10 April 2013

Undead Text

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, First Lines, Ktismata, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:54 am

“I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.”

That’s the first line of The Shadow of the Wind, a 2004 novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón that I’ve been reading. Yesterday I was searching my document files — my private cemetery of forgotten texts — for a fragment I remember having written, thinking that I might be able to splice it into the fiction I’m presently writing. I never did find what I was looking for, but I did come across a document from 2004 that read like a Ktismatics blog post before Ktismatics even existed. Better late than never, I figured, so I reformatted the document as a post. I titled it “Wallace Stevens, Bond Man.” While proofing it I was remembering a couple of other posts I’d previously written about Wallace Stevens. So I googled myself: it turns out that I had already turned this same text into a Ktismatics post. It’s called On Keeping Your Day Job, posted in August 2007. So it was three years after having written the text that I turned it into a blog post, but that post is nearly six years old now and I’d forgotten all about it. Sometimes even the resurrected texts find their way back into the crypt.

7 October 2012

Against Empathy

Filed under: First Lines, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:03 am

The psychoanalyst’s first task is to listen and to listen carefully. Although this has been emphasized by many authors, there are surprisingly few good listeners in the psychotherapeutic world. Why is that? …When someone tells us a story, we think of similar stories (or more extreme stories) we ourselves could tell in turn. We start thinking about things that have happened to us that allow us to “relate to” the other person’s experience, to “know” what it must have been like, or at least to imagine how we ourselves would have felt had we been in the other person’s shoes.

In other words, our usual way of listening is centered to a great degree on ourselves — our own similar life experiences, our own similar feelings, our own perspectives. When we can locate experiences, feelings, and perspectives of our own that resemble the other person’s, we believe that we “relate to” that person. We say things like “I know what you mean,” Yeah,” “I hear you,” “I feel for you,” or “I feel your pain” (perhaps less often “I feel your joy”). As such moments, we feel sympathy, empathy, or pity for this other who seems like us; “That must have been painful (or wonderful) for you,” we say, imagining the pain (or joy) we ourselves would have experienced in such a situation.

When we are unable to locate experiences, feelings, or perspectives that resemble the other person’s, we have the sense that we do not understand that person — indeed, we may find the person strange, if not obtuse or irrational. When someone does not operate in the same way that we do or does not react to situations as we do, we are often baffled, incredulous, or even dumbfounded. We are inclined, in the latter situation, to try to correct the other’s perspectives, to persuade him to see things the way we see them and to feel what we ourselves would feel were we in such a predicament. In more extreme cases, we simply become judgmental. How could anyone, we ask ourselves, believe such a thing or act or feel that way?

Most simply stated, our usual way of listening overlooks or rejects the otherness of the other. We rarely listen to what makes a story as told by another person unique, specific to that person alone; we quickly assimilate it to other stories that we have heard others tell about themselves, or that we could tell about ourselves, overlooking the differences between the story being told and the ones with which we are already familiar. We rush to gloss over the differences and make the stories similar if not identical. In our haste to identify with the other, to have something in common with him, we forcibly equate stories that are often incommensurate, reducing what we are hearing to what we already know. What we find most difficult to hear is what is utterly new and different: thoughts, experiences, and emotions that are quite foreign to our own and even to any we have thus far learned about.

It is often believed that we human beings share many of the same feelings and reactions to the world, which is what allows us to more or less understand each other and constitutes the foundation of our shared humanity… I would propose that the more closely we consider any two people’s thoughts and feelings in a particular situation, the more we are forced to realize that there are greater differences than similarities between them — we are far more different than we tend to think!…

In effect, we can understand precious little of someone’s experience by relating it or assimilating it to our own experience. We may be inclined to think that we can overcome this problem by acquiring much more extensive experience of life… We ourselves may fall into the trap of thinking that we simply need to broaden our horizons, travel far and wide, and learn about other peoples, languages, religions, classes, and cultures in order to better understand a wider variety of analysands. However, if acquiring a fuller knowledge of the world is in fact helpful, it is probably not so much because we have come to understand “how the other half lives” or how other people truly operate, but because we have stopped comparing everyone with ourselves to the same degree…

If our attempts to “understand” ineluctably lead us to reduce what another person is saying to what we think we already know (indeed, that could serve as a pretty fair definition of understanding in general), one of the first steps we must take is to stop trying to understand so quickly.

– Bruce Fink, Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique: A Lacanian Approach for Practitioners (2007), pages 1-4

7 July 2012

Better Angels or Tougher Cops?

Filed under: Culture, First Lines, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:03 pm

This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not –and I know that most people do not — violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.

In The Better Angels of our Nature (2011), Steven Pinker contends that, over the past several hundred years, capitalism and strong government have worked in tandem to reduce societal violence in the West. Capitalism encourages cooperation across traditional community boundaries, while government establishes a monopoly over the use of force, especially in matters of interpersonal honor. These pacifying benefits are imposed from the upper class downward:

The European decline of violence was spearheaded by a decline in elite violence. Today statistics from every Western country show the overwhelming majority of homicides and other violent crimes are committed by people in the lowest socioeconomic classes. One obvious reason for the shift is that in medieval times, one achieved high status through the use of force. The journalist Steven Sailer recounts an exchange from early-20th-century England: “A hereditary member of the British House of Lords complained that Prime Minister Lloyd George had created new Lords solely because they were self-made millionaires who had only recently acquired large acreages. When asked, ‘How did your ancestor become a Lord?’ he replied sternly, ‘With the battle-ax, sir, with the battle-ax!”

As the upper classes were putting down their battle-axes, disarming their retinues, and no longer punching out bargees and cabmen, the middle classes followed suit. They were domesticated not by royal court, of course, but by other civilizing forces. Employment in factories and businesses forced employees to acquire habits of decorum. And then came an institution that was introduced in London in 1828 by Sir Robert Peel and soon named after him, the municipal police, or bobbies.

The main reason that violence correlates with low socioeconomic status today is that the elites and the middle class pursue justice with the legal system while the lower classes resort to what scholars of violence call “self-help.” This has nothing to do with Women Who Love Too Much or Chicken Soup for the Soul; it is another name for vigilantism, frontier justice, taking the law into your own hands, and other forms of violent retaliation by which people secured justice in the absence of intervention by the state.

On the face of it, Pinker’s argument sounds like an apologetics supporting the status quo. Presumably the solution to reducing violence still further is to civilize the lower classes and non-Westerners. One means of civilizing them is to impose on them the discipline and decorum of wage labor; the other is to replace their DIY vigilante justice with state-administered justice, enforced more thoroughly by the police and the courts and the army.

Is Pinker right? There’s a whole academic discipline of criminology that purports to study issues like the one Pinker addresses in his book. I know little about the field, its findings, its theories. Pinker is a cognitive psychologist, a field that’s certainly relevant to criminology. But I don’t get a sense reading the first three chapters that Pinker lets the complexity of the issue speak for itself, nor that he takes seriously the work of any but a few criminology people. He’ll say something about how the social scientists find the issues complicated and multifaceted, but then, based mostly on his own opinion, he asserts that the explanation can be captured in the few factors that he advocates again and again. In the process he seems to marshal the empirical evidence to support his theories rather than letting the evidence shape the theories — the mark of a rhetorician rather than a scientist.

