30 August 2007

Not the Exceptional Monster

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:38 am

A friend asked Wallace Stevens, then an old man, if he had any regrets about pursuing a full-time career in business instead of concentrating on his poetry. In response Stevens said this:

If Beethoven could look back on what he had accomplished and say that it was a collection of crumbs compared to what he had hoped to accomplish, where should I ever find a figure of speech adequate to size up the little that I have done compared to that which I had once hoped to do. Of course, I have had a happy and well-kept life. But I have not even begun to touch the spheres within spheres that might have been possible if, instead of devoting the principal amount of my time to making a living, I had devoted it to thought and poetry. Certainly it is as true as it ever was that whatever means most to one should receive all of one’s time and that has not been true in my case. But, then, if I had been more determined about it, I might now be looking back not with a mere sense of regret but at some actual devastation. To be cheerful about it, I am now in the happy position of being able to say that I don’t know what would have happened if I had had more time. This is very much better than to have had all the time in the world and have found oneself inadequate.

And yet, if Stevens was so unsure of his adequacy as a poet, why did he keep his day job even after he caught his artistic stride, even after the laurel wreath encircled his head? Did he prize his executive pay and privilege that much, or (almost inconceivably) was it the job itself that held him? The daily routine of commutes and files and phone calls that let the decades slip quietly by, the easy and self-limiting camaraderie of the big corporation counterbalancing a very private life, the grinding away at a tangible problem until a concrete solution makes itself known…

Red robin, stop your preludes, practicing
Mere repetitions. These things at least comprise
An occupation, an exercise, a work,
A thing final in itself and, therefore, good;
One of the vast repetitions final in
Themselves and, therefore, good, the going round
And round and round, the merely going round,
Until merely going round is a final good,
The way wine comes to table in a wood.
And we enjoy like men, the way a leaf
Above the table spins its constant spin,
So that we look at it with pleasure, look
At it spinning its eccentric measure. Perhaps,
The man-hero is not the exceptional monster,
But he that of repetition is most master.
– from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” 1947, by Wallace Stevens

29 August 2007

Constructing a Possible Poet

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:17 am

The other day I wrote about Wallace Stevens’ day job as a surety claims attorney, a job he kept until his death despite rising acclaim, a Pulitzer Prize, and a professorial offer from Harvard. For Stevens poetry was an avocation, the work of an amateur in the French sense of the term. Why did he do it, and for whom?

In 1940, when Stevens was 61 years old and at the height of his artistry, he extolled the nobility of poetry in an essay entitled “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.” In a truly vital poetry the imagination must harness itself to reality, Stevens asserts, but it must also resist the “pressure” of reality. That poetic nobility had sunk to diminished and degenerate levels Stevens attributed to increased pressure and decreased imaginative resistance.

I might be expected to speak of the social, that is to say sociological or political, obligation of the poet. He has none… I do not think that a poet owes any more as a social obligation than he owes as a moral obligation, and if there is anything concerning poetry about which people agree it is that the role of the poet is not to be found in morals… The truth is that the social obligation so closely urged is a phase of the pressure of reality which a poet is bound to resist or evade today. Dante in Purgatory and Paradise was still the voice of the Middle Ages but not through fulfilling any social obligation.

Hitler had invaded Poland; the European conflict had begun, while America retained its tenuous isolation. Current events might prove a source of inspiration, but imagination cannot be commanded or moved by duty. It can operate freely only in an imaginative space that is released from the pressure of reality. The poetic process is psychologically an escapist process, Stevens acknowledges without apology. If your imagination draws you to war as a subject, by all means follow its lead. The poet is born not made, says Stevens: that which inspires him is also part of him.

If a possible poet is left facing life without any categorical exactions upon him, what then? What is his function? Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves. Nor is it, I think, to comfort them while they follow their leaders to and fro. I think that his function is to make his imagination theirs and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people live their lives.

I’m surprised. Here’s Stevens, not just a possible poet but an actual one, his country poised on the brink of entering a world war, sitting in his corner office in a Hartford office building taking care of surety claims, writing about how the poet’s function is to help people live their lives? Did he believe that being a claims man was an even higher calling?

Time and time again it has been said that he may not address himself to an elite. I think he may. There is not a poet whom we prize living today that does not address himself to an elite. The poet will continue to do this: to address himself to an elite even in a classless society, unless, perhaps, this exposes him to imprisonment or exile. In that event he is likely not to address himself to anyone at all. He may, like Shostakovich, content himself with pretence. He will, nevertheless, still be addressing himself to an elite, for all poets address themselves to someone and it is of the essence of that instinct, and it seems to amount to an instinct, that it should be to an elite, not to a drab but to a woman with the hair of a pythoness, not to a chamber of commerce but to a gallery of one’s own, if there are enough of one’s own to fill a gallery.

Often enough I’ve heard artists claim that they paint only for themselves, that they write because they must yield to an inner urge toward self-expression, that to make a film for an audience is to corrupt the freedom of artistry. Stevens the amateur will have no part of it. He doesn’t just want to write; he wants to be read. Why the elite? Because they are the harshest critics? I don’t think so. If for Stevens imagination is the noblest instinct, then only the noblest of mere mortals can allow their imaginations to be released without being held down by the strong hand of reality. Stevens wrote for the elite of the imagination.

And that elite, if it responds, not out of complaisance, but because the poet has quickened it, because he has educed from it that for which it was searching in itself and in the life around it and which it had not yet quite found, will thereafter do for the poet what he cannot do for himself, that is to say, receive his poetry.

27 August 2007

On Keeping Your Day Job

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:04 pm

Money is a kind of poetry.

– Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens was a surety claims attorney for the Hartford Insurance Company. I don’t know if he made enough selling his poems to quit the business, but as I understand it he didn’t want to.

A surety bond guarantees that a construction company will complete the work it’s being paid for, according to specifications and on time. What can go wrong? Plenty. The contractor might not have the know-how to tackle a really complex job. Maybe they’ve never done such a big project before. Maybe they’re overextended – too much work spread across too many job sites and not enough foremen to keep things on track. Maybe they underbid the job and just can’t afford to complete the project. Maybe they’ve gotten distracted by some other problem on some other job, and they lose focus on the jobs they could do in their sleep. So many ways for things to go wrong. If the contractor can’t get the job done, then it’s up to the surety company to find somebody else who can. That’s not so bad – there are plenty of other companies out there willing to do the job. The problem is paying for it.

