Ktismatics

29 November 2009

Direct Cognitive Encounter

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:15 pm

Yesterday I was running south on Knox Avenue, past the middle school on my left and a park on my right. I became aware of a male voice yelling, the sound coming from in front and to the right. I looked toward the source of the voice: a guy is standing there looking at me. I keep running, looking toward this guy, when suddenly emerging out of the background visual array I detect an object flying through the air toward me at speed, just about to hit me. Immediately I recognize it as a frisbee. I could have tried to catch it in stride, but I figured that this guy who yelled and who had almost surely thrown the frisbee was probably playing frisbee golf, a game for which the park is equipped. I pulled myself back from the frisbee’s trajectory, letting it sail past me. I yelled to the guy “almost a hole in one,” and ran on.

In an earlier post I presented a brief case in support of the idea that minds and brains have direct access to themselves. Can a case be made that minds/brains have direct access to the real world as well?

Shaviro, in a recent post, writes:

I am unwilling to equate Kant’s argument for the cognitive inaccessibility to the thing-in-itself with the thesis that “objects never directly encounter one another.” This is because contact or encounter cannot be reduced to cognitive access. In Kant’s account, we are affected by things-in-themselves, even though we can never know them.

That’s fine as far as it goes: I can get hit by an object even if I never see it coming. If the object hits me without my knowing beforehand what it is, my encounter with it, though direct, will have been only partial: its color, the material from which it’s made, the cause of its specific trajectory — these and other properties of the object would not participate in the encounter. But what if I do see it coming, recognize it as a frisbee, realize that it’s probably going to hit me if both it and I continue on our current paths, decide whether to catch it or to take evasive action? Isn’t my cognitive interaction with the frisbee just as direct as if it had hit me without my knowing what it was? For that matter, doesn’t my cognitive interaction with the frisbee encounter more properties of the frisbee than if it had merely hit my body without my prior awareness?

If it is possible for objects to encounter one another directly, and if cognition is a form of inter-object encounter, then I suggest that it’s possible to have direct cognitive encounters with objects.

One could contend that cognition is indirect because it’s a higher-order processing capability, interpreting perceptual inputs which are in turn mid-level interpretations of raw sensory inputs. Arguably some sort of transformation or translation of inputs takes place at each hierarchical level of the organism’s functioning. However, the relationships between sensation, perception, and cognition aren’t entirely separate and hierarchical. When I see a colorful flat object sailing toward me from the direction of a frisbee golf course, I’m prepared, unconsciously and without sequential delay, to compare the pattern of sensory visual inputs with my stored cognitive schema for frisbee. Cognition emerges bottom-up from sensation and perception to be sure, but cognition also exerts top-down effects on sensation and perception. In fact, this top-down impact of cognition enables the sensory-perceptual apparatus to render even more accurate information about objects than would otherwise be the case.

There’s no reason to reduce cognition to lower-level brain activities like sensation and perception. Minds interact with the world cognitively: that’s what they do. Even if all sorts of transformations take place at lower levels to produce the emergent properties of minds and thoughts, these emergent entities are real in their own right. To contend that other kinds of inter-object relations like physical touching can be direct while cognitive interactions can only be indirect is seemingly to dismiss mind as something less than an object. Either that, or mind must be a qualitatively different sort of object that engages in qualitatively different sorts of encounters with the real.

Isn’t it a variant of idealism to view cognition as being not quite physical enough to touch the real? It’s a sort of inverted idealism, in that cognitive encounters are deemed incapable of accomplishing what raw physicality can achieve in the realm of the real. I am supposed to regard my cognitive encounter with the flying object not as a means of gaining more complete access to some real thing that’s about to strike me, but as a filter or screen that inserts itself between me and the real, blocking whatever direct access I might otherwise have experienced.

