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.
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.
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 . . .
(Originally posted to a long-dead blog in early 2004, then heavily-revised and reposted as six sections later that year at another equally long-dead blog. Presented here as a single post, with a few more 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?
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.
For many years — since the early 90s — I have been slowly reading through Jung’s works related to alchemy: Psychology & Alchemy, Alchemical Studies, and Mysterium Coniunctionis, and also Aion.
The bulk of my reading has happened in the last ten or twelve years, with a final push in the last two years or so. Amid other digressions, distractions, and divagations, I found myself closing in, at last, on the last forty pages of Mysterium Coniunctionis. I finally finished it yesterday.
This spring and summer, as a way of thinking out loud about Jung’s thesis (that alchemists were dreaming awake and therefore unknowingly describing the contents of their own inner psychological landscape, and exploring the archetype of the self), I plan to go back and walk through all four books, reviewing the passages I’ve marked, and then post selected passages with my annotations here.
In the back of your mind is this little room, and in that litle room is this guy, and that guy, if you read lots of poems all the time, that guy will learn everything about poetry, about form, and shape, and when you make your poems, that guy will take care of all the technical details. All you have to do is write those poems. But that guy, you got to feed that guy plenty of material all the time, or else that guy will start raising a ruckus in the back of your head, and you’ll think you’re going crazy. It’s only because you’re not keeping that guy busy, you know. And that’s true — believe me.
“You can argue opinions, but you can’t argue facts.”
This may, under some limited set of circumstances, be a true statement, but it assumes that a fact is something that we would all agree on if only we were sufficiently informed.
But facts are a byproduct of context. Facts are not discrete packets of truth, sharply defined and clearly demarcated from their surroundings. And a fact which we an all agree upon is the most useless and least interesting fact of all.
Another problem is that it sets up a polarity: it implies that facts and opinions are all there is, that they are the only two states of, well, I guess I’ll call it reality. But what of perceptions? You could, I suppose, say a perception is a form of opinion — but just because I can find many people to confirm what I perceive, and once we all agree and reach a consensus, then it’s a fact, right? Well…
Lastly, the statement sounds as though facts are more important than opinions; that facts finish the argument. But all too often, they begin the argument. Facts are often the least interesting thing a person can talk or argue about.
Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.
When hit by boredom, let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.
Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.
To be recognized and accepted by a peregrine you must wear the same clothes, travel by the same way, perform actions in the same order. Like all birds, it fears the unpredictable. Enter and leave the same fields at the same time each day, soothe the hawk from its wildness by a ritual of behavior as invariable as its own. Hood the glare of the eyes, hide the white tremor of the hands, shade the stark reflecting face, assume the stillness of a tree. A peregrine fears nothing he can see clearly and far off. Approach him from across open ground with a steady unfaltering movement. Let your shape grow in size but do not alter its outline. Never hide yourself unless concealment is complete. Be alone. Shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the hostile eyes of farms. Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all. The hunter must have the quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree. Yesterday is dim and monochrome. A week ago you were not born. Persist, endure, follow, watch.
It seems that two qualities are necessary if a great artist is to remain creative to the end of a long life; he must on the one hand retain an abnormally keen awareness of life, he must never grow complacent, never be content with life, must always demand the impossible and when he cannot have it, must despair. The burden of the mystery must be with him day and night. […]
[The artist] must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy. Many lesser poets have it only in their youth; some even of the greatest lose it in middle life. Wordsworth lost the courage to despair and with it his poetic power. But more often the dynamic tensions are so powerful that they destroy the man before he reaches maturity.
–Humphrey Trevelyan, from his introduction to the 1949 edition of Goethe’s autobiography, Truth and Fantasy from My Life
Its some kynd of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. May be you dont take no noatis of it only some times. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the nex youre on your feet with a spear in your han. Wel it werent you put that spear in your han it wer that other thing whats looking out thru your eye hoals. It aint you nor it dont even know your name. Its in us lorn and loan and sheltering how it can.
Alone and blind and endlessly voyaging I think constantly of fidelity. Fidelity is a matter of perception; nobody is unfaithful to the sea or to mountains or to death: once recognized they fill the heart. In love or in terror or in loathing one responds to them with the true self; fidelity is not an act of the will: the soul is compelled by recognitions. Anyone who loves, anyone who perceives the other person fully can only be faithful, can never be unfaithful to the sea and the mountains and the death in that person, so pitiful and heroic is it to be a human being.
How do the turtles find Ascension Island? There are sharks in the water too. Some of the turtles get eaten by sharks. Do the turtles know about sharks? How do they not think about the sharks when they’re swimming that 1,400 miles? Green turtles must have the kind of mind that doesn’t think about sharks unless a shark is there. Sea turtles can’t shut themselves up in their shells as land turtles do. Their shells are like tight bone vests and their flippers are always sticking out. Nothing they can do if a shark comes along. Pray. Ridiculous to think of a turtle praying with all those teeth coming up from below.
