The White Lantern

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2027

The White Lantern does not pretend to be a serious, scholarly work, and for this reason the good humor and wit with which it is written do not seem to be out of place. The book could be taken to be a “tertiary” source because, in most cases Evan S. Connell has not referred to the primary sources at all. A perusal of the book’s bibliography reveals essentially a list of secondary sources. For example, in his chapter on the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he refers to Arthur Koestler and the Marqués de Santillana, but not directly to works by Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, or Isaac Newton. Such a synthesis as Connell has produced is eminently readable but one should not take the work as gospel. In fact, there is an inherent danger in this type of writing—the potential for the introducion of error and misrepresentation.

The White Lantern contains several such mistakes. The book is in error when it states that chimpanzees do not eat baboons. Jane von Lawick-Goodall, in her continuing studies of chimpanzees, observed their hunting behavior in which they chase down, kill, and consume baby baboons. An unintentional misrepresentation is to be found in the chapter on the scientific revolution: one gets the impression from reading Connell that the planet Pluto was discovered not long after the discovery of the planet Neptune (1846), when in fact Pluto was not discovered until 1930 when American Clyde Tombaugh sighted it. Also, it would not have been possible for the Russians to have retaliated against a move by the United States with a nuclear bomb in 1947 for the very simple reason that the Russians did not have the bomb until 1949 and were incapable of intercontinental delivery until the mid-1950’s.

On the positive side, the book is very well written as one should expect from a novelist with a number of works to his credit (including a collection of essays of the same sort as in The White LanternA Long Desire). The story of the early seventeenth century Swedish King Gustav’s dreadnought is a masterpiece of literary reconstruction of events. The King had ordered the construction of a very large ship which had unseaworthiness inherent in its design. Because the King was involved, however, no one wished to gain his displeasure by pointing out this fact. Naturally, the ship went down on her maiden voyage in full view of the watchers on the shore. An inquest was held to fix blame but eventually it simply petered out. In a couple of generations all memory of the event was lost. Connell reconstructs the events of the day the ship went down. The chapter has a purpose—that of revealing human folly—and he draws parallels with Watergate and the My Lai massacre. “And why was nobody guilty? Because everybody was following orders.”

The book’s title chapter illustrates the contrast of personality types in geographical quest, in this case, for the South Pole. It is true that much has been written concerning this, and one approaches one more rendering with some anticipation of boredom: one will be pleasantly surprised. The retelling is fresh, and additional detail has been textured into the background of the piece which makes it a pleasure to read. The centerpiece is the contrast between personalities and, therefore, between the approaches of Amundsen, the first to arrive at the Pole, and of Scott whom one would characterize as “mystic poet, not an explorer.” There is quite a contrast between the Norwegian Amundsen and the Englishman Scott. Amundsen got to the Pole first in his race with Scott because of planning and detailed preparation. He had even quantified, as far as was possible, the stages of the journey when the sleds would have certain weights and had even worked out to the day when sled dogs would be slaughtered for food. On January 25, 1912, the return of the expedition to its base camp marked the exact date which Amundsen had set in Norway two years before. Amundsen, as Connell notes, viewed “bad luck” as bad planning. Poor Scott, on the other hand, relied upon luck, and this is why he and his companions died on the journey.

Connell, in order to demonstrate the inhospitable nature of the Antarctic environment, lists some of the organisms that are found there—penguins, obviously, and a few spiders, lichens, and grasses—and some that are not. There are no indigenous humans, no land animals, no birds except the penguin, and no trees. One should not, however, shrug off the tenacity of the biosphere too lightly. There are algae that grow inside quartz rocks and which quite merrily photosynthesize their lives away; and, too, one-celled organisms live in the snow in some places in Antarctica. They, when crushed by a boot heel, turn the snow red. (The phrase “white lantern,” is derived from astronauts’ descriptions of the Antarctic from outer space.)

Connell has great fun in his chapter on the deciphering of lost languages. Perhaps in no other area of human experience has there been produced so much pseudoscientific nonsense. Further, from the pseudoscience (for it feeds on itself) have been generated many harebrained quests. The mid-sixteenth century priest Diego de Landa mistakenly thought he had discovered the basis of the Mayan language. (He must be added to the roster of infamy as the destroyer of most Maya writings in his religious zeal.) It was left for a later cleric, nineteenth century French abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg, to find in de Landa’s Mayan alphabet the lost continent of Mu. Mu is a mythical Pacific Ocean sunken counterpart to Atlantis. Such geographical mania is a recrudescent phenomenon, and it seems that each generaiton has its Ignatius Donnellys wasting time, energy, and treasure searching for Atlantis, Mu, and the hollow earth. Fortunately, each generation has its debunkers as well; Connell is such. The chapter on languages is further illustration of human folly and shows, further, that not even the very intelligent are immune from browsing in pseudoscientific pastures. As Connell remarks of Brasseur de Bourbourg, “the fact that he was intelligent makes him all the more preposterous.” Could it be otherwise even in our times of high technology? With the enormous explosion of knowledge and information, it is difficult to keep up with one’s own field and nearly impossible to keep up with what is going on elsewhere. There are prominent examples in our times of bright scientists making foolish pronouncements in fields other than their own. The chapter also contains an engaging account of the legitimate searchers after the meanings hidden in dead languages. The account of Rawlinson propped on a ledge three hundred feet above the ground copying ancient Persian inscriptions is indeed, as Connell says, enough to give one vertigo just thinking about it.