When a contractor runs into problems on the job, he thinks he’s going to be able to fix them eventually. Usually it takes money to fix problems. So the contractor keeps submitting progress reports and invoices, keeps cashing checks, keeps spending money, and still the problem doesn’t fix itself. Instead it gets worse, and it spreads. Pretty soon the contractor is borrowing money from his other jobs to try to fix the bad one, and after awhile he can’t pay his workers and subcontractors and suppliers. He gets past due letters: 30 days past due, 60 days, 90. Pretty soon somebody slaps a lien on the job, and that’s when the owner – the guy who hired the contractor, the guy who pays the contractor – first gets the clue. Something is going terribly wrong here.

That’s when they call the surety company. Maybe the bond underwriter already knows that things are going badly for his client. Usually there’s at least some prior indication that things are a little shaky, but the contractor can always come up with an explanation. And you’re inclined to believe him. You’ve been doing business with the contractor for years, collected tens of thousands of dollars in premiums from him, sat down across the table from him, walked through his yard, kicked the tires on his trucks, joked around with his office manager. You like the guy. Besides, if you pull the plug, stop writing bonds, what’s the contractor going to do? He needs new work to pay for cleaning up the problems on the old jobs. But sometimes you can feel it; you know you’re just throwing good money after bad. Finally the whole house of cards falls down around the contractor’s head. Then comes the sickening moment when the underwriter, the guy who has stuck his neck way out for this contractor, hands over his file to the claims attorney. And then you know you’ve just cost your company a few million bucks.

Stevens said that holding down a regular job was good for him, good for his writing. It’s hard to imagine. Here’s a guy who’s just spent all day wrangling over past-due bills and selling off contractors’ houses to pay off the creditors. Then he closes his files, walks to the train station, buys himself a drink in a plastic cup, hops the train, sits down and writes a poem on the commute home? I read somewhere how Stevens would be at the office, right in the middle of dictating a letter, when he’d just stop, pull out a pad of paper, and write a few lines of poetry. They say he kept his poetry in the lower left drawer of his desk, separate from his claims work. Still, how separate could they have been?

One of Stevens’ poems starts like this: “I placed a jar in Tennessee.” He might have said “jar,” but maybe he was thinking about a building, some surety claim, some half-built eyesore that Stevens found a way to get finished. Was he proud to see that building sitting on top of that Tennessee hill, turning the surrounding wilderness into a kind of landscaping? Or did he wish he could have demolished the thing? Maybe Stevens just decided to make a settlement with the owner, and they left a half-finished empty shell of a building up there on the Tennessee hill, “tall and of a port of air.”

Every once in awhile you get the sense that some of the papers from the right desk drawer found their way to the left drawer. “The earth is not a building but a body,” Stevens wrote. His job was to make sure that buildings got built on the body of the earth. “There is no difference between god and his temple,” he wrote. “A claim man finds it difficult sometimes to distinguish himself from the papers he handles,” he wrote in a 1938 article for Eastern Underwriter.

“Money is a kind of poetry” – I wonder what he meant by that? They say he wrote his poems on little slips of paper that he’d stash in the lower left desk drawer. When he was finished with a poem he’d hand the little papers to his secretary and she’d type them up for him. Maybe when he’d open that drawer at the office, those little slips of paper would remind him of money, like a wad of dollar bills stashed in there. But then wouldn’t he have said it the other way around – poetry is a kind of money?

“Money is a kind of poetry.” Was he just another greedy bastard, and that’s why he kept his claims job, so at the end of the day he could go home, pour himself a glass of claret, and admire the fine paintings on his walls? He made poems, and he made money – same thing, just little pieces of paper, two sides of the same coin. Then again, maybe he was looking at money like a bond claims man, a poetic one. The flows of money, the meaning of money, the reality made up of an accumulation of abstract things, like a poem that’s really not just a string of words.

26 August 2007

The Song of the Road

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 5:29 pm

la-strada-machine-3in.jpgFrom Fellini’s La Strada (The Road), 1954, music by Nino Rota:

We aren’t there the first time Gelsomina hears the song. It was on the day it rained, the day Zampano couldn’t do his strong-man act, that they heard it, she and Zampano. She had performed some sort of incantation before their feeble campfire: “It will rain the day after tomorrow,” she announced when she was finished, but he didn’t pay any attention. He probably didn’t pay attention to the song either. Only later does she ask Zampano if he remembers the song. She hums the melody; the hard lines etched in his face do not soften.

She hears a different song when, overtaxed by his unremitting cruelty, Gelsomina leaves Zampano. Squatting on her haunches at the side of the road, uncertain of her next step, she hears them before seeing them: uniformed, marching in the grass next to the road, the three musicians play. Enchanted, Gelsomina rises and follows. In the town the tune is the same but now it’s slow, minor-keyed, mournful. The parade is bigger now: nuns, altar boys, girls dressed in white, a priest. Men carry a large crucifix and a shrine to the Madonna and Child. The throng jostles Gelsomina past a butcher shop, where a pig carcass hangs head-down from a hook in the window. That night there’s another show in town: the Fool, wings glued to his back, walks high above the square, his tightrope suspended between the top of the church and the roof of the building across the street. When the show is over Gelsomina remains in the square, alone but for the two drunks who harry her. She hears the church bell chime once and expectantly she looks to the sky. But her hope turns to despair as she hears the motorcycle engine approaching: it’s Zampano. He slaps her twice, drags her into the back of his 3-wheeled van, and drives her away.

When she awakens she finds herself surrounded by circus people pitching their tents on the outskirts of Rome. A violin sings in the distance: it’s the first song, the song she heard the day it rained. She follows the music and there sits the Fool, child-sized violin in hand, a smoldering cigarette wedged under one of the tuning pegs. The Fool teaches Gelsomina to play the trumpet. “Everything in this world is useful for something,” he tells her. “Even you have a purpose.” Jealous of his talents and infuriated by his taunting, Zampano nearly kills the Fool. He asks Gelsomina to leave the circus with him, but she decides to stay with Zampano: “If I don’t stay with him, who will stay?”