Pinker acknowledges that the upper class attained that status largely through the exercise of violence. Eventually the elite cooperate with each other, both politically and economically. Does Pinker acknowledge that the elite cooperate in order to consolidate their power and wealth against those who would take it from them, by force if necessary, the way they seized it in the first place? Does he acknowledge that corporate capitalism and strong government are means of securing the elite’s permanent higher status by pulling up the ladders behind them? Not that I’ve seen so far.

The American South

Pinker presents evidence documenting historically high homicide rates in the South and West of America. He contends that Southern culture was heavily influenced by a particularly pugnacious wave of immigrants who couldn’t abandon their longstanding traditions of honor and violence.

Americans, and especially Americans in the South and West, never fully signed on to a social contract that would vest the government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In much of American history, legitimate force was also wielded by posses, vigilantes, lynch mobs, company police, detective agencies, and Pinkertons, and even more often kept as a prerogative of the individual. This power sharing, historians have noted, has always been sacred in the South…

The northern states were settled by Puritan, Quaker, Dutch, and German farmers, but the interior South was largely settled by Scots-Irish, many of them sheepherders, who hailed from the mountainous periphery of the British Isles beyond the reach of the central government… Herders all over the world cultivate a hair trigger for violent retaliation.

Why in explaining Southern violence does Pinker invoke some long-standing cultural differences brought over from the Old Country? What happened to his acknowledgment that those who exercise monopolistic control over the economic and governmental means of “legitimate” violence achieved that status through illegitimate violence? Didn’t the earliest American emigrants from England, the ones who became the American elite, use violence to wrest control of America away from the Indians and to preserve it from the incursions of subsequent waves of immigrants? Pinker contends that the long arm of Eastern law and order hadn’t yet reached the Western frontier, so the pioneers regressed to an earlier stage of violent “anarchy” notoriously characteristic of the Wild West. Plenty of Western pioneers were Scots-Irish, but there were plenty of Germans too.

The Southern colonies were co-founded by the English crown and trading companies owned by English aristocrats. In exchange for their work, the earliest English colonists were granted tracts of land in the colony by the trading company. Subsequent waves of colonists, also mostly English, came as indentured servants. They worked for the landowners and, typically after 7 years, were granted their freedom. Those who paid the transatlantic passage of the indentured laborers were granted tracts of American land by the trading company. In other words, the labor importers received not only free labor but extra land as well. This arrangement continued with the subsequent wave of Scotch-Irish indentured servants. Most of them emigrated from “The Plantation of Ulster,” where they had worked as tenant farmers for English landowners on a vast tract of land confiscated from the Irish by the British in the early 17th century. The African slaves too fell under this agreement: American landowners who paid for the slaves’ transport would own the slaves and would be ceded a tract of land, typically 50 acres per slave. Of course the Africans didn’t get the benefit of a time limit on their servitude.

It’s easy to see how the earliest English settlers in the South also rapidly became the wealthiest, with free land worked by free labor resulting in profits for importing more workers and acquiring more land, etc. — a geometric rate of accumulation. It’s also easy to see how, after putting in their time as free labor, the indentured servants of England and Ulster would have had a hard time securing good land. When after 7 years they got their freedom they were still under the thumb of the landed gentry, with no possibility of rising in status or wealth or power. Three choices presented themselves: either continue working for the landowners; or settle in the hill country which, not being much use for farming or herding cattle, could be had for little or no money.

Or they could head for the Western frontier, where the Indians were and the plantation owners weren’t. So too with Northern frontiersmen. Pioneers would band together in small groups to clear the forests, build houses, plant crops, and kill Indians. They would also fend off European newcomers, pushing them farther into the frontier. Whoever won those violent skirmishes wound up dominating the economy and government on the frontier — they became the new elite, just as the old European elite emerged from similar violent confrontations. Eventually the new Southern and Western elites would form alliances with the Eastern elite, extending the power of capital- and government-empowered control over “legitimate” violence across the continent.

The Sixties

Pinker observes that there was a statistical rise in US violence beginning in the 60s. He contends that this regression to uncivilized behavior resulted from the “if it feels good do it” anti-establishment attitude of the times. He cites as supporting evidence the upsurge of violence in movies and aggressive lyrics in popular song, but what about empirical evidence?

In looking at Pinker’s graph of historical trends the reader observes the homicide rate starting to go up in the mid-60s, peaking from the mid-70s to around 1990, then dropping. That takes America past the hippies, past disco, past punk. As Pinker notes, most murders are committed by young men. Who were the young men during this high-murder era? Not those “decivilized” Baby Boomers of the sixties, but Generation X.

Per Pinker’s graph, the rapid rise in murder rate corresponds almost exactly with the years of the Vietnam war. The big anti-establishment protests weren’t about “if it feels good, do it;” they were about staying alive, and about anger at a government that would expose its young men to death for no good reason, and about questioning the legitimacy of the state’s monopolistic exercise of military violence. The Vietnam War led to the violent deaths of 47,000 young American men. Assuming an average of 150K US soldiers in Vietnam over a period of 8 years, that’s a rate of about 4,000 violent deaths/100K/year. Compare that to the recent peak years of 1978 and 1990 when the rate was 10 homicides/100K/year, and you can see why protesters were particularly exercised about ending the war as well as the draft that sent Americans into peril against their will.

Pinker points out that blacks experience a disproportionately high murder rate. While on the American side the Vietnam War was fought mostly by lower-SES kids, they were mostly white, as were the “feel good” antiwar protesters. Did black pride and resentment against the white-dominated power elite constitute a “decivilizing” impulse comparable to the anti-establishment hippies and rock-and-rollers? The spike in the US homicide rate lags significantly behind the most active phase of civil rights activism. If an upsurge in black violence expressed resentment against the oppressive white culture, then why did black-on-black crime among people who already knew each other account for most of the spike in homicides? Here Pinker reverts to his lawlessness theory: blacks constituted a separate subculture operating outside of the control of legitimate government-sponsored violence, so street gangs fill the power void — sort of like the Old West, or like the wave of Irish, Polish, Italian and other “pugnacious,” less civilized, non-Western European immigrants whose arrival in the US corresponded with an earlier spike in city crime rates. Pinker attributes the decline in homicides in the 90s to more police presence in black neighborhoods and tougher sentencing in criminal cases involving black perpetrators. Again, it’s the top-down imposition of civilizing forces via the exercise of “legitimate” violence that restrains illegitimate and uncivilized violence.

Crime is predominantly a young man’s game. I don’t doubt that black violence is triggered at least in part by frustration and resentment at lack of opportunity and active oppression by a white-dominated governmental and economic system. But in the black ghettos don’t the larger established authority structures exercise control from a distance,  containing the violence within well-established buffer zones, arresting all of the main (young male) combatants who have achieved some local power, repeatedly creating power vacuums to be filled by groups of new kids? Certainly frustration and anger don’t always strike out at the sources of that anger. Powerful emotion isn’t that easily channeled, plus the real targets have badges and bigger weapons and more backup than you do.

Of course it’s not that simple. But it’s not as simple as Pinker makes it either.

14 March 2012

Hemingway Jazzes the Mirror Neurons

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:26 am

When you first start writing stories in the first person, if the stories are made so real that people believe them, the people reading them nearly always think the stories really happened to you. That is natural because while you were making them up you had to make them happen to the person who was telling them. If you do this successfully enough, you make the person who is reading them believe that the things happened to him too. If you can do this you are beginning to get what you are trying for, which is to make something that will become a part of the reader’s experience and a part of his memory. There must be things that he did not notice when he read the story or the novel which, without his knowing it, enters into his memory and experience so that they are a part of his life. This is not easy to do.