Shaviro goes on:

So I agree with Levi and Graham that an object never cognitively grasps any other object in its entirety. (This is what Levi calls epistemological anti-realism). My non-vicarious version of ontological realism consists in claiming that objects do directly encounter (or affect) one another — only they do so non-cognitively. This is precisely why our ontology can be realist, even when our epistemology is confessedly anti-realist.

Okay fine: let’s presume that it’s not possible cognitively to grasp another object in its entirety. But can’t knowledge, like other kinds of inter-object encounters, be incomplete but also direct? Knowledge isn’t only a mechanism for constructive interpretation of the real; it’s also a kind of recording device. If the object had physically struck me it would have recorded one sort of impression, a tactile one. Instead the object recorded cognitive impressions: it’s an orange frisbee, errantly thrown by that yelling guy in the park, aimed not at me but at one of the holes on the golf course.


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Lars and the Real Girl by Gillespie, 2007

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 4:07 am

I imagine this movie stripped of all the communitarian big-heartedness and psychological healing. Leave everything as it is, minus the parts about how nutty Lars is and what should be done about it.

 

28 November 2009

Sentences

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:02 am

The carpentry, remarkable in its abandonment of finesse, planed the wooden landscape into rough geometries.

The skirt of the tablecloth spoke to the chair legs in its secret language of folds and wrinkles.

Haptic verses pled with my skin.

Into the tactile longing filtered a diffuse mist, blurring the edges.

Having scanned the unwary ones with its strident glance, the sequential array tuned itself to a more consequential frequency.

*   *   *

Your backyard birds deserve the best.

The Soft Baby™ scent will leave your baby smelling wonderful — as a baby should.

This canister makes 240-270 suggested strength servings.

It is normal for carbon dust to appear in your first 2 pitchers.

 

 

26 November 2009

Benny’s Video by Haneke, 1992

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 11:33 am

 

24 November 2009

Mobile Home

Filed under: Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:54 pm

In southern Italy I have visited a church inside of which stands a house entire, ancient and squat, roughly crafted of hand-hewn stone. The house was once, it is said, the home of Mary mother of Jesus. Escalating violence between crusaders and infidels having placed the house in peril, a squadron of holy angels lifted it from the ground and bore it through the air to its present location, where it became enshrined inside the church which was soon built around it. Did the house, indistinguishable from its Galilean neighbors, always contain within itself the possibility, or perhaps even the inevitability, of making this journey? If we could enter the house’s secret core would we see, etched in the old stones, the other stops on its as-yet-unfulfilled itinerary?

23 November 2009

Not-Inferno

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 7:02 am

[Kublai Khan) said: “It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.”

And Polo said:  “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

– the last lines of Eternal Cities by Italo Calvino, 1972

20 November 2009

Direct Access to Mind

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:26 pm

This post is based on some comments I wrote to myself toward the end of an earlier post-and-discussion about cognition and empiricism. In my post I summarized some of the empirical evidence supporting the contention that much, if not most, human cognition takes place outside of conscious awareness. However, I decidedly did not propose that all of cognition is unconscious. We consciously attend to things, reason, solve problems, assemble stored memories, plan, evaluate information. And we’re self-reflexive about it: we are consciously aware that we’re reasoning, problem-solving, etc.

Doesn’t this mean that we have direct access to our own minds, at least to some extent? I’d say yes. If’ I’m aware that I’m solving a problem, and if both my awareness and my problem-solving are mental processes, then my mind has direct access to some of its own activities. If we’re consciously aware of the activities and outputs of our own consciousness, then that’s not just direct self-relation but also direct self-awareness of the self-relation. Consciousness is an emergent property of brain activity; unless we believe in the soul or some form of panpsychism there is no source of consciousness other than brain activity. So consciousness has to be in direct relation with the unconscious brain activity that generates it — doesn’t it? — even if that direct relation doesn’t take the form of conscious awareness of brain function. My hand is in direct connection with itself, even if  it can’t hold itself in its grip. A bridge is in direct connection with itself, even if it can’s support itself on itself.