Cut loose by the circus and on their own again, Zampano and Gelsomina accept an offer to spend the night at a thousand-year-old convent. “She plays the drum,” Zampano tells one of the nuns, but Gelsomina brings out the trumpet instead. It’s the song she heard in the rain, the song the Fool played on his violin. Zampano snatches the axe from one of the other nuns and begins savagely chopping firewood…

I skip to the last time we hear the song. Another traveling circus, this one at the seaside. After the trapeze artist’s performance Zampano does his act, the man with lungs of steel breaking the chain around his chest for the ten thousandth time. This time there is no girl to play the dramatic drumroll and pass the hat. Zampano walks through town: amid the chatter of children he hears a beautiful voice humming a familiar song. Zampano calls through the barbed-wire fence to the young woman: How do you know that song? It must have been four or five years ago, she begins. That night Zampano, drunk and violent, gets thrown out of a bar. “You’re all big men in a crowd. I don’t need anybody. Just me alone. Just me alone.” He staggers to the beach in the darkness…

24 August 2007

Alternative Occupation

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:18 am

Despite some uneven improvements, the analysts concluded that the level of overall violence is high, Iraq’s sectarian groups remain unreconciled, and al-Qaida in Iraq is still able to conduct highly visible attacks… The intelligence report warns against scaling back the mission of U.S. forces, an argument the Bush administration could use to support a continuation of its current troop surge. Analysts found that changing the U.S. military’s mission from its current focus — countering insurgents and stabilizing the country — in favor of supporting Iraqi forces and stopping terrorists would hurt the security gains of the last six months.

The American military presence in Iraq currently stands at 162,000 — the highest level since the beginning of the war. The population of Iraq is about 28 million; that means there’s 1 American soldier for every 167 Iraqis. The U.S. Government Accounting Office estimates that we’ve spent half a trillion dollars on the war so far. That’s $18,000 for every Iraqi man, woman and child, or $3 million for every American soldier stationed in Iraq.

I can imagine an alternative history in which a victorious Iraqi army occupies America. Deployment is proportional to ours presently in Iraq: the US population is about 300 million, so that means there would be about 1.8 million Iraqi soldiers on American soil. Sounds like a lot, but the sheer numbers aren’t really that shock-and-awesome. The cumulative manpower of all the American police forces is just about 1 million. Doubling the police force might be noticeable, but life probably wouldn’t change much for most of us.

I live in Boulder Colorado, population 100 thousand — there would be about 600 occupying forces here in town. Suppose the troops were here to prevent American insurgent strikes against the Iraq-friendly government and to reduce violence between rival intra-American political factions. Their assignment isn’t an easy one, since nearly everybody in Boulder wants the troops to leave, and more than half of us believe that it’s justifiable to kill the soldiers. Consequently, maybe 90 percent of violent attacks are directed not at fellow Boulderites but at the occupying Iraqi army. Not surprisingly, the troops don’t patrol neighborhoods in squad cars looking for hot spots; instead they stay holed up in their heavily fortified headquarters. They’re afraid to talk to the locals for fear of being ambushed. When they do venture into the town, they drive in convoys of heavily armored vehicles that never stop or slow down. When they do stop you’d be advised not to stick around to find out why.

Now suppose some ethnic strife flared up in your neighborhood. Would you call the Iraqi army, invite them to come and have a look around? Not likely. They wouldn’t investigate; they’d knock down doors and intimidate everyone. Besides, since everybody hates the occupiers, what would be the consequences if you called the Iraqis into your neighborhood? Retaliation would be almost certain. Consequently the Iraqi army typically finds itself responding to false leads and anonymous calls motivated by personal revenge. Ordinary internecine strife remains untouched by the armed foreign presence.

At some point the occupying army might get the hint. We’re not wanted, we’re every faction’s enemy, we’re not doing any good here. These Americans seem to be on the verge of chaos, but they’ll just have to work things out among ourselves.

22 August 2007

After Life

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 11:55 am

On After Life, a 1998 film by Kore-Eda…

The premise is straightforward. When you die, you’re sent to a residential institution where you undergo a one-week orientation and transition program. Your task during the first half of the week is to settle on a single memory that was particularly meaningful to you during your lifetime. During the second half of the week the staff recreates the scene of this memory as accurately as they can, given the surprisingly limited resources available to them. Finally, on the last day, you watch the filmed reenactment of your memory. As you watch you are transported into the memory, where you will spend eternity. The self-referential interpretation is clear: film itself is a portal to alternate realities.

But there’s also this: I live my life haunted by my own ghost, who lives in my memory. My spectral double keeps haunting me with the past, turning the present into an eternal return of prior events, places, relationships, experiences. Traumatic events might intrude, but my main defense against them is to relive, over and over, the happy events of my life. Maybe the times I danced for my brother. Or the day I sat with my fiancee on a park bench. Or being cradled on my mother’s lap as a small child. Or soaring through the clouds on a solo flight. The memories chosen by the newly-deceased all shared an archaic narcissism, a sense of instantaneous yet timeless plenitude, a direct connection with the Real that underlies all differentiation between self, other and the world. Remembered moments like these are so primal, so perfect, so self-obliterating that they may have happened only in our imaginations.

I might be alert to the ways in which I re-enact the destructive and painful patterns I developed at a younger age, but I’m less aware of how I’m held captive by the shining moments. Entranced by their glow I might escape the spell in which the darker events of the past would ensnare me. But the luminant memories also cast long shadows that obscure the dimmer existential charms of quotidian life. By keeping past glories in front of me all the time, like a movie reel that loops eternally, I stop living life in real time. Because nothing can equal the sublime moments from my (real or imagined) past, I vaguely discern that my ghostly mnemic double is the one who truly lives, and that the present is but a pale afterglow of a meaningful but mythic past.

In the film there are some who cannot choose a memory. These aren’t the ones who led terrible lives: for them to lock into one good memory is to forget all the rest. Rather it’s those who in looking back on their lives see a flat and featureless plain: they cannot choose because there’s nothing worth remembering.

