Far from being an amoral free-for-all, liberalism is, in fact, extremely difficult and constraining, far too much so for those who cannot endure contradiction, complexity, diversity, and the risks of freedom.
Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. After telling this, Dr Suzuki was asked, “What is the difference between before and after?” He said, “No difference, only the feet are a little off the ground.”
—John Cage, Silence
Ask the next question.
Part 2: What We’ve Learned
Have we learned anything? Wait, were we supposed to? Why does everything have to be a goddamn learning experience? Is it because people, all too often, value answers over questions? But if you don’t know how to ask questions, how do you expect to understand the answers? What if there aren’t any answers, not really, just more questions? On the other hand, would that be so bad? Isn’t that just another way of describing the situation we’re already in? Do you ever find yourself thinking, maybe late at night, that to stop as soon as you’ve arrived at an answer is to succumb to a curiously arrogant or even hubristic temptation: that the answer you, of all people, came up with is the actual, definitive answer? Who are you to think you’ve got it all figured out? After all, aren’t most answers predicated on whole webs of assumptions, some or even all of which could be mistaken, incomplete, misunderstood? Do you see how this means that if you change your assumptions, you might find that some of your beloved answers just evaporate? Not feeling so proud now, are you?
So what can we do about this? If how we define the “right answer” is dependent on which questions we ask, then should we take another look at what motivates us to ask a particular question in the first place? Don’t we usually ask questions when we think we’re missing some information, when something doesn’t quite make sense? Doesn’t that imply that a question is a way of filling in a gap of some kind that we think we perceive in the universe around us as we think we understand it? But what if there is no gap? What then? Would that mean the question is meaningless, like asking who’s the present King of France?
Well, have you ever noticed how the questions that people ask often tell you something about them and how they see the world? So could we say that a “question” is actually a sign of how we perceive the universe? Hey, could this be why inkblot tests can be so useful: they show us what sorts of connections we make, and what some of our assumptions about the universe are? So, what if we’ve been looking at “answers” all wrong, and that the really important thing is to become proficient at asking questions, more questions, the next questions? What if the things we call “answers” are important only insofar as they help show us that we’ve been asking good questions? Where exactly am I going with all this? How should I know? (Is he really just making this shit up as he goes along? Seriously? Who does he think he is?)
Okay, so can we say that a coincidence is just an event that we’re associating with something else, probably absent, which is personally meaningful? That is, if I walk by a car and its licence plate has the numbers “197” on it, will I even care — much less notice — unless “197” means something to me? Otherwise, isn’t it just a cluster of numerals? So, what if we were presented with a whole clump of sounds, or a hoard of words — if any of it makes sense at all, isn’t it because we expected it to hold some kind of meaning? And why else would it mean anything in the first place, if not for the fact that we were looking for meaning? In other words, for something to have meaning, don’t you have to notice it in the first place?
Part 3: Some Underlying Ideas
So this is why I’ve always been intrigued by chance operations: it’s a hack that demonstrates to me just how eagerly my brain wants to see patterns and make connections. My brain almost always finds meaning as though it should be there, even when I have consciously arranged the situation to be explicitly, deliberately meaningless.
By using chance operations, I trick myself into noticing things I might not otherwise have noticed, instead of always noticing the same old things that tend to catch my attention. If I’m already predisposed to see meaning and significance anyway, then I can let chance operations do some of the heavy lifting in my creative process. I’ll make new, strange choices instead of the usual, easy choices.
Furthermore, I know that my audience of readers or listeners will, in turn, be engaged in their own programs of pattern-seeking and meaning-making — which makes them collaborators of a sort; and they will see any surprising or ambiguous elements in the work of art as parts of a puzzle to sort out. Art that seems to have all the answers tends to feel lifeless, preachy, claustrophobic, and possibly even propagandistic. Because, of course, it’s not possible to have “all the answers,” any more than it’s possible to ask “all the questions.”
This also gives us insight into what we mean by “bias.” Bias is the resting state of all that pattern-seeking and meaning-making. We all have a contextual framework by which we try to organize and arrange the universe as it seems to be out there, outside of our individual skulls and outside our communities’ mores. This is elemental. It is not possible to live in a world that holds no personal or communal meaning. We can’t eliminate bias in its most basic form. But we can become aware of it, and we can come to understand the extent to which it shapes how we see the world — and whether we even can see. Eventually, through asking questions and listening to answers, we can modify and shift our bias. If we want to.