– Ernest Hemingway, “On Writing in the First Person,” in A Moveable Feast

25 January 2012

Point Omega by DeLillo, 2010

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 11:00 am

There was a man standing against the north wall, barely visible.

*   *   *

This first sentence captures the essence of the book. There is a wall between visible and invisible, between real and unreal, between human and transhuman, but the wall is itself a permeable membrane, a translucent movie screen. The wall is visible and real only when you look at it from the side where visible reality holds sway. From the other side it might look like something else.

I’ve discussed Point Omega at some length with Patrick on his blog. The story pivots around the disappearance of a young woman named Jessie. While there is no direct evidence of foul play, circumstances suggest that Jessie was kidnapped and likely killed by her stalker boyfriend. This is a guy who has become so obsessed with the movie Psycho that he seems to have merged with the film, and especially with Norman Bates.

That interpretation of what happened to Jessie might well be the right one. But in rereading the book (only 115 pages) I found myself looking at it from the other side of the movie screen. Most of the book is abstract, theoretical, aesthetic, almost inert, but when Jessie disappears the narrative shifts to more concrete considerations — the search for the missing girl, the investigation of clues. And yet even in the whodunit portion DeLillo alternates between concrete description and mystical reverie. In brief, I’m suggesting that DeLillo is inviting the reader to watch these concrete, visible, human events, possibly including a murder, from the other side of the screen.

The title of the book derives from an idea championed by the mystical Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. According to Wikipedia,

“Teilhard postulates the Omega Point as this supreme point of complexity and consciousness, which in his view is the actual cause for the universe to grow in complexity and consciousness. In other words, the Omega Point exists as supremely complex and conscious, transcendent and independent of the evolving universe. Teilhard argued that the Omega Point resembles the Christian Logos namely Christ, who draws all things into himself.”

For Teilhard the Omega Point already exists; it is personal; it is transcendent, both preceding and succeeding human evolution; it is unconstrained by space and time; and it is inevitable.

The Omega Point might be the glorious singularity by which we are moved and toward which we are moving. But what does the passage into supreme posthuman transcendence look like from this side of the divide, bound by time and space, by material bodies and material objects, by calendars and telephones and trips to the grocery store? It might look like a barely-visible shadow on the wall, a hole in the air. It might look like death.

Yesterday I copied down a number of sentences from the middle portion of the book, when Jessie first appears and then later disappears. I focused specifically on passages in which DeLillo emphasizes the immateriality of things and places, of people, and especially of Jessie. In human terms she is hardly there at all, but on the other side she might also be a forerunner, a transhuman demiurge, an avatar of the Omega Point. I’m posting these sentences here without further commentary.

*   *   *

She was sylphlike, her element was air. She gave the impression that nothing about this place was different from any other, this south and west, this latitude and longitude. She moved through places in a soft glide, feeling the same things everywhere, this is what there was, the space within.

She was her father’s dream thing.

Other times she seemed deadened to anything that might bring a response. Her look had an abridged quality, it wasn’t reaching the wall or window. I found it disturbing to watch her, knowing that she didn’t feel watched. Where was she? She wasn’t lost in thought or memory, wasn’t gauging the course of the next hour or minute. She was missing, fixed tightly within.

It was part of her asymmetry, the limp hand, blank face… She was sitting next to anyone, talking through me to the woman in a sari on the crosstown bus, to the receptionist in the doctor’s office.

She had to touch her arm or face to know who she was… Her body was not there until she touched it… She wasn’t a child who needed imaginary friends. She was imaginary to herself.

One day soon all our talk, his and mine, will be like hers, just talk, self-contained, unreferring. We’ll be here the way flies and mice are here, localized, seeing and knowing nothing but whatever our scanted nature allows.

I thought of Jessie sleeping. She would close her eyes and disappear, this was one of her gifts, I thought… She sleeps on her side, curled up, embryonic, barely breathing.

“Think of it. We pass completely out of being. Stones. Unless stones have being. Unless there’s some profoundly mystical shift that places being in a stone.”

Then I adjusted the reclining chair to full length and lay flat on my back, eyes shut, hands on chest, and tried to feel like nobody nowhere, a shadow that’s part of the night.

But I just closed my eyes and sat there, nowhere, listening. When we got back to the house she was gone.

It was hard to think clearly. The enormity of it, all that empty country. She kept appearing in some inner field of vision, indistinct, like something I’d forgotten to say or do.

I finished putting away the groceries. I tried to concentrate on this, where things go, but objects seemed transparent, I could see through them, think through them.

Passing into air, it seemed this is what she was meant to do, what she was made for, two full days, no word, no sign. Had she strayed past the edge of conjecture or were we willing to imagine what had happened?

First thing [the sheriff] wanted to know was whether there had been any recent deviation in Jessie’s normal pattern of behavior. The only deviation, I told him, was the fact that she was missing.

I could think around the fact of her disappearance. But at the heart, in the moment itself, the physical crux of it, only a hole in the air.

Nothing happened that was not marked by her absence.

He began to see things out of the corner of his eye, the right eye. He’d walk into a room and catch a glimpse of something, a color, a movement. When he turned his head, nothing. It happened once or twice a day. I told him it was physiological, same eye every time, routine sort of dysfunction, minor, happens to people of a certain age. He turned and looked. Someone there but then she wasn’t.

“I think I know his name.” “You think you know.” “I was sleeping. Then I wake up with his name. It is Dennis.” “You think it is Dennis.” “It is Dennis, for sure.” “First name Dennis.” “This is all I heard, first name. I wake up, just now, it is Dennis,” she said.

The sky was stretched taut between cliff edges, it was narrowed and lowered, that was the strange thing, the sky right there, scale the rocks and you can touch it. I started walking again and came to the end of the tight passage and into an open space choked at ground level with brush and stony debris and I half crawled to the top of a high rubble mound and there was the whole scorched world. I looked out into blinding tides of light and sky and down toward the folded copper hills that I took to be the badlands, a series of pristine ridges rising from the desert floor in patterned alignment. Could someone be dead in there? I could not imagine this. It was too vast, it was not real, the symmetry of furrows and ruts, it crushed me, the heartbreaking beauty of it, and the longer I stood and looked the more certain I was that we would never have an answer.

I walked back into the wash under the shallow line of sky and then stopped and put my hand to the cliff wall and felt the tiered rock, horizontal cracks or shifts that made me think of huge upheavals. I closed my eyes and listened. The silence was complete. I’d never felt a stillness such as this, never such enveloping nothing. But such nothing that was, that spun around me, or she did, Jessie, warm to the touch. I don’t now how long I stood there, every muscle in my body listening. Could I forget my name in this silence? Then something made me turn my head and I had to tell myself in my astonishment what it was, a fly, buzzing near. I had to say the word to myself, fly.

That night I could not sleep. I fell into reveries one after another. The woman in the other room, on the other side of the wall, sometimes Jessie, other times not clearly and simply her, and then Jessie and I in her room, in her bed, weaving through each other, turning and arching sort of sealike, wavelike, some impossible nightlong moment of transparent sex. Her eyes are closed, face unfrozen, she is Jessie at the same time that she is too expressive to be her. She seems to be drifting outside herself even when I bring her to me. I’m there and aroused but barely see myself as I stand at the open door watching us both.