What I definitely don’t have direct access to are the unconscious workings of the mind, which mostly have to do with the neural structures and synaptic firings from which my conscious thoughts arise. Similarly, I have some direct conscious access to my digestive tract — I’m aware of being hungry, or nauseated, or needing to pee — even if I don’t have access to the biological processes generating my awareness. If having access to the unconscious biochemical level is the only thing that counts for direct access, isn’t this to reduce mind from its emergent states and functions down to the biochemical brain functions?

But let’s go back to the issue of direct access. The brain is the source of both conscious and unconscious cognitive activity. Consciousness and unconsciousness together comprise mind. Just because I’m not consciously aware of unconscious processes doesn’t mean that my mind has no direct access to itself. My unconscious has direct access to itself, making and breaking synaptic connections, even if I’m not consciously aware of it. So too with my digestive tract: it has direct access to itself, enzymatically processing nutrients, shunting off waste products, and so on, even if my conscious mind has no direct access to these processes. Direct access of something to itself isn’t the same thing as direct conscious access to itself.

19 November 2009

Beaujolais Day Again

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:33 am

Anne just reminded me that today is Beaujolais Day. I know, I know, the wine is crap, the holiday is just a commercialized hype. It’s been three years now since I’ve had a glass of the stuff. Still, Beaujolais day in France always proved memorable.  So I’ll reread my old posts about Beaujolais days past: here, here, and here.

15 November 2009

the unconscious and THE Unconscious

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:30 pm

In a recent discussion of psychoanalysis, several commenters questioned the relationship between the empirically-supported unconscious and THE Unconscious of psychoanalytic theory. There is empirical support for the unconscious as a loosely-structured amalgam of neural nodes and connections, of memories and fragmented thoughts, waiting to be assembled into meaningful combinations by consciousness. But is there a place in the mind where hidden truths reside, a structure or process or event that speaks to consciousness with the intent of breaking through and revealing its secrets — THE Unconscious, if you will?

I don’t think so. In my view, the “breakthroughs” of analysis can be accounted for by the workings of the unconscious with a small “u,” without invoking this other repository of truth,  intentional revealer to consciousness, and portal to the Real that constitutes THE Unconscious.

In an earlier post (2½ years ago today!) I outlined Donnel Stern’s description of the unconscious. Stern, a psychoanalyst, offers an interpretation that aligns quite well with contemporary empirical psychology. The unconscious is structured like a language, Lacan famously pronounced, and in a sense that’s how the brain’s interconnections work. Language isn’t organized into prestored sentences that people retrieve as needed. Rather, the vocabulary and rules of language are only loosely organized, available as materials from which language-users can construct sentences on the fly. Brains are structured in this way too. Ideas, memories, and other stuff in the brain are widely but loosely connected to each other, available for retrieval when we need to solve a problem, remember how to get to Joe’s house, or talk about the weather.

Through repetition, certain interconnections become stronger than others — these are the ones most readily accessible to consciousness. But other connections are there too, operating below the threshold of consciousness. These weaker connections are usually overpowered by the stronger ones. This sort of “repression” may result from active effort to prevent certain neural connections from surfacing. More often, the weaker connections just never reach the synaptic “tipping point” which brings them across the threshold into conscious awareness.

In the psychoanalytic encounter, the analyst encourages the analysand to loosen up the dominant, habitual mental connections — to “deterritorialize” the mind, using Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology. By drawing attention to slips of the tongue, metaphors, and dual meanings, the analyst pulls on those secondary neural connections between words and ideas in hopes of bringing them into consciousness. Exploring these alternative ways of organizing mental material may lead the analysand into formulating new insights about past and present experiences and ascribing different meanings to them.