But why would we want to? After all, these frameworks don’t have to be accurate, they just have to be comfortable. That is, we believe many things not necessarily because they’re “true,” but because, by believing them, we are accepted by whatever community holds us and to which we pledge allegiance. I mean, they might be true, but that’s almost never why we believe them. Beliefs, all too often, are shibboleths.
So, again: why would we want to shift our bias? Well, because if our brains are constantly working to fit observations into a preëxisting frame, then it’s sickeningly easy for us to draw wildly inaccurate conclusions, and then entrench ourselves in our comforting, familiar, sensible, but dangerously misleading webs of “meaning.”
The most fundamentally wrong thing anyone can think is: If it makes sense, then it must be true. We are dazzlingly good at making sense and dreadfully bad at finding it. Almost the only time we find sense is when it’s on our nursery floor, on our mother’s knee — long before we would ever “choose” to look for it. Sense gets baked in, and is rarely ever challenged again during the rest of our lives. Sense is what helps us decide what sort of tool or solution to reach for first when we’re confronted by a problem or puzzle. (Back to the inkblot tests…)
We will see what we look for, we will mine the data, and we will insist that the world is exactly as we have come to expect it to be. We will find it more and more difficult to imagine any other arrangement. And all this would be fine — if it weren’t for the uncomfortable fact that there is no single arrangement.
How do we break out of our hall of mirrors? By actively seeking out more details, more evidence, more perspectives, more opinions. By immersing ourselves in communities that are as rich and diverse as possible. By checking and double-checking our beliefs, to ensure we don’t mistake assumptions for conclusions. By striving to be as self-aware as we can. By constantly challenging ourselves and our communities to ask more questions. By listening to as many different sorts of answers as possible, and learning to be comfortable with the ensuing cognitive challenges to our beloved illusions. By opening ourselves to surprise. By exploring the providence of chance. By remaining watchful, and by staying awake.
Part 4: Any Questions?
Probably not. Probably, yes. We can’t help ourselves. Safe bet (but this sounds like a leading question). Maybe “understanding” is overrated. I like where you’re going with this. Define “bad.” My sources say Yes.YMMV but I’ve found this is almost never a good time to do sustained, productive thinking: dreams, yes; reveries, sure; but not discursive, linear thinking. I’m not sure I like your tone. Define “most.” I do, yes. Not really, but then, I wasn’t before, so.
You tell me, smart guy. I’m still waiting for you to define “bad” and “most.” Sometimes I ask questions just to annoy people. It also implies that I might be kind of a jerk. Oh I see, you want me to say there’s no gap, so if there is, I’m the one who looks like an idiot, not you; classy. Go on… That’s not a meaningless question, it’s a stupid one.
Look in the mirror. I think we could. Don’t tell me you just figured this out now. Define “we.” Now you’re just grandstanding. I’ve been wondering this for a few minutes. Christ, what an asshole. (Don’t put words in my mouth. Seriously. Like I said, look in the mirror.)
Just because we can say it, doesn’t mean it’s true (but in this case, it is). Right (and I’m guessing “197” means something to you). Define “just.” You’re wandering dangerously close to feedback-loop or tautology territory. It sounds like you’re saying that meaning is real, but extrinsic. Hold on, now it sounds like you’re saying that meaning is like the sound a tree makes when no one’s there to hear it fall, do I have that right? — no, don’t answer that.
Apart from a cursory description on the first day, I never really went into any detail of the process for my Random Walk.
Here’s what I did.
First, I divided the library into sixty-four sections. I probably could have divided it into fewer sections with many more books in each, but I was aiming for sixty-four: the same number as I Ching hexagrams. Most of these sections were individual shelves on book cases, but others were simply areas in my home, like the stack on top of the filing cabinet in the office (Shelf 5), or the countertop in the kitchen with all the cookbooks (Shelf 64). (To get exactly sixty-four, I also divided some larger areas up. It got a little messy in the end, but is it really a mess if you know where everything is?)
Then I counted the number of books on every shelf and “shelf.” (This means, by the way, that I have a full count of how many front-facing books are in the house. There are many more backshelved, and several boxes in our storage unit.) I also made a chart, visually depicting the shelf number and the book count for each.