We drove in silence behind a motorboat being towed by a black pickup. I thought of his remarks about matter and being, those long nights on the deck, half smashed, he and I, transcendence, paroxysm, the end of human consciousness. It seemed so much dead echo now. Point omega. A million years away. The omega point has narrowed, here and now, to the point of a knife as it enters a body. All the man’s grand themes funneled down to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not.

There we were, coming out of an empty sky. One man past knowing. The other knowing only that he would carry something with him from this day on, a stillness, a distance, and he saw himself in somebody’s crowded loft, where he puts his hand to the rough surface of an old brick wall and then closes his eyes and listens.

29 December 2011

This Bloody Sterile Promontory by Doyle, 2011

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 10:19 am

Their giggles and the click of their delicate heels foreshadowed their arrival.

That’s the first sentence from daughter Kenzie’s third completed novel, which she wrote in its entirety in November as a participant in National Novel Writing Month. The title cites Hamlet’s soliloquy from Act 2 Scene 2, with a crucial word added to signal vampiric intent. It’s an entertaining and thoughtful and accomplished novel, excellent to the point where I’ve gone from pride in the kid’s achievement to admiration and even envy at the writing. Here’s a scene from the end of Chapter 1.

“Good evening again, Miss Elizabeth,” he bowed his graceful head toward Beth, “Miss Francisca.” He fixed her again with that gaze that was not intense but was somehow incredibly captivating.

He stood with them, and continued the conversation he had been having with Francisca in the other room. He was still overwhelmingly personable, and it seemed impossible that he had ever conversed with anyone who did not feel they had somehow improved as a person after talking to him. His languorous smiles were unrivaled by any expression either girl had ever seen, they decided separately.

“I believe I’ll take some air in the garden,” he announced suddenly. “The champagne, I’m afraid, is making my head spin.” Neither girl had seen him take any champagne, but they did not give the explanation a second thought. “Would either of you care to join me?”

“Oh, I shouldn’t,” said Beth, casually annoyed. “I just know Georgia will be looking for one of us soon.”

Francisca was not so concerned with Georgia, and replied, “Yes, I think a stroll would be wonderful.” Beth observed the way neither took their eyes off the other, and let them go, strangely pleased.

It was dark in the neatly kept garden, as it was illuminated only by the dazzling mansion. This too was beautiful and pristine, even in its difference from the party. Mr Fenmore and Francisca strolled between trees and flowering bushes, next to classical white benches and statues, still conversing. There was something so easy about the dialogue that passed between them, and Francisca felt that surely this was what she had always thought to be an overly romanticized notion, rather than something real. It occurred to her that there was no one in the world she trusted more in this moment than the refined young gentleman by her side. For this reason, it did not occur to her that it was anything but enjoyably ordinary when he placed his hand on her arm – which resulted in shivers coursing through her – and lightly directed her toward one of the little benches that was dark and far away from the mansion.

“I apologize if I seem forward,” he said, unexpectedly nervous, “but I think I ought to tell you. No, I owe it to you to tell you.” He paused, and she leaned toward him, anxious and anticipatory. He continued.

“I would intend to pursue you. As would a suitor. I would not, of course, be so direct about it…it would be terribly uninteresting if I were to remove all the thrill of uncertainty so soon.”

Her heart pounded loudly, and opened her lips as if to speak as her brow contorted to express confusion and disappointment. It took a moment for her to finally vocalize the word, “ ‘would?’”

Mr Fenmore looked away, clearly frustrated with himself. “I am telling you this because I wanted to assure you of my feelings for you established tonight. But I also feel that it would be improper for me to hint at such sentiments while being unable to pursue them. It would be cruel to you, would it not?”

“But this is cruel to me! Why can you not?”

He stared into the black hedge across the path from them for an enduring few seconds. His face moved slightly a time or two before settling into an expression of determination. With a for-him unusual sentimentality in his eyes and a soft smile upon his finally fully open lips, he breathed, “You smell of tangerines.”

The urges to lean forward to him and recoil in horror kept her immobilized, eyes wide.

“O-open your mouth,” she stammered quietly. He fixed her again with that inescapable gaze for a moment before obliging. She stared.

“I did not know – I did not know that you – that what you are even existed.” It was not an exclamation, merely a statement.

He slowly closed his mouth again, still watching her intently. “This is why I needed to warn you. There would be – well, it’s terribly implausible, and far too early, of course…but…”

She raised her eyes again to meet his. “What do you mean?”

He hesitated. “I cannot lead you on, as we are so different. But surely you feel what I do?”

She nodded. “Yes…yes, I do.”

He sighed and closed his eyes briefly in relief. “We would have to be more similar, if we were to attempt a romance. I cannot return to what I was – what you are – but there is a way. You understand.”

She could hardly breathe.

“It does not hurt,” he was no longer looking at her, but staring through the hedge, into the past. “It is, in fact, quite surprisingly enjoyable. Both the initiation and the experience.” He looked back at her suddenly. “Shall I continue?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“The only unpleasantness is at the split second at the start, which feels only like a pin prick to the throat. But then it becomes otherworldly, pure perfection. Make no mistake, it requires that you be drained almost completely, and you will be weak. But then…then you replenish yourself by drinking from me. And then, my dear,” he leaned forward, “we have an eternity of beauty.”

She gravitated forward until they could feel the energy from each other’s skin.

“Dare I ask?” he murmured.

“Dare…and I will say yes.”

“Will you join me, my Francisca?”

She managed only to exhale a confirmation before he was at her throat. He kissed it lightly twice, one hand supporting the back of her head, before piercing the skin with the sharp points he had concealed all night. She made a small sound of surprise, but immediately relaxed, eyes closing, and placed a hand to his hair. Her strength left her, but it was marvelous, just as he had said. Eventually he was all that kept her from collapsing, but she was light-headedly ecstatic to be in his power like this.

Finally, when her heart had slowed almost to a stop, he pulled away and looked back at her. He rose and lay her down on the bench delicately, crouching beside her as she stared back at him, smiling with her eyes unfocused.

“My dear, you could not have made me happier,” he told her, but his voice was different now than it bad been moments before. He ran a finger lightly over her forehead to brush a lock of orange hair out of her face before standing and turning away. She wanted to object, but her mind was blurry and her face numbing.

His form receded cheerfully, smirking slightly, into the darkness. Her field of vision restricted gradually, heart growing fainter, until blackness prevailed and the weak fluttering stopped.

He wiped a stray drop of blood from his cheek disdainfully.

17 November 2011

Metzinger: So Far So Good

Filed under: First Lines, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:45 pm

In this book I will try to convince you that there is no such thing as a self.

Thomas Metzinger begins The Ego Tunnel (2009) with a bang that sounds suspiciously like the hollow clangor of “eliminativism.” Having read only second-hand, generally critical accounts, I presumed that the notoriously “scientistic” Metzinger would argue that only brain-body physiology is real, and that subjective epiphenomena generated by and emerging from neural states and processes — perception, cognition, self-awareness — are illusions. But that’s not what he says. He’s aware of his own notoriety and he responds to it. After briefly documenting the recent explosion in empirically-supported knowledge about consciousness, Metzinger acknowledges the backlash:

We have learned how great the fear of reductionism is, in the humanities as well as among the general public, and how immense the market is for mysterianism. The straightforward philosophical answer to the widespread fear that philosophers or scientists will “reduce consciousness” is that reduction is a relationship between theories, not phenomena. No serious empirical researcher and no philosopher wants to “reduce consciousness”; at best, one theory about how the contents of conscious experience arose can be reduced to another theory. Our theories about phenomena change, but the phenomena stay the same. A beautiful rainbow continues to be a beautiful rainbow even after it has been explained in terms of electromagnetic radiation. Adopting a primitive scientistic ideology would be just as bad as succumbing to mysterianism. Furthermore, most people would agree that the scientific method is not the only way of gaining knowledge.

