greeks valued literacy and tried to preserve texts would hardly have been relevant in post-Roman Europe had not contemporary Christian culture taken up those values, you know?

the Christian message has a lot of positive things in it but respect for history and civilisation have never struck me as being explicitly among them
Hm. But the Vatican (as opposed to Christianity generally, which as you point out might be some other, non-Roman branch) has managed to amass a vastly important collection of art treasures and manuscripts and so on. In this sense I think we do owe something directly to the Catholic church for the richness of our present connection with historical culture. Not because no other institution or individual tried, but because only the church was secure enough for long enough to actually succeed in acting as an effective repository.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:August 21st, 2003 02:33 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 10:33 am (rysmiel's time)
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I know very little about Celtic Christianity, I freely admit.

I haven't got enough close to the top of my head to give a really detailed portrayal; would recommend Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilisation as a summary for the interested non-specialist, modulo Cahill's somewhat odd worldview. Most significant difference IMO is how it absorbed elements of the Brehon Laws and so was a sight more progressive than Rome on such issues as women's rights.

Maybe you'll tell us that that was really Celtic Christians and Rome just took the credit after they'd eliminated anyone whose version might have disagreed?

That would be a serious simplification but not a grossly inaccurate one.

I'm more inclined to think of this value of survival of civilisation as under the auspices of Pallas Athena myself.
*blinks* It would never even occur to me to take Pallas Athena seriously as a shaper of history. Which just shows that I have deeply ingrained monotheist reflexes, not something that is terribly surprising, really.


I can see that. I'm finding myself in recent years far more comfortable with non-monotheistic values of deity than monotheistic ones, at least for pantheons with which I am familiar.

I would argue that Classical culture (including the respect for learning that was so integral to it) has largely been transmitted to us through the filter of Islam and Christianity, though. The fact that the Greeks valued literacy and tried to preserve texts would hardly have been relevant in post-Roman Europe had not contemporary Christian culture taken up those values, you know?

Agreed entirely.

But the Vatican (as opposed to Christianity generally, which as you point out might be some other, non-Roman branch) has managed to amass a vastly important collection of art treasures and manuscripts and so on. In this sense I think we do owe something directly to the Catholic church for the richness of our present connection with historical culture. Not because no other institution or individual tried, but because only the church was secure enough for long enough to actually succeed in acting as an effective repository.

Agreed that it has practically done so, but not that this was a necessary outcome of the Christian belief system; it only takes contemplating the Library of Alexandria or viewing the damage done the Elgin Marbles to suggest that the balance between destruction and preservation could have been better than it has turned out to be.

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livredor: mask
From:livredor
Date:August 22nd, 2003 11:55 am (UTC)
6 days after journal entry, 12:55 pm (livredor's time)
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would recommend Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilisation
Interesting, you're the second person in a relatively short period to reccommend Cahill. But the other person was a total random the repetition is considerably more convincing.

I'm finding myself in recent years far more comfortable with non-monotheistic values of deity
See, I can't do non-monotheistic deity very well. To me the idea of a deity that is not one is like the idea of a square circle, I just can't conceptualize it. I was trying to explain this to a Christian friend at some point and he interpreted it as meaning that I have an absolutely rock-solid faith. Which isn't the point at all; I can perfectly well imagine that God doesn't in fact exist, but I can't, on a purely language level, really deal with an idea of several entities all being God.

The conditioning that has lead me to this position is really perfectly explicit, but I'm not sufficiently convinced of the desirability of breaking such conditioning to be able to go through the psychological process to do so.

contemplating the Library of Alexandria
I regard that destruction with the sort of utter grief and anger which really ought to be reserved for violence against human beings. And yes, that must weigh very heavily on the negative side if we are considering the role of the church in history. (Admittedly there are also examples of Classical, both Greek and Roman, civilizations deliberately expurgating traces of pre-classical cultures, but that really doesn't excuse anybody.)
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:August 22nd, 2003 04:16 pm (UTC)
6 days after journal entry, 12:16 pm (rysmiel's time)
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contemplating the Library of Alexandria
I regard that destruction with the sort of utter grief and anger which really ought to be reserved for violence against human beings.