Then there are those who will not choose. Why lock into a memory that’s barely real any more? Why not relive a dream? Why not create a fictional scene and live that? Or why not just live inside this heterotopic way station poised between a mythic past and a mythic eternity? Why not live this haunted and precarious life week after week? Maybe join the staff, help others remember, recreate their stories, allow their memories to trigger your own without getting locked into them. Enjoy tenuous fellowship with those few others who manage to keep company with specters while resisting the persistent lure to join their number.

21 August 2007

I Want Something, I Want Something

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 8:44 am

In Man’s Search for Meaning (1959), Victor Frankl wrote about the “existential vacuum,” the personal meaninglessness that increasingly characterizes life in contemporary Western society. Says Frankl:

A statistical survey recently revealed that among my European students, 25 percent showed a more-or-less marked degree of existential vacuum. Among my American students it was not 25 but 60 percent. The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom. Now we can understand Schopenhauer when he said that mankind is doomed to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom. In actual fact, boredom is now causing, and certainly bringing to psychiatrists, more problems to solve than distress.

So how have things changed over the last half century? Here are some excerpts from this 2001 article by John Schumaker, an American living in New Zealand:

In 1970, a largescale survey of US university students showed that 80 per cent of them had as a goal ‘the development of a meaningful philosophy of life’. By 1989, the percentage had fallen to 41 per cent. During the same period, the number of those aiming to be very well off financially increased from 39 per cent to 75 per cent

The percentage of total economic activity that is generated in America from personal spending has reached 70 per cent, far more than any other nation. In a spending showdown, no-one is faster or more deadly than Americans. We spend hugely more on ourselves than our closest rival. Private spending is between 50 per cent and 90 per cent greater than in all major European countries.

American-style radical consumerism has succeeded to the point that social analysts now speak of things like ‘consumer trance’ and ‘ecological dissociation’. Take the fascination with sport utility vehicles (SWs). Who would have thought in these delicate environmental times that the public could be sold a popular mode of transport that consumes one-third more fuel and creates 75 per cent more pollution than ordinary cars? And who would have guessed that the average fuel efficiency of US cars in the year 2001 would be less than in the hog-car days of the 1950s and 1960s? Environmentalists have calculated that the SW fad has caused Americans to waste 70 billion gallons of gasoline in the past 10 years – an immense price for an outdoorsy image.

Eighty-five percent of Americans indicated in a recent poll that a ‘six-figure’ income would be required to service their yearned-for lifestyle. Yet, nearly 30 percent of those actually earning six-figures reported that their ‘basic needs’ were not being met.

Escalating materialism may be the single largest contributor to Western society’s tenfold increase in major depression over the past half-century. It certainly features in the worrying rash of ‘consumption disorders’ such as compulsive shopping, consumer vertigo and kleptomania. Hyper-materialism also features prominently in the emerging plague of existential disorders’ such as chronic boredom, ennui, jadedness, purposelessness, meaninglessness and alienation. Surveys of therapists reveal that 40 per cent of Americans seeking psychotherapy today suffer from these and other complaints, often referred to as all-pervasive ‘psychic deadness’. Once materialism becomes the epicenter of one’s life it can be hard to feel any more alive than the lifeless objects that litter the consumer world. In a recent study of US university students, 81 per cent of them reported feeling in an ‘existential vacuum’.

19 August 2007

The Doctor Will See You Now: Case Study 1

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 12:40 pm

The other day I put up a page on the blog describing MY PSYCHOLOGY PRACTICE, an edited and shortened version of an earlier post. (The link to this page appears at the top of the blog, just under the “Ktismatics” banner.) Soon Parodycenter put up a comment. “dear Dr Doyle,” it begins: “I read your advertisement with great interest. I have a big problem…” The comment then outlines the nature of the problem. “Can you help me?” the comment concludes. I must confess to a certain degree of ambivalence upon reading this comment, as evidenced by my two responses. In light of Parodycenter’s subsequent reply I think perhaps the right course of action is to engage in a public psychoanalysis of his problem.

Background. Parodycenter is a blog name for Dejan, the creator and writer of the blog Cultural Parody Center. I first became aware of this blog in April, when Dejan wrote a post extolling the virtues of Ktismatics. Since then I have been a regular reader and occasional commenter at the Parody Center. Less consistently I read some of the other blogs on the Parody Center’s blogroll, affording me the opportunity to read Dejan’s comments elsewhere. And of course he contributes his observations here at Ktismatics as well.

While Dejan seems well-versed and expresses strong opinions on a wide array of subjects, he seems repeatedly drawn to a few. Jacques Lacan and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Film, especially David Lynch’s Inland Empire (thumbs up) and Zack Snyder’s 300 (thumbs down). Sex, especially in its more transgressive manifestations. Serbia and the former Yugoslavia (tragic). Slavoj Zizek (contemptible). Perhaps most notable has been Dejan’s frequent discussions with Le Colonel Chabert — on his own blog, on the Colonel’s blog, seemingly on any blog where Chabert makes a comment. These protracted exchanges almost invariably turn caustic and end in Chabert’s refusal to continue.

The Initial Conversation, as transferred from the “My Psychology Practice” comments (comment feature now disabled on that page):

  1. parodycenter Says:
    August 18th, 2007 at 10:26 am dear Dr Doyle,I read your advertisement with great interest. I have a big problem which I haven’t been able to share so far, but when I read how open-minded and balanced you seem to be in your approach, I decided to take that crucial step. I hope my confidence will not be gambled with. This is my problem: I can’t seem to stop offending people on the internet. I enjoy hurting the sensibilities of social scientists, theologists, artists, doctor Doyle, just about ANYONE on the internet. I am so completely obsessed with this shameful activity, all my other social contacts are lacking or broken. Can you help me?Sincerely,Dejan
  2. ktismatics Says:
    August 18th, 2007 at 11:31 am Aren’t you ashamed? You’re hurting others’ feelings, yet you don’t seem to care. All you care about is your precious hit rate (as if through these campy, kitschy and vulgar antics you deserve more hits than I do — I, who write serious prose about deep subjects and engage in highfalutin’ psychotheophilosophical dialogue). I think you actually ENJOY torturing the poor unwitting souls who wander into your blog space. Not only that, you seek out other bloggers on their own territory, subjecting them to your vile and frankly perverse attentions. Wait ’til I tell your parents about this.
  3. ktismatics Says:
    August 18th, 2007 at 10:11 pm On the other hand, I do find myself moved to sorrow by your self-destructive encounters with Chabert. That you repeatedly woo her only to revile and repel her does bespeak a compulsion that might need to disguise itself as parody in order to preserve at least some dignity. If one were to regard this as an authentic pattern of approach-avoidance behavior, what might the analyst infer? Would the analyst recognize the temptation to protect himself counter-transferentially against becoming the object of this sort of compulsive seduction-and-abuse cycle? Does a sense of unworthiness oscillate with superiority, tormenting this person’s sensibilities and relationships, a sensitivity that must protect itself in callow crudity in order not to be annihilated in unrequited love? Which reality is the more true, and can it be relied upon? Or is a polyvalent portal holding this person in thrall to the sort of destructive cycle that characterizes practically everyone’s engagements with those to whom Fate destines them to be attracted?
  4. parodycenter Says:
    August 19th, 2007 at 3:38 am Doctor Doyle, yes I think I am fatally enthralled by the cobra’s malevolent charms, it might have something to do with the fact that I think whatever content she produces, and I am truly not impressed by her content, she’s not afraid to speak her mind, and I admire that a lot in wimmin; she makes the drollest things sound fantastic; on the other hand, due to some Oedipal dynamic I am surely dragging from my family I am repelled by wimmin with balls, and so some anal ambivalence resurfaces from all this. Strangely I think Arpege has some similar mental pattern (but then the other way round) and also reacts ambivalently to my own malevolent charms. This endless bitch-slave-master-bitch game belongs to the gay subgenre, which attracts Jonquille and this is how we always end up in a trio. But what I am learning and is surely an observation you can spend the next week spinning philosophies out of, is that this strange new interactive medium allows one to vent out these conflicts in a relatively safe way, which I find wonderful.

So, let’s get started with the analysis, shall we? I’ll pose a few preliminary observations based on the analysand’s original description of his problem, then wait for him to respond. If anyone else would like to interject as we proceed, please feel free to do so.

* * * *

Hello Dejan, please sit down. Is it alright if I call you Dejan? Comfortable?

On the page describing My Psychology Practice I listed an email address for curious parties to contact me. Yet you posed your problem as a comment on the blog, thus exposing your problem to public scrutiny…

On your comment you logged in as Parodycenter, your blogging persona with a link to your blog, yet you signed the comment personally as Dejan…

In your comment you refer to me as Doctor Doyle…

You say you “can’t stop” offending people, and then in the next sentence you say you “enjoy” it…

You say you enjoy hurting the sensibilities of “just about ANYONE” on the internet, yet I’m the only one you mention by name…

18 August 2007

The War? Whatever

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:50 pm

The last two antiwar marches I attended were in Nice. The first one, a couple months before the war began, totaled maybe ten thousand people; the second, shortly after the war started, was a little smaller, significantly less optimistic, and more politically radical. Today, more than four years later and for the first time since Vietnam, I went to a peace rally in America.

The march began with maybe fifty people; when it ended an hour and a half later the crowd had swelled to maybe eighty. Quite a few people carried signs; one guy played a snare drum. At the head of the parade was a college-aged girl with a bullhorn leading the chants: “What do we want?” “Peace!” — that sort of thing. “One two three four, we don’t want your bloody war!” What happened to ‘we don’t want your fucking war,’ I asked the woman in front of me. I told her not to say it, she replied. Why not? She’s my daughter. Well I’ll say it then. The mom smiled. Mostly I stuck with ‘bloody.’

The parade route started at the public library and wound its way through downtown Boulder, the pedestrian mall, the outdoor market, then back to the library. Quite a few people applauded as we passed by; only two or three expressed prowar sentiments. No heckling, no police, no tear gas. Mostly I noticed the expressions on people’s faces: a half-smile that avoided eye contact, expressing not so much cynicism as embarrassment.

Back in front of the library a few participants made brief speeches and a couple of musicians sang antiwar folk songs. When the last chorus had been sung there were maybe twenty people still hanging around.

Meanwhile, last week the American administration declared the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. The Guard is an official branch of the Iranian military numbering some 125,00o strong. By categorizing them as a terrorist organization, Bush can presumably authorize the invasion of Iran in accord with existing anti-terrorist powers already authorized by the Congress. The majority of the American public believes that we are losing the war but that we can still win it. The Democrats are expecting the war to fail so that, when the next elections roll around, the Democratic Party can solidify its hold on the Congress and take the Presidency. But if Bush invades Iran, this passive-aggressive move by the Democrats will fail. Next month the vote for continued funding of the war goes before Congress. With the threat of an invasion of Iran in front of them, will the Democrats actually do what they were elected to do and pull the plug on the war? I’m betting no.

16 August 2007

Adorno and Bildung

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:47 am

To recognize one’s own in the alien, to become at home in it, is the basic movement of the spirit, whose being consists only in returning to itself from what is other… Thus what constitutes the essence of Bildung is clearly not alienation as such, but the return to oneslf — which presupposes alienation, to be sure.

– Gadamer, Truth and Method

In the humanistic tradition of Bildung as it extends from Hegel through Gadamer (see prior post), the dialectic between self and other is transcended through identity. The self comes to recognize in its encounter with the other an aspect of itself that had previously remained hidden. By overcoming its alienation from the other, the self simultaneously overcomes self-alienation. The difference between identity and non-identity is resolved through identity.

As traditionally understood Bildung is a self-discipline by which individuals converge on a set of ideas, tastes, judgments that constitute the current approximation to universal standards. In a society dominated by economic considerations, Bildung ensures that buyers and sellers are on the same page regarding what sorts of commodities ought to be circulating. And universality never arrives; it’s always on the horizon, setting the direction of movement, of progress. The always-not-yet of the universal horizon assures a continuous influx of new and better products and a well-informed (i.e., well-disciplined) consumer base that’s ready to demand them. Bildung’s continual extension of provincial awareness toward the universal horizon assures the progressive globalization of the economy. Nietzsche recognized what was happening: As much knowledge and Bildung as possible — therefore, as much need and production as possible — therefore, as much happiness as possible. Instead of creating the universally conscious enlightened individual, this pseudo-Bildung produces a herd of Bildungphilisters — cultivated philistines, consuming popular culture spoon-fed to them by the marketplace while remaining unmoved by art and literature and other manifestations of high culture.

For Theodore Adorno, the humanistic project of Modernity has been thoroughly co-opted by the capitalistic production apparatus. In the marketplace the only difference that makes a difference is one that can be measured in excess profits: lowered cost of production, increased use value, and especially increased fetish value. All other differences are reduced to identity. Originally a means of nurturing humanistic individualism, Bildung becomes a means of minimizing individual differences. Higher culture is not immune:

No theory escapes the market anymore: each one is offered as a possibility among competing opinions, all are made available, all snapped up. Thought need no more put blinders on itself, in the self-justifying conviction that one’s own theory is exempt from this fate, which degenerates into narcissistic self-promotion.

Adorno, Negative Dialectics

As a corrective Adorno calls for a “negative dialectic” that upholds the irreducible integrity of non-identity in spite of the homogenizing machinations of capitalism. Adorno isn’t merely asserting the negative in response to the affirming collapse of all difference into the false optimism of the marketplace. It isn’t even the “negative of the negative,” by which the synthesizing co-optation is forestalled. Instead the intent is to draw attention to the unsynthesized remainder, the excess that identity cannot contain. Whatever resists identity will appear as contradiction, as the irrepressible negative.

Contemplating an unfamiliar idea or work of art, the observer encounters realms of familiarity interspersed with enigma. If you allow yourself to resist the lure of the familiar and to be drawn into the enigmatic, you find yourself withdrawing from comfortable identification and immersing yourself in the alien. You engage in a process of alienation from pseudo-Bildung — which is also a self-alienation, since the self has been so thoroughly shaped by pseudo-Bildung’s collective awareness. The progressive transcendence promised by authentic Bildung is pursued, says Adorno, not through self-effacement in the collective mind but through self-withdrawal into irreducible non-identity.

Adorno characterizes his praxis of Bildung as a “negative dialectic.” From the standpoint of the marketplace, differences that cannot be exploited economically have no meaning, no reality. To delve into these invisible differences is to seek presence in absence, forcing the mass culture of pseudo-Bildung to recognize its existence, which it can experience only as a negative, a disruption, a potential subversion. From within Critical Theory, of which Adorno was a central figure, Bildung becomes a form of counter-education, a way of building revolutionary resistance and counter-pressure to the hegemony of the “Culture Industry” that dominates the contemporary scene.

The practitioner of Adorno’s reconstructed Bildung is an alienated figure, a neurotic who will not be cured, who resists the social pressure exerted by the happy, healthy, normal people produced by mainstream pseudo-Bildung. Adorno’s pessimism was profound: Probably every citizen of the wrong world would find the right one intolerable, they would be too damaged for it. But there is no abandonment of humanistic idealism here. Instead its movement toward transcendence is inverted as a temporary corrective to the socio-historical situation “on the ground.” Instead of a unifying societal force, Bildung becomes a prophetic calling, a lonely trail into the wilderness, a utopian vision that only the pessimistic and the alienated can see.

15 August 2007

Critical Imbalance

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:46 am

Our daughter likes to draw. She says that, when she shows her drawings to adults, they usually come up with a theoretical or technical observation: “You have a good eye for balance,” that sort of thing. To her these comments seem forced and pretentious. Her interest is in the drawings themselves, what they depict, her pleasure in creating them, others’ pleasure in looking at them.

Why do the critics feel like they need to know more about the artist’s work than the artist herself does?

14 August 2007

Gadamer and Bildung

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:08 am

Gadamer wasn’t interested in studying humanity as it is, through empirical methods adapted from the physical sciences; he wanted to discover what humanity could be. Toward that end he drew on the concept of Bildung, defined by Herder as the rising up of humanity through culture. Bildung entails the proper cultivation of one’s innate capabilities in order to move progressively toward universal consciousness. Says Humboldt: when in our language we say Bildung, we mean something both higher and more inward, namely the disposition of mind which, from the knowledge and the feeling of the total intellectual and moral endeavor, flows harmoniously into sensibility and character. And then Gadamer again: the rise of the word Bildung evokes the ancient mystical tradition according to which man carries in his soul the image of God, after whom he is fashioned, and which man must cultivate in himself.

Bildung isn’t a technique to be mastered, nor does it strive toward some predefined goal; it is a continual way of being in the world that has no end other than itself. Bildung demands restraint in the pursuit of immediate pleasures, but it’s only through cultivating universal awareness that one gains freedom from the object of desire. Only by reaching beyond the particular to the universal, by trying to understand the wholly other, does one come to understand oneself. But Bildung isn’t reserved exclusively for the cultural elite: in acquiring the language and customs of our own culture we are continually extending ourselves beyond ourselves.

An individual praxis for moving beyond raw animality and egocentrism and cultural bias toward universal consciousness: the idea is appealing. The question is whether it “works.” Though it aspires to self-transcendence, Bildung is essentially a refinement and cultivation of the self. Taste, judgment, insight, self-consciousness — these are the distinguishing features not of universal culture but of the cultured individual. Since at least Greek times the cultivation of disinterested reason has distinguished the character of the true aristocrat, the man on whom wealth and power by rights ought to fall. Rather than constituting the imago Dei, might not Bildung be regarded as a kind of “secret handshake” by which the ruling class identifies one another?

Besides, how do those who practice Bildung know that they’re moving toward the universal, rather than immersing themselves ever more deeply inside their own culture? Empirical science presents itself as a method for moving progressively toward universal understanding, yet Gadamer and others regard it as a cultural byproduct of modernity, motivated by the desire to control nature, artificially separating the scientific observer from the field of study, alienating subject from object. Instead of method, Bildung relies on a kind of inner resonance between the cultivated mind and the appearance of Truth in the world. But by buffering this resonance from methodological scrutiny, Bildung can be confirmed only through intersubjective agreement among others of acknowledged good taste and good judgment — which again seems like just another way of reinforcing the biases of the elite.