I threw the I Ching to generate one of the sixty-four hexagrams. If any sixes or nines came up, a single throw could, of course, generate two hexagrams. (I use the penny method, by the way. I’m all for ritual, but the yarrow stalk method is just too much.)
I checked the chart to see how many books were on the two shelves. Using random.org, I “rolled” a number to determine the book for each shelf.
I pulled the two books, took a picture, and created a draft in MarsEdit.
(Early on, I also found entries in my OED that, to my mind anyway, linked the two books for that day. This was fun at first, but it quickly became far too onerous, so I stopped.)
After the first few pairs, I rolled eight or ten days’ worth of book pairs at a time, in several sessions throughout the month. This gave me as much as a week or more to jot down any notes, retake pictures if need be, and get started on drafting a post (assuming there was anything worth saying; otherwise, it would get posted without comment).
The reason I did this was to get some of the harder parts of each post over with well ahead of time, leaving only the final touches for the morning of the particular day as I made my coffee. I did this for the pencil posts last month, and it played a key role in my being able to stick with it all month.
Two times, I re-rolled if I landed on a book that was, frankly, too personal and no one’s business. My game, my rules. But otherwise, I played it as it laid.
A man sets himself the task of drawing the world. As the years pass, he fills the empty space with images of provinces and kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fish, houses, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Just before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face.
I’m standing in line during the commute rush. Across the coffeeshop, I think I spot two former co-workers. I didn’t know them well, but I’m thinking about swinging by their table to say a quick hello. I’ve dropped my wife off at work, and now I’m going to sit and write here for an hour before heading home to get my own work day started. There’s a small TV on a high shelf behind the counter, with the sound off. I glance up at the screen: city skyline, crisp blue sky, a skyscraper with smoke billowing from it. They’re saying that a plane crashed into a building. Someone in line says it’s probably a small private jet or something. Nothing else makes sense. As the girl hands me my coffee, another plane enters the shot, flies behind a different building, but doesn’t emerge from the other side. No, the second plane has just flown into the building. Black smoke, flames. Someone says holy shit or oh my god. Two planes, within about twenty minutes of each other, each crashing into a building like that? What are the chances? A moment later, I’m back at my car. We just bought our first cell phones yesterday and I’m not sure how they work. I don’t seem to have any cell reception. Am I doing something wrong? I get home, call my wife from a real phone, and tell her what’s happened. She’s already heard. I turn on the TV. As I watch, one of the buildings collapses. Then the other. So this is my day: watching footage of skyscrapers collapsing after being struck by commercial jets, and watching footage of a large government building with plane wreckage, and watching footage of a field out in the countryside somewhere. Over and over.
2: To Be Poets
All summer, I’ve been taping reruns of a TV show I started watching last winter. It’s called The West Wing, about the senior staff in a fictional White House. My wife discovered it first, and tried to introduce me to it. But this took a while, since I almost always have something better to do than watch TV. But she insisted, and I surprised myself by how quickly and deeply I became engaged in the show. The planes and the buildings will delay the autumn TV schedule, so this is my day all month: dropping my wife at work, stopping in at a coffeeshop to write, going home, watching a West Wing rerun on VHS, then sitting down at my laptop to work. The new season finally airs, like most shows, nearly a month late. We tape the new episode as we watch it, then we watch it again four or five more times that week, then tape the next episode. And so on. Soon, the US government will begin undermining most of the goodwill it found on September 12th, forgetting that this was not a crime against America but a crime against humanity. And I will cling desperately to that show, constantly turning to it for solace, probably expecting too much of it. But the show’s appeal for me is not that it offers a sort of idealized alternate political universe from the one I’m trapped in. I don’t see it as a show about politics. It is, of course, yes. In a way. But not principally. (At least not until the fifth season onwards.) In fact, when my wife first called me in and insisted I watch an episode of this new show she had just discovered, she didn’t say it was a cool new show about politics. She told me to sit down and “just listen.” By the time Air Force One touched down after the Portland trip, I realized: language itself was the main character.
