Emily & Amelia Nagoski, Burnout:
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.
(This is the first batch of short impressions of some of the books I’ve finished this year.)
Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions, 2015)
Before buying her book from the publisher’s booth at Wordplay last week, she was only a name to me.
There is a popular trend in the current era to strive for a very informal, conversational style. When done poorly, it’s insipid, self-indulgent, and therapeutic, like reading someone’s diary. I found her best poems to be all the more powerful precisely because of how deftly she employed a quotidian voice that at times almost verged on clumsy, only to tighten up into a musical clarity all the more surprising.
I did find the collection to be a bit uneven, but that’s not remarkable; I find most poetry collections uneven.
John Matthias, Collected Longer Poems (Shearsman, 2012)
Old-school high modernist. These poems are direct descendants of Paterson and the best of The Cantos (and The Best of The Cantos would, by the way, be a very short book, including not much more than the Pisan cantos.) John Matthias could be read comfortably alongside Geoffrey Hill or Peter Dale Scott as well as Lyn Hejinian or CD Wright.
Extremely smart, lots of footnotes, and with a startling music, as bewildering and mesmerizing as hearing bebop for the first time.
Linda Gregg, In the Middle Distance (Graywolf, 2006)
Mostly harmless. A few bright and surprising poems in an otherwise pedestrian collection. Minimalism is one thing, but not quite going far enough is another. Some poets benefit from seeing many of their poems together, others are better one isolated poem at a time. Linda Gregg, for me, seems to be among the latter.
Jim Harrison, Dead Man’s Float (Copper Canyon, 2016)
I put off reading this for a year because it is the last new poetry by Jim Harrison I’m ever likely to see, barring any unpublished manuscripts they find in the cabinet behind the bourbon.
Jim Harrison was this country’s Han-Shan. He acknowledged magic with a shrug, sometimes gravely toasting the gods with cheap red wine, sometimes exuberantly giving them the finger. Angels don’t fly; they crawl on their hands and knees, laughing and weeping at the same time.
Is Not Chicago
(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?)
A few months ago, I shared this quote by Isaac Bashevis Singer:
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.
Hayden Carruth, Reluctantly:
Everything in their upbringings and educations has trained them to seek the easy way, which is now the American way. Our lives are supposed to be “fun” and not much else. And for my young students the easy way is teaching; as quickly as they can they want to get their degrees and find niches in the academic world that will give them semimonthly paychecks in return for the least possible effort and discomfort. My friends, don’t do it. […] You believe your writing can be a separate part of your life, but it can’t. A writer’s writing occurs in the midst of, and by means of, all the materials of life, not just a selected few. And if your life is easy, your writing will be slack and purposeless. I’m generalizing, of course; but my main drift is sound and important. You need difficulty, you need necessity. And it isn’t a paradox that you can choose necessity, can actually create necessity, if you seek the right objectives; not the great metaphysical necessity, but your own personal necessity; and it will be no less inexorable because you have chosen it. Once you are in it, your writing will be in it too.
Octavio Paz, On Poets and Others:
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.
Helen Waddell, The Wandering Scholars:
There is no beginning, this side of the classics, to a history of mediaeval Latin; its roots take hold too firmly on the kingdoms of the dead. The scholar’s lyric of the twelfth century seems as new a miracle as the first crocus; but its earth is the leafdrift of centuries of forgotten scholarship. His emotional background is of his own time; his literary background is pagan, and such furniture as his mind contains is classical or pseudo-classical.
William Gaddis, J R
Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .
Virginia Heffernan (via):
“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.
(Originally posted to a long-dead blog as six sections in late July 2004. Presented here as a single post, with a few minor edits for clarity.)
1 — this is pop
Modern “originality” sometimes strikes me as little more than novelty generated through imitation. (The method is deeply imitative, but the product is novel.) Then introduce drift and random mutations, and — pop! — you’ve got yourself a culture.
2 — “the new cannot be melodic”
Our obsession with originality for its own sake is often so overpowering that we find it difficult to evaluate the quality of a work of art (or any work of human creativity, ingenuity, or industry at all) without taking into account its novelty, its individuality, its departure from some tradition or other. But this is not necessarily the most important or meaningful gauge of a work’s value.