No book about quest in modern and contemporary times could be complete without the evolution story. This story, like that of the scientific revolution, has been told many times. Again, however, Connell’s retelling does not produce ennui. This chapter (“Olduvai & All That”) is the first in the book, and the wry humor in it is a presentient of more to come. He deals with Archbishop Ussher’s calculation of the date of creation, the problem of the size of the ark, and the various evolutionary jokes and hoaxes which have been perpetrated. The Piltdown hoax is dealt with as well, but one will find a fresher account of that in Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Panda’s Thumb.

Most amusing, perhaps, is the story of the Cardiff giant. This hoax had its improbable origin in an argument between Hull, an iconoclastic cigar manufacturer, and a preacher named Turk. The quarrel was concerned with the question of giants on the earth. The Bible had said that there were, and the reverend was a literalist fundamentalist. Hull had a large stone sculptured to represent a fossilized giant. It was then arranged that the giant would be “found” at Cardiff, New York. Hull’s relish over the hoax is reconstructed by Connell. Hull eventually exposed the giant as his hoax. What did Turk do when it was revealed that he had been duped? “Did he pray? Did he forgive? Did he foam at the mouth? Furthermore, one can’t help wondering if the experience taught him anything. Probably not. Fundamentalists are so fundamental.”

Connell takes occasion to remark on the science and religion relationship. There is first the attack on the part of the scientist who is armed with some “impertinent fact” to be soon followed by the theological counterattack in the attempt to preserve dogma as fixed and unchanging. Connell comes down on the side of science. Yet, he apparently regards (and correctly) the science-religion controversy as unending. That he is right in this can easily be verified by looking at the contemporary legislation in a number of states requiring equal time for “scientific” creationism and evolution. (Dorothy Nelkin has recreated the recent history of this trend in her The Science Textbook Controversies & the Politics of Equal Time.)

Connell throughout The White Lantern repeatedly jabs at human folly, and pseudoscience is of that species. He refers, for example, to the “gods-from-other-worlds hucksters.” The most recent reference in his bibliography which deals with pseudoscience, however, is the twenty-five-year-old book of Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies. There has been a great deal written about the phenomenon of pseudoscience since the appearance of Gardner’s book. Journals have been inaugurated to study it. Philosophers of science are seriously considering how one can distinguish between real science and pseudoscience. There are some recognizable features of pseudoscientific argumentation. Two of the most prominent are the circular argument and the argument from ignorance. The first consists of assuming what it is that one wishes to “prove” and then tailoring the “evidence” accordingly. The second consists of saying, essentially, “You can’t prove it isn’t so.” The argument from ignorance proves nothing; it is, in fact, an attempt to avoid the labor of proving (as is also the argument from analogy, another part of the pseudoscientific stock-in-trade). Connell’s book is not deficient in not mentioning these forms of pseudoscientific argumentation, for he has illustrated them with examples.

Connell has a gift for the bon mot, and one cannot refrain from mentioning some of them. Some examples are found in the evolution controversy, “the Scopes trial, that little masterpiece of idiocy ...”; spoofing of creationism, “the clouds split with a blinding flash, a huge Anglo-Saxon finger pointed down ...” and “One does not expect high logic on the battlefield or at the conference table.” One could speculate that Connell’s humor perhaps has roots in a deeper feeling that he has concerning the human condition. There are Toynbean echoes in his account of the fall of the static ancient Indian culture of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro to Sanskrit invaders. “Their civilization may have already been disintegrating, which usually is the case when a nation succumbs to an invader. There is evidence of this in the cheap construction of later buildings, in subdivisions, and so forth—things we ourselves are familiar with.” It is not self-evidently true that this is a deterministic law of history; nor does the parallel necessarily apply to “things we ourselves are familiar with.” It is true that sometimes the past can be a guide to the future. The Spanish-American philosopher Santayana remarked that those who could not remember the past were doomed to repeat it. It is possible, however, to have too slavish a devotion to the past. Modern society is structurally very different from ancient societies of the Near and Middle East and Asia. At the very least, we have high technology and they did not. Other substantial differences would not be difficult to find.

In sum, The White Lantern is an uneven book, but the balance sheet will show much more on the positive side. Some factual errors have been noted, and the jumping about from century to century can at times be a little irritating. By and large, however, Connell’s distillations are well and wittily written.

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