Monday, January 26, 2009

Stephen Jay Gould's "The Creation Myths of Cooperstown"

I am about to post some of my undergraduate work onto my blog. I figure better to post them up and let them remain "out there" in cyberspace rather than have them sit, untouched in storage for the rest of time. Here is the first (note that the formatting has changed when I copied these from Word documents and pasted them in this box -- spacing and alignment have been altered):

Jessica Mason McFadden
English 380
Dr. Balderson
September 2 2005

Sitting on the Softer Scientist’s Lap

If only I could have seen the blinding light before I complacently tagged along to Cooperstown with my Bazooka-chewing siblings and sunflower seed-spitting father. I would have loved to have known about the Cardiff Giant and the myth about the origin of baseball during our family vacation, but it was their moment of ignorant bliss and my moment to relish the songs of Helen Reddy.

At the time, I was not impressed with the “American” sport, but now that I have read Stephen Jay Gould’s essay, “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown,” I will have something to say when the subject arises. Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t like America’s baseball then and I don’t like it now. I do, however, enjoy thinking critically and so I, too, am drawn to that great wad of spit we call baseball because the heterosexual ego and rabid patriotism hiding behind its dirty, sweaty disposition have appeared on my radar screen. Thanks to Gould, I now have the ability to let go of my hostility toward an innocent sport and see the hostility for what it really is: anger toward the males who use baseball as an excuse to unleash their violent hormonal urges.

When it comes to sports, I have a natural tendency to zone out. Until the fourth paragraph of his essay, Gould nearly lost my attention with his references to Turin, Edwardian Piltdown Man and the Cardiff Giant. When multiple figures were lost on me at such an early stage, I felt young and hopelessly naïve. Feeling intimidated, I said to my partner, hoping her advanced age wouldn’t prove helpful, “I’m reading this article and it’s supposed to be understandable to an extensive audience, but I don’t know who these figures are, do you?” She hadn’t heard of the Giant either so I returned to the page for another try. It wasn’t long before Gould’s precision became apparent, as he revisited most of his references in order to explain their significance. Although not all of the references were accessible to the common reader from the beginning, the eventual unfolding and connecting of key ideas were rewards for the diligent reader. It felt like an accomplishment to be able to fill my partner in on the details, as if Gould had given me permission to reap the benefits of his expertise.

Depending on your school of thought, the phrase “Creation Myths” may be threatening or provocative. Using it was a powerful mechanism for bringing in and holding any reader’s attention. Creationists and Evolutionists (along with everyone in between) are likely to be entertained by the essay, but they won’t realize it until they have absorbed multiple points in support of evolution. The mention of hoaxes opened the essay up to a variety of readers: those who are interested in baseball, scientists and nonscientists alike, those who love a good exposé, and even those who despise sports all together. The essay candidly tells the tale of George Hull’s gawky and outlandish creation as a preface to a much larger hoax. Gould is unabashedly critical of the hoax and those who perpetrated it, but his harsh tone slightly subsides when addressing the human “psychic need for an indigenous creation myth” (263 Gould).

Eventually Gould makes important observations and conclusions about human nature. If Gould had come on strongly with monotonous clues as to the direction the essay would be taking, he would have lost a great many unsuspecting, casual readers. Instead, he wove a variety of catchy themes and household names together and later added evolution into the tapestry. Using a continuum, Gould was able to progress from minor examples of hoaxes to the conclusion that the continuum of evolutionary thought is not necessarily clear and desirable. The essay offers many opportunities for the reader to connect with it, and what is even more influential is the core subject matter. Gould didn’t write an essay on the lifespan of Dwarf African Red Worms; he wrote about evolution and human nature, and he did so because it is a subject that humans are interested in. Just as I hoped it would, Gould’s arrangement of topics pulled me in and I found my niche in the essay after all. It is particularly notable that Gould was able to stir in me an interest in Cooperstown when even a hands-on experience couldn’t ignite my interest previously.

While Stephen Jay Gould is capable of engaging a general reader using a pyramid formation, Edward O. Wilson presents the subject of his essay using a formal structure. “The Serpent” clearly presents itself in a manner that doesn’t suggest any ulterior motives. “Snakes” sounds scientific and boring, but “Serpent” is a powerful title. It must have been easy for Wilson to decide on a title, being well aware of the strong reactions that the word elicits. As in the direct title, Wilson immediately introduces the premise for his essay, but this does not have a negative effect. The first paragraph in the essay lays out the complexity of the subject, referring to the significance of the serpent in both the arts and sciences. Wilson suggests that the serpent serves as a bridge between different worlds (such as the conscious and unconscious mind). The ideas he initially presents to the reader are interesting enough to achieve the reader’s commitment to the whole piece. Unlike Wilson’s steady approach, Gould attempts to interest the reader with style, voice, and overwhelming detail. Wilson is straightforward and still surprises us with his ideas later in the piece. His tone of confidence is reassuring to the reader. His subject area is also more traditional than Gould’s, but his storytelling is orderly and his narrative voice is soothing. Because the order of ideas is simple, the complex ideas themselves appear to be simple.

Wilson has a gentle manner about him. It’s as if I am listening to an imaginary grandfather telling me a comforting story, when in truth I am processing an abundance of facts about various snakes. He frames some of his explanations with questions, and it is obvious that he is being careful not to scare us away. There is something very attractive about that, perhaps even serpent-like. I completely sympathize with Eve. If Wilson was the Serpent telling me why I should eat the apple, I think I would not hesitate to eat it. In fact, this makes me question the famous fall. Are the voice of the serpent and the voice of God really one and the same? If so, I am disappointed that God would make such a cruel test knowing she (God) is irresistible. This theory makes sense, especially if you consider Wilson’s description of the serpent as something “life-promising and life-threatening, seductive and treacherous” (712 Wilson). If God and the serpent are one, then it would further explain the general appeal for the serpent, as well as the charm of this article.

Wilson’s essay made me think about my personal relationship with “The Serpent.” I have had many encounters with figurative serpents, but have yet to realize the image of a serpent invading my dreams. Even so, I can’t deny any of the important meanings associated with serpents that Wilson mentions. Perhaps it was the power of his subject matter, but I found Wilson’s essay to be thoroughly engaging. This may have been due to disgust and fascination in me, but whatever it was, it worked.

Works Cited

Gould, Stephen J. “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown.”A Closer Look: The Writer’s Reader. Ed. Sidney Dobrin and Anis Bawarshi. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003. 259-267.

Wilson, Edward O. “Serpent.” A Closer Look: The Writer’s Reader. Ed. Sidney Dobrin and Anis Bawarshi. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003. 711-722.

No comments: