Thursday, March 31, 2011

Never Mind Over Matter

Galen Strawson:

"Yes, yes," say the proponents of magic, "but there's still a mystery: how can all this vivid conscious experience be physical, merely and wholly physical?" (I'm assuming, with them, that we're wholly physical beings.) This, though, is the 400-year-old mistake. In speaking of the "magical mystery show", Humphrey and many others make a colossal and crucial assumption: the assumption that we know something about the intrinsic nature of matter that gives us reason to think that it's surprising that it involves consciousness. We don't. Nor is this news. Locke knew it in 1689, as did Hume in 1739. Philosopher-chemist Joseph Priestley was extremely clear about it in the 1770s. So were Eddington, Russell and Whitehead in the 1920s.

One thing we do know about matter is that when you put some very common-or-garden elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sodium, potassium, etc) together in the way in which they're put together in brains, you get consciousness like ours – a wholly physical phenomenon. (It's happening to you right now.) And this means that we do, after all, know something about the intrinsic nature of matter, over and above everything we know in knowing the equations of physics. Why? Because we know the intrinsic nature of consciousness and consciousness is a form of matter.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sword of Damocles

The only thing better than expecting your life to be thrown into chaos and upheaval in the near future is having to sit and wait for two weeks to find out precisely to what extent your life will be thrown into chaos and upheaval in the near future.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Did I Win the Race or Was It Just a False Start?

Namit Arora:

In Rawlsian terms, the problem in America is not that a minority has grown super rich, but that for decades now, it has done so to the detriment of the lower social classes. The big question is: why does the majority in a seemingly free society tolerate this, and even happily vote against its own economic interests? A plausible answer is that it is under a self-destructive meritocratic spell that sees social outcomes as moral desert—a spell at least as old as the American frontier but long since repurposed by the corporate control of public institutions and the media: news, film, TV, publishing, etc. Rather than move towards greater fairness and egalitarianism, it promotes a libertarian gospel of the free market with minimal regulation, taxation, and public safety nets. [10] What would it take to break this spell?

I was just commiserating with a friend over this last week. It's really astonishing how many people have become firmly convinced that if we abolished the vast majority of government and apparently let corporations dictate social policy, not only would we have a more just and equitable society all around, but they themselves would be one of the .0001% of Randroid producer-heroes who prospered in such an environment, regardless of how little they've achieved so far in their lives in a society far more tolerant of failings.

I grew up hearing anti-government stemwinders and always assumed they made perfect sense, but I remember reading Noam Chomsky saying, in effect, that while government certainly has plenty of things wrong with it, its worst fault, in the eyes of those with the levels of power and wealth that give them such a vested interest in reducing its regulatory power, is that it is at least in theory responsive to public pressure. No such restraint exists on corporate power. But so many of my fellow Myrrhkins apparently yearn for a return to the Gilded Age.

I am firmly convinced that there is no idea so abysmally stupid or morally abhorrent that it can't come back into vogue within a few generations.

When Words Are Many, He Who Holds His Tongue Is Wise

Shooting the breeze with Shanna the other day. While making a valiant effort to edumacate me in various facets of Greek myths that I had never studied properly, she mentioned a former professor of hers who was a stickler for the proper pronunciation of Greek names. That reminded me of something Dennis Perrin said once:

Being an autodidact, I often mispronounced new words I learned, holding back in conversation until I heard someone else speak correctly.

I laughed 'cause it's true! There are so many words and names that I'm familiar with, having seen them in print eleventy-teen thousand times, but I've never once heard them spoken. 'Tis the lonely fate of the self-educated, to spend so much of our lives limited to a textual relationship with words, isolated from the full enjoyment of their lyrical musicality!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mephisto Schmaltz


At the heart of Bell's position is that God's love can triumph over every obstacle, including sins that Christians have long believed would consign them to anguish in the afterlife. But that notion is appalling to many people, Bell argues, and is minimized even by those who uphold its truth.

"The book is saying we need to take hell more seriously," Bell told The Associated Press, "Because the people who warn about hell when you die don't seem to talk about it very much."

"Atheists are not going to be impressed by this book. Skeptics are not going to be impressed by this book," said Christian blogger Justin Taylor at the Southern Baptist forum. "The people who are going to be impressed by this book are disaffected evangelicals.

I doubt I'd be impressed either, but it sure does tickle my black humor funny bone to watch heated, incoherent arguments break out over the precise nature of imaginary places. When it comes to hell in particular, I find it of great interest to see what exactly my fellow hairless apes find worthy of eternal torment, and how they react to the idea that they may not be able to take a vicious delight in their enemies receiving their due. The early Church fathers promised that this kind of voyeurism was one of the joys of heaven, damn it!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

And If We Fade Away, We Were Never Meant to Stay

Discussing mortality, Hitchens and a friend used to muse that there would come a day when the newspapers would come out and they wouldn’t be there to read them. 'And on that day, I’ve realised recently, I’ll probably be in the newspapers, or quite a lot of them. And etiquette being what it is, generally speaking, rather nice things being said about me.’ He shrugs. 'Just typical that will be the edition I miss. But it’s not so much that; it’s more that you’re at the party and you’re tapped on the shoulder and told you have to leave. The party is still going on, but it’s going on without you. And even people who swear to remember you are not really going to do so.

'However, put the contrary case. You get tapped on the shoulder, but guess what? The party’s going on for ever; you have to stay. And not only that, but you have to have a good time – the boss says so.’

He gives a slight shudder.

'Anything eternal is probably intolerable. One thing that makes the atheist position intellectually, and in some ways morally, superior is that we accept conclusions on the basis of reason and evidence that are not welcome to us. We don’t want to be annihilated. We just think the overall likelihood is that we will rejoin the molecular cycle when we die. We don’t wish it to be true, but we face it.’

This interview with Hitchens reminds me of another insight from Alan Watts:

The desire to continue always can only seem attractive when one thinks of indefinite time rather than infinite time. It is one thing to have as much time as you want, but quite another to have time without end... We do not really want continuity, but rather a present experience of total happiness. The thought of wanting such an experience to go on and on is the result of becoming self-conscious in the experience, and thus completely unaware of it. So long as there is the feeling of an "I" having this experience, the moment is not all. Eternal life is realized when the last trace of difference between "I" and "now" has vanished—when there is just this "now" and nothing else.

The poignant ache we feel at the thought of having to leave favorite experiences and loved ones behind doesn't have to be a bad thing, I think; it could just be evidence of a life well-lived. ("But all joy wants eternity/Wants deep, wants deep eternity."—Nietzsche) Far worse would be to exist in the life you know for a fact you have without having any such reasons to regret leaving it, and countless people are living that way right now.

Genuine Fake

Via Ruairí, I see that a long-overdue documentary about Alan Watts is in need of funding. I'm pretty sure I can do without several nonessential expenditures this month in order to throw in my share.

Here's a brief greatest hits compilation, of sorts, from some of his many books:

From Nature, Man and Woman:

For the point is not, in our accustomed egocentric mode of thinking, that it would be good to return to our original integrity with nature. The point is that it is simply impossible to get away from it, however vividly we may imagine we have done so. Similarly, it is impossible to experience the future and not experience the present. But trying to realize this is another attempt to experience the future. Some logician may object that this is a merely tautological statement which has no consequence, and he will be right. But we are not looking for a consequence. We are no longer saying, "So what?" to everything, as if the only importance of our present experience were in what it is leading to, as if we should constantly interrupt a dancer, saying, "Now just where are you going, and what, exactly, is the meaning of all these movements?"

The Meaning of Happiness:

We have a proverb that to travel well is better than to arrive, which comes close to the Oriental idea. Wisdom does not consist in arriving at a particular place, and no one need imagine that it is necessarily obtained by climbing a ladder whose rungs are the successive stages of psychological experience. That ladder has no end, and the entrance to enlightenment, wisdom or spiritual freedom may be found on any one of its rungs. If you discover it, it does not mean that you will not have to go on climbing the ladder; you must go on climbing just as you must go on living. But enlightenment is found by accepting fully the place where you stand now.

Talking Zen:

The notion that human sanity has a good deal to do with self-restraint has persisted for many thousands of years, and has had some very wise exponents. But it has usually had an end in view—a temporal, future end—some sort of pie in the sky. No one can really abstain, however; no one can effectively overcome the mad greed of anxiety, until he has realized that the future is a mirage which does not contain the answer to anything. The true ascetic is not forcing himself; he is just acting naturally in accordance with reality as he sees it.

The Wisdom of Insecurity:

The notion of a separate thinker, of an "I" distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes. It is like whirling a burning stick to give the illusion of a continuous ring of fire. If you imagine that memory is a direct knowledge of the past rather than a present experience, you get the illusion of knowing the past and the present at the same time. This suggests that there is something in you distinct from both the past and present experiences. You reason, "I know this present experience, and it is different from that past experience. If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart." But as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience. You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience. When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself from this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves. There is simply experience. There is not someone or something experiencing experience!

Beyond Theology:

Still more important, it is quite obvious to the canny observer that most Christians, including clergy and devout laity, do not really believe in Christianity. If they did, they would be screaming in the streets, taking daily full-page advertisements in the newspapers, and subscribing for the most hair-raising television programs every night of the week. Even Jehovah's Witnesses are polite and genteel in their door-to-door propaganda. Nobody, save perhaps a few obscure fanatics, is really bothered by the idea that every man is constantly haunted by an angelic fiend, more imminently dangerous and malicious than the most depraved agents of the Nazis. Most people are sinners and unbelievers, and will probably go to hell. So what? Let God worry about that one!

This Is It:

But the Westerner who is attracted by Zen and who would understand it deeply must have one indispensable qualification: he must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously. He must really have come to terms with the Lord God Jehovah and with his Hebrew-Christian conscience so that he can take it or leave it without fear or rebellion. He must be free of the itch to justify himself. Lacking this, his Zen will either be "beat" or "square", either a revolt from the culture and social order or a new form of stuffiness and respectability. For Zen is above all the liberation of the mind from conventional thought, and this is something utterly different from rebellion against convention, on the one hand, or adapting foreign conventions, on the other.

The Two Hands of God:

What this means for practical action is that we accept the standards of logic and morals, not exactly with reservations, but with a certain humor. We will try to keep them, knowing that we shall not altogether succeed. We shall commit ourselves to positions and promises as best we may, knowing always that there must be a hintergedanke—a thought far in the back of the mind which, like crossed fingers, gives us an "out" when pressed too far. We shall realize that behind our devotion to duty there is always a strong element of self-admiration, and that even in the most passionate love of others there is inevitably the aspect of personal gratification.

The Man Who Played God

Doree Shafrir:

Lee getting old reminds me of my own mortality; in her I see what it is to become elderly, to not be able to do the things you used to be able to do, to have things happen slowly, seemingly forever, and then very and irrevocably quickly. And for this I am irrationally and deeply jealous of people whose dogs die suddenly and young, because although they feel a different kind of pain, this is something they never have to face.

The night I decided to put Lee down, I sat alone in my apartment at my computer for hours, mindlessly listening to music and reading Twitter and Tumblr, and sobbing, those deep kinds of sobs where you can’t breathe and you can’t control the tears, which just keep coming, even when you think you don’t have any left. It seemed unjust and yet fair that she had no idea what was to happen the next day, and every time I thought about that I cried more.

The hardest thing I found about having to put my own dogs to sleep was that "unjust and yet fair" awareness. I know it had to be done, yet I couldn't help but feel sympathy for those who would rather do their best to keep their pets comfortable until fate makes the decision for them. Knowing the exact date and time, having chosen it myself, imbues so many actions with a immensely heavy, crushing significance -- This is the last walk I'll take her on; this is the last meal he'll ever have; next week, by this time...

I console myself by thinking of it in terms of me having done my job of shepherding them safely and happily through their lives, but that responsibility can still weigh heavily regardless.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Is It Fate, or Is It Just a Cold Heart?

So I'm through with saving you
A gift unto myself
A tired savior, a wasted favor, I'm lucky I'm alive

- Pantera

I just got done talking to the woman who would have been my mother-in-law, had I been married to my ex-girlfriend. Since she and I split almost six years ago, her parents have inherited the unenviable job of trying their best in a likely futile attempt to keep her from total self-destruction. So her mom calls me regularly when she needs a sympathetic ear, since no one knows better than me what sort of tiger she has by the tail.

Over these past several years, my ex has systematically used up and tossed aside everyone that has tried to help her, friends and family alike. Tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours of effort and goodwill, all for naught, not even counting what she put me through financially and emotionally. She had been sharing a house with the last friend of hers patient enough to try to help her get back on her feet, and now that's come to an acrimonious end amid the usual accusations of lies and theft that follow her everywhere she goes. She venomously disowned her mother in a hateful letter a couple years ago, so this all gets to her through the grapevine. A devout Christian with deep reserves of generosity and patience, even she's given up on her daughter, calling her crazy and hopeless. In debt, unable to hold a job or domestic arrangement for long, and with a toddler to care for; no one at this point would be surprised if she's soon homeless, or even dead.

I only briefly enjoyed epicaricacy at her expense, shortly after we broke up, but even that started to feel cruelly gratuitous before too long, as it became clear what sort of avalanche she'd unleashed on herself with a series of astoundingly stupid decisions, which have only compounded themselves since then. I suspect she's untreated bipolar, and said as much to her while we were still together, but she's never sought treatment for it. I also suspect she might be a genuine sociopath, as she only seems to see other people as tools to be manipulated and disposed of as she sees fit. Kindness is a weakness to be exploited, not a gift to be appreciated.

I have to work hard at dredging up memories enough to genuinely feel any hate for her, and it's almost never worth the effort anymore; there are much better uses for my time. The only reason I'm having phone conversations about her now is because of having to get involved to prevent her eldest son from becoming the latest victim of her machinations, but in general, she's long gone from my life and I just count myself lucky to be as well-off as I am.

As I hung up the phone, though, in what has become the common ritual after these calls, I just stared out the window for a while, feeling sad about the sheer pointless, irrational stupidity of it all. I know she's had far more chances to get her life together than most of us will ever get (or need). I know she doesn't "deserve" any sympathy, as far as people usually reckon such things. I know she needs the kind of help, probably involving therapy and medication, that no one will ever be able or willing to give her, even if she were able and willing to ask for it. I know she's just one of countless such people living miserable lives, dragging others down with them. It's just deeply saddening to see such mindless, compulsive self-mutilation. It's like watching someone in a frenzied rage, throwing themselves violently against the bars of a cage they created themselves. I see the apparently inexorable process that led to this point, but sometimes I still can't help but wish for it to suddenly, magically just stop.

Is this compassion? Because it's not really all it's cracked up to be.

Jain's Addiction

Eating 90% less meat than the average American and reallocating the money I would have spent on factory-farmed meat to buy much smaller portions of ethically and sustainably raised animal products seems like a worthy and attainable goal. Yes, meat production is environmentally expensive. So is iPod production, yet many vegans own iPods. Unless you want to argue that we should all be maximally ascetic in every aspect of life, it seems unfair to single out the occasional grass-fed steak as an unacceptable extravagance. What matters is your total footprint. If you really want a steak, or an iPod, find somewhere else to cut back.

I agree with Lindsay, and not just because she generously gave me my first couple links as a hatchling blogger that resulted in my first couple hundred visitors all those years ago. I've been vegan before, and I still consume a lot less animal products overall, including dairy and leather, than almost anyone else, but I just can't get into the metaphysical belief in an end to all suffering for all beings. I remember reading vegan zines back in the day and shaking my head at the zeal with which some of them would attempt to eliminate all personal connection to suffering, down to the tiniest molecule. Of course, taking the imperative to do no harm that seriously almost leads inexorably to the logical necessity of suicide, and even your remains will feed the insects or the scavengers, who will in turn be devoured by the occupants in the next link of the chain, and on and on the cycle goes. You can't surgically remove your own ego - an illusion, at any rate - from the entire process. The Buddha was right: life is suffering. And we are all life, every one of us together. There is no escape from it. Even if humans, all six or seven billion of us and counting, became totally committed to never harming another animal unnecessarily, they do it to each other and will continue to do so long after our likely self-destruction, assuming a meteor doesn't do us in first.

Minimize suffering as much as you can. But don't get caught up in believing that it can ever disappear entirely. Life is a sexually transmitted disease that's 100% fatal. Don't take it too seriously.

Omar Is Taking His Evening Constitutional, Yo

If at any time besides its treatment of Templeton The Wire flirts with caricature, it does so in the character of Omar Little. Yet no one would ever reduce such a monumental culmination of literary tradition, satire, and basic human desire for mythos as Omar Little by defining him as mere caricature. Little is not Dickensian. Nor is he a character in the style of Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope, or any of the most famous serialists. If he must be compared to characters in the Victorian times, he most closely resembles a creation of a Brontë; he could have come from Wuthering Heights.

The reason that Little so closely resembles a Brontë hero is of course that the estimable sisters were often not writing in the Victorian paradigm at all, but rather in the Gothic. Their heroes were Byronic, and Lord Byron himself took his cue from the ancient tradition of Romance, culminating in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, but originating even further back. Little would not be out of place in Faerie Queene, and even less so in Don Quixote: an errant knight wielding a sword, facing dragons, no man his master. The character builds on the tradition of the quintessential Robin Hood and borrows qualities from many of the great chivalric romances of previous centuries. Meanwhile there is an element of the fay, mirroring Robin Hood’s own predecessor—Goodfellow or Puck—and prefiguring later dashing, mysterious heroes who also play the part of the fop, as in The Scarlet Pimpernel.

As previously mentioned, Little also has the flavor of the Gothic: brooding, hell-bent on revenge. Indeed, there is a darkness to the character that would not suit Sir Gawain, but does not seem out of place in a Don Juan or Brontë’s Heathcliffe. Little is in fact an amalgamation of these traditions, an essential archetype.

The Wire re-imagined as a Victorian novel. This is the coolest thing since Adam Bertocci's retelling of The Big Lebowski in the form of a Shakespeare play. I think this makes me a gigantic dork, but I don't care.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Queen of the Air

Some of my recent conversations with my friend Arthur had centered on his appreciation of the 19th-century writer John Ruskin. I had to admit to not knowing the first thing about him, so I asked Arthur if he could put together a sort of Cliff's Notes summary of his work for me. As usual, he went above and beyond the call of duty, and since it's been a while since I plundered one of his emails for material to raise the collective IQ of this here blog, I'll post this one too rather than let it languish in my inbox:

Let me note first of all that his lifespan (1819-1900) gives him a central place, both chronologically and intellectually, in the Victorian Era. In fact his lifespan coincides almost exactly with that of Queen Victoria herself (born 1819, acceded to the throne 1837 and died 1901.)

There are many Ruskins, because he went through so many phases (from religious to agnostic to idiosyncratically religious again, from art critic to social prophet to madman, for example), so it's impossible to give a neatly representative sample of his style and way of thinking. But The Queen of the Air (1869) at least gives you an idea of his peculiar combination of strengths, as a prose poet, a mythographer, a literary critic, an art critic and an aesthetician, a social prophet blending socialism with a strange Calvinist-turned-proto-hippie Pelasgian theology, and a Darwin-influenced botanist/zoologist. In a typically complicated way, he is writing in this book a social critique of materialist, capitalist Victorian culture by way of an explication of what he sees as a contrasting, more healthier world-view, Hellenic paganism in its "un-fallen" pantheistic form, a world-view in which nature and human nature are harmoniously interwoven and poetry and everyday reality are essentially one (he is a holdover early-Romantic, a Wordsworthian, so the book is part of his ongoing life's mission to revive and put into practice the visionary sensibility of the great English Romantics).

Ominously, in view of what later happened to Ruskin, the book falls apart at the end into disjointed notes and polemics against sundry social and technological evils of his day (by the end of the 1880's his mind had fragmented completely and, like Nietzsche he spent his last years in a state of mental paralysis that prevented him from writing anything at all.) In a real sense, the forces of capitalism, the damage they were doing to nature and humanity, drove him mad, partly with a sense of having failed, despite his frenetic activities as polemicist, philanthropist and founder of utopian art-colonies (the Guild of St. George) to make any headway against these forces.

This passage shows both his sophisticated understanding of how myth works and his simplicity of heart in believing that myths reflect a morality encoded in nature itself:

Now you must always be prepared to read Greek legends as you trace threads through figures on a silken damask: the same thread runs through the web, but it makes part of different figures. Joined with other colors you hardly recognize it, and in different lights it is dark or light. Thus the Greek fables blend and cross curiously in different directions, till they knit themselves into an arabesque where sometimes you cannot tell black from purple, nor blue from emerald—they being all the truer for this, because the truths of emotion they represent are interwoven in the same way, but all the more difficult to read, and to explain in any order. Thus the Harpies, as they represent vain desire, are connected with the Sirens, who are the spirits of constant desire; so that it is difficult sometimes in early art to know which are meant, both being represented alike as birds with women's heads; only the Sirens are the great constant desires—the infinite sicknesses of heart—which, rightly placed, give life, and wrongly placed, waste it away; so that there are two groups of Sirens, one noble and saving, as the other is fatal. But there are no animating or saving Harpies; their nature is always vexing and full of weariness, and thus they are curiously connected with the whole group of legends about Tantalus.
Athena, the Queen of the Air, represents, among other things, one of the primordial elements of unspoilt nature as woven into the poetic imagination of the ancient Greeks; specifically, Athena as fresh air, both literally and figuratively:

31. I. She is the air giving life and health to all animals.
II. She is the air giving vegetative power to the earth.
III. She is the air giving motion to the sea, and rendering
navigation possible.
IV. She is the air nourishing artificial light, torch or lamplight;
as opposed to that of the sun, on one hand, and of consuming*
fire on the other.
V. She is the air conveying vibration of sound.
First, and chiefly, she is air as the spirit of life, giving vitality to the blood. Her psychic relation to the vital force in matter lies deeper, and we will examine it afterwards; but a great number of the most interesting passages in Homer regard her as flying over the earth in local and transitory strength, simply and merely the goddess of fresh air.
The sea-beach round this isle of ours is the frieze of our Parthenon; every wave that breaks on it thunders with Athena's voice; nay, wherever you throw your window wide open in the morning, you let in Athena, as wisdom and fresh air at the same instant; and whenever you draw a pure, long, full breath of right heaven, you take Athena into your heart, through your blood; and, with the blood, into the thoughts of your brain.

Ruskin took all this poetic thinking very seriously; he thought it was the way we should think and perceive at every moment, acting accordingly. He thought that aesthetics, personal morality, and social justice were one thing. His sublime aestheticism is portentous and heavy, compared with the blithe aestheticism of Wilde, but the latter is an offshoot of the former, just as Wilde was a student of Ruskin's at Oxford. His stubborn insistence on sustaining a poetic relation to the world at every moment put him at odds, on a daily basis, with the world around him, creating what must have been a terrible mental tension, not to say suffering.

His unique way of blending zoology and poetry is well illustrated by his description of two totemic animals associated with Athena, the bird and the snake:

...her name, Pallas, probably refers to the quivering or vibration of the air; and to its power, whether as vital force, or communicated wave, over every kind of matter, in giving it vibratory movement; first, and most intense, in the voice and throat of the bird, which is the air incarnate; and so descending through the various orders of animal life to the vibrating and semi-voluntary murmur of the insect; and, lower still, to the hiss or quiver of the tail of the half-lunged snake and deaf adder; all these, nevertheless, being wholly under the rule of Athena as representing either breath or vital nervous power; and, therefore, also, in their simplicity, the "oaten pipe and pastoral song," which belong to her dominion over the asphodel meadows, and breathe on their banks of violets.

Finally, is it not strange to think of the influence of this one power of Pallas in vibration (we shall see a singular mechanical energy of it presently in the serpent's motion), in the voices of war and peace? How much of the repose, how much of the wrath, folly, and misery of men, has literally depended on this one power of the air; on the sound of the trumpet and of the bell, on the lark's song, and the bee's murmur!

You can see how hard he tries to convince us that physical phenomena and mental (emotional and moral) phenomena are fundamentally connected, even identical.

Later he gives a detailed description of these two totemic animals, again, combining scientific precision with poetic insight:

64. Now we have two orders of animals to take some note of in connection with Athena, and one vast order of plants, which will illustrate this matter very sufficiently for us.

The orders of animals are the serpent and the bird: the serpent, in which the breath or spirit is less than in any other creature, and the earth-power the greatest; the bird, in which the breath or spirit is more full than in any other creature, and the earth-power least.

65. We will take the bird first. It is little more than a drift of the air in all its quills, it breathes through its whole frame and flesh and glows with air in its flying, like blown flames; it rests upon the air, subdues it, surpasses it, outraces it,—is the air, conscious of itself, conquering itself, ruling itself.

Also, in the throat of the bird is given the voice of the air. All that in the wind itself is weak, wild, useless in sweetness, is knit together in its song. As we may imagine the wild form of the bird's wings, so the wild voice of the cloud into its ordered and commanded voice; unwearied, rippling through the clear heaven in its gladness, interpreting all intense passion through the soft spring nights, bursting into acclaim and rapture of choir at daybreak, or lisping and twittering among the boughs and hedges through heat of day, like little winds that only make the cowslip bells shake, and ruffle the petals of the wild rose.

66. Also, upon the plumes of the bird are put the colors of the air; on these the gold of the cloud, that cannot be gathered by any covetousness; the rubies of the clouds, that are not the price of Athena, but are Athena; the vermillion of the cloud-bar, and the flame of the cloud-crest, and the snow of the cloud, and its shadow, and the melted blue of the deep wells of the sky,—all these, seized by the creating spirit, and woven by Athena herself into films and threads of plume; with wave on wave following and fading along breast, and throat, and opened wings, infinite as the dividing of the foam and the sifting of the sea-sand; even the white down of the cloud seeming to flutter up between the stronger plumes,—seen, but too soft for touch.

And so the Spirit of the Air is put into, and upon, this created form; and it becomes, through twenty centuries, the symbol of divine help, descending, as the Fire, to speak but as the Dove, to bless.

67. Next, in the serpent we approach the source of a group of myths, world-wide, founded on great and common human instincts, respecting which I must note one or two points which bear intimately on all our subject. For it seems to me that the scholars who are at present occupied in interpretation of human myths have most of them forgotten that there are any such thing as natural myths, and that the dark sayings of men may be both difficult to read, and not always worth reading. And, indeed, all guidance to the right sense of the human and variable myths will probably depend on our first getting at the sense of the natural and invariable ones. The dead hieroglyph may have meant this or that; the living hieroglyph means always the same; but remember, it is just as much a hieroglyph as the other; nay, more,—a "sacred or reserved sculpture," a thing with an inner language. The serpent crest of the king's crown, or of the god's, on the pillars of Egypt, is a mystery, but the serpent itself, gliding past the pillar's foot, is it less a mystery? Is there, indeed, no tongue, except the mute forked flash from its lips, in that running brook of horror on the ground?

68. Why that horror? We all feel it, yet how imaginative it is, how disproportioned to the real strength of the creature! There is more poison in an ill-kept drain, in a pool of dish-washing at a cottage door, than in the deadliest asp of Nile. Every back yard which you look down into from the railway as it carries you out by Vauxhall or Deptford, holds its coiled serpent; all the walls of those ghastly suburbs are enclosures of tank temples for serpent worship; yet you feel no horror in looking down into them as you would if you saw the livid scales, and lifted head. There is more venom, mortal, inevitable, in a single word, sometimes, or in the gliding entrance of a wordless thought than ever "vanti Libia con sua rena." But that horror is of the myth, not of the creature. There are myriads lower than this, and more loathsome, in the scale of being; the links between dead matter and animation drift everywhere unseen. But it is the strength of the base element that is so dreadful in the serpent; it is the very omnipotence of the earth. That rivulet of smooth silver, how does it flow, think you? It literally rows on the earth, with every scale for an oar; it bites the dust with the ridges of its body. Watch it, when it moves slowly. A wave, but without wind! a current, but with no fall! all the body moving at the same instant, yet some of it to one side, some to another, or some forward, and the rest of the coil backwards, but all with the same calm will and equal way, no contraction, no extension; one soundless, causeless, march of sequent rings, and spectral processions of spotted dust, with dissolution in its fangs, dislocation in its coils. Startle it, the winding stream will become a twisted arrow; the wave of poisoned life will lash through the grass like a cast lance.* It scarcely breathes with its one lung (the other shriveled and abortive); it is passive to the sun and shade, and is cold or hot like a stone; yet "it can outclimb the monkey, outswim the fish, outleap the zebra, outwrestle the athlete, and crush the tiger."** It is a divine hieroglyph of the demoniac power of the earth, of the entire earthly nature. As the bird is the clothed power of the air, so this is the clothed power of the dust; as the bird is the symbol of the spirit of life, so this is the grasp and sting of death.