3 — stop and go
(I don’t knock novelty in itself, only novelty as the sole measure of value or brilliance. I think of the saying: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” Good advice, but useful principally in a cultural setting where the act of breaking rules is already common, routine, expected. Another way of phrasing this might be, “You must understand the rules that you break,” since this suggests that the rule breaker should be exercising some judgment, but does not imply, as the other saying does, that your goal is to break the rules.)
It seems to me that originality almost always occurs in the form, that mutations in content are surprisingly rare. And everytime some newfangled thingamabob comes along (say, a villanelle or camera or 3-minute pop song or blog) what do we use this newfangled thing for? Same old same old: for documenting our sorrows and heartbreaks, and loves and fears, and the sun and moon, and everything that’s always been right there in front of us, right there inside us, perplexing us and confusing us and dazzling us, all this time. We haven’t figured out how to make love stay or make hate go away, or stop wars or start utopias, or anything else of any value whatsoever, despite all our endless chatter, yawps, wiggling, carving, doodling. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And then, one fine morning—
4 — hand hand take me by the hand
1 | When I was a kid, I listened to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 every Sunday night as I was falling asleep, and I remember lying there in despair: every week there were more new songs, with new melodies, and I was convinced that by the time I was, say, fourteen, all the possible combinations of notes and harmonies and chord progressions were going to be exhausted. I was genuinely scared that there would be no more music. (Of course, in my cynical moments, I feel that this has already come to pass…)
2 | Apart from displaying a dreadfully poor grasp of basic combinatorics, I also didn’t yet understand that coming up with a new melody isn’t always the point. Sometimes it’s more important to take a sad song and make it better. The movement you need is, after all, on your shoulder. And I later realized this sort of thing is happening all the time. Think, for example, of Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” What did he do? He generated a conversation between the original and his own interpretation. Old and new.
Conversations must partake of both old and new, familiar and strange, in order to exist. If all you and I said to each other was what we’d always said to each other, you couldn’t describe the exchange as a conversation. Conversely, if we spoke in nothing but neologisms describing completely strange and novel concepts, neither of us would have any possible frame of reference to understand what the other was saying.
This is why an over-reliance on novelty for its own sake can sometimes actually stifle the artistic impulse, and thwart an audience’s attempts at enjoyment, understanding, and empathy, and lead to the development of a hermetic and inbred artistic cult, dependent on jargon, rife with smug élitism. And, of course, a slavish allegience to the familiar and the received often strands us in a mire of drab clichés and shopworn platitudes.
5 — The crux of the biscuit
All this shallow so-called “original content” can be generated by following a few simple rules. Novelty is almost always generated by fiddling with the variation knobs on the Content Engine, but not very often by changing to a completely different Content Engine.
In, for example, pop music, so much content is generated based on several dazzlingly simple formulas — I/V/vi/IV; I/IV/V/IV; the answer, my friend, is: she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah; don’t go breakin’ my heart: that’s my soul up there… Yet pop culture is on a constant hunt for the Next New Thing. How can this be? By walking a very thin line between shock and cliché.
Modern art relies on formulas but pretends it doesn’t, as though formula were something to be ashamed of. (It is shameful if we rely too heavily on formula, and don’t bring enough newness to it, and therefore descend into kitsch, doggerel, or cliché.)
Oral epics such as the Iliad or the Kalevala are deeply formulaic, drawing extensively on tales that would have been very familiar to their audiences. The value these works had to their original audiences was not in the invention of any new tale, but how the tales were developed and deepened. To quote Douglas Hofstadter, ’Variations on a theme’ is the crux of creativity.
We are making new copies.
6 — And besides, we can’t walk away
In the end, real progress (whatever you wish to mean by that word) can occur only when new ideas are expressed using familiar terms or when old ideas are reintroduced and reinvigorated using new terms. Something must be familiar in order for me to understand what’s strange. I must, for example, have a grasp of “ugliness” in order to comprehend “beauty.” Everyone in Omelas understands this. Otherwise, what are we talking about?
Identity as Spectacle
If your identity is your product, how do you get out of the way of the work? You become the work, and in order to be sufficiently compelling to cut through the noise and glare, you will feel pressured to develop as spectacular an identity as possible.