3: “You’re Lying” “Yes I Am, But Hear Me Out”
This, then, was what I found comforting about The West Wing during those grim years: not its politics, but its fidelity to language. But what does it mean to be faithful to language? To use it fluently, with skill and care? To speak clearly and truthfully? No, because language isn’t just about communicating — much less communicating truthful statements, specifically. Language can be informative (“My dog does not bite,” “it will rain this afternoon,” etc), performative (“I now pronounce you husband and wife,” etc), and manipulative (“make me a sandwich,” “watch out!” etc). Language is also social: we constantly evaluate each other based on our pronunciation and word choice, which often reveal our backgrounds, ethnicities, education level, and so on. (You drop your aitches and I think that makes you sound low-class; I use double-negatives for emphasis but you don’t, and you treat me as somehow less-educated; etc). Language can also, of course, be musical. And it can be several of these at once, and often is. Let me be clear: none of these modes have anything to do with morality or innate goodness. That is, language is a tool, a technology in the most ancient sense, and is inherently amoral. Who uses the tool and why: this is where morality enters the conversation. A mendacious shyster and an honorable, compassionate teacher both must use language with equal skill. Beautiful language can be persuasive in a way that merely truthful language almost never is.
4: After Hoc Therefore Something Else Hoc
Now, just because The West Wing had a somewhat left-leaning slant, and was known for rich, rhetorical language does not imply a connection between the two. Rhetoric itself is not necessarily an indication of either trustworthiness or duplicity (whatever Plato may have thought of the Sophists). So I’m talking about something more than mere skill or finesse. There is a profound difference between someone who uses language skillfully to do great evil, and someone who uses it carelessly to do great damage. This is, apparently, something we as a species need to learn over and over again: that, in our ongoing story, the inarticulate slobs and careless dopes, bumbling around knocking things over, ruining things for everybody else in a thousand small ways, are the most ubiquitous and toxic villains.
5: How’s That for “Clever with Words”?
Rhetoric only works when the speaker and listener already have a lot in common. That is, if you see someone as too radically different from yourself, you may think that trying to talk to them is a waste of time, because they’ll never get it. They’re not like you; they talk funny and don’t have proper table manners. They’re not civilized people, and you can’t talk to them as though they were. Indeed, you may come to the conclusion that if you want them to do something, only brute force and fear of violence will work. It’s the only language these animals understand. This is why fundamentalists of all stripes so quickly decide that language is pointless. And it’s only a few more steps before you’re flying airplanes into buildings.
I watched a few episodes of The West Wing a couple of days ago. (Oh, it was two weeks ago? Okay.) I joked that I was playing a West Wing drinking game.
I would drink whenever:
Josh has his backpack over one shoulder
any reference to a musical
Walk and Talk
Donna asks Josh to explain something
someone repeats verbatim what someone else just said
And I would take a double drink for:
any Latin phrase
Mrs Bartlet’s terms of endearment
Someone refers to their SAT score
The implication here was that I’d be drinking pretty much constantly — which was the point, because it was that kind of night. I could just as easily have said I was playing a Stare At The Wall drinking game. You drink whenever you stare at the wall. Double for blinking.
I knew it was likely, after my post appeared in the Micro.blog timeline, that people would say something about how it’s too painful to watch a show like The West Wing now. Of course it is. But then, everything — even self-care — can seem too painful now. So I figured: if joy is laced with pain anyway, I might as well take comfort anywhere I can. And some of that comfort comes from watching escapist TV.
Where I’m escaping to is, of course, jarringly different from the world as it is now. But this, too, has been oddly helpful. It has let me practice the transition back and forth between these two worlds, the comfort world and the Covid world. That moment of reëntry is what I think we actually find most painful: when we look away from the screen and see, out on the sidewalk, people walking by with face masks on. Oh, that, we think. I’d forgotten.
I’ve worked from home partly or completely for many of the last twenty-two years. One thing I learned early on was how important it is to set clear boundaries at the beginning and the end of the work day or else everything might start to blur together. So, in March, I thought this quarantine wouldn’t be too unfamiliar, or too challenging.
I was wrong. Working from home is, of course, vastly different from living in quarantine. The numbers on the clock almost never seem to line up with my sense of what time it is. If an event isn’t on the calendar, if a to-do isn’t pinging me with a repeating notification, it simply doesn’t happen. I keep hearing Ford Prefect saying, Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so. (I’ve been trying to write this blog post for nearly two weeks and I just haven’t been able to get my shit together to finish it.)
