Thursday, November 6, 2008

Oh, no.

Michael Crichton died. He was one of my favorites, and the only public intellectual who didn't make me ashamed of my alma mater. The greatest person to come out of the Harvard English department in a very, very long time. Except he didn't stay an english major for long: he got fed up and left. My favorite story about him is that he got so annoyed at his awful, pompous, talentless Harvard writing teacher that for one assignment he just took a George Orwell essay and submitted it under his own name. This is the kind of stuff students talk big about but nobody ever has the guts to do. But Crichton did it, and of course the hack teacher gave Orwell a B minus. That was it for Crichton, and so he abandoned his early major and switched to the sciences and pre-med. I just wish I would have been that smart and perceptive that early on, instead of realizing what I had to do only in my senior year once it was already too late, and having to do premed from scratch after graduation. Better late than never, though, and a heartfelt thanks to a great writer and a great man like Michael Crichton for inspiring me and so many others.

The whole conservative blogosphere is celebrating him today, linking to his famous essays and speeches mocking environmentalist religious hysteria. I was pretty much obsessed as an undergrad with the argument that humans have a fundamental need for religion and that even the most violently secular are driven to live out Biblical archetypes, and was excited to see that Crichton's anthropological research led him to the same conclusion. I would like a moment, however, to present a different side to his ideas. In my senior year, I put aside my secular myth kick and took up a new literary obsession. The Portrait of a Lady, Herzog, Light in August, The Plague, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Flannery O'Connor's stories, all pointed me in one direction. Here are Michael Crichton's thoughts on selflessness, on the importance of losing yourself in devotion to others. That was the message I took away from Henry James and co., and it profoundly changed my life. I never saw that Crichton essay until today, but please check it out and think on what he has to say, it sure is a lot shorter and more straightforward than my reading list was.

Anyway, all a long way of saying that I will miss him, and I hope he rests in peace.

It's not enough that Obama wins and Michael Crichton dies, but now, less than a day after I wrote about how I would love to move to Texas to be closer to people like her, Rachel Lucas announces she is moving to England! It's actually great news for her, and I wish her the very best, but it's been a rough day for America is all I'm saying.

I should add as an afterthought to my Crichton Orwell story that my writing teacher at Harvard was simply amazing. He was definitely a big exception to the rule. His secret? The class was actually all about none other than Orwell! Crichton's trick would not have worked with this guy, believe me. That's a danger with good teachers, though: they keep you under their spell (have I mentioned The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie?) and prevent you from breaking out on your own. I'm glad that wasn't a problem Crichton had to worry about.

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