It would seem that the only way to move beyond cultural bias toward universalism is for the individual practitioner of Bildung to disregard intersubjective validation altogether, moving progressively out of the orbit of the collective into the rarified atmosphere of individual transcendence. This is the direction that Nietzsche took Bildung: only the genius can claim to be a true practitioner, and genius by definition transcends all recognized standards of the community. No longer a universal capability open to all who would pursue it, Bildung becomes the exclusive province of the Supermen. And since the cultivation of individual genius means leaving existing standards of excellence and good taste behind, there can be no assurance that the practitioner of Bildung will arrive at anything like universal awareness. He or she is just as likely to arrive at a position of total otherness and uniqueness. But this sense of the idiosyncratic genius pursuing the unparalleled and lonely course into the ether: isn’t this too a cultural bias, the valorization of extreme individualism characteristic of Western modernity?

Is it necessary to abandon Bildung as a praxis hopelessly enmeshed in individualism and cultural bias? If so, what’s left to us as an authentic way of being in the world?

11 August 2007

Crisis of Trust

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:40 pm

Yesterday’s sell-off started in France, after BNP Paribas, the largest publicly traded bank there, suspended investors’ ability to remove money from three funds that had invested in American mortgage securities. The bank said it had become temporarily unable to place a value on the funds, which have turned sour as increasing numbers of homeowners have defaulted on their loans. “Trust was shaken today,” said Thomas Mayer, the chief European economist at Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt. “Credit depends on trust. If trust disappears, then credit disappears, and you have a systemic issue.” (from a 10 August article in the NY Times)

Yesterday we bought several pieces of used furniture from a small local company that specializes in “staging” homes. Homeowners can’t always get their homes sold before they have to relocate. So they move, taking all their furniture with them. But an empty house is hard to sell. Apparently buyers lack imagination: confronted with the raw physicality of the house as a container, it’s hard for most people to picture it as a home. And I suppose the empty house also implies to potential buyers that the absentee owner is eager to sell, that maybe the house can be had at a bargain price. So, for a fee, the seller can hire a staging company to decorate the empty house with tasteful and elegant furniture, reinforcing the message to house-hunters that this is indeed a high-end buy.

The staging business isn’t really needed in a red-hot market, when houses sell so fast they never get empty. In a cold market owners become reluctant to put their houses up for sale, afraid that they’ll have to settle for far less than they believe the house is worth. Our town, and apparently most of the world, constitutes a cold housing market. So, with a decline in demand for their services, the little home staging company has decided to reduce its inventory of furniture and move into a smaller warehouse. That means bargains for us: some nice used furniture that’s never actually been lived in.

For the second consecutive day, President Bush sought to soothe investors by pointing out that the American job market and the global economy were healthy. He added that deep pools of capital were available. “The fundamentals of our economy are strong,” he said at a news conference. “Another factor one has got to look at is the amount of liquidity in the system. And I am told there is enough liquidity in the system to enable markets to correct.” But his remarks appeared to have only a brief and limited impact on the stock market. Later in the day, several Democrats criticized the administration’s response to the mortgage problems as weak and shortsighted.

In response to this “crisis of trust,” the European Central Bank (ECB) lent $130 trillion at low interest rates to European mortgage banks, while the Fed pumped $24 billion into American lending institutions. The purpose behind these moves was to keep mortgage rates from jumping, which would depress the housing market even more. The immediate effect, though, is to keep the mortgage lenders from going belly-up from too many home mortgages that have gone into default. And why so many defaults? Because people were buying houses at inflated prices. And why? Because they could qualify for very big mortgages at very low interest rates. And the banks would extend these big loans why? Because housing prices kept going up up up, so banks were eager to compete for a small share of big profits. Now that the market has cooled, these heavily-morgaged houses aren’t even worth the amount of the outstanding loans. So the buyers default, and the banks can’t recoup their losses by selling the houses. Short on cash, the banks try to sell off non-liquid assets. But what do they have to sell? Bundles of home mortgage loans. But the loan consolidators are taking a hit too, for the same reason the banks are — they’re selling, not buying. Which brings the central banks into play. With their loans financed by tax dollars, and with the ability to print more money, the central banks are there to bail out the banks and their investors during this “crisis of trust.”

But the European bank’s extraordinary response — its first since Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington — deepened investors’ anxiety. “The E.C.B. ignited a fear that there is something really bad going on that the markets don’t yet know about,” said Jacob de Tusch-Lec, a fund manager at Artemis Investment Management in London. “It will take time until investors are sure that this is not the case.” …“It’s like popcorn in a kettle,” said James Melcher, president of Balestra Capital, a hedge fund in New York. “First you have one or two pops, then it turns into a cacophony. I think we are about halfway through.”

Macroeconomics shape our environment, and our responses to the environment, in ways that are beyond our control and for the most part outside of our conscious awareness. Economic trends emerge from collective unconscious factors like trust, anxiety and greed, which spread across the society like a virus. Economics is like a language: we are immersed in it at the macro level and it’s inside of us at the microlevel. It shapes our thoughts, attitudes and behaviors from both the outside in and the inside out. I try not to think about these things very often — a psychological defense mechanism known as dissociation. But just because I don’t make the effort to make conscious sense of the economy doesn’t mean it’s not affecting me. And these effects aren’t only psychological; they’re also tangible. After all, if it wasn’t for this crisis of trust we wouldn’t have gotten such a good deal on those three tables we bought from the home stagers.

10 August 2007

Between the Abyss and the Wall

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:59 pm

Here’s another crack at describing my therapy practice. I imported the first paragraph from a prior post, and I’m worried it sounds too hopeful. It’s possible I should skip everything but paragraph 8 (I’ve numbered them for ease of reference). Or maybe just paragraphs 2, 3, 7, and 8. Or maybe toss the whole thing and try again. Whaddaya think?


