One dimensional prose

by Henry on April 24, 2005

And while we’re on the subject of Thomas Friedman’s latest burblings, isn’t it about time that someone brought up Edwin Abbot’s classic novel, Flatland and its hero and narrator, “A Square?”

{ 23 comments }

1

W. Kiernan 04.24.05 at 8:52 pm

“A. Square,” what a sexist! You know, I’m not what you’d call a big feminist, but that book was ridiculous. Flatlanders with the greatest intelligence and highest status were polygons of many, many sides. Flatlanders with four, five or six sides were middle class. The proletariat consisted of triangles, and even among the triangles there were rigid, invidious class distinctions; an equilateral triangle was the highest of the proles, more and more sharply acute triangles were dumber and lowlier, until you got down to triangles so sharp they were almost spikes; Flatland society used these guys as soldiers, as their sharpest vertex was a natural weapon. But these distinctions applied to two-dimensional malesfemale Flatlanders were less than the lowest male proles, they were one-dimensional line segments. In the dark or fog, a Flatlander could barely make out a female if he approached her head-on, and if he accidentally bumped into her infinitely thin, infinitely sharp ends it was all over for him. So dangerous were they that all female Flatlanders were kept indoors in purdah. If there was a Mrs. Abbott, I wonder how she felt about that!

2

tvd 04.24.05 at 9:03 pm

The man shleps around the world, at great danger to himself, seeking truth.

If his prose is inadequate, so what?

There is a real problem with the international journo corps which hangs out in the same safe capital city bars, reinforcing their own prejudices. But Friedman makes his own path and comes to his own conclusions.

Right or wrong, disrespect and dismissal is improper.

3

Frank 04.24.05 at 9:49 pm

tvd- You know its funny, but Tom Friedman doesn’t have the look of a guy who spends a lot of time dodging bullets. I suspect the greatest danger Tom faces is that the local Hilton might be out caviar.

4

almostinfamous 04.24.05 at 11:42 pm

If his prose is inadequate, so what?

tvd, my prose is often inadequate. that is why i used to think that i couldnt work at the NYTimes. apparently, they have let go of any and all standards they held their writers to. as a result, i am applying for a columnist’s position as we speak.

as far as making his own conclusions, it would help if every column of his didnt contain at least one really weird analogy, one twisted metaphor, and a quote from one of my compatriots over in india. if these were in any way related, it would help but these literary tools are more often than not, leading to naught. he may make his own conclusions, but i’ll damned if he makes it clear to anyone what they are.
instead, his columns tend to look like a cheerleading column for laissez-faire globalized capitalism, and the inevitability of its spread and why the brown people are better off in this scenario than the whiteys that propagate it.

for more in-depth analysis that makes sense i direct you here

5

tvd 04.24.05 at 11:55 pm

I did read your recommended article, almostinfamous.

What stood out was “it’s impossible to divorce The World Is Flat from its rhetorical approach.”

This is a flaw in the reader, not the writer.

6

Mill 04.25.05 at 1:42 am

He “shleps around the world”? Yeah, business class! And when he gets there he plays golf with CEOs. What’s the emoticon for “world’s smallest violin”?

7

bi 04.25.05 at 2:11 am

_There is a real problem with the international journo corps which hangs out in the same safe capital city bars, reinforcing their own prejudices._

Such as yourself?

8

Sam Dodsworth 04.25.05 at 3:21 am

You know, I’m not what you’d call a big feminist, but that book was ridiculous.

Er… it’s usually read as satire. Or have I missed your tags?

9

Sam Dodsworth 04.25.05 at 3:22 am

That’s “irony” tags. Serves me right for trying to be clever.

10

bad Jim 04.25.05 at 5:53 am

I’m isoceles myself, a contented contemplative Californian, generally congruent, smugly tolerant, but appalled to find my ilk under attack, accused of triangulation.

Abbott wasn’t only making fun of men and women. He was also making fun of religion and trying to help people get Einstein.

11

Jake 04.25.05 at 7:18 am

bad jim, the book was written in 1884. It had nothing to do with Einstein.

12

bm 04.25.05 at 7:31 am

What stood out was “it’s impossible to divorce The World Is Flat from its rhetorical approach.”

This is a flaw in the reader, not the writer.

No, more like too clever by half (on steroids ;-). That’s the point of Taibbi’s analysis. If you take only the sentence you quote, it’s an assertion. If you take the article, it’s the conclusion of an argument.

Admit it: Friedman has got himself caught out taking an analogy way too far. If he were at a party doing this after a few too martinis, that would be one thing. But since he’s Thomas Friedman, he turns it into a book and tries to sell it to us as “Globalization 3.0”.

When will the meme of versioning ideas and social-political-economic developments as if they were computer programs finally die?

13

steve kyle 04.25.05 at 9:42 am

It is too bad that the only thing anyone is allowed to get from Flatland in the modern age is that its author was sexist. He was, but is that truly the only notable thing about the book? Or does that disqualify anything else in the book from serious consideration?

Consider this thought experiment. Would the same dismissiveness apply if the line segments were MEN and all of the the two dimensional inhabitants were WOMEN? If so then at least you are consistent. If not, then you are as sexist as the author of the book.