Given the intensity of imagination and sensitivity of feeling on exhibit here, you can understand how viscerally Ruskin reacted to the pollution of earth and air and water that he saw all around him, including the destruction of places he frequented in youth (Wordsworthian loci amoeni). "The light, the air, the waters, all defiled!" as he puts it in the preface. To him all this was, literally, sacrilege, a kind of mass murder. No wonder he eventually went mad.

I should add that it was as an art critic that Ruskin first made a very considerable name for himself among the Victorians, and in such works as the multi-volume Modern Painters and the Stones of Venice you will find page after page of the kind of acutely observed and brilliantly expressed descriptions of both natural phenomena and works of art. (He invented art criticism as we know it, and he was himself a very talented artist as well as poet.) He, as it were, banked on the popularity and authority that accrued to him on the basis of these earlier works when he turned social critic (partly at his friend Carlyle's suggestion), but soon found that the same middle-class audience that liked to feel itself culturally improved and edified did not wish to see itself portrayed as a combination of Caliban and Tartuffe in Ruskin's socialistic polemics.

A man capable of profoundly influencing figures as diverse as Wilde, Proust, Tolstoy and Ghandi (who modeled his socioeconomic program on Ruskin's writings) deserves to be more for us than a period phenomenon. It's no wonder that the VictorianWeb site devotes the lion's share of its pages to Ruskin. He is indeed "the Great Victorian."

Got the Whole World in Our Hands

Pascal Bruckner:

In the 1960s, two major shifts transformed the right to happiness into the duty of happiness. The first was a shift in the nature of capitalism, which had long revolved around production and the deferral of gratification, but now focused on making us all good consumers. Working no longer sufficed; buying was also necessary for the industrial machine to run at full capacity. To make this shift possible, an ingenious invention had appeared not long before, first in America in the 1930s and then in Europe in the 1950s: credit. In an earlier time, anyone who wanted to buy a car, some furniture, or a house followed a rule that now seems almost unknown: he waited, setting aside his nickels and dimes. But credit changed everything; frustration became intolerable and satisfaction normal; to do without seemed absurd. We would live well in the present and pay back later. Today, we’re all aware of the excesses that resulted from this system, since the financial meltdown in the United States was the direct consequence of too many people living on credit, to the point of borrowing hundreds of times the real value of their possessions.

The second shift was the rise of individualism. Since nothing opposed our fulfillment any longer—neither church nor party nor social class—we became solely responsible for what happened to us. It proved an awesome burden: if I don’t feel happy, I can blame no one but myself. So it was no surprise that a vast number of fulfillment industries arose, ranging from cosmetic surgery to diet pills to innumerable styles of therapy, all promising reconciliation with ourselves and full realization of our potential. “Become your own best friend, learn self-esteem, think positive, dare to live in harmony,” we were told by so many self-help books, though their very number suggested that these were not such easy tasks. The idea of fulfillment, though the successor to a more demanding ethic, became a demand itself. The dominant order no longer condemns us to privation; it offers us paths to self-realization with a kind of maternal solicitude.

Monday, March 21, 2011

And I'm Smiling 'Cause I Know for Me No Bell Could Ever Toll

Sven Birkerts:

For all its openness to profundity and creative insight, maybe precisely because of that, idleness is deemed objectionable. Creative insight is so often an implicit questioning of the rationales of the status quo. Idleness wills nothing, espouses no agenda of progress; it proposes the sufficiency of what is. And our aforementioned guardians find this intolerable, a defiant vote against their idea of what should be.

...I was delighted recently to open Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and hear him announcing, “In Rome I lived in the grand manner of writers. I basically did nothing all day.” But Dyer seems an exception to me, a survival from another era. We are few of us in Rome, and fewer up for the “grand manner.” Who still idles? Sieving with the mind’s own Google I pull up a few names: the late W. G. Sebald, Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robinson in her reverie-paced scenemaking, Nicholson Baker in The Anthologist…But finally there are few exemplars. Most contemporary prose, I find, agitates; it creates a caffeinated vibration that is all about competing stimuli and the many ways that the world overruns us. Idleness needs atmospheres of indolence to survive. It is an endangered condition that asks for a whole different climate of reading, one that is not about information, or self-betterment, or keeping up with the latest book-club flavor, but exists just for itself, idyllic, intransitive.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Servants' Entrance at the Rear

This is an interesting interview with Robert Putnam and David Campbell. I laughed at this part, though:

We found a very high level of tolerance and open-mindedness across religious lines. Americans overwhelmingly believe that people of other religions can go to heaven, and that doesn’t mean just Methodists saying that a few Lutherans are going to make it into heaven. Large numbers, the majority even, of evangelical Protestants say that non-Christians can go to heaven if they’re a good person.

Well, golly, that sure is generous of them, especially since they're risking the wrath of their cult leader with their inconsistency. It almost makes me regret having to tell them that there's no such thing as an afterlife.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

When I Say "Go Fuck Yourself," Shafer, Will You Put That Down to Drunkenness or a High Estimate of Your Athleticism?

