Two science specials dominated my week: the Science Channel's "Brainman," about people with unusual memories, language learning abilities and numbers insight -- and a prime time network special about the flying saucer craze in the 50's. Both had quite a number of low-budget moments. Both had affinities to tabloid journalism. And both were mind-stretching, provocative and important. They made the point that Socrates was also making: lots of us have lots of boring, conventional beliefs in our heads for no good reason at all -- excluding aliens and strange powers and reincarnation and all sorts of stuff. Our reflex is to keep the world tidy. But if we once try out the idea that our minds are bigger than we think they are, that the world is an amphitheatre for bemused aliens, that the old Nazi SS movies are being re-enacted daily in our country by guys with less extreme taste in boots -- we are on the way either to going crazy or to deep intelligence, or perhaps to both, alternating. I think it might be worth the risk.
Watching House, I got to thinking about the charm of these medical shows. They have some fine characters, and an interesting ongoing soap opera line, but the basic stuff of them is: a medical puzzle. In Crossing Jordan, the person's already dead, but the interest is really very much the same as in House: the diagnostic details. This House episode featured a guy whose symptoms were basically in line with lupus. He turned out to have naphtalene poisoning, caused by termites in his walls. An eleventh hour intervention saved him from a needless liver transplant.
What struck me was that logical oddities have the same kind of charm as sexually laden body parts: show people two identical effects from different causes, or the same cause producing different effects, and they'll eat it up. We are programmed to be interested in logic, the way we are programmed to be interested in buttocks. You can show the same view over and over, and it's always a hit. People have noticed this regularity about breasts and buttocks; the pornography industry is built on it. But I think we don't notice the comparable phenomenon: the logical erotic.
I just discovered The Gilmore Girls and House. There's now more good stuff on television than I have time to watch. We need more senseless violence, more reality shows, or I'll never get any work done. It is easy to overlook the cumulative benefit of fairly quiet shows like these (and Friends and and Will and Grace and Northern Exposure and Moonlighting and The Cosby Show) -- their contribution to the love of wit in the world, especially subtle, pervasive, consistent wit -- not zingers, but sustained, benign amusement and the sustained effort to make small things more fun. Wit is the virtue that makes a limited life bearable, the sugar that sweetens one's good deed doing or bad deed avoiding. When one stops having a taste for wit, one has to turn to more intense amusements for stimulation: sex, violence, soap opera drama -- drugs of all sorts.
Hume puts the calm passions at the foundation of morality. To cultivate wit is to cultivate a taste for the calm passions. Watch The Gilmore Girls; you'll see what I mean.
Last night, I attended the Junior Lit Reading of the Perpich Art High School in Golden Valley, Minnesota's one statewide high school program for artistic kids. It was a great reading. The pieces were accessible, often funny, deeply engaging: I felt mostly like, whatever team these kids are on, that's the team I want to be on. I cannot imagine a better way to spend an evening. Part of the charm of it was the thought: these folks are just beginning. This is Dylan's first concert, the first ugly box to emerge from Bill Gates' garage, Rocky's first fight. (I kick myself for not picking up the extra programs.)
Television shows very little literature, and hardly any of the promising beginning level work for any of the arts. But one needs to understand the "promising beginnings" in order to understand mature accomplishments. Also, the beginning stuff has a charm all its own, that gets lost as the excellences of maturity supervene.
This community could support another tier of public television devoted to emerging work in the arts. Such a channel would get watched, and it would vastly multiply the entry points for artists in this community.
In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray, obnoxious weatherman, gets stuck in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on February 2, reliving the day until he gets it right. Getting it right means partly "knowing where he is and who's around him." Partly, he exhausts all his impulses and stupid projects and whims, and finally gets down to business. (My friend's grandmother had on her fridge: "The American people will always do the right thing -- after they have exhausted every other option.")
I like lots of films. Groundhog Day is one of two I want to staple to the back of the New Testament, as book 73. (74 is Life is Beautiful; more later on that.)
Happy Groundhog Day.