Friday, July 02, 2004

Time for a Title Change? James Wood, Orwell, Rushdie... and Disco

It might seem odd to think about changing my title at a time when this blog is becoming a little more widely known, but that's just what I'm thinking of doing.

I originally got "No False Medicine" from an essay on Matthew Arnold in James Wood's book The Broken Estate. He used it to describe Christianity in Europe in the 19th century: "Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold are the chief nurses of the sleep of nineteenth-century Christianity, and in their work one finds much false medicine."

But even in choosing such a combative title, I was trying to be subtle. After all, the above sentence follows a paragraph where Wood reads the secularization of western European culture in the 19th century as a bit of a tragedy:

But the moment at which Jesus became the hero of a novel, of a 'prose-poem,' he also became fictional. The old estate broke. Jesus lost his divinity, became only an inspiring fantasist. We may wonder what use Jesus is if he is a figure no different from Socrates on the one hand and Daniel Deronda on the other. Why should we heed his difficult words, what is the flavor of his command once the taste for his authority has evaporated? Secularists perhaps relish that point in intellectual history at which Christianity loses its theological prestige and begins to fall into the secular ranks. Yet, intellectually, a new pettiness was the first replacement of the old, divine Jesus, and it is hard not to lament the passing of actual belief when it is replaced with only a futile poetry. Christianity was not, of course, shoveled away, it was coaxed into sleep by nurses who mistakenly thought that they were healing it.

For Wood, people like Matthew Arnold were effectively non-believers. They wrote a species of theology (for instance, in the advocacy of maintaining the Anglican Establishment), but it did more harm than good to sincere Christian thought.

Wood is not against secularization per se, though it seems to me he would rather have what he might call real medicine than no medicine at all. Rather, he sees this moment of transition as particularly cynical, a chaotic clash between pseudosecularists and pseudo-Christians that mainly led to very little of lasting value.

That's what I was thinking about three and a half months ago when I started this blog. I still like the reference to the debates on secularization, and I see them as operating today in many different parts of the world (India, England, France, and the U.S., to name just a few). But I'm tired of the grammar of the title, which is a drag. The negation of the false (the "No..." in "No False Medicine") isn't primarily what this blog is about. It's probably more correct to describe what I do as deliberative thought than as rhetorical combat.

For a new title, I want something distinctive, but a little more open to, say, a day at the beach.

Options for a replacement title:

--Just "Amardeep Singh." Simple. Open. Many people do this; it works just fine.

In Punjabi and Hindi, my first name means "Eternal Light." My last name means "Lion." So a possible comical subtitle might be "The Illuminated Lion." Or: "Leonine Illumination."

--"SinghBlog" I'm actually taking this seriously even though it smacks of policy wonkdom. I admire the bloggers who bring aspects of their professional expertise to their blogging (especially the left-leaning law bloggers); it gives me insight into what they do and how they think. Sometimes this can lead to "boring" discussions of interest primarily to people comfortably within a field. Still, if I'm imitating "Oxblog" and dozens of others, that might not be the worst thing in the world.

--"The Fold." This is a theory reference -- to a book by Gilles Deleuze. I'm actually not that fond of the book (like much writing by Deleuze, I've never been able to make much sense of it), but I like the suggestiveness of this title. A little.

--"Civilization and Disco." A joke on Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. I once went to a party thrown by some clever Cornell graduate students with this title, and it has stuck in my head as an example of the value of cleverness.

--"Both Sides of the Whale." This is a reference to a series of essays, by George Orwell, Raymond Williams, and Salman Rushdie. In the 1930s, George Orwell wrote an essay called "Inside the Whale," defending Henry Miller. The "whale" in the title is the sweep of current events, and "inside" and "outside" refer to differential responses to the demand for artistic responsibility. After two decades where serious artists positioned themselves radically outside of the mainstream, in the 1930 authors began to return to a more bourgeois, less oppositional approach. As Orwell put it:

Progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles. Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism--robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it. get inside the whale--or rather, admit you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process . . . simply accept it, endure it, record it. That seems to be the formula that any sensitive novelist is now likely to adopt.

In 1984, Rushdie wrote a response he called "Outside the Whale," arguing passionately against what he saw as Orwell's acquiescence to quietism. Rushdie argues that intellectuals should make "the very devil of a racket":

The truth is that there is no whale. We live in a world without hiding places; the missles have made sure of that. However much we may wish to return to the womb, we cannot be unborn. So we are left with a fairly straightforward choice. Either we agree to delude ourselves, to lose ourselves in the fantasy of the great fish, for which a second metaphor is that of Pangloss's garden [a reference to Voltaire's Candide]; or we can do what all human beings do instinctively when they realize that the womb has been lost for ever -- that is, we can make the very devil of a racket.

Of course, Rushdie may be misreading Orwell: Orwell's reference to quietism is in indirect quotation. And from what we know of Orwell's lifelong political and ethical passions -- see my posts for the past week -- it hardly seems correct to accuse him of quietism. Rushdie and Orwell are in agreement far more than Rushdie thinks; really they are both outside the whale. (Or perhaps there is no whale.)

Still, if we accept that both sides have some value, the "Both Sides" in my proposed title suggests there can be a dialogue between the avant-garde (outside) and the mainstream, "realist" (inside) positions. I like that; it sounds like me.

There is of course a grammatical problem with "Both Sides of the Whale" -- whales don't have sides. I really mean something more along the lines of "The Porous Membrane of the Whale," but that sounds too precious.

Maybe just "The Whale"?

Suggestions? Email me or comment. Thanks!


allaboutgeorge said...

In order of preference: "Amardeep Singh" (with "The Illuminated Lion" as a subtitle), "Civilization and Disco" and "The Fold."

Amardeep said...

Thanks, Allaboutgeorge.

Of the emails I've been getting, none have liked anything to do with whales. So that is safely out. Keeping it just as "Amardeep Singh" seems to be winning...

Adam Kotsko said...

I'm all for using your name, though "The Fold" is kind of cool.

It's too bad some jackass has already taken the ultimate empty title, "The Weblog."

Whatever your title, your name is so distinctive in the minds of most bloggers that they will probably link to you as "Amardeep Singh" at least as often as they'll use the actual title.

PhDiva said...

I have been going through a similar crisis with my blog name. Check out July 1's entry at for details.
And personally i like the whale names and the references to both Rushdie and Orwell. Next to that "the Fold" names strike me as alright.
Best of luck.