One reason for this is that many of the normal boundaries around different activities and emotional spaces have broken down or disappeared (for instance, commutes). I have found that I need to be far more conscious than usual of what sorts of routines and rituals demarcate different activities for me.
When I have good days, it’s at least partly because I’ve managed to maintain strong borders. And when I have better days, it’s at least partly because I’ve been able to cross back and forth over those borders somewhat smoothly, with as little stumbling as possible (by which I mean, a lot of stumbling but not as much as on other days…).
And by letting (or making) myself drift away into truly escapist activities like old beloved TV shows, I am slowly learning, and practicing, how to cope with the shock of returning, again and again, to this world.
Don’t forget the real business of war is buying and selling. The murdering and violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. Best of all, mass death’s a stimulous to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try ’n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets.
This year I’m returning to an old practice I did in 2004, ’05, and ’06. Each day this month, I’m doing an exercise from Rita Dove called the 10-Minute Spill, which I found in the delightful Practice of Poetry.
Here’s how it goes: With ten minutes on the clock, write a ten-line poem using five words from a predetermined list, and an adage or idiomatic phrase (e.g. a stitch in time— don’t count your chickens— that sort of thing).
And that’s it. Don’t try anything fancy: no rhymes or meters of any sort. Just spend ten minutes figuring out how to pepper the words and the folksy saying over the course of ten lines. How long is each line? Doesn’t matter! Is it even a poem? Who cares!
For my list of words, I’m using the Swadesh List. There are a hundred words, and so I roll 2d10 five times. And for my “adage,” I’m throwing the I Ching and choosing something meaty from the trigrams’ names and the resulting hexagram’s image and judgment.
I’ve done three “poems” so far and they may be kinda crappy but none of them are about Covid-fucking-19, so I’m calling it a win.
The 2016 U.S. election proved that, even in a long-established democratic republic, just about anyone or anything, no matter how preposterously foul, can achieve political power if enough citizens are sufficiently credulous, cowardly, and vicious.
A reminder of why I left Oregon. From the New York Times, 22 Feb 2020:
In Portland, a city often portrayed in popular culture as a progressive paradise, the killing of the men provoked outrage, along with reassurances that the city would not tolerate hate. But it also set off a new round of questions about whether Oregon had fully shed the legacy of its founding as a racially pure Cascadia that white supremacists still fantasize about.
Oregon was admitted to the Union in 1859 with a constitution that, uniquely, forbade black people from living, working, or owning property in the state; the provision was not repealed until 1926. In the 1920s, the state legislature barred Japanese immigrants from owning or leasing land. By the 1970s, extremist groups like the Aryan Nations had found fertile ground for their beliefs.
Why is it that we don’t ask ourselves: “how can I be as hassle-free to my fellow creatures as possible? what can I do to ease their troubles and frustrations if at all possible?”
Well for one thing, even if people did ask such questions, it also depends on who’s included in the definition of “fellow creatures.” If it’s just “me and my kin — and everybody else can go fuck themselves” — then we end up with exactly the sort of vile, selfish, cranky world we have right now. People are obstacles, and you are wholly justified to be peeved and annoyed when they inconvenience you.
Someone in a car has pulled over and is idling in the bike lane. As you peddle past on your bike, you berate them and call them names. Your imagination fails to supply any explanation other than that they are stupid selfish assholes.
They could have pulled over because they’re having a heart attack, or just received word of some personal tragedy and they do not trust themselves to drive.
But who cares? They’re in your way and they should know better than to be a stupid, selfish asshole. You are more important than they are, you are more human than they are. Fuck them.
Without empathy, we each live in a tiny prison, its walls lined with mirrors.
Men would never be superstitious if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favoured by fortune: but being frequently driven into straits where rules are useless, and being kept fluctuating pitiably between hope and fear by the uncertainty of fortune’s greedily coveted favours, they are consequently, for the most part, very prone to credulity. The human mind is readily swayed this way or that in times of doubt, especially when hope and fear are struggling for the mastery, though usually it is boastful, overconfident, and vain.