Stern explicitly draws the implications for THE Unconscious of traditional psychoanalytic theory:

“If unconscious experience does not have a single, predetermined meaning, but remains to be interpreted in reflective awareness, the effect of clinical interpretation does not depend on objective accuracy and cannot be judged on that basis.” (p. 63)

It’s difficult if not impossible to verify the supposed truth claims revealed by probing the unconscious, as testified by the recent resurgence and critique of repressed childhood memories retrieved through hypnosis and such as the cause of psychological disorders. Even Freud didn’t believe that these retrieved memories were “true” objectively; rather, he thought they constituted projections and wishes. Stern contends that bringing unconscious material into consciousness usually entails reformulating the meaning of memories that are already accessible to consciousness rather than uncovering previously repressed memories.

Stern continues:

“If unconscious meaning is an objective fact, and the clinical function of language is to label it, then the purpose of interpretation is the accurate matching of facts and labels. The only interpretations we can possibly make of objectively existing unconscious content must be — like their objects — objective, scientific, and nonphenomenological. Under these conditions, the analyst would be expected to explain the patient’s conduct and experience on the basis of nonintrospectible, but theoretically conceivable, abs0lute unconscious phenomena. The analyst would then be expected to convey these explanations to the patient in the form of objectively accurate interpretations.” (p. 164)

Stern doesn’t believe that analysis produces this unveiling of objective truths hidden in the unconscious. (It should be noted that none of what Stern says here would change if the patient rather than the analyst were doing the interpretations.) What is the alternative?

“Psychoanalysts and analysands do judge the goodness of their interpretations, of course. They do that continuously. But the accuracy of our portrayals of unconscious meaning is virtually irrelevant as a truth criterion. ‘Accuracy’ is not really even a meaningful term in discussing the interpretation of unformulated experience, because the term cannot be defined by reference to an observable relation between itself and its object. We know the object (to repeat the essential point) only by means of our interpretation of it. That means clinical interpretation is not objective and scientific, but subjective and phenomenological. And it spells the end of correspondence theory in psychoanalysis. We can no longer hold that the nonverbal unconscious meaning is the ‘real’ one that our words simply clothe or represent, or to which they correspond.” (p. 165)

Stern insists that it’s not necessary to deny the existence of a structured reality outside of awareness or language. He’s only contending that the meaning of the real isn’t fixed, either in the world or in the unconscious mind, waiting to be discovered. In psychoanalysis, interpretation leads to the conscious construction of meanings on material that had previously either been locked into an inadequate meaning or had remained unformulated, uninterpreted, personally meaningless.

“Interpretation has an organizing function. It is not a set of correct labels, but a redescription of the patient’s experience at a level of differentiation and articulation higher than the patient had heretofore reached. In this process of redescribing, an interpretation may bring together pieces of experience, or even of logic or emotional argumentation, that have never before appeared in the patient’s mind in a single configuration. An interpretation is a new Gestalt.” (p. 171)

13 November 2009

Quiddity

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 3:51 pm

Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.

“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.

“The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”

Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.”

Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”

– from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, 1972

Speculations Yes

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:36 am

Just to add my two cents, I’m in full support of Speculations, the new online, open-access journal that Paul Ennis of Anotherheideggerblog is making happen. It would be perfectly great if the entire editorial board and most of the contributors are grad students and unaffiliated scholars, inasmuch they almost surely know more about object-oriented philosophy than do most of the philosophy faculty. I think it’s also a strong and generous act of support that Graham Harman and Levi Bryant will be contributing papers outlining the theoretical issues.

Fabio at hyper tiling opined recently that he tends to lose focus on blog posts exceeding a thousand words. Me too. Journal articles are a different sort of writing, calling for a different sort of reading. Why wait for the authorities to put their imprimatur on a field of study or a publication, or even an author? DIY.

4 November 2009

Is Psychoanalysis Empirically Supported?

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 12:34 am

In a recent discussion at Perverse Egalitarianism regarding the relationship between ontology and politics, Asher Kay went off-topic to question the empirical validity of psychoanalysis. Asher had a book in hand casting strong doubt on the empirical basis for analysis. Bryan Klausmeyer countered by saying that clearly the unconscious exists, just as analysis asserts. Levi Bryant contended that the empirical support for psychoanalysis comes from clinical practice. Here’s my view of the situation, which I previously relayed to a few people via email.