I’ve just started reading Metzinger’s book, but I suspect that his opening salvo is more of an attention-grabber than a thesis statement, sort of like asserting two hundred years ago that there is no soul. The book focuses largely on what might be deemed component parts of selfhood: consciousness, the internal representation of the external world, the sense of being centered in one’s own body, self-reflexivity. Briefly, Metzinger argues that it’s not particularly useful to think in terms of “selfhood” as a holistic entity that we are or that we have within us. Instead he proposes the concept of a “phenomenological self-model” — a continually refreshed simulation by which the human monitors his environment, his body, and his cognitive processes. Metzinger contends that this self-model simulation is not really a subjective image of the internal and external environments in which we function; rather, it is a tunnel through which we encounter these environments. Even here, though, Metzinger seems overly dramatic in his rhetoric. Immediately after introducing the metaphor of the tunnel, he asserts that we do generate images or representations of our environment and of our internal state — that in fact we encounter the world and ourselves only through these representations. Does this make Metzinger a “correlationist”? We’ll see. I have a sense that later in the book he’s going to claim that empirical science enables us to get out of the tunnel in order to have more direct encounters with the outer and inner environments.

I like the way he begins the book, not because of the controversies he seems bent on provoking but because he purports to take empirical science seriously. Many non-scientific theorists weed through the jungle of scientific findings in order to extract a few “proof texts” that support their a priori ideas. Metzinger seems more willing to “let the data speak,” allowing empirical findings to shape and revise theory.

Unlike many of my philosopher colleagues, I think that empirical data are often directly relevant to philosophical issues and that a considerable part of academic philosophy has ignored such data for much too long.

I find this approach more comprehensible, more compatible with my own inclinations and educational background, and more likely to be true than the so-called armchair philosophy practiced by introspectors, sophists, antiquarians and other creative geniuses whose insights and literary flourishes often seem indistinguishable from bullshit.

I may have more to report from Metzinger’s book as I go along.

8 September 2011

Station Zero

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:59 am

He walks down to Station Zero like a dead Jesus dragging his cross back down Golgotha. There are no scars to be seen, no gashes to be probed. He is well fed, well conditioned, reasonably well dressed; he carries himself well for a dead man. But he knows the score, and it is Zero.

There is a bay, and then there are mountains; in between is the city. Long ago the city began pushing itself up the mountainside, and the narrow shop-lined street bears signs of its struggle. Finally it stopped being a street altogether and turned into a stone stairway. Bud kept going until even the squat old houses gave up the climb. Higher still he saw a shallow niche carved into the solid rock; a green steel trash barrel occupied the protected space where a statue or relic had once stood. From there the stairway steepened and veered to the right, its ascent blocked from view by the bushes and craggy trees that had managed to find a foothold. Bud took one more step up and scuffed his shoe. Fuck it, he thought: I’m going back.

Bud stepped into a bakery. He pointed to an apricot-filled pastry in the display case, then waited with embarrassed helplessness as the small woman behind the counter sorted brusquely through the coins he held out in the palm of his hand for her inspection. He asked her where he could find a coffee, and she pointed down the street and around the next corner. Toting his pastry in its paper sack, he took the turn and saw the sign above the door: a stylized cross-sectional drawing of a nautilus shell inscribed with one word – Rik’s.

*  *  *

In March I arrived at a tentative ending to a novel. Since then I added a sentence to it here and there, but overall that ending still looks good to me. A week ago I came up with what seems like a pretty good opening paragraph on the next installment for this ongoing project, tentatively named The Stations. I let that paragraph sit for a couple of days, added a couple of thousand words to it, let it sit again, scrapped it altogether, gave it a shake and a twist for another go. So here, for your inspection, are the first three paragraphs of something new.

The beginning is the hardest part. Why, among the countless possible beginnings of countless possible texts, should I settle on this one? If things go well, then after some juddering and some catatonia the beginning accrues additional mass and generates a momentum of its own. It doesn’t always work, and so my hard drive is spattered with false starts. We’ll see if this one goes anywhere.

8 August 2011

The Brief History of the Dead by Brockmeier, 2006

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 11:16 am

When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had traveled across a desert of living sand. First he had died, he said, and then — snap! — the desert. He told the story to everyone who would listen, bobbing his head to follow the sound of their footsteps. Showers of red grit fell from his beard. He said that the desert was bare and lonesome and that it had hissed at him like a snake. He had walked for days and days, until the dunes broke apart beneath his feet, surging up around him to lash at his face. Then everything went still and began to beat like a heart. The sound was as clear as any he had ever heard. It was only at that moment, he said, with a million arrow points of sand striking his skin, that he truly realized he was dead…

*  *  *

Recently a friend told me about Textermination, a 1992 novel by Christine Brooke-Rose, in which a bunch of fictional characters gather at a convention to figure out how to keep themselves from dying off. The premise is that these characters live in the imaginations and memories of their readers. If people stop reading the books, then the characters contained in those books stop existing. So I was surprised the other day while browsing the library shelves to find this novel by Brockmeier. After you die you live on in people’s memories: surely you’ve heard that supposedly reassuring alternative to a real afterlife. Brockmeier’s story populates this sort of afterlife in his story: you go there after you die, and you stay for as long as there’s someone still alive who remembers you. After everyone who remembers you is dead, then you disappear from this particular afterlife.

The premise is intriguing, and the first chapter is engaging, but my thought when I reached chapter two was that there wasn’t enough here on which to build a whole novel. I did find the novel disappointing, and it turns out that the first chapter had previously won awards as a stand-alone short story — maybe that should have been the end of it. Having finished, though, I no longer regard the premise as intrinsically limiting.

2 June 2011

On Bullshit by Frankfurt, 2005

Filed under: Culture, First Lines, Language — ktismatics @ 2:56 pm

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.

[. . .]

Undoubtedly, much humbug is pretentious. So far as concerns bullshit, moreover, “pretentious bullshit” is close to being a stock phrase. But I am inclined to think that when bullshit is pretentious, this happens because pretentiousness is its motive rather than a constitutive element of its essence. The fact that a person is behaving pretentiously is not, it seems to me, part of what is required to make his utterance an instance of bullshit. It is often, to be sure, what accounts for his making that utterance. However, it must not be assumed that bullshit always and necessarily has pretentiousness as its motive.

[. . .]

It does seem fitting to construe carelessly made, shoddy goods as in some way analogues of bullshit. But in what way? Is the resemblance that bullshit itself is invariably produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner, that it is never finely crafted, that in the making of it there is never the meticulously attentive concern with detail? Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this. Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.

The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact it is not out of the question at all. The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who — with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth — dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right.

[. . .]

It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.

[. . .]

The alternative to telling a lie is “bullshitting one’s way through.” This involves not merely producing one instance of bullshit; it involves a program of producing bullshit to whatever extent the circumstances require. Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.

On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. but the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberate than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the “bullshit artist.”

[. . .]

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

[. . .]

For most people, the fact that a statement is false constitutes in itself a reason, however weak and easily overridden, not to make the statement. For the bullshitter it is in itself neither a reason in favor nor a reason against. Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits oneself to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the way things are may become attenuated or lost. Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are, but that cannot be anything except bullshit.

