We Live in Interesting Times

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
By Carl Sagan
480 pp. Ballantine Books. $18.

If you’ve been paying attention the last few years, and the last few weeks in particular, I think you’d agree that we’re living in very interesting times.

But what does the word “interesting” even mean anymore? Speaking for myself, I have a tendency to overuse it. Something I didn’t realize was an issue until a few years ago when I watched the lovely little film, “Captain Fantastic.”

There’s an exchange in that film where Viggo Mortensen’s character, the widowed father of a brood of children he homeschools and raises out in the natural world, informs his son that “interesting” is a “non-word,” which I think is fascinating. (Wait … is fascinating also a non-word? Probably …)

Well, let me just give you the entire scene, because it does concern literature and is quite memorable.


Kielyr (oldest daughter): What’s a bordello?

Ben (father): A whorehouse… What are you reading?

Kielyr: Lolita?

Ben: I didn’t assign that book.

Kielyr: I’m skipping ahead.

Ben: And?

Kielyr: It’s interesting.

Rellian (youngest son): Interesting!

Bo (oldest son): Illegal word!

Zaja (youngest daughter): Dad, Kielyr said interesting!

Ben: Interesting is a non-word. You know you’re supposed to avoid it … Be specific.

Kielyr: It’s disturbing.

Ben: More specific.

Kielyr: Can I just read?

Ben: After you give us your analysis thus far.

Kielyr: There’s this old man who loves this girl, and she’s only 12 years old.

Ben: That’s the plot.

Kielyr: Because it’s written from his perspective, you sort of understand and sympathize with him. Which is kind of amazing because he’s essentially a child molester. But his love for her is beautiful. But it’s also sort of a trick because it’s so wrong. You know, he’s old, and he basically rapes her. So it makes me feel … I hate him. And somehow I feel sorry for him at the same time.

Ben: Well done.


Sorry, I just couldn’t help quoting that entire thing. (I did copy it … I obviously haven’t got it memorized.) It would probably fit better in a review for Lolita but I read and reviewed that pre-“Captain Fantastic.” I’ve been meaning to go back and reread “Lolita” but who’s got the time when there are so many other supposedly great novels one hasn’t read?

Sub-tangent! Back to the larger one!

“Interesting” didn’t always mean something that mildly amused us in a pleasant but entirely unspecific way, because we have that whole “May you live in interesting times” thing, allegedly a Chinese curse but in fact an English expression supposedly popularized by Robert Kennedy. Point is, to live in “interesting times” was not a good thing.

Yes, everything between my very first line and the next one was actually part of the same tangent because I do not have an editor. (I hope you enjoyed it nevertheless!)

But “interesting times” requires interesting, in the more modern sense of the word, people or, to use a non non-word, respected public intellectuals to help guide us through such times.

I’m thinking of people like Christopher Hitchens, George Carlin, James Baldwin, Cicero, Homer …

And Carl Sagan. Because this guy is basically the definition of an intellectual. I mean, knock me over with a feather, but does he EVER know how to perform a good autopsy on the latest sexy public fad (like astrologers, psychics, UFO conspiracy theorists, and the list goes on).

It’s simply brilliant to see. If I do have a complaint, which is the reason I gave this one less star than it might have deserved, it’s that he sometimes goes on ad nauseam about the fringiest of fringe conspiracies, or at least things that don’t hold up as particularly worth devoting 50 pages to in the year 2020.

But Sagan IS brilliant, there’s no denying that, and he’s a scientist to the core, which means he’s also an equal opportunity offender when calling out all the nonsense behind various religious beliefs (and they are all, obviously, nonsense).

Although respect to Tibetan Buddhism. I have to mention an anecdote Sagan relates here, which is that when he (at least I think it was him) confronts the Dalai Lama on that core Buddhist tenet, reincarnation, and asks the Lama what he’d say if scientists were to disprove the whole idea of reincarnation, the Lama replies that “Buddhism would have to change.”

I like that, I like that a lot. A religious leader who admits that science holds precedence over a belief, even one as core to the whole philosophy as that of reincarnation.

Of course, as Sagan goes on to say, wily Lama that he is, the Dalai knows that science cannot disprove reincarnation, but, as Sagan likes to say, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Every troubled era had their rational seers, their intellectuals, their artists who spoke wisdom to the tragedies of the day or waded through them to piece together something unforgettable.

Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” and “Macbeth” while the bubonic plague ravaged Europe and knocked off a third of his fellow Londoners.

Where is our Shakespeare, dammit? Our Baldwin? Our Cicero? If we can’t have a Homer can we at least get a Hitchens?

But no, it seems it is our fate to drift blindly through these dark waters on our own, without any preternatural guidance from the wise elders that our age sorely lacks.

The best we can do is try and apply the wisdom of our forebears to today’s “interesting times,” as we otherwise drift, drift, drift away …

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