Ktismatics

19 December 2013

An Obamacare Testimonial

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:23 am

We signed up for Obamacare yesterday, and I’m a satisfied customer.

I’m here to report that the process of applying for and obtaining health insurance on the much-maligned website is much easier than applying for private insurance the old-fashioned way. We encountered an initial glitch in logging in, but it turned out to be our own fault, not the site’s. No questions are posed about hospitalizations over the past 5 years, prior surgeries, prescribed medicines, most recent blood pressure readings, diagnosed health conditions, and all the other data that the companies insist on collecting from you every time you change insurers. As I recall, the only health-related information we provided were age, whether we currently smoke, and whether we have difficulties in performing activities of daily living (eating, dressing, toileting).

To determine the amount of your government subsidy for covering insurance premiums, the site asks you to estimate your income for 2014. It’s possible to enter varying estimates offline to see how much of a price break you might get for varying income levels. The discounts turn out to be quite steep, even for income levels that don’t fall below the officially recognized poverty line. Since this is a program administered by the federal government, it will be possible at the end of the year for the Obamacare administrators to identify, via your income tax returns, how much income you actually made. If it turns out you make more income than you estimated, you will have to repay unmerited subsidies. If you earn less than you estimated, then you get the additional subsidy refunded to you or applied to the subsequent year’s insurance premium.

When you’re ready to buy insurance, you’re presented with a list of insurance plans offered by private insurers that have agreed to participate in the Obamacare program. I thought that maybe there would be two choices, but there were maybe 40, clumped according to comprehensiveness of coverage (bronze, silver, gold, and platinum, of course). For each option the website displays the basic features: deductible, coinsurance, copay, maximum out-of-pocket expenses, prescription prices. The price of each option is displayed: the unsubsidized full amount as well as the amount you would have to pay after your calculated subsidy. Even if you don’t quality for a subsidy, the site’s method of displaying comparative costs and benefits of various options is extremely helpful.

We selected a plan from the list that best suited our preferences for coverage and price, then clicked the button. Congratulations! You’ve successfully signed up for Obamacare-administered health insurance. Presumably we’ll receive an email from the insurance carrier within the next couple of days instructing us on how to pay. Coverage goes into effect on 1 January 2014 — a mere 14 days after applying.

In conclusion, Obamacare is the easiest and best way of buying private health insurance that I’ve ever experienced. The website lets you shop for features and compare competing products head to head. And the program does make private coverage much more affordable to people with low incomes.

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14 December 2013

Jonathan Edwards, Calvinist Neuroscientist

Filed under: Christianity, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:21 pm

Despite the best of intentions, I keep finding myself drawn back into the ongoing kerfuffle surrounding novelist-blogger Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory. The core premise — that humans are unable through introspection to understand their own thinking — is undeniable, though I’d regard human self-reflexivity as correctably presbyopic rather than blind. I’m also okay with regarding mind as coextensive with neural activities centered in the brain and distributed throughout the body. And while I believe that people do formulate intentions and act on them, I’m also in agreement that intents, like other natural processes, are the effects of causes. (Of course, just because I give intellectual assent doesn’t mean that I renounce my self-image as fully autonomous free agent.]

While Bakker frames and buttresses his contentions primarily with his interpretation of contemporary neuroscience, the controversy has a long history. When I was back there in seminary school, most of my profs were Calvinists, and so was I. Predicated largely on the Pauline New Testament writings, the core contention of Calvinism can be stated succinctly: the person doesn’t choose God; God chooses the person. And yet isn’t it true that the sinner who comes to God acknowledges his depravity, repents, accepts the salvation freely offered through Christ’s death and resurrection? In other words, doesn’t salvation hinge on the sinner’s intention as an autonomous agent to choose good over evil? Sure, said Calvin, but that intention is the result of God’s grace working in the sinner, causing him to form the necessary intentions leading to his salvation. And that grace is irresistible: he whom God chooses to save will invariably and inevitably make the intentional act of choosing God.

Most Americans know Jonathan Edwards as the author of the fire-and-brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But Edwards wasn’t just a motivational speaker; he was also a theologian, and a great one. In his multivolume Freedom of the Will (1754), Edwards set out to explain that human intentions and the will to act on them are, like other natural events, the effects of causes and therefore not free. In particular, intentions are shaped by motives, which may conflict with each other. Motives jostle for preference outside of the person’s awareness, with the winner “exciting” volition and shaping the will. Though he doesn’t use the term “unconscious” to describe this internal conflict among motives, that’s what Edwards is talking about.

Educated at Yale and an enthusiastic student of Enlightenment science, Edwards traces a trajectory that leads into contemporary neuroscience. I suppose you could say that, when it comes to intentionality, I’m still a Calvinist but without the overriding determinations of the Prime Intender.

Here are some particularly telling excerpts:

***

Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 1754

PART I
Section 4. WHETHER VOLITION CAN ARISE WITHOUT A CAUSE, THROUGH THE ACTIVITY OF THE NATURE OF THE SOUL

The activity of the soul may enable it to be the cause of effects; but it don’t at all enable or help it to be the subject of effects which have no cause… Activity of nature will no more enable a being to produce effects, and determine the manner of their existence, within itself, without a cause, than out of itself, in some other being. But if an active being should, through its activity, produce and determine an effect in some external object, how absurd would it be to say, that the effect was produced without a cause!

…The mind’s being a designing cause, only enables it to produce effects in consequence of its design; it will not enable it to be the designing cause of all its own designs. The mind’s being an elective cause, will only enable it to produce effects in consequence of its elections, and according to them; but can’t enable it to be the elective cause of all its own elections; because that supposes an election before the first election. So the mind’s being an active cause enables it to produce effects in consequence of its own acts, but can’t enable it to be the determining cause of all its own acts; for that is still in the same manner a contradiction; as it supposes a determining act conversant about the first act, and prior to it, having a causal influence on its existence, and manner of existence.

SECTION 8. CONCERNING THE SUPPOSED LIBERTY OF THE WILL, AS OPPOSED TO ALL NECESSITY

Tis a thing chiefly insisted on by Arminians, in this controversy, as a thing most important and essential in human liberty, that volitions, or the acts of the will, are contingent events; understanding contingence as opposite, not only to constraint, but to all necessity. Therefore I would particularly consider this matter…

To suppose there are some events which have a cause and ground of their existence, that yet are not necessarily connected with their cause, is to suppose that they have a cause which is not their cause. Thus, if the effect be not necessarily connected with the cause, with its influence, and influential circumstances; then, as I observed before, ’tis a thing possible and supposable, that the cause may sometimes exert the same influence, under the same circumstances, and yet the effect not follow. And if this actually happens in any instance, this instance is a proof, in fact, that the influence of the cause is not sufficient to produce the effect. For if it had been sufficient, it would have done it. And yet, by the supposition, in another instance, the same cause, with perfectly the same influence, and when all circumstances which have any influence, are the same, it was followed with the effect. By which it is manifest, that the effect in this last instance was not owing to the influence of the cause, but must come to pass some other way. For it was proved before, that the influence of the cause was not sufficient to produce the effect. And if it was not sufficient to produce it, then the production of it could not be owing to that influence, but must be owing to something else, or owing to nothing. And if the effect be not owing to the influence of the cause, then it is not the cause. Which brings us to the contradiction, of a cause, and no cause, that which is the ground and reason of the existence of a thing, and at the same time is not the ground and reason of its existence, nor is sufficient to be so.

SECTION 9. OF THE CONNECTION OF THE ACTS OF THE WILL WITH THE DICTATES OF THE UNDERSTANDING

[E]very act of the will is some way connected with the understanding, and is as the greatest apparent good is, in the manner which has already been explained; namely, that the soul always wills or chooses that which, in the present view of the mind, considered in the whole of that view, and all that belongs to it, appears most agreeable…

I am sensible, the Doctor’s [Daniel Whitby, an Arminian] aim in these assertions is against the Calvinists; to show, in opposition to them, that there is no need of any physical operation of the Spirit of God on the will, to change and determine that to a good choice, but that God’s operation and assistance is only moral, suggesting ideas to the understanding; which he supposes to be enough, if those ideas are attended to, infallibly to obtain the end. But whatever his design was, nothing can more directly and fully prove, that every determination of the will, in choosing and refusing, is necessary; directly contrary to his own notion of the liberty of the will. For if the determination of the will, evermore, in this manner, follows the light, conviction and view of the understanding, concerning the greatest good and evil, and this be that alone which moves the will, and it be a contradiction to suppose otherwise; then it is necessarily so, the will necessarily follows this light or view of the understanding, not only in some of its acts, but in every act of choosing and refusing. So that the will don’t determine itself in any one of its own acts; but all its acts, every act of choice and refusal, depends on, and is necessarily connected with some antecedent cause; which cause is not the will itself, nor any act of its own, nor anything pertaining to that faculty, but something belonging to another faculty, whose acts go before the will, in all its acts, and govern and determine them every one…

And let us suppose as many acts of the will, one preceding another, as we please, yet they are everyone of them necessarily determined by a certain degree of light in the understanding, concerning the greatest and most eligible good in that case; and so, not one of them free according to Dr. Whitby’s notion of freedom…

If liberty consists in that which Arminians suppose, viz. in the will’s determining its own acts, having free opportunity, and being without all necessity; this is the same as to say, that liberty consists in the soul’s having power and opportunity to have what determinations of the will it pleases or chooses. And if the determinations of the will, and the last dictates of the understanding be the same thing, then liberty consists in the mind’s having power to have what dictates of the understanding it pleases, having opportunity to choose its own dictates of understanding. But this is absurd; for it is to make the determination of choice prior to the dictate of understanding, and the ground of it; which can’t consist with the dictate of understanding’s being the determination of choice itself.