[. . .]

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “antirealist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry.

18 May 2011

The Haunting of Hill House by Jackson, 1959

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 8:29 am

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

[. . .]

It was the custom, rigidly adhered to,” Luke said, turning the brandy in his glass, “for the public executioner, before a quartering, to outline his knife strokes in chalk upon the belly of his victim — for fear of a slip, you understand.”

I would like to hit her with a stick, Eleanor thought, looking down on Theodora’s head beside her chair; I would like to batter her with rocks.

“An exquisite refinement, exquisite. Because of course the chalk strokes would have been almost unbearable, excruciating, if the victim were ticklish.”

I hate her, Eleanor thought, she sickens me; she is all washed and clean and wearing my red sweater.

“When the death was by hanging in chains, however, the executioner…”

“Nell?” Theodora looked up at her and smiled. “I really am sorry, you know,” she said.

I would like to watch her dying, Eleanor thought, and smiled back and said, “Don’t be silly.”

28 April 2011

The Diving Pool by Ogawa, 1990

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 10:42 am

In a recent thread on the Impostume, Carl said that he liked Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool. On this recommendation I picked the book up from the library, and now I like it too. It consists of  three novellas, each told by a different young woman narrator, each possessed of a creepy passivity and a delicate lascivious cruelty. These days I read fiction not just for its own sake but also for its potential exemplary value in crafting my own writing. A couple of things here with Ogawa’s book. First, the length of these stories: they’re about 13K words each, maybe 40 pages in typical book print. That’s long enough to explore some territory and dig under the surface a little without obligating oneself to the sweep and intricacy of a full-length novel. I recently read the excellent Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, which is a set of interrelated short stories narrated by and centered around the same main character. Now, after reading Ogawa, I’m thinking about maybe stretching this structure into a set of interrelated novellas.

The other exemplary thing for me about Ogawa’s book is signaled in the first sentence of the first novella:

It’s warm here: I feel as though I’ve been swallowed by a huge animal.

The places in which theses stories unfold — an enclosed swimming pool, a maternity hospital, a university dormitory — assume a subjective presence, as if these places were themselves characters. In our discussion of Kubrick’s The Shining we observed that the Overlook Hotel is a presence affecting the guests and caretakers who stay there, almost as if the humans and the events that befall them are repressed memories of the hotel itself, locked up in the rooms waiting for someone to unlock them. Is the hotel’s madness a projective expression of the occupants’ disturbed psyches, or vice versa? This sort of expressionistic personification of place surely predates cinematic exemplars like The Shining — Poe’s stories come most readily to mind. Ogawa does it too. Here’s another example, this one from the third novella. The manager of the dormitory is dying: he’s lost both arms and a leg, and now his ribs are curving inward toward his heart. The narrator has begun tending to the manager…

“Could you get my medicine?”

“Of course,” I said. I took a packet of powder from the drawer of his nightstand and filled a glass from the pitcher of water that had been left by his bed. Everything he might need — the telephone, a box of tissues, the teapot and cups — had been brought from elsewhere in the apartment and arranged close to the bed. The change was minor, but to the Manager it must have seemed as though his world was shrinking along with the space in his chest. I watched a drop of water fall from the lip of the pitcher, and a chill went down my spine.

“I hope this helps,” I said, trying to appear calm as I tore open the packet of powder.

“It’s just to make me more comfortable,” he said, his face expressionless. “To relax the muscles and soothe the nerves.”

“But isn’t there anything they can do?” I asked again.

The Manager thought for a moment. “As I’ve told you, the dormitory is in a period of irreversible degeneration. The process has already begun. It will take some time yet to reach the end — it’s not a matter of simply throwing a switch and turning out the lights. But the whole place is collapsing…”

Ogawa’s Dormitory, like The Overlook Hotel, is a variant on the traditional haunted house. I’m not trying to write horror stories or weird fiction. I’ve written a book about a set of characters whose various motivations eventually converge; now I want those merged subjective trajectories to take shape as a set of interrelated places in the world. I don’t think Ogawa’s sensibility is right for my project; still, her expressionism gives me something to work with, to immerse myself in, to be possessed by…

18 March 2011

Reality Hunger Artists (Part 1?)

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:38 am

“I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels.”

That’s Amazon’s teaser for Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010). Now seems the perfect time for me to consider author David Shields’ position, which he presents in 618 numbered paragraphs, many of them quotes from other writers and artists. It strikes me that this book might have worked better as 618 blog posts with comments, so I’ll do that here, commenting on any of the paragraphs that happen to grab me as they’re passing by.

1.  Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.

That’s the opening sentence of the book, and already I don’t agree. But I’m not in the mood for the big universal concepts; I want to think about whether I personally am wasting my time writing novels.

50.  The creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe.

Did the creators ever believe that the characters were anything more than puppets? Oh, but now I see that it’s Robbe-Grillet who made this statement — he wrote novels, did he not? In a sense R-G’s characters are puppets, no more animate than the lampposts against which they lean. Maybe he regarded real humans as puppet-like.

57.  Increasingly, the novel goes had in hand with a straightjacketing of the material’s expressive potential. One gets so weary of watching writers’ sensations and thoughts get set into the concrete of fiction that perhaps it’s best to avoid the form as a medium of expression.

Is the straightjacket built into the form? Is the medium intrinsically concrete? But I see the point: it’s hard to evade or dismantle one’s own and others’ expectations about what a novel is supposed to be. Maybe migrate to other forms that are either so new that they’re not yet burdened by tradition, or so old that the traditions no longer exert any real force on the contemporary practitioner.

63.  …memoirs really can claim to be modern novels, all the way down to the presence of an unreliable narrator.

Shields wants to blur the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, between author and character. In this context he commends Proust and Exley and Sebald. Shields I think wants to argue that, since every novel’s main characters are stand-ins for the writer, the writer should do away with the artifice and write in the first person. In so doing, the writer need not feel bound to tell the factual truth about himself and his life, inasmuch as memory is so distorted as to be nearly indistinguishable from imagination. Fine: that’s one way to go. The question I have to ask myself is whether the invention of fictional characters does anything I couldn’t do more directly with imaginative memoir. Of the cuff, I’d say that I’m more interested in writing about the fictional characters than about myself.

65.  The lyric essayist seems to enjoy all the liberties of the fiction writer, with none of the fiction writer’s burden of unreality, the nasty fact that none of this ever really happened — which a fiction writer daily wakes to.

Shields goes on to commend the lyric essay throughout his book, but he never really says what it is. But why should the fictional aspect of the novel be deemed a “nasty fact” that both the author and the reader must overcome in order to take the writing seriously? This goes back to Shields’ opening salvo about smuggling reality into the art.

65a. The implied secret is that one of the smartest ways to write fiction today is to say that you’re not, and then to do whatever you very well please. Some of the best fiction is now being written as nonfiction.

This is precisely my reaction to much of the speculative metaphysics I’ve read on the blogs, as well pretty much all the religion. My instinct is to go the other way: call it fiction.

67. Biography and autobiography are the lifeblood of art right now. We have claimed them the way earlier generations claimed the novel, the well-made play, the language of abstraction.

So now Shields is going to talk about reality TV and the memoirists who get exposed on Oprah as having made up parts of their stories. This sort of reality-so-called fascinates me not at all. I’m way more interested in True Blood than in Survivor. I am interested in the Making-Of, but only if I like the movie that was made.