An astute colleague of mine once observed that liberal democracies in the West were generally run for the benefit of the top, say, 20 percent of the wealth and income distribution. The trick, he added, to keeping this scheme running smoothly has been to convince, especially at election time, the next 30 or 35 percent of the income distribution to fear the poorest half more than they envy the richest 20 percent.
Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life:
Anyone who speaks of anti-intellectualism as a quality in American life must reckon with one of the signal facts of our national experience — our persistent, intense, and sometimes touching faith in the efficacy of popular education. Few observers, past or present, have doubted the pervasiveness or sincerity of this faith. […]
From the beginning, American statesmen had insisted upon the necessity of education in a republic. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, urged the people to promote “institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.” To the degree that the form of government gave force to public opinion, Washington argued, “it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” The aging Jefferson warned in 1816: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” […] “If the time shall ever come,” wrote a small-town Midwestern editor in 1836,
when this mighty fabric shall totter; when the beacon of joy that now rises in pillar of fire…shall wax dim, the cause will be found in the ignorance of the people. If our union is still to continue…; if your fields are to be untrod by the hirelings of despotism; if long days of blessedness are to attend our country in her career of glory; if you would have the sun continue to shed his unclouded rays upon the face of freemen, then EDUCATEALLTHECHILDRENOFTHELAND. This alone startles the tyrant in his dreams of power, and rouses the slumbering energies of an oppressed people. It was intelligence that reared up majestic columns of national glory; and this and sound morality alone can prevent their crumbling to ashes.
But if we turn from the rhetoric of the past to the realities of the present, we are most struck by the volume of criticism suggesting that something very important is missing from the American passion for education. A host of educational problems has arisen from indifference — underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down scholl buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else — the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the faulure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of academically gifted children. At times the schools of the country seem to be dominated by athletics, commercialism, and the standards of mass media, and these extend upwards to a system of higher education whose worst failings were underlined by the bold president of the University of Oklahoma who hoped to develop a university of which the football team could be proud.
Sam said nothing. The look on Frodo’s face was enough for him; he knew that words of his were useless. And after all he never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed.
But it is almost impossible to believe that the wholly undisciplined followers of New Thought could understand or seriously practice the discipline of Yoga. […] For the most part, those who practiced it had not the faintest intention of giving up the world. Yoga was for them a mystic way of renouncing whatever was irritating and preserving whatever was pleasing. It was an elaborate game of pretense by which noisy people went into silence and distracted people imagined they were concentrating. The glamour of renunciation suffused the picture which they had of themselves. Actually nothing was renounced and whatever was desired was lifted to a transcendantal plane where it could be enjoyed a hundred-fold. No doubt the delusion was as effective as the actuality might have been. One fancies oneself becoming ageless and deathless, and full of perfection, sinking into eternal nothingness. And if, in fact, one was only resting a little and sinking into a perfumed bath the result was about the same. For Yoga had given a reason beyond reason. It had, in a strange way, transfigured the commonplaces of life. One was lifted successively to higher and higher planes of being, not knowing exactly where they were, but vaguely satisfied because they were higher. The little irritations of the world fell away. One was alone with the mysterious spirit and, breathing in a refined way, one returned to conquer the world.
A society of large tools cannot be democratic, egalitarian, socialistic, humane, and just. It must be hierarchical, exploitative, bureaucratic, and authoritarian. If the day comes when all of humanity’s wants can be supplied by a few giant tools, the people who tend them will rule the world.
We have to stop loving our horror stories. Joyce’s Ulysses was rejected fourteen times. I don’t like that story; I hate it. Fitzgerald burned out and could not work. Hemingway despaired and could not work. A went mad, B died in penury, C drank herself to death, D was blacklisted, E committed suicide. I hate those stories. Great works are written in prisons and holding camps. So are stupid books. The misery does not validate the work. It outrages the sensibilities and violates the work.
In one of these streets, in the morning fog, plastered over two slippery cobblestones, is a scrap of newspaper headline, with a wirephoto of a giant white cock, dangling in the sky straight downward out of a white pubic bush. The letters
appear above with the logo of some occupation newspaper, a grinning glamour girl riding astraddle the cannon of a tank, steel penis with slotted serpent head, 3rd Armored treads ’n’ triangle on a sweater rippling across her tits. The white image has the same coherence, the hey-lookit-me smugness, as the Cross does. It is not only a sudden white genital onset in the sky — it is also, perhaps, a Tree…
To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it. Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, it is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials. Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness…. Writing heightens consciousness. Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for full human life. To live and understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance. This writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does.