1. Do you ever get the feeling that you’d be fine if only the world was different? That if you could just transport yourself to another reality, your weaknesses would turn into strengths, your failures into successes, your indifference into enthusiasm, your frustration into fulfillment? A reality where value isn’t just market value, where you make something besides money, where spending time isn’t just wasting time? A reality where people engage each other instead of undermining or ignoring one another?

2. Is it genius or virtue, the hand of God or Fortuna’s wheel, an iron will or a lack of imagination that guides the steps of those who find their way without confusion and who persevere without struggle? We may envy and resent them, and not without cause. But isn’t it possible that when we lose our way we’re on the verge of discovering a different way, and what seems like a stumbling block might also be a threshold?

3. There’s a channel that winds its way between the Abyss and the Wall, between chaos and overdetermination. The channel is a labyrinth branching in countless different directions, nearly all of which remain invisible to us. Passing through the channel we might learn something about the contours of the world. We might encounter fellow explorers along the way: some pass in silence; others extend a hand in fellowship; only a few travel with us. We might even meet ourselves.

4. Reality isn’t a given, nor is it obvious: we have to discover it. At times it’s hard to tell the difference between discovery and creation, between what we see of reality and what we make of it. Reality isn’t a universal constant: many realities interpenetrate the world, emerging, morphing, dissolving. Sometimes without realizing it we pass from one reality to another. Less often we recognize the presence of a portal and its pull on us. Only rarely do we understand that we can resist this pull or accede to it.

5. A reality isn’t a raw physical thing; it’s more like a web of meaning that links us to the world and to other people. We assume there’s only a single reality, but we participate in multiple realities every day, depending on what’s motivating us and what signals we’re attuned to. Most of the time we’re unaware of the realities in which we’re embedded. But we can pay attention; we can become aware of alternate realities and the strands of meaning that comprise them. We can learn what attracts us to certain realities, what repels us from others, what keeps us unaware of still others. We can understand the ways in which realities shape us, and the ways we shape realities. We can become reality travelers, linking ourselves to the world and to to other people in ways that we might never have imagined possible.

6. What can be said of realities can also be said of selves. Selves and realities create each other, like the Escher print of a hand drawing itself. A self is like a reality – a way of making sense of who you are and what you experience. Some realities don’t come fully into being until we start living in them. Some versions of ourselves don’t reveal themselves until we enter into a reality where that self makes sense.

7. You can get stuck in a reality that has become toxic or claustrophobic. You try to make yourself succeed, but instead you find yourself alternately crashing into the Wall or teetering on the brink of the Abyss. Everything you do, say, think or feel bounces right back at you like an echo – or else it disappears altogether. You try to make yourself bigger, hoping that by sheer presence you can decide, plan, act, push your way through – only to find yourself frustrated by your own lopsided clumsiness. All the while other realities, other selves, remain undiscovered, unexplored, uncreated. Instead of trying so hard to get bigger, stronger, more focused, you might want to look around a little, experiment, get more flexible. Maybe instead of bulling your way through this reality you can slip into a different version of yourself and set out for a different reality.

8. In my practice I don’t profess to be a problem solver, a healer, a coach. I’m more like a tour guide, an outfitter for those who would explore uncharted realities, examine unformulated experiences, identify the hidden regions of the self. Curiosity is the main prerequisite, a willingness to probe the contours of the Wall, to sound the depths of the Abyss, to distinguish the map from the territory, to unravel the web and open things up a little.

John Doyle
M. Div., Ph.D. (Psychology)
Boulder, Colorado
by appointment
Email: portalic@gmail.com

9 August 2007

Ktismatics Overhaul

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 2:52 pm

Looking over the archives, I see that I wrote my first blog post a year ago today. So today seems like a good day to make a ktismatics overhaul.

I thought about quitting. I want to write another novel, as well as a some more extended pieces on psychology that extend beyond the length of a typical blog post. I tend to write posts in clusters, devoting days or even weeks to the same topic. That style can make it hard for a reader to jump in on any random day without having to back up and read the prior days’ posts. So I thought about changing my blog style, making each post a self-contained item like most other blogs. But I’m wanting to get more focused rather than less so.

I’m also starting my therapy practice here in Boulder. I find it difficult to describe my orientation in a few words, so I’m thinking maybe the blog might help establish a context. I don’t want to turn ktismatics into a self-help service or an advertisement, nor do I want to depersonalize my posts and comments to keep from revealing too much about my own pathologies. But what the heck: I don’t claim to be the paragon of mental health.

Then I thought about stopping this blog and starting up a new one. I could change the look, the focus, maybe even the name. Maybe I’d find it invigorating. I could put in a link to the old blog for those who want to troll the archives, but I could more or less leave the old obsessions behind and work on some new ones. Again, though, why not just tweak ktismatics a little? My old obsessions aren’t likely to go away, and besides, hardly anybody reads the archives anyway.

So I’ve decided to carry on: same blog, same name, same general approach, but with a few changes:

  • I’ve taken down the pages referencing my book on Genesis 1. Ktismatics began as a means of calling attention to the book and elaborating on the ideas it contains: generally I deem the blog a failure in achieving that end. Now it’s the practice’s turn…
  • I’m going to add a page describing the practice, for those locals who might want to give it a try. I posted one version of such a description previously; I’ll put up a new one tomorrow. Of course if my experience in drawing attention to the Genesis 1 book is anything to go on, then the blog page about the practice is likely not to draw much attention either.
  • I’ve added a blogroll, mostly because it makes it easier for me to consolidate in one place the links to blogs I read regularly. This use of a blogroll is probably obvious to everyone else, but it took me awhile to get it.
  • I might use the upper left sector of the blog for announcements. E.g., if there’s a movie I intend to watch and write a post about, I can let people know ahead of time in case they too want to watch it and engage in discussion.
  • I might start categorizing the posts a little more informatively. If I can be bothered, I might even recategorize the archives.
  • I might start printing off copies of the day’s post and distributing them around town. If I do this I might add to the post a very brief description of the practice, thereby creating a weird sort of sales brochure. If I get ready to do this I’ll post an example of what the “ad” part might look like.

For those of you who read ktismatics on a regular or occasional basis, thanks for following along. If you have any observations or suggestions about the blog please let me know.

Older Posts »

Blog at WordPress.com.