There’s strong empirical support for the existence of the unconscious. This evidence isn’t generated only by analysts either. Social psychologists devise all sort of ingenious experiments for exploring ways in which our minds play tricks on us, where what people consciously say and believe are at odds with what they do and decide. Cognitive psychologists design problems intended to expose cognitive processes and intermediate results that happen in brains beneath the threshold of conscious awareness. Neuroscientists look at brain structures and functions that operate far beneath consciousness. Consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg of brain/mind activity, which is evident to all of us. E.g., what will I write in my next sentence? I don’t know yet: I’ll assemble it from components of knowledge and language that’s distributed in my brain but that I’m not consciously rehearsing. What was the name of my next door neighbor’s dog while I was growing up? I know it, but I have to retrieve it from unconscious memory in order to answer the question. As I wrote in a post a couple of months ago:

“Based on a count of receptor cells and their neural connections, neuroscientists estimate that the human sensory system takes in more than 11 million pieces of information per second. Based on studies of processing speed on tasks like reading and detecting different flashes of light, cognitive psychologists estimate that people can process consciously about 40 pieces of information per second. What happens to the other 10,999,960? It’s processed unconsciously.”

Is there empirical support for the metapsychology of psychoanalysis? Here I’m referring to things like the id/ego/superego distinction, the Oedipus complex, the oral/anal/genital/phallic stages of development, the divided self centered around lack, the imaginary/symbolic/real, the unsatisfiability of desire, and so on? I’ve not read A Final Accounting, the book Asher cited, but I’d agree with the author’s general conclusion that the evidence is either weak or nonexistent. For what it’s worth, psychoanalytic theory plays virtually no role in contemporary empirical psychology and its investigations of cognition, memory, the unconscious, personality, and even psychopathology. Awhile back I wrote a post critiquing Lacan’s supposed empirical support for a “mirror stage” preceding language acquisition leading to the development of the “specular image” of the self. This situation follows what seems to be the typical pattern: despite claims to evidentiary support for the theories, the evidence typically doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny.

Regarding the therapeutic outcomes of psychoanalysis… I know, I know, analysis isn’t therapy. However, people tend to be motivated to come for analysis because they’re suffering from symptoms, and I daresay that they expect analysis to alleviate their suffering. Many empirical studies point to the same conclusion: pretty much any therapeutic intervention is far better than no intervention, but no particular technique seems to work any better than the rest. Also, the amount of experience on the therapist’s part seems to have no impact on outcome.

One implication of this finding of similar results across modalities is that all modalities achieve their effects pretty much the same same way. So even though psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioral therapy espouse different praxes and theoretical rationales, they might be wrong regarding the cause-effect connection. It seems likely that establishing and maintaining a supportive relationship between therapist and client is the most important criterion for obtaining good symptom relief.

It should be noted that cognitive behavioral therapy gains no greater empirical support for therapeutic outcomes than does psychoanalysis. The constructs of CBT seem fairly common-sensical, even managerial, which suits some people better than does the quasi-mystical language of analytic theory. And there is some empirical evidence that people who believe in the particular treatment praxis they receive are more likely to benefit from therapy.

*   *   *

Though I’m not persuaded by the empirical evidence supporting psychoanalysis, I find it more fascinating than ever. Empiricism in psychological research is mostly a matter of averages. But it’s a pretty squishy field of research, with even strong correlations between variables typically overwhelmed by the statistical variation. Clinical practice opens up the exploration of the variations, the individual differences that get lost in empirical averaging. Two people scoring the same on a depression inventory can have very different subjective experiences of their depression, different causal trajectories, different ways in which their symptom affects their lives, and so on.