…But what I have in view will now be understood, namely, that it is always a metaphysical belief on which our belief in science rests,— and that even we knowing ones of today, the godless and anti-metaphysical, still take our fire from the conflagration kindled by a belief a millennium old, the Christian belief, which was also the belief of Plato, that God is truth, that the truth is divine… But what if this itself always becomes more untrustworthy, what if nothing any longer proves itself divine, except it be error, blindness, and falsehood;— what if God himself turns out to be our most persistent lie?
…I take notes on four-by-six index cards, reminding myself about once an hour of a rule I read long ago in a research manual, “Never write on the back of anything.” Since copying is a chore and a bore, use of the cards, the smaller the better, forces one to extract the strictly relevant, to distill from the very beginning, to pass the material through the grinder of one’s own mind, so to speak. Eventually, as the cards fall into groups according to subject or person or chronological sequence, the pattern of my story will emerge. Besides, they are convenient, as they can be filed in a shoe box and carried around in a pocketbook. When ready to write I need only to take along a packet of them, representing a chapter, and I am equipped to work anywhere; whereas if one writes surrounded by a pile of books, one is tied to a single place, and furthermore likely to be too much influenced by other authors.
“Let’s get out of here” addresses itself to the anxiety of an earlier age: that a would-be hero might never get off the starting block. He’d get stuck and never leave his hometown, his high-school girl or his “dead-end job,” as screenwriters once wrote. Today’s anxiety is something else. It’s that our heroes in training — ourselves or our children — won’t settle on a path at all. We’ll scatter their attention to the four winds, get lost in diversion and frivolity. More than malaise we fear distraction. More than tragedy we fear trivia. On highways we die not in high-speed chases but because we can’t stop texting.
Even “having no meaning” is a way of meaning. The absurd is one of the extremes that meaning reaches when it examines its conscience and asks itself, What is the meaning of meaning? Ambivalence of meaning: it is the fissure through which we enter things and the fissure through which being escapes from them.
Meaning ceaselessly undermines the poem; it seeks to reduce its reality as an object of the senses and as a unique thing to an idea, a definition, or a “message.” To protect the poem from the ravages of meaning, poets stress the material aspect of language.
Science is the best idea humanity has ever had. It’s a systematic way of exploring the nature of reality, of testing and proving or disproving ideas. But it’s important to remember that science is ultimately a specialized way of being wrong. That is, every scientist tries to be (a) slightly less wrong than the scientists who came before them, by proving that something we thought was true actually isn’t, and (b) wrong in a way that can be tested and proven, which results in the next scientist being slightly less wrong. Research is the ongoing process of learning new things that show us a little more of what’s true, which inevitably reveals how wrong we used to be, and it is never “finished.” So when you read a headline like “New Study Shows…” or “Latest Research Finds…,” read it with skepticism. One study does not equal proof of anything. In [this book], we’ve aimed to use ideas that have been established over multiple decades and reinforced by multiple approaches. Still, science doesn’t offer perfect truth, only the best available truth. Science, in a sense, is not an exact science.
(Note: I’m not sure where I’m going with this. So I’m giving it a new tag: “tranche.” This is a slice of something, or maybe the thin edge of a wedge. Am I putting something together, or pulling something apart?)
Of course I believe in free will. I have no choice.
I thought it was funny — I was, after all, a philosophy and religion major (with a minor in Monty Python) — but I did not think it was a paradox. It is, in fact, possible to believe in free will and at the same time to believe that you have no choice. Not just possible, but inevitable.
It’s due in part to the manner in which time seems to pass. Your last possible choice may already be behind you and now you are compelled to face the inevitable and unavoidable consequences of your past actions. Wittgenstein talks about a related set of issues when he says that if you claim that, say, Chicago existed fifty years ago, you are also claiming that Chicago existed three hours ago, and that if you grant that Chicago existed fifty years ago, you are also compelled to grant that the whole earth existed fifty years ago. Once you freely choose something, you may find yourself forced to accept all sorts of consequences of that something.
The other issue here is the loose and sloppy way we define something like “free will,” and how easily we tend to slip into the polarity of freedom versus compulsion.