There's a small cold voice in the back of my head that says "Humans are a renewable resource." I don't let it out much, because it is prone to the sort of rants that can lose me friends.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:August 27th, 2003 04:57 pm (UTC)
11 days after journal entry, 05:57 pm (livredor's time)
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I think there's not much merit in my trying to argue this one. It's very likely that my view that individual people matter more than anything else is either purely a moral axiom, or predicated on a particular theist and theocentric worldview. It's good for me to be reminded occasionally that my axioms are just that, and that not everybody has to start with the same assumptions, though.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:September 14th, 2003 04:56 pm (UTC)
29 days after journal entry, 05:56 pm (livredor's time)

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would recommend Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilisation as a summary
Yay, thanks for that. I found it in a very exciting bookshop in NY and read it on the plane home, much fun. New A has it just now, as I was excited about it and lent it to the first likely person to cross my path. But when I get it back (and when I've caught up on everything else I mean to post) I will post some reactions to it.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:August 21st, 2003 12:24 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 01:24 pm (livredor's time)

the random Jew

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very lovely to have him there, and the degree to which he's not explained is just right
I'm not so keen on stuff not being explained, really. I felt a bit, hm, what on earth is this guy doing in the story, and concluded that his relevance was largely symbolic rather than plotwise, which annoys me slightly. Especially as most of the rest of the book works as a story as well as symoblically.

Plus it's really, really hard to resist proofreading the bits of Hebrew...
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:August 19th, 2003 03:54 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 11:54 am (rysmiel's time)
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The Catholicism portrayed in A Canticle for Leibowitz is very pre-Vatican II. I think it's a really impressive portrayal, but in strongly and accurately portraying the Catholic Church it is also driving home some of the things I very much don't like about it, particularly the emphasis on humankind's fallen nature and the triage scene near the end. I've always found the first novella a lot stronger than the last two, but that may just be me.

Oh, and I strongly advise against reading St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, which is a novel Terry Bisson assembled from fragments Miller had been wrestling with for years after Miller died, set roughly contemporary with the second novella; it is neither necessary nor good.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:August 21st, 2003 12:47 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 01:47 pm (livredor's time)
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in strongly and accurately portraying the Catholic Church it is also driving home some of the things I very much don't like about it
Yes. Part of the reason that I found the religion in aCfL plausible is that it evoked a very similar revulsion to the one I have to certain aspects of real Christianity. But I really liked the way that it presents sympathetic and sincere characters as accepting such principles and trying to live by them.

the emphasis on humankind's fallen nature
That's definitely one of the things that bothers me about both real and fictional Christianity. You possibly have more right to take issue with that attitude than I have, but anyway.

the triage scene near the end
To me that was a really amazing piece of writing. I really liked the way that the story got right inside the heads of both the priest and the doctor. It's not obvious that euthanasia is wrong, but nor is it obvious that euthanasia is right. I loved the way that Miller presents two honest, decent people coming from different perspectives to a morally impossible situation; I wasn't ready to condemn either stance.

I've always found the first novella a lot stronger than the last two
I liked the first a lot, thought the middle one was kind of ok but not really special, and the third was absolutely amazing. The first novella simply wouldn't stand alone. And it's the final few chapters IMO that make aCfL an outstanding rather than just a decent book.

I strongly advise against reading St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman
Thanks for that tip. I wasn't particularly planning to, since I really don't feel that aCfL is begging a sequel. But if it's set in the middle rather than after the end then I'm even less interested to read it, I think.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:August 21st, 2003 02:39 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 10:39 am (rysmiel's time)
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Part of the reason that I found the religion in aCfL plausible is that it evoked a very similar revulsion to the one I have to certain aspects of real Christianity.

Would you be willing to expand on this ?

But I really liked the way that it presents sympathetic and sincere characters as accepting such principles and trying to live by them.