14

Sam Dodsworth 04.25.05 at 9:48 am

It is too bad that the only thing anyone is allowed to get from Flatland in the modern age is that its author was sexist.

Er… I don’t think that’s true on my planet. Perhaps you’d care to visit?

15

almostinfamous 04.25.05 at 10:18 am

grazi for the assist, bm. i was thinking of making a similar point(in hindsight, natch) but you beat me to it. here it goes anyway.

“by your own point tvd, you are unable to divorce the rhetoric of taibi’s argument from the argument itself. is this a flaw in you now? “

16

bm 04.25.05 at 1:25 pm

“grazi for the assist, bm.”

prego.

“by your own point tvd, you are unable to divorce the rhetoric of taibi’s argument from the argument itself. is this a flaw in you now? ”

shall we call it Argument 3.0? we might end up with a book called, _Arguments are Circular!_

on second thought, put the martini down and slowly step away from the bar.

17

Maureen 04.25.05 at 1:50 pm

But was Abbott being sexist, satirical, or both? I’ve always understood Abbott to be critical of the social strictures on women in Victorian England in “Flatland”. Interestingly, readers in the nineteenth century thought he was being sexist as well, and he had to explain that A. Square had consequently changed his views of men and women in the second edition.

Some people can’t do math. Other people can’t get satire.

18

Colin Danby 04.25.05 at 2:58 pm

I read _Flatland_ for the first time at age 8 and was struck by the representation of women as a mortal threat to men even then … I’d forgotten its class politics in the intervening 37 years.

Was it a satire on Victorian class and gender, then? That risks being an anachronistic reading, no? Is there any textual evidence for this assertion? The slight climbdown in the preface to edition 2 is, if anything, evidence that the first edition was *not* satire. Successful satire does not soften its edges in later editions.

I find Steve Kyle’s defensiveness odd — nobody has said that “the only thing anyone is allowed to get from Flatland in the modern age is that its author was sexist” (I emphasize *only*, and what’s up with *allowed*?). This is a familiar pattern of turning arguments that make you uncomfortable into a caricature and then going after the caricature.

_Flatland_ *was* helpful in terms of thinking about dimensions, both by giving you a yarn and by tracing through a series of logical consequences. The figure that stuck with me most strongly was the sole resident of pointland, a lovely dramatization of solipsism.

from http://www.alcyone.com/max/lit/flatland/20.html
______________________________________________
“It fills all Space,” continued the little soliloquizing Creature, “and what It fills, It is. What It thinks, that It utters; and what It utters, that It hears; and It itself is Thinker, Utterer, Hearer, THought, Word, Audition; it is the One, and yet the All in All.

“Can you not startle the little thing out of its complacency?” said I.
__________________________________________

reminds me a little of Thomas Friedman. He has, as the excellent parody at http://www.prospect.org/print/V11/13/devil5.html points out, more or less reduced the world to a single point.

19

Walt Pohl 04.25.05 at 3:59 pm

The cartoon that goes along with the Friedman review is pretty funny in its own right:

http://www.nypress.com/cover/coverLG.jpg

20

W. Kiernan 04.25.05 at 8:53 pm

Steve: Would the same dismissiveness apply if the line segments were MEN and all of the the two dimensional inhabitants were WOMEN?

wo0t “Love Slave on the Plane of the Two-Dee Women” by A. Line.

…you are as sexist as the author of the book.

*blush*

21

mikeN 04.26.05 at 1:43 am

I’d always assumed that Abbott was writing satire; a quick google seems to confirm:
[quote]The first subject that has to be addressed is the treatment of women in Flatland. Abbott was a social reformer who criticized a great many aspects of the limitations of Victorian society. He was a firm believer in equality of educational opportunity, across social classes and in particular for women. He participated actively in the efforts to bring about changes, and the frustration he felt from the resistance of the educational establishment is mirrored in the satire of Flatland. This was the first generation in which women were permitted to attend classes at Oxford and Cambridge, but their access was stiII quite limited. Although there were many schools where a boy could be trained for the demanding university entrance examinations, there were few comparable opportunities for girls, and many of the young women who gained entrance to universities, like Abbott’s daughter, had received much of their education at home, often from private tutors. It was partially to aid in this effort that Abbott composed his Hints for Home Teaching, directed at parents who wished to help their children prepare for higher education. Abbott was also a vocal leader in the Teachers’ Training Syndicate, formed and primarily supported by the major female educators of Victorian England, who extensively praised Abbott for his efforts on behalf of education reform, in particular for proposing alternate wavs of qualifying for entrance into university studies.[/quote]
http://www.mathaware.org/mam/00/master/people/abbott/satire.html

22

steve kyle 04.26.05 at 9:00 am

dear w kiernan

touche. love that love slave.

23

Colin Danby 04.26.05 at 1:56 pm

Thanks for the link and evidence, Miken! — can flatlanders increase their sidedness via education? I dimly remember something, but as I said it’s been years. The point about irregulars in the link is interesting. So is women’s reduction to the worst shape in flatland a consequence of their limited education, or does Abbott want us to transcend side-ism altogether?

The part about the split in virtues into two categories is highly interesting and a characteristic Victorian argument.

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