68.  I’m interested in knowing the secrets that connect human beings. At the very deepest level, all our secrets are the same.

Why be interested if they’re all the same? Maybe Shields should try discovering or inventing some beings whose secrets aren’t the same.

71.  Truth, uncompromisingly told, will always have its ragged edges.

Well said! Oh, but now I look in the Appendix and see that it’s Herman Melville who wrote this, in Billy Budd.

72.  The lyric essay asks what happens when an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem. What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up, filling in blank pages, or leaving the blanks blank?

Okay, now I’m starting to get the lyric essay idea. Sure, that’s cool. Why not stick a lyric essay or two into your novel? Wait: that’s been done already. Maybe this is the straightjacketing imposed on the contemporary novelist: maybe readers don’t like essays built into novels, distracting them from plot and character development.

82.  Art is not truth; art is a lie that enables us to recognize truth.

So said Picasso. I don’t think that Picasso was bent on smuggling reality into his paintings.

105.  Proust said that he had no imagination; what he wanted was reality, infused with something else… The book, by being about Marcel, a writer, is as much about the writing as it is about anything that “happens.”

When I read Proust’s book, I’m not thinking about how these characters were real people, or how the events in which they participate in Proust’s narrative once really happened. Maybe I’d like the book better if I did. Certainly A La Recherche is about the writing, and it’s indicative of  of my lowbrow literary tendencies that the writing doesn’t captivate me enough to distract me from the tedium of what “happens.” But I keep trying…


So now I’m one-fifth of the way through Shields’ paragraphs. Maybe later I’ll pick up where I left off.


22 January 2011

Brassier’s Concepts and Objects

Filed under: First Lines, Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:00 pm

1. The question ‘What is real?’ stands at the crossroads of metaphysics and epistemology. More exactly, it marks the juncture of metaphysics and epistemology with the seal of conceptual representation.

Ray Brassier’s essay in The Speculative Turn consists of a sequence of numbered paragraphs. I’ve found Brassier’s longer works to be pretty tough sledding, which I attribute as much to the scantiness of my own philosophical background as to the density of the author’s prose. Right from the top, though, I can tell I’m going to agree with much of what Brassier has to say about the real in this essay. Take ¶1. In discussions elsewhere I and others have asked “But how do you know that the real is such-and-such? To ask this question, I’ve been informed, is to confuse ontology with epistemology. I agree that how one knows about things is different from what one knows about them, which in turn is different from what is. Of course the universe exists independently of what I know about it and how I know it. But if I claim to know something about the universe, then I have to talk about the knowing bit too, don’t I? Or, like Brassier says in ¶2:

2. Metaphysics understood as the investigation into what there is intersects with epistemology understood as the enquiry into how we know what there is. This intersection of knowing and being is articulated through a theory of conception that explains how thought gains traction on being.

So I’ll just read along, paragraph by paragraph, jotting down and commenting briefly on some of Brassier’s ideas that I think are right.

3. …Thought is not guaranteed access to being; being is not inherently thinkable. There is no cognitive ingress to the real save through the concept. Yet the real itself is not to be confused with the concepts through which we know it. The fundamental problem of philosophy is to understand how to reconcile these two claims.

Bhaskar’s Realist Theory of Science has been invoked as justification for the premise that the universe must be a certain way in order for it to be intelligible to sapient beings like humans. But I don’t know why that should be the case. I remember reading theoretical physicist David Bohm’s contention that scientists don’t truly understand quantum mechanics and other aspects of the subatomic world. Scientists take the empirical observations and calculate the formulae and invent metaphors for explaining their the results but, Bohm insists, that isn’t really understanding. Suppose there are absolute limits to human understanding, even when enhanced by technologies that haven’t yet been invented. Does this absolute epistemological frontier necessarily chart the edge of what the universe could possibly be like? That seems awfully presumptuous to me. Here again I’m with Brassier.

9. …The claim that ‘everything is real’ is egregiously uninformative…

Is a photograph of a crow as real as the crow depicted in the photograph? Sure, in a way: photo and crow both exist in the world. But isn’t there a relationship between crow photo and photographed crow that needs to be acknowledged and described? Isn’t the crow somehow more real than the photo of it? I think so.

15. Unless reason itself carries out the de-mystification of rationality, irrationalism triumphs by adopting the mantle of a scepticism that allows it to denounce reason as a kind of faith. The result is the post-modern scenario, in which the rationalist imperative to explain phenomena by penetrating to the reality beyond appearances is diagnosed as the symptom of an implicitly theological metaphysical reductionism. The metaphysical injunction to know the noumenal is relinquished by a post-modern ‘irreductionism’ which abjures the epistemological distinction between appearance and reality the better to salvage the reality of every appearance, from sunsets to Santa Claus. It is not enough to evoke a metaphysical distinction between appearance and reality, in the manner for instance of ‘object-oriented philosophies’, since the absence of any reliable cognitive criteria by which to measure and specify the precise extent of the gap between seeming and being or discriminate between the extrinsic and intrinsic properties of objects licenses entirely arbitrary claims about the in-itself.

Just as a crow is more real than the photo of the crow, so is a crow more real than my perception of the crow — or at least it seems that way to me.

18. However, in the absence of any understanding of the relationship between ‘meanings’ and things meant… the claim that nothing is metaphorical is ultimately indistinguishable from the claim that everything is metaphorical. The metaphysical difference between words and things, concepts and objects, vanishes along with the distinction between representation and reality…

Just as a crow is more real than my perception of the crow, so is a crow more real than my saying “That is a crow” — or so it seems to me.

28. …The gap between conceptual identity and non-conceptual difference—between what our concept of the object is and what the object is in itself—is not an ineffable hiatus or mark of irrecuperable alterity; it can be conceptually converted into an identity that is not of the concept even though the concept is of it…

Though the crow is more real than my idea of a crow, my idea of a crow is still related to and contingent on the crow. All ideas about crows are real, in the sense that they exist in people’s heads, and heads are part of the world. But the idea “crows are black birds” isn’t merely different from the idea “crows are fungi that live at the bottom of the sea”: it’s better, truer, more accurate in its description of the thing that the idea is about.

29. …The scientific stance is one in which the reality of the object determines the meaning of its conception, and allows the discrepancy between that reality and the way in which it is conceptually circumscribed to be measured. This should be understood in contrast to the classic correlationist model according to which it is conceptual meaning that determines the ‘reality’ of the object, understood as the relation between representing and represented.

Sure. Most scientific research concerns itself with incrementally closing the measured discrepancy between the object under investigation and the scientific conception of that object.

33. …It is undoubtedly true that we cannot conceive of concept-independent things without conceiving of them; but it by no means follows from this that we cannot conceive of things existing independently of concepts, since there is no logical transitivity from the mind-dependence of concepts to that of conceivable objects. Only someone who is confusing mind-independence with concept-independence would invoke the conceivability of the difference between concept and object in order to assert the mind-dependence of objects.

I’m thinking of crows that fly and nest in trees. Now I’m thinking of crows that live at the bottom of the sea. Both are real ideas. I could imagine the second kind of crow, but that doesn’t mean I’ll find any down there on the ocean floor. But crows flying, crows in trees — they really are there even when I’m not thinking about them. Are there real philosophers who don’t believe this, or they imaginary philosophers?