Agreed, very much so.

the emphasis on humankind's fallen nature
That's definitely one of the things that bothers me about both real and fictional Christianity. You possibly have more right to take issue with that attitude than I have, but anyway.


There's something horribly presumptuous to my mind in declaring humanity a priori fallen and then having the gall to redeem us without consent. Which I shall not rant about here, because I have a novel sitting witing for me to get back to doing that in.

the triage scene near the end
To me that was a really amazing piece of writing. I really liked the way that the story got right inside the heads of both the priest and the doctor. It's not obvious that euthanasia is wrong, but nor is it obvious that euthanasia is right. I loved the way that Miller presents two honest, decent people coming from different perspectives to a morally impossible situation; I wasn't ready to condemn either stance.


I've never been able to read that and feel that there was any real narrative objectivity to it, though, it has always given me the feeling that Miller's sympathies are very much with the priest, and mine are with the doctor.

I've always found the first novella a lot stronger than the last two
I liked the first a lot, thought the middle one was kind of ok but not really special, and the third was absolutely amazing. The first novella simply wouldn't stand alone. And it's the final few chapters IMO that make aCfL an outstanding rather than just a decent book.


It does come together astoundingly well at the end, yes.
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livredor: mask
From:livredor
Date:August 22nd, 2003 12:00 pm (UTC)
6 days after journal entry, 01:00 pm (livredor's time)
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a very similar revulsion to the one I have to certain aspects of real Christianity.

Would you be willing to expand on this ?
Ye-es, possibly. But I'd have to think it through first. I don't really want to go bitching about elements of the way I perceive Christianity that I can't get my head round. At least not without sorting which are things I really have a problem with and which are just things I've been conditioned against. Some of what bothers me is in much the same category as incest; they are taboo, in the most literal sense.

I'll get back to you on this one.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:August 22nd, 2003 03:55 pm (UTC)
6 days after journal entry, 11:55 am (rysmiel's time)
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Some of what bothers me is in much the same category as incest; they are taboo, in the most literal sense.

Actaully, I have a bit of a rant about the way the human brain recognises which partners are taboo in that sense - which I'm fairly sure is a word/rule mechanism, similar to that which Steven Pinker proposes for verb evolution - and where that breaks down, in that there is a mechanism there which to my mind would be worth understanding, which nobody seems to have done any professional work on, and which is damn near impossible to talk about without the preconceptions of the language forcing it in the direction of being about abusive relationships.

At some point, hopefully, I will be able to overcome the degree to which the subject is taboo and resistant to thinking about enough to do something with this in fiction.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:August 27th, 2003 05:04 pm (UTC)
11 days after journal entry, 06:04 pm (livredor's time)

incest taboos

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Actaully, I have a bit of a rant about the way the human brain recognises which partners are taboo in that sense
There's me picking my analogies with care. Though I'm not sure anyone else but rysmiel is reading this by now, so I'm probably not going to collect reactions as I'd hoped.

a word/rule mechanism, similar to that which Steven Pinker proposes for verb evolution
I really need to read Pinker, I've heard his arguments summarized by so many more or less reliable sources that it's getting ridiculous!

there is a mechanism there which to my mind would be worth understanding, which nobody seems to have done any professional work on, and which is damn near impossible to talk about
Ugh. Yes, I can quite see that. It's a sort of subset of the 'brain thinking about itself' problem, but a particularly intractable subset.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:September 2nd, 2003 05:01 pm (UTC)
17 days after journal entry, 01:01 pm (rysmiel's time)

Re: incest taboos

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there is a mechanism there which to my mind would be worth understanding, which nobody seems to have done any professional work on, and which is damn near impossible to talk about
Ugh. Yes, I can quite see that. It's a sort of subset of the 'brain thinking about itself' problem, but a particularly intractable subset.


It is damn near impossible to talk about this particular subject without the language wanting to force it into the shape of being about abusers and victims; and, while not in the slightest wanting to deny or trivialise the suffering of people in abusive situations, I do feel that such sweeping assumed definitions are actively harmful to people in stuations which do not fit that model.
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