I found as a therapist that the empirical evidence had very little to do with the way I engaged with clients, because for the individual it’s the unique trajectory through life that’s important. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that after seeing multiple clients I found them all blurring together into something like an average client. Some therapists probably find that comforting: I know what to do with this case. My reaction was that I began losing interest, feeling unengaged and mechanical and distant in dealing with the clients. That’s why I quit doing therapy.

To illustrate the value of psychoanalysis, Levi Bryant described on Larval Subjects his experience of repeatedly breaking the chalk on the blackboard when he was a new teacher. His analyst’s intervention was to repeat a phrase that Levi spoke during a session, something about “pressure on the board.” The analyst’s restating of Levi’s remark triggered a cascade of insights, and shortly thereafter the chalk-breaking stopped.

What’s the common-sense response to this example? You’re tense. It’s natural to be nervous when you start out doing anything; most people fear public speaking; give it some time and you’ll start relaxing. And in most instances the common-sense response would be accurate: the nervousness would abate in time, the new teacher would stop pressing (literally and figuratively) so hard and relax into a comfort zone. One could imagine different sorts of interventions for accelerating the process. Relaxation exercises. Systematic desensitization — think about the chalk, pick it up and set it back down, pick it up and press it on the board and set it down, etc. CBT — it’s irrational to think that you’re less competent than your students, or that they care more about your performance than about their own grade in the class; become aware of your bodily and mental sensations leading up to the chalk-breaking and try to short-circuit the event by taking a deep breath and relaxing the hand holding the chalk; etc. We could even imagine a Freudian drawing analogies between the piece of chalk and the penis, handling the chalk and masturbation, breaking the chalk and self-castration for trying to take the place of the father in the classroom, and so on. Every one of these specific interventions might be useless in causing new teachers to stop breaking chalk, but the chalk-breaking would probably stop anyway over time. In all likelihood, though, Levi would attribute his lighter touch with the chalk to whatever sort of intervention technique he happened to undergo. And empirically speaking, just having someone there to support him would likely have reduced Levi’s anxiety more quickly than if he’d just dealt with it on his own.

But Levi’s analyst encouraged him to deal with the chalk-breaking symptom not just as something to overcome but as a sort of exploratory window. Looking through the window, Levi was able to see various ways in which this chalk-breaking symptom might relate to other experiences in his life, other symptoms, past experiences that caused similar reactions. The loosening of rational consciousness thought encouraged by the psychoanalytic context opened up the window even wider, bringing in less obvious, less well-rehearsed interconnections in memory and affect. The analyst’s interventions serve not to foreclose further exploration through expert judgment but to loosen the strictures even further, to deterritorialize the neural net with little schizzy interruptions in the usual flow of associations. Levi might have stopped breaking chalks at about the same time if he’d gone for CBT instead, but almost certainly he wouldn’t have had as rich and unique an experience along the way.

To me this is the great thing about psychoanalytic praxis: it regards symptoms as opportunities to open up windows rather than as cracks in the walls that have to be patched up. The kinds of discoveries a client might make are liable to be some combination of the ordinary and the idiosyncratic, just like all human experience tends to be. But for that particular client the discoveries add depth and texture and meaning to life. In this sense analysis is more like watching a great movie, or perhaps like writing a novel, than like going to a repair shop. What are the measurable outcomes of reading Crime and Punishment? You might pass a knowledge test, you might write a good interpretive essay, but ultimately it’s some sort of (trans)formative experience that contributes something intangible and distinct to who you are and how you experience the world.

*   *   *

Is psychoanalysis worth the money? I suppose the question is: compared to what? It seems self-indulgent, but so is buying a new car every few years or remodeling the kitchen. Those shopping-cart comparisons point to something fairly obvious: it’s hard not to think of analysis as a bourgeois luxury good. And yet, even in the go-go borrow-and-spend years leading up to the latest meltdown, those who could afford analysis rarely made that purchase. Is it because of the lack of empirical support? Doubtful. After all, consumers know that a new car loses a few thousand dollars in value the minute you drive it off the lot. There’s just something sort of decadently impractical about analysis. Besides, who intentionally wants to pick at the scabs of old wounds and open up cans of worms?