SECTION 10. VOLITION NECESSARILY CONNECTED WITH THE INFLUENCE OF MOTIVES; WITH PARTICULAR OBSERVATIONS ON THE GREAT INCONSISTENCE OF MR. CHUBB’S ASSERTIONS AND REASONINGS, ABOUT THE FREEDOM OF THE WILL

That every act of the will has some cause, and consequently (by what has been already proved) has a necessary connection with its cause, and so is necessary by a necessity of connection and consequence, is evident by this, that every act of the will whatsoever, is excited by some motive: which is manifest, because, if the will or mind, in willing and choosing after the manner that it does, is excited so to do by no motive or inducement, then it has no end which it proposes to itself, or pursues in so doing; it aims at nothing, and seeks nothing. And if it seeks nothing, then it don’t go after anything, or exert any inclination or preference towards anything. Which brings the matter to a contradiction; because for the mind to will something, and for it to go after something by an act of preference and inclination, are the same thing.

But if every act of the will is excited by a motive, then that motive is the cause of the act of the will. If the acts of the will are excited by motives, then motives are the causes of their being excited; or, which is the same thing, the cause of their being put forth into act and existence. And if so, the existence of the acts of the will is properly the effect of their motives. Motives do nothing as motives or inducements, but by their influence; and so much as is done by their influence, is the effect of them. For that is the notion of an effect, something that is brought to pass by the influence of another thing.

And if volitions are properly the effects of their motives, then they are necessarily connected with their motives. Every effect and event being, as was proved before, necessarily connected with that which is the proper ground and reason of its existence. Thus it is manifest, that volition is necessary, and is not from any self-determining power in the will: the volition which is caused by previous motive and inducement, is not caused by the will exercising a sovereign power over itself, to determine, cause and excite volitions in itself…

There is such a thing as a diversity of strength in motives to choice, previous to the choice itself. Mr. Chubb himself  [Thomas Chubb, a deist] supposes, that they do “previously invite,” “induce,” “excite” and “dispose the mind to action.” This implies, that they have something in themselves that is inviting, some tendency to induce and dispose to volition, previous to volition itself. And if they have in themselves this nature and tendency, doubtless they have it in certain limited degrees, which are capable of diversity; and some have it in greater degrees, others in less; and they that have most of this tendency, considered with all their nature and circumstances, previous to volition, they are the strongest motives; and those that have least, are the weakest motives…

[N]ow if motives excite the will, they move it… And again (if language is of any significance at all) if motives excite volition, then they are the cause of its being excited; and to cause volition to be excited, is to cause it to be put forth or exerted… To excite, is positively to do something; and certainly that which does something, is the cause of the thing done by it. To create, is to cause to be created; to make, is to cause to be made; to kill, is to cause to be killed; to quicken, is to cause to be quickened; and to excite, is to cause to be excited. To excite, is to be a cause, in the most proper sense, not merely a negative occasion, but a ground of existence by positive influence. The notion of exciting, is exerting influence to cause the effect to arise or come forth into existence.

18 November 2013

Re-Re-Redundant

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:16 pm

When I was in grad school it was rumored that, some years earlier, one of the professors had had an affair with a woman working in the departmental office. The enraged husband had come gunning for the prof, who went off into hiding somewhere until the shitstorm blew over. The frustrated husband shot a hole in the office wall, a hole that could still be found if one looked behind the right file cabinet. Anyhow, this philandering prof had a stutter. Once I was involved in a discussion in which this prof was a participant. Someone made a point that had already been addressed by someone else, which the prof was quick to point out: “Isn’t that re-re-redundant?”

***

“Get different!” That’s the slogan typed onto the battered 3×5 card taped to the door of the original fictional Salon Postisme. It’s not surprising that I tend to resist redundancy. But…

There’s plenty of redundancy in contemporary music, in pop genres as well as classical composition. Samples are looped, beats are repeated, phrases are recycled, over and over again. Taken to extremes, redundancy becomes a source of difference.

In the sixth book of the cluster I intentionally repeat several events that had already transpired in earlier books. I even cut and paste the same words. The redundancy continues until a certain point is reached, after which the trajectory swerves off course, leading the event into a different resolution.

So, I’m now going to post those same three paragraphs from Book 1, Chapter 2 that I posted here before, several years ago. Probably none of the few people following the blog back then is still around. Besides, I’m rereading it again myself. I’ll add the immediate context this time, just to change it up a bit:

***

Rik brought Miguel over to Stephen’s table. “So you’re what, a therapist?” Miguel asked abruptly.

Stephen smiled, not for the first time recalling his conversation with Hank Adamowicz. Was Hank Adamowicz the first Proprietor? Had he started the Salon? Stephen assumed so, but somehow he hadn’t asked. “And so you’re what,” Stephen had asked Hank: “a therapist?” Hank rolled his eyes. “Some sort of high priest?”

“More like an usher,” Hank had replied.

A former colleague of Stephen’s had been a therapist, but she’d quit to become a business consultant. She said she didn’t care enough about people. As the slow flow of clients merged into a monotonous stream, she began to forget from one week to the next: is this the one whose wife is threatening to leave him, or the one who’s afraid that her neighbor is going to kill her dog, or the one who’s trying to quit shopping? Everyone who came into her office could be slotted into a sadly small number of garden variety pathologies. No florid hallucinations, no multiple personalities, no hysterical anesthesias. Plenty of anxiety, paranoia, anger, narcissism, failure, victimhood.

Adjustment falls within a narrow bandwidth; the therapist is charged with tuning everyone to the same channel. Like Tolstoy said, more or less: every unhappy person is unhappy in his own way, but happy people are all alike. Stretched out on the procrustean couch, the client knows what the therapist is trying to do to him, and still he keeps his appointments with the executioner. He wants to be happy; he’s ready to be purged of all those idiosyncrasies that keep him unhappy. He comes prepared to tell stories about himself, stories he chooses specifically to elicit the helping reflex. It’s a ritual: the therapist bestows the recognized rites of restoration on the transgressor and the outcast. Stephen’s colleague had found this work increasingly distasteful. So she quit.

As new Proprietor of the Salon Postisme, Stephen believed he could avoid falling into the trap. He had faith that the unhappy outsiders would prove far more interesting than the happy insiders they might wish to become. Instead of snipping away at their stray threads, he would look for an alternative weave, a secret and subtle delirium unique to each individual. His job as he saw it was to enter into the client’s real strangeness, to have the client guide him into other ways of seeing, into exotic regions of the soul that they could then explore together. What he really wanted, of course, was to become the client. He didn’t want to pull the clients out into his normalcy; he wanted to climb with them into their madness. I guess I’m just a romantic at heart, Stephen acknowledged to himself.

“Not a therapist,” Stephen replied to Miguel. “More like an usher.” Miguel nodded, smiling: apparently he found the answer satisfactory. He agreed to meet with Stephen next Wednesday at the Salon.

***

Suppose someone came to Hanley concerned about repeating the same thoughts or behaviors over and over again. Would Hanley try to help this person overcome the personally troubling (and presumably obsessive-compulsive) tendency toward redundancy? Or would he regard the client’s presenting problem as a personal idiosyncrasy to be cultivated into a mark of distinction, a personal style, a unique artform, a subjective embodiment of the Death Drive, a metaphysical manifestation of the universe’s Eternal Return?

Hanley takes on Miguel Obispo as a client. Eventually he reaches an impasse. Does he help Miguel push his HemoBoy performance art to even further extremes, leading possibly to his inadvertently bleeding out altogether onstage? Or does he try to protect Miguel from himself, from his audience, from his handlers, from his acolytes? Hanley asks his wife about it while she’s engaged in her own personal act of redundancy, painting a watercolor reproduction of a Kandinsky print. I posted this exchange on the blog before too, by the way, in August 2011. Fuck it: here it is again.

***

“Listen, suppose I have a client who believes things that are sort of nutty. Surely I don’t need to go along with everything the client believes?”

Concentrating, she extended the purple shape out and down. “You mean that young guy with hemophilia? Can you give him your opinion without sounding like you think he’s a little off center?”

“I guess not. Still, it seems dishonest not to, or at least disingenuous.”

Lynne put her brush down. “See this painting? Kandinsky had synaesthesia. When he saw colors he heard music. Literally. He painted like he was playing a keyboard, like he was playing his audience. He believed that each brushstroke would set off sympathetic harmonies in people’s souls. Kind of odd, but also kind of true. Before Kandinsky there was another Russian, a composer, Scriabin. Scriabin believed that if he played a certain chord at the exact same moment that a certain pattern of colors was displayed, then the world would come to an end. Right then, at that very moment.”