I think of them swimming through all that golden-green water over the dark, over the chill of the deeps and the jaws of the dark. And I think of the sun over the water, the sun through the water, the eye holding the sun, being held by it with no thought and only the rhythm of the going, the steady wing-strokes of the flippers in the water. Then it doesn’t seem so hard to believe. It seems the only way to do it, the only way in fact to be: swimming, swimming, the eye held by the sun, no sharks in the mind, nothing in the mind.
But imagine people who were never quite certain of these things, but said they were very probably so, and that it did not pay to doubt them. Such a person, then, would say … “It is extremely unlikely that I have ever been on the Moon,” etc, etc. How would the life of these people differ from ours? For there are people who say that it is merely extremely probable that water over a fire will boil and not freeze, and that therefore strictly speaking what we consider impossible is only improbable. What difference does it make in their lives? Isn’t it just that they talk rather more about certain things than the rest of us?
The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government. The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn’t; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all. Aristocrats were always anarchists.
I downloaded the trial versions of Things and OmniFocus and proceeded to hammer at them. I fell for both, but found myself preferring OmniFocus somewhat.
First, the Big Changes didn’t pan out, which caused me to reconsider if I even needed to take on a new task management system. Second, despite a childhood of elite, rigorous education, a lifetime of constant reading, and a career devoted to tireless research and the careful analysis of details and definitions, I apparently could not wrap my head around the byzantine mystery of what Apple means by in-app purchase.
In short, we would need to buy a whole second licence of OmniFocus for my wife. It’s a great app, but not that great. We just couldn’t justify the expense. Regretfully, I returned it for a refund. I resolved to remain for the time being with my current system.
Meanwhile, after Thing’s trial period ended, it reverted to read-only mode. But I discovered that as long as you don’t quit the app, it continues to function fully. On a whim, I kept testing it. I had been pretty deep-in with OmniFocus, so I was better prepared to see how Things would handle the same sorts of actions.
I imported everything that I’d exported from OF, dumped some other task-lists that had been hiding in Bear, and started to really stomp all over Things.
And it started to click. I had found Things to be annoyingly prescriptive, but now I started to see how I could downplay or ignore it. I could, in short, bend it to my will much more easily than I’d thought. Having “areas” distinct from “projects” meant I didn’t need the swamp of tags that had grown so necessary in OF. Tasks with a due-date didn’t result in a flurry of notifications. And all my repeating reminders are in Due, which takes that responsibility off Things. Everyone’s happy doing what they do best.
So, even though I really wasn’t sure I actually needed it, I bought Things, and I’ve come to love it.
Then something else happened.
About a week ago, I was finally ramping up to train my wife in on Things. But something was still nagging me.
The last puzzle piece left was that Things — like OmniFocus — was stubbornly and defiantly an app for individuals. No shared task lists or projects. I had deeply disliked all the other apps I’d looked at that offered shared management.
Then, a few days later, we had another big planning & process session at the dining table. After I transcribed everything into a shared note in Dropbox, the whole thing looked like… well, it looked like a project, with boards and lists and cards.
Board, list, card? Of course. Trello.
I launched Trello, and started entering stuff. Yesterday morning, my wife created an account, and joined the little team I’d set up. We spent the day clicking around, just naturally stumbling on features. Everytime she said, “Why can’t I just—” she’d cut herself off and say, “Oh, look, I can.”
I feel dumb that I hardly gave Trello a thought, particularly beause I’ve worked in it before and, after @mdhughes mentioned it, I even spent a day testing it.
I don’t know why it clicked now, when it didn’t click in November. On the other hand, in my experience, nothing ever really clicks in November.
For most of my own personal stuff, I still use Things, Due, and a growing library of Field Notes that I trash my way through each month or so. But for shared activities and projects, we’re rocking out in Trello, with maybe a half dozen boards already. It does absolutely everything I wanted OmniFocus to do for my little self-employed husband–wife team, with almost no friction, a shockingly short learning curve, and a very nice price — free.
disappointed impoverished scholars
know the limits of hunger and cold
unemployed they like to write poems
scribbling away with the strength of their hearts
but who collects a nobody’s words
may as well save your sighs
write them down on rice-flour cakes
even mongrels won’t touch them
With age one loses all sense of the supposed inevitability of art and life. Vivid moments are no longer strung together by imagined fate. The sense of proportion in good and bad experience loses its appeal. Bad is bad and you let it go. Good you cherish as it whizzes by. Mental struggles become lucid and muted with particular visual images attached to them, somewhat irrationally or beyond ordinary logic. Money shrinks to money. Fear is always recognizable rather than generalized. It is sharp and its aim is very good indeed. If there is wisdom as such, it is boiled down by fatigue. On the very rare occasion that I check out an old notebook as I am doing now, the sweat rises in my hair roots and I wonder, What is this fool going to do next?
Tonemes, and tonicity, and toncils crimp in their philharmonic package from dealer to debate to the latinate symbol of recruited tincture; and all our yields have liquefied foragers the way to dynamical debris. Out, out, brittle canister! Lignite’s but a walking shaker, a pornographic pleat that stutters and frolics his hubbub upon the stake and is hefted no more. It is a take terminated by ignition, full of sovereigns and fusion, signifying nouns.