This slippage is easy when we think of ideas as discrete objects with clear boundaries — the way we think of physical things. This is a rock over here, but two feet to its left it’s not a rock anymore. If I say, This is a pencil, I’m setting a boundary around it, and implying that most of the rest of the universe is not a pencil. I’m also saying what the pencil isn’t: it’s not an orange or a tree or Chicago. And it certainly isn’t “free will.” It’s a pencil.
This way of thinking started with our own physical boundaries: I’m right here inside my skin, and anything outside my skin is not me. This is usually a very useful way of thinking, which helps us navigate the universe without too much trouble. But it can lead us to make some overly simplistic mistakes about how we categorize the things around us.
It’s not useful to say that you’re either in Chicago or not in Chicago. Just by the numbers, almost no one is in Chicago, and almost no one has ever been in Chicago. For nearly every human being who’s ever lived, this is a worthless distinction. Joan of Arc is not in Chicago. Laozi is not in Chicago. I am not in Chicago. (A related question, and one I’m not going to get into right now, is whether a pencil is in Chicago, or part of Chicago. This may seem like a stupid question, but not if we’re talking about Naperville or Waukegan.)
So the category “Not In Chicago” doesn’t really tell us much. Only if there were something unique to Chicago would it be meaningful to say this. For example, if Chicago were subject to a nuclear attack, or if everyone in the world was compelled to wear yellow hats except in Chicago, then “Not In Chicago” would have a useful meaning. A bomb goes off in a café, but I am not in that café.
Most of the time, boundaries are only useful in defining one side of the boundary. The walls, the floor, and the ceiling distinguish my living room from the rest of the universe. I’m either in my living room, or I’m out in the universe. (But honestly, even then, there’s almost nothing interesting, unique, or notable about my living room — the universe is right here inside with me. Just like the rest of the planet, my living room is packed with nitrogen and oxygen as it careens through the solar system, bombarded constantly by cosmic rays, subject to all the same laws of physics as a suburb of Atlanta or an outpost in Antarctica. To say “I’m in my living room” is almost always a pointless and meaningless claim. Not to mention it’s almost never true: most of the time, I’m somewhere else.)
But even if boundaries set one thing apart from the whole totality of everything else, we — silly chimps that we are — almost always end up thinking in terms of dualities. A line, after all, has only two sides.
So when we start thinking of ideas as things — or, as the academics say, we “reify” concepts — we tend to commit many of the same sloppy shortcut mistakes that we make when we’re thinking about trees, skin, and property lines.
If I start yammering about “Good” and “Evil,” it’s possible you might come to believe that these are the only two available buckets. Worse, I might start believing it, too. But just because I can place these three English words together in a row — “Good and Evil” — it does not follow that those words refer to two homogenous entities, or that all things must belong to one or the other category.
Think of Tolstoy’s happy and unhappy families: one group is homogenous — happy families are happy in the same way — and the other is a heterogenous mess with absolutely nothing in common other than being unhappy (oh, and presumably they all self-identify as being families of some sort; eight strangers trapped in an elevator may be unhappy, but they are not a family). Yet we still think of them as simply two groups: happy and unhappy.
“If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Remember that old chestnut? It doesn’t take long to realize it’s nonsense. After all: which solution? which problem? The language fools us into thinking there’s only one problem, and that this problem has only one solution. But hey, it sounds good — like advice that rhymes.
Of course I understand the intent behind the saying. It’s a call to action and a critique of apathy; it’s a variation on the old line about how easily bad shit can go down when a good person does nothing to stop it.
But the way it’s phrased plays to our need to simplify things as much as possible. Life moves fast, and our survival often depends on quick decisions based on several broad categories: safe, unsafe, friendly, hostile, that sort of thing.
Once we get a handle on these big buckets, then we can start drilling down, making distinctions between different sorts of flowers or herbs or demigods or wines. We can take my living room and subdivide it infinitely. (It’s a short step from splitting hairs to splitting atoms.)
So another polarity we often fall into is that of few versus many distinctions. Some of us prefer as few buckets as possible, while others prefer distinctions within distinctions. Lumpers and splitters, hedgehogs and foxes. Apparently we can polarize anything.
Shit, maybe there really are only two kinds of people in the world: the people who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and the people who know better.