Maybe Scriabin was right, Stephen thought: maybe some day somebody will hit the right combination. Maybe Scriabin already did it a century ago, and since then we’ve been living in some other world. “So,” he asked his wife, “would you have told Scriabin and Kandinsky you thought they were nuts?”

“I’d have told them I admire their work very much. Besides, only Scriabin was really nutty. Kandinsky was just eccentric.”

Stephen looked again at the Kandinsky postcard. A work of exuberant precision, the picture looked to him like a mapmaker’s rendition of a dreamscape. The fragments of geometry incorporated into the work: were they engineered segments of an intricate scaffolding being erected around the fantasy in order to contain it? Or was something uncontrollable smashing through the gridwork, breaking it to bits? “One more thing,” he said to Lynne. “If you’d had the chance, would you have encouraged Kandinsky to pursue his eccentricity to the limit, even if it took him all the way into madness? All for the sake of genius, for the sake of art, for the end of the world?”

“I wouldn’t have had to,” Lynne replied as she picked up her brush. “Kandinsky had Scriabin. I’m not sure who Scriabin had – maybe Rasputin.”

***

For quite some time I seriously entertained the feasibility of starting my own practice along the lines sketched out by Stephen Hanley, I explained the idea to a friend, a psychology professor who had gone to grad school with me. You mean, he asked me, that you’d encourage clients to exaggerate their symptoms for the sake of creative difference, even if it makes them feel worse instead of better? Nobody wants that; no one will come; it’ll never work.

I abandoned the practice with real people, but I have pursued it in a fictional parallel reality. There, the clients do show up. There, my fictional practitioner counterpart never has to worry about clients who want symptom relief. There he worries about his clients getting too different. After awhile even that worry gets to be repetitive, redundant.

17 November 2013

Already Getting Redundant

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:41 pm

I was going to write a post focusing on three paragraphs in chapter two, in which Stephen Hanley is trying to establish a praxis that’s different from therapy. But then I began to wonder: haven’t I already put this bit up on the blog? Turns out I did, in a blogpost from October 2006. In that earlier draft Stephen Hanley narrated his own story; in a subsequent edit I changed to a third person narrator who in this particular passage conveys Hanley’s attitude via “free indirect discourse.”

Some benefits for me of writing fiction:

How can I make general pronouncements without having to argue for them or justify them with supporting evidence? By having my fictional narrator merely assert them.

How can I revisit my own past experiences without resorting to personal confessions? By assigning them as backstories to my characters.

How can I redeem my own stray threads? By doing it virtually, through the characters’ responses to situations I throw them into.

How can I hold onto my own ambivalences without having to resolve them one way or the other? By having different characters embody diverse and conflicting perspectives that I have held myself.

“What I really want, of course, is to become fictional,” he conceded.

Here’s another benefit:

How can I blur the distinction between what’s written and the process of writing it, between the “made” and the “making-of”? By writing metafiction centering on a character who is a writer.

At first my main fictional characters were therapists and consultants, scientists and mystics, pragmatists and dreamers, activists and recluses, fathers and husbands — my personal loose threads from my life before I started writing fiction. Later I shifted heavily toward writing fiction about writers. So I’m thinking now that this making-of series of posts is redundant. Most of what I want to say about my subjective experiences in writing fiction is already embedded in the fiction itself.

15 November 2013

Redeemed by the Blood

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:47 am

CHAPTER TWO

Miguel Obispo’s performance had been astonishing. Couched in the visual language of Christian masochism that had become all too commonplace among the avant-garde, this particular evocation gradually transformed itself into something far more disturbing. The blood, trickling slowly from the palms, would not stop. A minute, two minutes, five; it began to puddle on the floor. The young man stood, hands outstretched, completely silent. He seemed to be concentrating intently, as though willing the blood to flow. The onlookers, thirty or so, sat mesmerized. He gazed intently first at one audience member, then another.

He does not look at me, Stephen thought, surprised by his own disappointment.

***

When we got back to the motel room I felt drunk and exhausted. Sure I’d had a couple three drinks, but that was across a period of several hours. I figured it must have been the company Anne and I had been keeping: my Alzheimer’s-depleted father and his wife, who’s starting down the same path as her spouse. Lying on the motel bed I felt like I was experiencing some sort of petit-mal seizure. I couldn’t move; I couldn’t speak. After a minute or so I snapped out of it. I had dozed off; the seizure had been a dream. Later I wondered whether it might not have been been a dream at all, but a conscious awakening inside my sleeping self, still immobile and mute and unresponsive to my own intentions. I got up, brushed my teeth, took off my clothes, got under the covers, went to sleep.

I dreamed that I was back in the UVA Psych Building again. I exchanged greetings with Tim Wilson, then a junior member of the Social Psych faculty and a member of my diss committee. A few years ago he wrote a book called Strangers to Ourselves; in my 2009 post about the book I wrote that “Tim focuses largely on humans’ limited ability to gain conscious access to the unconscious.” Farther down the hall I was approached by Jon Thiem, a retired comparative lit prof I knew in Boulder. He was enthusiastic about a meeting he’d just attended at the Merck home office, involving corporate top brass and John Zorn — Zorn is an avant-garde jazz musician and composer who explores Judeo-Christian themes in his music. Evidently the Merck strategists thought that Zorn’s music and related contemporary literary work could be worked into their corporate branding apparatus and new product R&D. You really should come meet these people, Jon Thiem told me: they’ll love your stuff. I nodded noncommittally, not at all surprised by Merck’s new scheme. When I woke up I saw this dream as directly connected to Book One, Chapter Two.

For several years I worked as a healthcare consultant. A number of my clients were pharmaceutical companies, Merck among them. Our biggest client was a company that specialized in delivering health services and products to patients suffering from rare chronic diseases. Working for this client I got to learn a lot about hemophilia. The performance artist introduced in Chapter 2 of the novel uses his hemophilia in his post-Judeo-Christian performance art.

***

An electronic squeal pierced the silence, jolting everyone in the room except the performer. With deliberation Miguel walked to the left side of the stage, red footprints marking his path. From behind a screen he retrieved a white vinyl-topped card table and set it up mid-stage. Next he brought out a white polystyrene picnic cooler, emblazoned on all sides with the “Biohazard” symbol, and placed it on the table. He tilted back the lid and began extracting various medical supplies from the cooler: an empty glass bottle, a smaller sealed bottle, a small vial, a syringe, a rubber hose, what seemed to be a bottle of mineral water. Each item he placed with precision on the tabletop. Lastly he removed a small gold standing crucifix and positioned it facing the audience at the front of the table. Calmly Miguel closed the cooler and carried it to the far back end of the stage, where he set it on the floor.

Returning to center stage, he began a series of ablutions. He opened the mineral water and sprinkled some of it over everything: his hands, the medical supplies, the table, lastly the crucifix.  Thinly diluted blood began spilling over the edge of the table and onto the floor, bathing the staged solemnity in the peculiar horror of its pink translucence. People in the front row lurched backward, even though they were seated at least fifteen feet away from the dripping table.

Miguel wiped his hands across the front of his white turtleneck and genuflected. He broke the seal on the small glass bottle, held it aloft for a moment, then poured its contents, a clear colorless fluid, into the larger empty bottle. He went through the same procedure with the vial, which held some sort of powder. He swirled the bottle for a few seconds in order to mix its contents. He took the syringe and loaded it with the mixture, pale yellow and slightly opaque. He rolled up his sleeve and cinched the rubber hose around his upper arm. Then he jabbed himself with the needle. Not a sound came from the enraptured audience. Slowly he pressed the plunger. Two or three minutes passed before the syringe was empty. He recapped the syringe. Then, methodically, he undid everything. Starting with the cross, he put it all back into the cooler, closed the lid, and carried it offstage. Then he refolded the table, the thinned blood sloshing onto the floor, and removed it also.

Standing in the small pool where the table had been, Miguel again wiped his hands across his shirt. Slowly he lifted his arms, palms turned toward the audience, in the classic gesture of benediction. He held this pose for a few moments. His palms had stopped bleeding. He put his hands down, pressed the palms together, and retraced his own bloody trail offstage. A few seconds later he returned to the very front of the stage, smiled, and bowed deeply. He had spoken not one word during the performance.

Wild applause ensued. Single red roses were flung onto the stage. Calls of “encore” elicited a derisive but gracious smile from the entertainer. Amid the gore, his white turtleneck thoroughly besmeared and bespattered, Miguel Obispo presented himself to his audience with the perfect decorum of a symphony conductor. As he left the stage he walked with a decided limp.