The social media phenomenon strikes me as an extention of reality television: unscripted programs about people who become famous simply because they’re on an unscripted program. Social media’s innovation allows the “audience” to interract with the shows’ “stars,” and often to become co-stars themselves. Crowdsourced reality TV.
As I walked to a nearby coffeeshop, I found a $5 bill on the ground. Enough for a cup of coffee and a day-old pastry. But good luck tends to make me uneasy. When the universe starts giving you free money, it’s only reasonable to ask what it’s going to want in return.
It’s a good idea to avoid people who think good fortune is a reward rather than a loan. After all, think of the person who lost the five bucks. Their day may have just gotten worse. And if you pick up the money, you’re part of their story now, a benefactor of their misfortune. Still feeling lucky?
And here’s the real bind: if you decide you don’t want to take on that kind of karmic responsibility and you leave the money there, you may end up in worse shape afterwards. Think of Perceval, who didn’t ask the question, or the schlemiel in Brigadoon. (Unfair you say? Sure. If the universe were fair, there’d be no such thing as luck.) In other words, you can’t win, even when you’re winning.
So just take the damn money — but don’t complain to me if the universe asks for it back later, with interest.
James Garner was very self-effacing. On acting he once said: “I’m a Methodist, but not as an actor.” In his memoir he wrote: “I’m from the Spencer Tracy school: be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth. I don’t have any theories abut acting, and I don’t think about how to do it, except that an actor shouldn’t take himself too seriously, and shouldn’t try to make acting something that it isn’t. Acting is just common sense. It isn’t hard if you put yourself aside and just do what the writer wrote.”
The essential difference between English and American musicians could be very crudely defined in these terms: American musicians will always ask, How do we end? English musicians only ask, How do we begin?
Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words… Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.
The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil, the terrible boredom of pain.
This post marks the date I signed up for the delightful Blot. (And serves as a reminder that many posts that predate this one are dredged from the mothballed archives of several dead blogs from 2003 to 2006. The others, from 2018, are salvaged from the Transom, or reposted from (fleeting).)
I’m back to square one with task managers. Well, maybe not square one. Square three or four?
I really enjoyed OmniFocus and I’d grown to appreciate how a more robust task manager might help me clarify and keep track of what I need to do today, tomorrow, next month.
Because of Apple’s irritating policy that In-app Purchases do not qualify for Family Sharing, we’d have to buy the iOS app twice in order for my wife to use it. We’re a couple of self-employed consultants on the hustle; we simply don’t have the budget for that sort of thing now. And I’m not sure whether we’d ever want to buy software that doesn’t allow for household sharing.
I just couldn’t justify spending so much on software that only I would be able to use. The Omni Group was very gracious, and processed the refunds swiftly. I will continue to recommend them to anyone who asks. But unless and until Apple changes its family sharing policy, I won’t be able go forward with their software. I was sorry to go, but why should the customer feel the pain for Apple’s foolishness? I will, as I promised them, lodge a complaint with Apple, referring to the RADARcited here.
My wife & I had several morning-long sessions at the dining table. We analyzed our current systems; how they’ve worked in the past, how they’ve been failing us recently. I demonstrated how I had begun to integrate OmniFocus into my own workflow. Post-it notes, sharpies, shared calendars open on our iPads, and printouts of Excel tables exhaustively listing every to-do either of us have for the next few months. (Yes, we’re such process-nerds.)
Consequently, I’m seriously reconsidering Things. I had found it very impressive, but its prescriptiveness worried me. However, as I’ve continued to explore it in its post-trial read-only state, I’m beginning to see how my wife might actually be able to put Things to use in a way that doesn’t completely piss her off. Critically, because Things is a straight purchase via the App Stores, it allows for Family Sharing.
Anyway, I’ll report back after I’ve decided what to do next. Probably early in the new year.
Paul Metcalf, “Where Do You Put the Horse?”
(from Collected Works Vol 3, pp 49–50):
Some years ago, when I was young and impressionable, a knowledgeable academic said to me, “There are two interesting things in the world — integration and disintegration — and they are equally interesting.” My response was the nineteen-thirties equivalent of Wow! — I felt I had learned everything worth knowing, if I could just hold onto this formula.
More and more, I have come to realize how wrong it is. Integration and disintegration are not equally interesting. Pathology is not as interesting as health, the journey to chaos is not as interesting as the journey to order. The poet may — in fact must — plunge into disintegration, pathology, chaos, maintaining as best he can his own freeboard, his balance — but it is the return to the surface, the return to sanity, where the experience may be recorded, that conﬁrms our interest. Ishmael survived the sinking of the Pequod.
The essay, in [William] Gass’ view, is a great meadow of style and personal manner, freed from the need for defense except that provided by an individual intelligence and sparkle. We consent to watch a mind at work, without agreement often, but only for pleasure. Knowledge hereby attained, great indeed, is again wanted for the pleasure of itself.
…We’ve seen how plague became the reason, just like terrorism today, for social regulation, for saying how children must behave, for taking away a worker’s right to choose what work he wanted, for deciding which of the poor are worthy of help and which are just wastrels. Plague enforced frontiers that were otherwise wonderfully insecure, and made our movements and travels conditional. It helped make the state a physical reality, and give it ambitions.