3 November 2009

Stepping Onto the Pier

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:21 am

No, I’ve still not embarked on my month-long novel-writing project. But I am getting closer to the water.

I suppose I’ve got writer’s block, brought on and exacerbated by a variety of factors that those of you who’ve followed my blog for awhile can probably identify. NaNoWriMo is a gimmick to be sure. For procrastinators the deadline helps, and the virtual community of fellow Nanoistes provides further impetus. I was hoping that it might simulate an external call for the writing, a call that would stimulate my desire actually to set sail again into the fictional waters. Mostly though, NaNoWriMo is provoking me to come to grips with what sort of fiction I write, could write, would like to write.

The sheer speed demanded by the proposed voyage — 50 thousand words in a month = 1667 per day — initially suggested a free-write, stream-of-consciousness approach. Just let it rip, I tried to persuade myself: don’t think about it; just do it. But 1667 words really isn’t that much — I’ve written fiction that quickly before in stretches, when I was on my game. So then I thought about doing each daily installment in an hour, forcing myself to write as if I were free-associating on the analyst’s couch. I do think that would be fun, and I still might do it.

But yesterday and this morning I’ve felt myself drawn back again to the kind of writing, and the kind of book, that I’ve done before. I’ve long considered undertaking a sequel of sorts to the first novel I wrote, which I sometimes think of as Philip Marlowe trying to unravel a Borgesian mystery only to find himself entangled in the case. But the more I thought and wrote about the sequel the longer and more complicated it became, so I abandoned it. Now though, forced to confine myself to a 50 thousand word limit, I’ve watched one piece of that vast sequel slowly rising to the surface. So I think I might hop aboard that plank and assemble a boat out there on the November seas.

On my morning walk I was trying to decide where the new story should be set and who the Philip Marlowe character should be this time. My thoughts took me back to my second book, which ends by introducing a character who might fill that role. But why should I link the third novel to the second when I’m intending to follow on from the first one? And then I realized something else: omens typically have to fall right on my head before I recognize them.

Yesterday afternoon I was walking along one of my usual routes, preoccupied with this NaNoWriMo thing, when something out of place caught my attention. I looked closer: there, perched in the crook of a tree, sat an espresso machine, its cord dangling halfway to the ground. I inspected it more carefully: a Krups, like the one I used to have. I wondered how it got there of course, and whether it still worked. I thought about taking it home with me, but rejected the idea. What if the gasket is broken on the pressurizer? Then, when I take it for a test run, it’ll blow hot gritty coffee grounds all over the kitchen, all over me. Fuck that: I’m leaving it in the tree.

It wasn’t until this morning’s walk, as I was thinking about connecting the third novel to the first via the second, that the omen part struck me. There’s an episode in my second novel in which the main character’s espresso machine breaks, spewing coffee grounds all over the place. And now here I am, walking along thinking about writing fiction, and I happen to walk past a tree with a fucking Krups machine perched in a branch right at eye level?

So now as I’m headed for home this morning I’m wondering if the espresso maker is still there. I walk past a parking lot where a photographer is taking a group photo of what I presume is some sort of choral ensemble dressed in their concert finery. Then, the tree. The Krups is still there, next to the tree now, resting on its base: probably someone set it down on the ground. The apparatus containing the pressure gasket is missing, so probably the prior owner already experienced the catastrophic failure. But the little glass container for steaming the milk was still there, unbroken. I picked it up, carried it home with me, and put it in the sink to wash.

I intend to set this little icon in front of me as I write my NaNoWriMo novel, starting this afternoon or maybe tomorrow morning. I’m a little bit behind, but hell, I’ve only got 50 thousand words to go.

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