***

Maybe I get too caught up in describing the technical aspect of the performance, but I found a sort of perverse fascination in delineating the procedural details of the bloodletting and the clotting. I experienced a similar sort of technological rapture while watching The Wire: the convoluted drug deals, the surveillance apparatus, the counter-intelligence tactics. After reading the chapter describing Miguel’s “HemoBoy” act, Jon Thiem informed me that it was thick with “knowledge code,” not unlike Melville’s long discourses on the technical aspects of whaling, whale physiology, and taxonomic cetology. I also see also a kind of Robbe-Grilletian empirical obsessiveness, voyeuristic, a bit sadistic perhaps. But there’s no question that Moby-Dick has been an influence on my fiction; later in this first book I quote an extended passage from it:

***

Stephen took his own copy of the Bible down from the shelf and opened it to a story he knew well. Yahweh tells Jonah to pronounce divine wrath on the city of Nineveh. Jonah knows what he’s meant to do; he just doesn’t want to do it. And so Jonah tries to run away. It doesn’t work, of course: his boat gets swamped and his shipmates throw him overboard. The great fish swallows him up. From the abyss of deep destiny Jonah apparently reconsiders. He promises Yahweh that he’ll do his job. The fish vomits up Jonah; Jonah tells the Ninevites of their impending doom; the Ninevites repent in sackcloth; the city is spared. Jonah, looking like a fool because the city still stands, walks into the desert to sulk. We never find out whether Jonah ever again waxed enthusiastic over his prophetic career or if he died in the desert a proud but bitter man.

Stephen thought also of Ahab. Fate, be it god or devil, was decimating that superbly mad tyrant bite by bite. What is lost cannot be restored; it can only be avenged: the whalebone pegleg is just the beginning. To fight with the monomaniacal obsession of Ahab is to be swallowed up by a Will unassailable and infinitely vast. Yet fight he must, and fail, for fate will be neither evaded nor vanquished.

Stephen took this other book from it place on the shelf and read the unholy text:

Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or another, swims before all human hearts – while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.

Confronted by a monstrous inevitability, how many of us would dare try Ahab’s full-throttle assault, or even Jonah’s dodge? We’re more like the dandy from Death in Venice: neither hiders nor seekers, we want a nice vacation at the seashore. We’re going to encounter our abyss not at the bottom of the sea but on a private beach, sitting under an umbrella sipping a Bellini. The Deep is going to reach up onto the shore, grab you by the ankle, and pull you under.

Stephen thought: at the Salon Postisme, we will let others traffic in the optimistic, win-win version of the Quest. We will tell our clients that the Quest often turns into a plunge into the Deep, a tour of the Abyss.

***

From the outset I’ve regarded fiction-writing as a kind of self-redemptive procedure. In search of lost time, I’ve tried to pick up the loose threads from my prior lives, linking them together into an alternative weave. Now that I’ve written several of these fictions, they too beckon from the past, calling out to be redeemed. I realize that in this making-of series I’m doing the same thing with them as I did with my hemophilia consult, looking back over my shoulder at them to see if any of their loose threads lead to another way forward, or backward, or off on another tangent.

12 November 2013

Way Out

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:08 pm

Truth be told, Stephen had been looking for a way out for quite some time. His friends, seeing him apparently mired in the sort of midlife crisis they could comprehend, eagerly and repeatedly shared with him the self-help tips they’d latched onto for getting themselves on track toward a more desirable future. Invariably these tips converged on the same basic scheme. Listen to your True Self. Discover your Passion. Become childlike. Believe in yourself. Be present and live in the moment. Visualize the future you want, make a plan, and relentlessly pursue your plan until you arrive at the desired destination. These were not the sort of tips that inspired Stephen.

“What if my True Self turns out to be an asshole?”

“Well in your case…”

“What if it turns out my Passion is to be the object of worship for everyone around me?”

“Well that’s pretty shallow, Stephen. You need to look deeper.”

“How do you know that’s not the deepest, truest me? Maybe if you looked deeper you’d realize that you really want to be a serial killer.”

“Look, nobody’s forcing you to read the damn book.”

 “No really. The inner voice that’s telling you it wants six million dollars and a nice vacation villa in Tuscany – how do you know it’s really your True Self, and not just another imposter taking his turn at the microphone? Besides, aren’t you a little suspicious that everyone’s True Self wants pretty much the same things: chronic happiness, lots of money, good weather, universal admiration? Maybe everyone’s gone too deep. Maybe we’re all delving somewhere down below unique individuality into the universal unconscious, where everything is pure narcissism, will to power, and the longing for fabulousness.”

 “Okay fine. So what are you offering up that’s better? Not to get too critical here, Stephen, but what I see is a guy who hasn’t made a dime in I don’t know how long, who’s probably going to have to sell his house, who if anything seems even less happy than the rest of us. Man, sign me up for what you’re selling.”

After awhile Stephen started avoiding these conversations. It was true: he had a fairly strong sense of what was wrong with the good life, but not much to offer by way of an alternative. That he was expected to elaborate some optimistic new game plan of his own he regarded as symptomatic of the cultural tyranny he was trying to resist. What’s wrong with a little pessimistic fatalism as the basis for a friendly chat among neighbors?

He wanted to perpetrate his own escape. Not only that: he wanted a language for describing the way out. He wanted something else to do, something else to think about. And so it was that Stephen Hanley became the new Proprietor of the Salon Postisme.

***

Stephen Hanley is one of my fictional alter-egos. I wanted what he wanted. Making-of: I wanted to write my own escape, the act of writing being the means of escape. Made: I wanted that which I wrote to constitute a language describing the way out, for myself and for my “clients.” Twelve years later, I’m not sure whether Stephen and I have tunneled our way under the wall or dug ourselves into a hole.

***

Stephen’s wife? She was fine about it.

“What have you been up to? You look like you just had about four espressos.”

“Yeah, well.” Stephen took his shoes off and set them on the mat by the door. “I got a job.”

“A job? I didn’t know you were looking.”

“I wasn’t. As of today I’m the Proprietor of the Salon Postisme.”

“You cut hair now?”

“No, it’s not that. There’s no pay, and I didn’t have to quit any other job, so I figured what the hell?”

“I’ll open the champagne.”

***

Thus ends chapter 1 of book 1. We try always to have a bottle a champagne in the fridge. There’s one in there now.

11 November 2013

Time Out of Joint in the Creation Narratives

Filed under: Fiction, Genesis 1, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:48 pm

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 strolled back into downtown. He was exploring without curiosity the side streets branching off from the pedestrian zone, 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:

SALON POSTISME
Portals, Intervals, Alternate Realities
Henry Adamowicz, Proprietor
“Get Different”
Walk-Ins Welcome
(ring bell for service)

A short corridor and a long stairway were all that could be discerned through the smoky glass door. With nothing to do and less to hope for, Stephen rang…

***

Here’s another reason why narrating the story in the present tense might be misleading, or at least weird. It’s because time is out of joint between the making-of and the made.

In diagetic time, Stephen and Martin are the two guys walking out of the bar in the opening scene. They part ways, and the narrator follows Stephen on his solitary walk down the block from Martin’s office. Diagetically, this is a single continuous scene. From the making-of standpoint it is not. The opening scene in the bar and the beginning of the out-the-door stroll were written in November 2010, but the passage in which Stephen happens upon the Salon Postisme was written much earlier. I don’t even know quite when I did write it. In November 2003 I incorporated the bit about Hanley finding the Salon into an earlier version of this book, but the annotation I wrote at the time indicates that it was a fragment “imported from prior work.” I probably wrote it sometime in 2001, but I can’t put my hands on the original. Between one sentence and the next in the same paragraph there’s a gap of nearly ten years. Portals, intervals, alternate realities.

***

In the beginning the Elohim created the heavens and the earth and the earth was formless and void…

In the beginning, Genesis 1 reads like a continuous narrative: only the small and ubiquitous Hebrew conjunction and separates the Bible’s first two references to the earth. But doesn’t the continuity convey the impression that the Elohim did not create the universe ex nihilo, but rather that he (or they) came upon a pre-existing formless void and organized it? That’s heresy. To reconcile the canonical text with orthodox theology sometimes calls for hermeneutical creativity. Advocates of what has come to be known as Gap Theory propose that something went wrong between verse 1, when God created the earth, and the formless void of verse 2. Perhaps an extended interval should be inserted between the first two verses, an interval that lasted for eons. Geologic eras came and went; ice ages alternated with times of tropical warmth. A wide array of life forms emerged and thrived. Maybe even the primates, even those which paleontologists regard as forerunners of homo sapiens, appeared on the scene. Then some sort of widespread evil corrupted the earth, causing everything to wind down and to fall apart. Floods and earthquakes, volcanoes and meteors disrupted land and sea and sky; every species went extinct. What had been created as an orderly world degenerated into the formless void of Genesis 1:2. There’s something alluring about the idea of opening up the tiny space between verse 1 and verse 2 and seeing inside of it an entire prehistory of the world lasting billions of years. It’s an exegesis based on the space between words, on the absence of written evidence – as if the meaning of the text is to be found not in the words themselves, but in the spaces between the words; as if all Biblical meaning consists of what is not written.

[Editorial Note:  In the prior paragraph there’s a temporal gap in the writing. The first four sentences I wrote just now; the rest I cribbed from a nonfiction book about Genesis 1 that I wrote in 2005-6. Three years later I dismantled and fictionalized that book, turning it into what is now the seventh volume in the cluster of novels.]

