Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The fat lady sang, already

In one of my favourite films, Donnie Darko, there is a scene where a teacher loses her job for teaching poetry that is ever so slightly subversive. Now comes a story where a teacher in Bennett, Colorado, has lost her job, wait for it, for showing an opera to her students. The teacher, who is herself an opera singer, showed a clip from the school library of Charles Gounod's Faust. She showed a 12 minute segment featuring Dame Joan Sutherland, Australia's major contribution to opera (until Caitlin Hulcup gets better known, that is*) to her elementary school students in preparation for them performing it.

Like the wonderful Drew Barrymore in Donnie Darko, Tresa Waggoner was accused of promoting non-Christian ideas, and of being in league with the devil, rather like Faust himself. The mayor of Bennett had the grace to resign over the incident, declaring that the town had a "mean streak".

The legend of Faust has an interesting history. Although probably a historical figure who ran afoul of the Lutherans for practising alchemy, his story has earlier precursors, some going back to the middle ages. He is also very like John Dee, the Queen's Alchemist, who was also a noted mathematician and member of the Cambridge Platonists from which sprang Locke, and the Royal Society.

Very often, in the early days of science, people accused them of being Satanists because they used techniques that were tainted, such as alchemical methods, and because they thought (before Newton) that mathematics and astrology were the same thing, pretty much. Accusations of heresy were commonplace. It is such a pity that we haven't progressed beyond this. At least she didn't suffer the fate of Giordano Bruno, who died for being both a scientist of sorts, and heterodoxy, by being burned at the stake at about the same time as the Faust legend was getting going in popular mythology. But this whole story fully drips with irony.**

* Declaration of interest - Caitlin is a friend, even if she does think qualia are real. So's her husband Malte Ebach, even if he thinks Goethe, who coincidentally wrote Faust: Eine Tragödie in 1808-1831, was a scientist.

** Note to Americans: Irony is not an isotope of iron.

[Late note: Matt Young tells me it's Gounod's Faust not Berlioz's, and that, as an American he knows what irony is and also thinks Goethe was a scientist. So do I but I'm ragging on Malte. Also picked up a typo with the town name. Picky audience, hey?]