34. …To claim that Cygnus X-3 exists independently of our minds is not to claim that Cygnus X-3 exists beyond the reach of our minds. Independence is not inaccessibility. The claim that something exists mind-independently does not commit one to the claim that it is conceptually inaccessible.

Also this: The claim that something is conceptually accessible does not commit one to the claim that it is not the real essence of that thing.

36. …Argumentative stringency has never been the litmus test for the success of any philosopheme…


42. …the first humans who pointed to Saturn did not need to know and were doubtless mistaken about what it is: but they did not need to know in order to point to it…

It seems pretty far-fetched that the first humans would have thought about a Saturn before perceiving it: first comes the thing that is, then the knowing that it is. You’ve probably heard the apocryphal story that the American Indians couldn’t see Columbus’s ship because they had no concept for it. That’s always struck me as crap — beginning in infancy, a person’s attention is drawn to the unusual, the unexpected, the unknown thing. Knowledge-about a thing can be wrong of course, but what if I discover that the thing I perceive, or the thing I’ve heard about, is an illusion or a fantasy — that the thing isn’t? Then I learn that knowing-that can also be false.

18 December 2010

A Guy Walks Into a Writers’ Group

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:22 am

Tonight will be my second visit to a writers’ group.

This fall I was reading a thirties noir novel on my deck when a passer-by stopped to remark about how odd it was to see anyone reading, let alone a man. He was even more surprised when he found out I was reading fiction. It turns out that this fellow, who recently moved into the neighborhood, taught comparative literature at a nearby university before retiring. He also writes creative nonfiction and poetry. I told him that I write too. Oh really? You should come to our group, read something you’ve written to us. I recounted my prior fairly-recent experiences with public reading and a local writers’ group, which I recounted on the blog at the time. He found the tale amusing, and asked to read the short story I had read to the group. He loved the story, and suggested that I try it out on his group at the November session. I did: the rest of the group liked it too, and we engaged in some lively discussion about it.

It’s a small group that’s been meeting for years. The current lineup consists of my new neighborhood friend, a novelist, and two poets, all of whom have taught or currently teach literature at universities. So I’m sort of the odd man out in terms of literary background, which makes me a bit apprehensive. But they didn’t rub my aesthetic ignorance in my face, and when I asked what were surely naive questions about literary allusions they didn’t ridicule me (at least to my face). The group meets monthly, so the format doesn’t really lend itself to workshop-level craftsmanship. I’m not exactly sure what its point is really: to give each person a few minutes in the spotlight, to encourage one another in their lonely writerly endeavors, to wine and dine in convivial company — those seem to be the main benefits. I’m not sure this is the sort of thing I’d like to participate in long-term, but I will go again tonight.

In a recent post I presented a short chapter from the second part of a novel I’m currently writing. I gave my neighbor friend the first three chapters of the first part, which he also liked. He has encouraged me to read these chapters to the group, but I think it’s a bit much. I’ll probably read only the first chapter, which is almost exactly the same length as the ten-minute “Looking Up” story I read previously. Here’s the beginning of that chapter — you’ll note that it incorporates the strange graffiti stencil I posted about earlier this week. I have a couple of questions about this bit, mostly concerning the reference to Bass Ale (too obscure or precious?) and the abrupt shift in voice/tense. On Monday I’ll report back on the group.



The dining room looks inviting, but today it’s the bar that calls to you. Maybe you don’t want to hear the hostess pose the inevitable question – “Just one?” – in that reflexive tone of pity and scorn. There is no television perched up in the corner replaying football highlights, no rock oldies blasting on tinny speakers – only the classic silent aesthetic of bottles and glasses and polished granite. A long mirror stretches across the back wall; there’s even a bowlful of clementines on the bar. When the young woman in the black velvet jacket asks what you’d like you don’t have to think twice: a bottle of Bass, please. As she pours you take a closer look at the ornate pendant suspended from the black ribbon encircling her neck. It appears to be an iconic image, although the coronet perched atop the leering holy man’s head and the five-pointed pinwheel he wears above his breast betoken no familiar theology. Some new-age mystic no doubt, maybe even an ironic citation of mysticism. Most likely she spotted the medallion at a consignment store and thought how good it would look with her black jacket.

The beer has been poured, and now you realize that you’re standing there staring at this young woman’s chest. She, who has surely dealt with your type before, asks if you’d like to sit down. Glass in hand, you step awkwardly around the two patrons to your left and take a seat at the end of the bar. She slips a coaster under your glass and holds out a menu. Scanning the daily lunch specials you see something you’d like. As you wait for the opportunity to order you can’t help but listen in on the two men’s conversation.

“Two guys walk into a bar,” says the first guy.

“Already heard it,” the other guy says.

“But there are a million guy-walks-into-a-bar jokes,” the first guy, feigning offense, retorts.

The second guy folds his napkin and sets it next to his plate. He stands, takes his wallet out of his inside jacket pocket, lays down a twenty. “You’ve got to realize, Stephen, that in my line of work you hear them all. Just this morning there’s this client in my office, some guy getting sued for divorce, wife caught him with the other woman. So this client launches into the Two Guys setup, and I just rock back in my chair and smile. Oh I’ll laugh when he’s done all right. Hell, I’m on the meter. He tells me the joke, then he tells me where he heard the joke, and I’m thinking to myself, this sure is an easy way to make an extra five bucks.”

Stephen pulls a thin roll of bills from his jeans pocket. He peels off a five and tosses it on the bar in front of his lawyer friend. “Okay, I’m paying in advance. So there’s these two guys. They walk into a bar…”

“That should cover the tip,” the lawyer says with a wink to the barkeep. Donning a pair of sunglasses he strides toward the door, the other man following closely behind.

*   *   *

Stephen Hanley shaded his eyes with his hand as he stepped out of the cool dim sanctuary of Rik’s Café and into the midday glare. A block later he and Martin Drake paused to watch a dreadlocked girl tapdance, accompanied by an old hippie banjoist’s competent rendition of O Susannah. Even though the two buskers had set up their show on a grassy patch, the rhythmic chatter of the dancer’s feet sounded distinct and sharp. Stepping closer, Stephen saw that she was performing her act on a four-foot-square piece of hardwood, hinged in the middle for portability. Martin tossed a few coins in the bowl, then the two men continued their postprandial stroll. Two blocks toward the foothills, where the downtown walking mall turned back into a residential street, stood an old two-storey frame house that had been converted into an upscale office duplex. “Drake and Daniels LLC, Attorneys at Law,” announced the discrete sign posted above the left entryway. “Let’s do this again,” Martin said, his eyes hidden behind the dark lenses, and Stephen couldn’t help but wonder whether Martin’s invitation reflected the casual professionalism which his old friend seemed to slip on and off as easily as his Wayfarers.

Stephen had parked in one of the reserved spaces behind Martin’s office but, since he had nowhere in particular to go, he left the car where it was and walked back into downtown. He was exploring without curiosity the side streets branching off from the pedestrian zone and peering into the rehabbed frontier-era storefronts when a sign caught his eye. Black print on a four-by-six white index card, stuck with yellowed tape to the wall, the sign certainly wasn’t designed to grab the attention of the passing window-shopper. It read…

*   *   *

20 Dec — Well if you must know, the Bass Ale refers to this painting by Manet:

* * * * *

17 January update — Courtesy of Kenzie, here’s a screengrab from the latest Simpsons’ episode. Probably if I had taken this variant of the Manet to the writers’ group no one would have admitted knowing anything about Mr. Burns.

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