***

Then the Elohim blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it he rested from all his work which the Elohim had created and made. This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that Yahweh Elohim made earth and heavens…

The first sentence wraps up the seven-day creation narrative; the second introduces the Garden of Eden story. There’s not even a chapter break separating these two accounts: one follows the other as part of Chapter 2. But the details of the creation as it unfolds are not compatible between the two accounts. In the second story Yahweh creates Adam out in the desert, then he plants a garden in the east, then he brings Adam into the garden to tend it, then he creates all the beasts and birds and brings them to Adam so that he can name them. It reads as if the gods (elohim is a plural noun) created the larger world first, and then later one of the gods, named Yahweh, created his own microworld inside that larger world, in the desert of the Real as it were, outfitting it with his own plants and his own gardener.

But what about the sequence in which these creation narratives were written — the making-of of the Making-Of? The Documentary Hypothesis contends that the Garden narrative was written hundreds of years before the Seven-Days narrative, and that only later did redactors reverse the sequence in the canonical merged text. Now the Seven Days can be read as a just-so story contrived by priests for justfiying landowners’ exploitation of peasants. Why do we have to work six days straight, with only one day off? Because that’s how God did it. And why do we have to go to temple? Because God blessed and sanctified the seventh day. For the landowners that sort of mystification must have been worth the ten-percent tithe. Of course it’s only a hypothesis: the originals can no longer be retrieved from the archives.

***

If there’s one book that has exerted the greatest influence over my fictions, it’s the Bible. Here we find a congeries of textual fragments, written by many authors in many styles over hundreds and hundreds of years, cobbled together into a single, continuous, third-person preterite narration. But the seams and the sutures are still evident in places. Prying them open, the reader gets a glimpse into the tohu vabohu, the Formless Void, on whose surface the whole Creation bobs along like a flimsy raft.

10 November 2013

Iconology

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:26 pm

I posted the very beginning of the first novel three years ago, shortly after I wrote it. I was planning to read the first chapter to a writer’s group to which I’d been invited by my neighbor. I had attended once before, and the story I’d read had been well-received by the group. At the next session I hoped to discuss with the group the abrupt shift from second person present to third person preterite. That discussion didn’t happen, and I didn’t get back to thinking about the narrative tenses until writing my making-of post the other day. I also had hoped to discuss with the group a couple of iconic images included in the second paragraph of the book: one based on a famous Manet painting of the bar at the Folies Bergère; the other, the image of a woman stenciled on a sidewalk near where I lived. That conversation too proved abortive, as those of you who have been following along with my blogged adventures might remember. Two days later I wrote a brief summary post about the group: “No thanks, but I don’t believe I’ll be back next month.” In a comment Asher asked for further elaboration. I replied:

I’d say this particular group is about cocktail hour chitchat and extended discussions of obscure 19th-century writers’ personal correspondences and striking the studied poses of literati dickwads and cunts. Or maybe it was just me.

Embedded in the longer rant I recounted in greater detail the discussion of the Manet, which serves as a model for the bar and the barkeep in my story:

I read the first chapter of the current novel that begins with the Manet bar and the two-guys metajoke, as posted here. I hand around a reproduction of the Manet as a visual aid. The whole chapter takes about ten minutes to read. When I’m finished one guy asks me the date of the Manet painting. I tell him it’s early 1880s (I think that’s right). You know it’s remarkable, the guy responds, but that wasn’t long after the Paris Commune. The guy with the Middlemarch marginal notes then remarks pithily about the ongoing Prussian occupation of Paris and Flaubert’s political views as reflected in his notebooks. This led to a lively conversation between these two dickwads. What about my chapter, I ask. Perhaps a bit confusing, one offered. I’m sure it is confusing if you’re too drunk and self-absorbed to pay attention.

See what I did there, shifting mid-paragraph from present to preterite, then back and forth again? Is it a sloppy mistake or a stylistic maneuver? We’ll let the biographers of the future decide. But back to the iconic images. Here’s something from the second novel in the cluster (or maybe it’ll turn out to be the third):

Prestige is a conjuror’s trick, said Prop Immo. Doubly fantastic, prestige is a force generated simultaneously by the magician’s skill and the observer’s fantasies. Held spellbound, the captive of prestige experiences the enchanted object as somehow both more substantive and more mystical than other worldly things.

And what of the one who owns and controls such objects? ‘Among countless stones, one stone becomes sacred – and hence instantly becomes saturated with being.’ Mircea Eliade tells us this. If I possess the sacred stone, I too become saturated with being.

What I wanted to discuss with the literati dickwad society was this sense of the ordinary object attaining iconic status. Would Flaubert’s painting have attracted my attention walking through the Courtauld in London if it hadn’t already accumulated layers and layers of plenitude, meriting its prominent and singular display in the gallery? Would I have been held captive by its prestige, to the extent of buying a print in the gift shop, carrying it home in an architect’s tube, having it framed and hung on the wall? Would its plenitude have persisted years after I’d given the print away to our daughter’s violin teacher, such that when I started thinking about the look and feel of a fictional bar it was Manet’s rendering that came to mind? For me the print of the iconic painting had again become an ordinary object, a quotidian presence to which I had grown inured through repeated exposure. Only later, after it was long gone, did my mental image of that withdrawn object re-enchant itself. Eliade goes on:

The object appears as the receptacle of an exterior force that differentiates it from its milieu and gives it meaning and value.

The stenciled woman too: anonymous but numinous, she too is imbued with magic. I put up a post about her, others reported sightings, no one knew who she was or who had made the stencils. I saw her image nearly every day: as the stencil gradually eroded her plenitude increased. In the text I set the barkeep inside one icon, while from her necklace the other icon appeared as a pendant. It’s not surprising then that the barkeep herself is gradually transformed into an iconic figure. And it is she who picks up the stone on her way to the shrine, an Eliadic stone that she commemorates in her poetic soliloquy appearing near the end of the sixth book.

An icon operates as a portal, leading through itself into another dimension, another reality, another web of meanings in which the world is embedded. But how does it get that way? Is it placed by the gods in our midst, disguised as an ordinary thing, waiting for us to discover its secrets and its depths? Does someone consciously select it, assigning its function that the rest of us are expected to honor? Does it call attention to itself, spanning the gap between it and you at some level beneath your conscious awareness? Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls, the Psalmist writes.

There are sacred artists who intentionally create objects intended to span the gap between the material and spiritual realms. On some level all artists are iconographers, their attention drawn by elements of the quotidian that point beyond themselves, linking them together in an alternative weave, together tracing the contours of an alternate reality. Maybe at least some of those who attend to what the artist is pointing at can glimpse it too, can hear its call, can step through the portal.

Bad juju too works this way. My desultory experience at the writer’s group is repeated in my memory, and repeated again in my subsequent description. Much later that description is expanded and incorporated into an early chapter of the sixth novel. It had been a brief and trivial occurrence; now, having fallen under the resentful iconographer’s spell, it is revealed as a portal. Through the narrow and jagged aperture can be glimpsed a sliver of the eighth circle of hell, wherein the literary dickwads and cunts remain fixed for eternity in their statuesque poses of studied pomposity, gracefully holding their always-half-empty glasses of pinot as eternally they return to their marginal notes on Middlemarch.

8 November 2013

You Walk Into a Bar

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:56 pm

The dining room looks inviting, but today it’s the bar that calls to you.

The first book begins in second person present. A page later “you” watch two guys walk out of the bar. Once they’re out on the street the narration shifts to 3rd person preterite:

Stephen Hanley shaded his eyes with his hand as he and Martin Drake stepped out of the cool dim sanctuary of Rik’s Café and into the midday glare.

This more traditional narrative tense persists until the opening of the sixth book, when finally you find yourself back in the same bar that called to you in the very beginning of the ongoing saga.

Why the second person? Some feel that “you,” the reader, are drawn more directly and intimately into the story that way. I’m not persuaded by my own experiences as reader. Empirical evidence from self-report and fMRI reveals no significant differences in reader engagement between 2nd and 3rd person fictional texts. Besides, if I had been trying to lure you in, I should stick with the second person throughout the book, preferably with the main character being the one who’s addressing you, like he was telling you a long story while the two of you are sitting at the bar together. But the main characters are the ones who walk out the door together, being stalked by the 3rd person preterite narrator, while “you” remain seated at the bar drinking your beer watching them leave.

A gimmick then, a little writerly flash to open with “you are” before abruptly shifting to “they were”? To tell the truth, I don’t recall why I started the book the way I did. It just seemed right. But here’s what I think now, afterward, as reader.

***

When about a dozen years ago I first started delving into fiction, I was at the same time thinking about starting a kind of psychological practice. I thought of calling this practice the Salon Postisme. My job title: not therapist, nor analyst, nor counselor — those roles were already too well-defined for my purposes. To preserve ambiguity, I would call myself the Proprietor of the Salon. This practice, this Salon, this profession — they were just as imaginary as the fiction I was writing. I had no clients, and I didn’t have a scheme for recruiting any. But I needed to go beyond theory into praxis. And so I came to think about fiction-writing as a kind of simulation of the practice, an off-line implementation in which my fictional alter-ego would see fictional clients, implementing the praxis of the Salon Postisme.

Here’s an entry from my notebook dated 24 January 2001, in which I recorded the first tentative description of the fiction that I can locate on a cursory search:

The Proprietor is trying to run the Salon Postisme. He is a bit off, earnest, more conservative than what he wants to promote. His destiny is one of futility, exasperation. He sees himself as a poor man’s Nietzsche, wishes he was a sane Artaud. He is European temperamentally, but stuck as an American. The book is about the Proprietor’s efforts to launch the Salon. There are clients who add to the story. Maybe one is an investor, or is a marketing guy. Or, maybe we just follow these people’s differentiation stories in parallel to the hero’s…

But I wasn’t ready to abandon the real-world practice altogether for fiction-writing. My half-page of notes tentatively describing a possible fiction are interspersed with pages and pages outlining theories underpinning the Salon’s raison d’etre, as well as possible praxes to be implemented by the Proprietor — what I refer to repeatedly in my notebooks as “a pragmatics of delirium.” Eventually I would come to merge the fiction and the nonfiction, regarding the fictional version of the Salon as itself a kind of intervention, with the books’ anticipated readers being my clients.

Years passed. I wrote and edited, rewrote and reorganized. The scenario at the beginning of Book 1, where “you” are in the bar, was written long after the events that unfold immediately after the two guys leave the bar, when one of them signs on as Proprietor of the fictional Salon Postisme. So, back to the original question: why the second person present in the opening bar scene? I think now that it’s a nostalgic nod to the time when I regarded the fiction as a kind of intervention, with me being the analyst and the reader being my analysand. I am addressing the reader directly, as if we were having a conversation at the Salon, which in its present instantiation would occur in the bar that calls to you. But the illusion of being present together doesn’t last. Already by the end of the first page I’ve split off a second, preterite narrator who just walked out the door, following those other two guys down the street, leaving you and the first narrator behind to nurse your beers together in present-tense obscurity.

***

If you google “metaphysics of presence,” the very first link to pop up is my old post about it. I quote Derrida quoting Aristotle:

Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words.

Speaking is more immediate than writing, emanating directly from speaker to listener, carrying a presumably more authentic representation of the speaker’s truth. Speech is more present than text. Writing is deferred, transmitting its truths (or its lies) across a gap in both time and space between the writer and the written. Upon its arrival before the reader, the text has traveled so far from its source that it appears autonomous, disconnected from its source, orphaned, an undead letter uncannily appearing to be the source of its own thoughts rather than the bearer of its author’s.

A text written in the second person present tense seems to manifest a metaphysics of presence, but it’s an illusion — a fiction. There is always a temporal gap between the writing and the reading.  But what about a text written in the preterite — is it truthfully describing occurrences after the fact, as they transpired in the past? A case can be made for the nonfictional reportage of historical events, but not for fiction surely. The fictional events never happened, so it’s a mistake to regard their written record as a true account.

But isn’t it possible for a writer to record on the page mental experiences that came to mind some time ago? I think about Mozart’s claim that he could hear the music fully realized in his head, that all he had to do was write down what he had already heard. I understand that some fiction writers are able to outline their novels chapter by chapter, scene by scene, such that when they actually sit down to write the novel they need only fill in the details that have already been envisioned. Even if those mental experiences are products of the imagination rather than observations of events the composer or fictionalist witnessed in the real world, they are experiences pulled back from the past being documented subsequent to their occurrence — preteritely.

But what if, instead of transcribing what he’s already imagined in his head, the fictionalist is making it up as he goes along? What if he is documenting events in writing that are taking shape coincidentally with their being written? Then the fictional preterite tense is itself a lie, a grammar as fictional as the content encased in it.

Still, even if the writer is actively inventing a fiction in real time, it is taking shape as words, sentences, paragraphs, pages of written text. The act of inventing happens in the present, but the resulting invention is already a fait accompli as soon as the word hits the page or screen. The leading edge of invention is now, but the now is never really here. The writer is always moving on to the next word, leaning into the future. As the text is written it extends backward in time, the beginning continually receding into the past. As soon as you type THE END at the bottom of the last page, the whole writing process has come to an end and the book is finished. Preterite.

But the text. Having taken on an existence of its own independent of the writer, the text persists in the present. There are those who contend that a text is dead, or at best virtual, until someone reads it, is reading it. In a dialectical metaphysics of presence the text continually comes into existence while it is being read, reader and text jointly bringing the text alive like two guys sitting in the bar talking. But what about the text that sits languishing on the shelf or the hard drive, unread? Maybe it lurks, waiting for the reader to bring it to life. Maybe the already-written text exists only in the future tense…

***

In a remarkable synchronicity, Craig Hickman of Noir Realism just put up a post about the preterite tense in fiction.

7 November 2013

Novel Zero

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:42 pm

This morning at four I woke up from a dream. I was getting ready to defend my dissertation but, as often happens in dreams, I was running late and I couldn’t find the room. I hadn’t really prepared for the defense, mostly because I had already become bored of the topic and the work I had done on it. Do I know my stuff well enough to do the defense without reviewing and rehearsing? I thought that I did. For the first time I realized that it was actually conceivable that I might fail the defense. I found myself walking along the corridor on the third floor of the psych building at the University of Virginia, where I did my doctorate. My old advisor was looking for a different stairway down to the ground floor because the main stairways were impassible, being completely clogged with countless loose sheets of paper.

So I figure: this dream is a reminder from the unconscious that, even before the first novel in the seven-piece ensemble, I’d written another book for which I might want to revisit the making-of.

***

If we take in our hands any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and evidence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.  – David Hume

Good to do this to Puccini. Relaxing. I wish I were paid… I guess I am paid to do this. What a way to go.  – Subject 36

This is the frontispiece of my dissertation, Expert-Novice Differences in Scientific Journal Scanning. Unlike my dream-self, I was well-prepared for the defense, fully engaged in the process, interested in my work and in the committee members’ responses to it. The defense was great fun. I had reserved a room in the historic Rotunda building, wore my tuxedo, recruited a fellow grad student to serve refreshments before the event. Following a lively discussion all of the committee members signed off. I had attained my merit badge, the Ph.D.

Here is another way of looking at physics: the physicists are men looking for new interpretations of the Book of Nature. After each pedestrian period of normal science, they dream up a new model, a new picture, a new vocabulary, and then announce that the true meaning of the Book had been discovered. But of course, it never is, any more than is the true meaning of Coriolanus or the Dunciad or the Phenomenology of Spirit or the Philosophical Investigations. What makes them physicists is that their writings are commentaries on the writings of earlier interpreters of Nature, not that they all are somehow “talking about the same thing,” the invisibilia Dei sive naturae toward which their inquiries steadily converge.  – Richard Rorty

Rorty was a Professor in the English Department at UVA while I was a grad student there. I went across campus to hear him deliver a lecture on Freud — the only Freud I heard during my years pursuing doctoral work in psychology. I attended Rorty’s colloquium in the Psych Department, a presentation met mostly by the blank-stared indifference of my profs and colleagues. But I had read his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature; I was aware that Rorty regarded science not as an “accumulation of truths about the world” but as a kind of writing, a collection of artifacts made of words, not so different from fiction.

Subsequently I discovered that Rorty’s view is snugly embedded in  “normal” continental philosophy of science, but as a science student I deemed his ideas about science worthy of empirical investigation. I gravitated toward the scientific study of scientific writing, conducting a series of studies investigating citation patterns in scientific journal articles. And of scientific reading. I had read Fish and Culler and Iser on “the reader in the text,” I subscribed to social  studies of science journals, I even read some Derrida. My dissertation chronicled observations of and interviews with doctoral students and professors in Ecology, Physiology, and Microbiology as they read new research articles in their fields. While there might be good reasons to consign the volume to the flames, my diss would pass Hume’s test: the Results and Appendix sections contain precisely 148 pages of instruments and measures, data tables and inferential statistics,  eigenvalues and eigenvectors, Monte Carlo simulations and multivariate canonical predictive models.

But let’s skip the quantities and numbers and jump straight to the sophistry, consigned per long tradition to the concluding Discussion section of the research report. Here’s the last inference from the empirical findings recorded in my Discussion, before it moves on to implications for future work:

In the discussion of Hypothesis 9 it was proposed that moderately experienced subjects would be more interested than the most experienced subjects in working on and reading about the “hot” topics in their fields. Perhaps scientists from the softer disciplines are likewise more oriented toward hot topics than their hard science colleagues. Hagstrom (1964), in his article on “anomy” in science, proposed a thesis which could explain why this might be the case. According to Hagstrom, the continuing growth of hard sciences is threatened from within primarily because of a tendency to restrict attention to only a few heavily-researched topics. Soft sciences, on the other hand, are more prone to the threat of anomy, or normless alienation, among their practitioners. Anomy occurs when the legitimate topics for scientific exploration become so diffuse that no one’s work is relevant to anyone else’s.

The solutions, said Hagstrom, are clear. Hard scientists must branch out into new topics, while soft scientists must concentrate their efforts on relatively fewer topics. Perhaps the subjects in the present study were implicitly following Hagstrom’s advice. Hot topics, shunned as growth-inhibiting by the hard scientists, were being sought out as growth-enhancing by the soft scientists.

The Hagstrom thesis may also be applicable to the expert-novice differences in reference list characteristics discussed in Hypothesis 9. Less experienced subjects, overwhelmed by the endless diversity of legitimate avenues of inquiry open to them, may become engulfed in scientific anomy. The cure: find a topic that many of one’s colleagues agree is important and get involved. Experienced scientists, having worked for years on the same old topics, may be expected to become bored with their work. The antidote: find a new topic that nobody else is working on and take a shot at it.

And here are the concluding two sentences of the text:

It has been argued here that scientific creativity is contingent upon scientific tradition. Those most likely to generate creative science may be those best able to recognize the traditions of science as they evolve in the scientific literature.

***

It’s been many years since I last looked at my dissertation. Certainly I hadn’t consulted it while envisioning my practice of différance or my cluster of novels. But now, after giving it a quick scan, I find that my dream-double was more bored with it than is my waking self. A number of themes integral to the research program are woven into the later novels. The relationships between external reality and imagination, between truth and text, between science and fiction. The interactions between writer and reader, between individual and collective, between innovation and tradition, between creative passion and group popularity. Anomy and its cure; boredom and its antidote.

If I listen to Rorty then I can regard my dissertation as a kind of fiction. If I listen to myself then I regard my novels as a kind of science, a series of thought experiments conducted on imaginary subjects. For present purposes I’ll call my dissertation Novel Zero in the ongoing series.

6 November 2013

Making-Of as a Kind of Writing

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:27 pm

Is there some way of blogging about my own fiction that doesn’t immediately cross over the event horizon into black-hole solipsism? I could emit the brayings of the self-promoter or the advice columnist, but I’m not in the mood for the one and I’m ill-equipped for the other. I don’t believe that I’d be trying to elicit advice from readers, or analysis, or critique, though of course like everyone else I’m often acting under the influence of motivating factors outside of my own awareness, and certainly I am as much an attention whore as the next guy.

Occasionally someone will ask me what I do. Sometimes there’s even a follow-up question: What are your books about? That’s always a stumper for me. Maybe some day, if I work through a self-reflexive reading of my own fictions, I can answer with aplomb and precision. Sure, I understand: most people who pose the question want me to name my genre or, at most, to give them a one-sentence summary, so writing blog posts in response is surely overkill. If I’m going to shop the books to agents/publishers I’ll have to come up with pithy and intriguing descriptions. But why craft these spiels in a public space, rather than in my private notebook? Maybe I imagine a fictional milieu in which the readers of the blog have asked me The Question and really want to know the answer, or want to discuss the possible alternative answers, even if it takes hours, days, weeks…

I could do a “making-of,” offering wry little observations about why I included this little detail in the text or made that particular wording decision. But why would anyone care about how something was made if they haven’t already seen what was made?

Ah to hell with it. I didn’t give much forethought to launching this blog in the first place, or to putting it on pause for the past few months. I’ve often thought that, if I saw the books I’ve written in the New Fiction section of the local bookstore, I would want to read them. So I’m going to do just that. Maybe I can make observations about them not just as writer but also as reader. In offering my remarks in a public forum I will need to take into account that practically no one who reads them will have read the books — a “making-of” without access to the “made.” So maybe I’ll need to use my already-written texts as “prompts” for exploring, and possibly discussing, matters that aren’t actually written in those texts, matters that might have wider import or interest.

I’ll start tomorrow, first novel, first chapter, and see how it goes.

22 July 2013

La Sorcière Noire

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:34 am

sorciere_noir

It’s a good thing we’re moving away, since the Black Witch moth is regarded as a harbinger of death, if not worse, by most of the cultures it visits. I’d never seen one before; usually they don’t stray so far north. This one, six inches across, was sitting on our deck chair this morning. Now he’s gone.

25 June 2013

Accelerating the Float

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:45 am

[In light of ongoing blog discussions of Accelerationism, I thought I’d post the chapter that I’ve been editing this morning. It’s one of several “news reports from the future” interspersed through the novel. Suggested augmentations are welcome.]

TAHITI – The first three of fourteen floating tax-free islands being built in the South Pacific are ready for occupancy. Some two thousand of the wealthiest individuals and families in the world have commissioned the construction of the artificial archipelago as a residential and financial paradise. Together the islands will comprise a new nation-corporation, with citizenship granted to anyone paying one billion dollars into the archipelago’s development trust. According to domestic and international law, the floating nation will constitute a tax-free haven for the global earnings of each citizen.

The floating islands, located in the open sea twelve hundred miles east of Tahiti, represent a significant advance in large-scale artificial land technology. Each island is assembled from enormous modules that are themselves being constructed at a Peruvian offshore assembly facility and towed into position. Layered with topsoil, the artificial surface can support most varieties of the lush plant life and exotic bird species native to the South Seas habitat. The islands are convex, a hundred feet above sea level at the center and sloping gradually toward the ocean, where a layer of sand will be maintained as an artificial beach. Each citizen is deeded a wedge of property extending from the island’s apex to the shore. Residences, constructed from strong ultralight material, are limited to a single storey and will be built at least forty feet above sea level as protection against tropical storms and the high waves they can generate. Citizens are also permitted to erect beachside cabanas. An area of each island will be set aside for establishing a small village of sturdy, attractive huts that will be assigned to servants and nannies and other personnel supporting the citizens’ households.

Automobiles are prohibited, so residents will use bicycles and motorboats to get around. A limited number of cafés and small shops will be built on the islands. Groceries, clothing, and other bulkier commodities will be sold from ships that travel from island to island, ferrying customers back and forth from their homes. A small, fully outfitted cruise ship will house’s the archipelago’s schools. Teachers, support staff, and boarded students will live in the luxurious on-board suites, while day pupils take the hydroplane “bus” to and from school. Electricians, plumbers, police, and other maintenance personnel will make “house calls” to the islands from their motorboats. The service marina will thus comprise another sort of floating community within the perimeter of the artificial archipelago. A decommissioned aircraft carrier will function as the local airport, with commercial flights scheduled to and from Tahiti and Pago Pago. Citizens will also have the opportunity to purchase private craft hangar space on the carrier.

The islands are kept afloat by enormous bulkheads that sink half a mile beneath the surface. The bulkheads are automatically maintained at the optimal level of inflation by computerized pumps and pipelines mounted on low, subtly-landscaped platforms positioned a mile offshore of each island. Instead of being anchored to the seafloor, the islands are stabilized by means of a network of enormous underwater buoys submerged at varying, precisely calibrated depths. The buoys are automatically raised or lowered to adjust for variations in tides, currents, and temperature. On the surface, the islands are buffered against trade winds and waves by a circular system of levees, also anchored to underwater stabilizers, that completely surround the archipelago.

Collectively, the fourteen islands and their citizen-owners will comprise the floating nation-corporation. It is anticipated that, once formed, the archipelago’s government will rapidly establish the country as a tax-free, unregulated offshore financial center. It has been proposed that multinational corporations and partnerships of which island citizens own at least twenty percent will be granted tax-free status by the archipelago. Not surprisingly, financial institutions, shipping firms, and other companies desirous of taking advantage of the islands’ attractive business climate have begun wooing potential citizen-investors by means of designer low-price stock offerings, limited-liability partnerships, and hedge funds.

If the floating nation-corporation proves successful, the owner-citizens may consider expanding the territory, constructing additional islands within the protected perimeter or even extending territorial boundaries farther into the open seas. While citizenship presently costs a cool billion dollars, the sticker price might well go up in future offerings. Other wealthy consortia are forming to explore the possibility of launching their own start-up floating nations that would demand less up-front outlay.

The wealthiest one percent of the world’s population controls more than sixty percent of the world’s wealth; soon most of that wealth might be sailing out to sea. Traditional land-based countries, watching their tax revenues floating away, are rapidly lowering their tax rates in order to compete.

16 June 2013

Dark Flavors

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:24 am

Usually in the summertime I prefer light tastes: sherbet to ice cream, chicken to beef, lettuce to eggplant. This week, though it was hot outside, my cooking seemed to gravitate toward the dark side of the palate.

Granola. Lately the store-brand oatmeal has been tasting too earthy when prepared in the traditional way, so the other morning I turned it into granola. Heat some butter and peanut oil in a big skillet; dump in the oats with some raisins and broken-up pecans; season with cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg; near the end add a little brown sugar and maple syrup. The complex toasty aroma filled the house, reminding me of something I couldn’t quite place. I left the granola in the pan to cool, so it kept cooking for awhile unattended. It was delicious of course, but also darker in color and in flavor than when I’d turned off the stove, and darker certainly than the usual store-bought version. Not quite scorched, but with a subtle back note of bitterness joining the grainy nutty sweetness — sort of like Guinness.

Dinner. The night before last I thawed a chicken breast, as usual expecting that by dinnertime I’d figure out something to do with it. In the cupboard that afternoon I spotted a jar of artichoke hearts, which got me thinking about cooler-weather flavors. I sliced mushrooms, strips of red bell pepper, purple onion, and garlic, sautéing them with walnut pieces and plenty of black pepper in some of the duck fat I had reserved from the duck breasts I’d cooked at Christmas. Later I added half of the artichoke hearts with a splash of the liquid, capers, and some infused oil from a container of olives and garlic I’d gotten at the deli counter. In another pan I cooked some asparagus in butter and beef broth with a little salt and sugar. When both vegetable dishes were done I put them in a warm oven while I made myself a mint julep: mint leaves fresh from the garden muddled in the glass with sugar and whiskey and topped with crushed ice. I set a pot of water on to boil for some flat noodles, then I sliced and seasoned the chicken breast and sautéed it in butter. The cooked chicken I topped with grated parmesan and swiss, placing it in the warm oven where the cheese melted without bubbling. The sauce: pan drippings, homemade chicken stock, cream, dry sherry, white wine, fresh sage, thyme, and oregano. The chicken, the mixed veggies, and the noodles fill the plate, blurring into each other a bit; across the top the asparagus spears recline, bisecting the plate; sauce is poured generously over the noodles and the chicken. It’s an elegant, somewhat casual presentation, reminding K of a fashion model slouching along a runway. It is served with chardonnay, although if I’d remembered the bottle of dry French rosé in the fridge it would have been perfect. The aftertastes are subtly of black pepper and sherry.

Tiramisù. I’d made this dish recently, but on request I reprised it last night. Espresso, dark rum, grated unsweetened chocolate…

14 May 2013

Tuesday Morning Walk

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:37 am

17 MAY UPDATE — Yesterday afternoon I finished writing the first draft of the book.

*****

Almost as soon as I began walking I realized that yesterday I’d gone too fast. I’d been rushing into the Apocalypse, fourteen catastrophes strung end to end: global warming, a massive meteor strike event, zones of zero gravity, the Yankees winning their sixteenth consecutive World Series… There is nothing left to be done: that was the last bead on the string. But I was going too fast, trying to finish by Thursday, behind a bit now because last Friday’s task had extended through the weekend all the way till noon yesterday. Afterward I’d had lunch, dawdled awhile trying to clear my head, gone for a run along the trail, watching the prairie dogs watching me, weaving through the cattle to the creek and back again. Then I had tried to do a whole day’s work starting at three in the afternoon. I didn’t give myself time to sink into it, just hurtled into the Apocalypse like there was no tomorrow. Or actually, like tomorrow I had to do tomorrow’s work, not the rest of today’s, if I was going to finish the whole project by Thursday.

I woke up at two this morning, something that doesn’t happen very often any more. Maybe it was the heat, the first really warm night of the spring. Maybe the afternoon’s rushed Apocalypse was coming back at me, letting me know that I’d cheated it. In that day, the prophet would warn, craggy finger pointing toward the end. And who are you, O son of man, to give it a scant three hours, just because you had to drink your glass of beer, had to fry the porterhouse and the potatoes and make the salad, just because you were fully booked for each of the three post-Apocalyptic days?

What did I read when I got up at two? The chapter in the brain science book just didn’t register. A chapter of DeLillo: I felt like I’d been there too recently, or no: that I was there most of the day every day. In Pynchon the brigadier was subjecting himself to the dominatrix: that proved best for a hot mid-May four in the morning; I could go back to sleep after that. I wrote something too, between the brain science and the DeLillo. As an ordinary Joe I don’t harbor ambitions to become something other than human — not posthuman, or transhuman, or post-traumatic zombie, or non-conscious swarm drive, or schizophrenic rhizome, or theotic transcender. I think that ordinary language does describe real things in the world rather than separating humans from the Real. I don’t see any point in accelerating into sociopathy as the expression of a protean will to power. I don’t believe that bioengineering merged with AI will spawn a new hybrid post-human species. That’s what I wrote at three a.m.

At seven I woke up for real, the Tuesday before the Thursday. While drinking my first coffee and eating a donut I came across a video of a debate between Foucault and Chomsky. This must have been in the seventies: Chomsky looked like a prototypical seventies MIT prof, a slightly nerdy corporate engineer type, while Foucault, with his shaved head and stern disposition, appeared menacing and severe. This was no debate: the headliners were talking past each other, addressing the audience in different languages about different topics, barely grazing each other. I wondered, not for the first time, if Foucault’s and Deleuze’s and Lacan’s paranoia about being boxed in by language was an artifact of being French, having been taught to write French by French teachers in French schools. In her early American years our daughter had attended what might be deemed a Chomskyan school: express yourself creatively, and the rules of grammar and spelling will take care of themselves. In France we immersed her in structure: formal instruction in parts of speech and conjugations, recitation of poems par cœur, get creative once you’ve grown accustomed to the apparatus. Some of the American parents couldn’t stand it: they had to take their kids back home, or enroll them in American international schools. Happily for our daughter the French primaire proved to be good cross-training. Now she writes Paradise Lost fan fiction.

That’s one reason why I want to be finished by Thursday: we leave on Friday to pick her up from school for the summer. Last week my wife found a poem called “Iowa City to Boulder,” by William Matthews. With that poem Matthews marked off the route, 80 to 76, as a pilgrimage trail for his readers to follow. But of course Kerouac had already made that run years before. I take most of the drive by night, Matthews wrote: I wonder if it’s true, or if the poem is a kind of short story, a flash fiction they might call it these days, semi-constrained in the poetic structure. Maybe he drove it in the daytime but decided that night driving would be more poetic. It’s free verse as far as I can tell, no predefined rhyme or meter or line length to constrain the drive. A Chomskyan poem.

But now it’s eight o’clock Tuesday morning and I’m walking past the upper pasture, watching the bull as he begins his workday, paying his morning visits to the ladies, and I’m thinking post-Apocalyptically. If I go back in time can I stage it differently? The Book of Revelation is a kind of linguistic apocalypse, a description of something that’s beyond description, signifiers flying off the signifieds, the whole structure of the language being pulled apart in the cosmic upheaval. In his ecstasy John points his craggy finger beyond that day, past the end to the new heavens and new earth. He’s left his body, left the earth, surging beyond structural constraints, embarking upon a visitation to a Deleuzian linguistic afterlife, one among perhaps a multitude of afterlives, where language is free to do whatever on earth or in heaven it desires.

So I’m thinking about going back to yesterday and sketching out an alternative end of the world. a linguistic Apocalypse that does not point beyond itself to the linguistic Millennium. A report comes in from one of the time-traveling reconnaissance agents: there’s been a catastrophic and widespread rupture between signifiers and signifieds. Now – that is in the Apocalyptic future – whenever anyone tells you anything, you have no idea what the speaker intends to convey. You can no longer assume that what people are saying corresponds in any way to events in the world, or even in the imagination – events that they’re purporting to describe in language. Plus you, the listener – you too have lost the connections. You hear the words and you understand them, but you can’t find the correspondences anymore between the nouns and the things to which they point with their craggy fingers, between the verbs and the actions. And of course in that day the recon report too becomes suspect.

But now it’s Tuesday and I’m on the clock. Yesterday was the Apocalypse, and the Friday drive to Iowa is only three days off. No looking back; let today take care of itself. I can smell the barn and I’m heading straight for it, no more distractions.

I’ve made the turn, crossing the little bridge over the drainage ditch. The electrical control box beside the bridge has been encased inside a hollow plastic boulder: is it for aesthetic purposes, or to thwart terrorists using satellite surveillance to identify targets for knocking us off the grid? There’s water flowing in the ditch for a change: snowmelt, followed by two days of rain. The grass is green and dandelions are everywhere. In a month all of this would be brown and crisp if the terrorists blew up the electrical and the sprinkler system wouldn’t run.

Next to the fake boulder a block of glass about two feet square is embedded in the ground. I don’t remember seeing it before: probably it’s part of the electrical system. There seems to be a yellowish-orange light flickering down there below the glass. I can’t make it out though, because the glass is thick, uneven in consistency, and partially opaque. Maybe it’s just a reflection from the morning sun. Walking on, I greet the old Central European man who walks his Chow Chow along this path every morning around this time, a dog that, cliché be damned, does in fact bear a striking facial resemblance to the man holding the leash.

*****

Here’s the poem:

Iowa City to Boulder, by William Matthews

I take most of the drive by night.
It’s cool and in the dark my lapsed
inspection can’t be seen.
I sing and make myself promises.

By dawn on the high plains
I’m driving tired and cagey.
Red-winged blackbirds
on the mileposts, like candle flames,
flare their wings for balance
in the blasts of truck wakes.

The dust of not sleeping
drifts in my mouth, and five or six
miles slur by uncounted.
I say I hate long-distance

drives but I love them.
The flat light stains the foothills
pale and I speed up the canyon
to sleep until the little lull
the insects take at dusk before
they say their names all night in the loud field.

And here’s the Deleuze-Chomsky debate, trilingual with English subtitles, courtesy of dmfant in a comment on the most recent Noir Realism thread:

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