Jack Shafer:

I understand why Aflac would want to distance itself from the comedian. After all, the company does three-quarters of its business in Japan. But none of the jokes offended me—I have a pretty high threshold. Then again, none of them made me laugh, either, but since the earthquake struck I've been wondering out loud when somebody would shove the taboo aside and mine the misery for humor.

Oh, go fuck yourself. I mean, I'm happy you only had to wait a day or two before being able to satisfactorily jerk off over someone else's misery, but still, I have to wonder if you're not revealing more about yourself than you really want by sharing this with us. That was one of the first things on your mind? Huh.

Well, whatever. I guess the thing abou—

I subscribe to all the standard defenses of sick humor. That by springing the overloaded circuit it provides catharsis. That it prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously. That it's a way for romantics to masquerade as cynics. That it lifts our minds from despair. That it gives us a way to whistle past the graveyard (raise your hand if you live in a potential disaster zone, nuclear or otherwise). And so on.

What are you still doing here? Didn't I just tell you to go fuck yourself?

Okay, wait. While I've got you here, might as well ask you: why do you have such trouble differentiating between the universal and the particular? (It seems to be a pattern with you, is what I'm saying.) Catharsis for whom? For the Japanese people, or for Gilbert Gottfried and whoever has nothing better to do but follow him on Twitter? Lifts whose minds from despair? The people living in the midst of that destruction and chaos, or an American comedian and his fans? Taking ourselves too seriously? Taking ourselves too seriously? Wow, how can I put this...

Okay, given an enormous natural disaster, with an accompanying high death toll and who knows yet what sort of horrific long-term consequences, which response do you think displays more self-centeredness? Taking the time to bear stunned, silent witness to such a gruesome reminder of the fragility of life, to reflect a moment on our own gossamer-thin good fortune while feeling empathy for those not so lucky? Or to simply refuse to acknowledge any sort of situation that might restrain our narcissistic urge to never shut the fuck up? Me, I have to wonder about the kind of people who rush to fill every silence, no matter how profound, with their jabbering voice, as if they can't bear to stop making it all about them. Not to mention blowhards who take every disgusted look and admonishment to quit being such an obnoxious asshole for two seconds as an assault on the right to free speech itself...

Gottfried's "mistake," if you want to call it that, was to tell his vile and timely jokes in a venue that he thought was as safe as a dinner party with a friend. Before posting, Gottfried must have thought, Who but a lover of daring comedy would follow me on Twitter? But he was wrong. The new rules have made everybody—including edgy comedians—accountable in the public sphere for the things they say "privately" in social media spaces.

JESUS CHRIST ALREADY; LESS TALK, MORE SELF-FUCKING. Are you for fucking real? What is this, 1994? People are still using this "Gosh, I had no idea that what I, a famous person, say on the Internet actually gets read by people all over the world!" excuse? There are no "new rules" in effect here -- just the same old sensibilities that look at the context of these lame jokes and see them as the response of a smug, pampered prick, far out of harm's way, taking the opportunity to needlessly mock people in their moment of crisis. Comedy often has a vicious streak, it's true, but usually when in the hands of otherwise powerless groups with no other means of attacking their social superiors. Using your privileged, safe position to piss all over someone in a weak, defenseless state isn't brave, no matter how you want to spin it. If you're okay with being the type of person that kicks others when they're down, well, then, by all means, joke away. But at least have the fucking guts to quit trying to pose as some sort of everyman's champion.

You yourself admitted that Aflac, out of basic P.R. considerations, had no choice but to cast off someone stupid enough to cause them so many problems. But other than that, what's the problem? He made his jokes, and millions of people called him a callous ghoul. Seems to me that free speech is still working just fine. What's that? Oh, your idea of the concept means that no one should ever have to face angry reactions for saying whatever they want? Come now, Jack, think about what you're saying! If it's that easy to be a cultural outlaw, wouldn't it remove all the derring-do and romance from it? Who ever said being a sacred clown was supposed to be risk-free?

Where I come from, the only power strong enough to defeat radiation is a sick, hurtful joke.

Blink. Blink. Well, I don't know about anyone else, but I certainly am laughing at the image of some hack writer fighting clouds of radioactive fallout from the safety of his office chair, faded bath towel safety-pinned around his neck, moving rubble, rescuing victims and racing against time to prevent nuclear meltdown with the power of his lulz. What was that again about not taking ourselves too seriously?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sitting Alone with a Book on My Own

Leon Neyfakh:

In a world gone wild for wikis and interdisciplinary collaboration, those who prefer solitude and private noodling are seen as eccentric at best and defective at worst, and are often presumed to be suffering from social anxiety, boredom, and alienation.

But an emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us — that certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around, and that even the most socially motivated among us should regularly be taking time to ourselves if we want to have fully developed personalities, and be capable of focus and creative thinking. There is even research to suggest that blocking off enough alone time is an important component of a well-functioning social life — that if we want to get the most out of the time we spend with people, we should make sure we’re spending enough of it away from them. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, solitude experts say, so can being alone.

Hey. HEY. HEY. Some of us don't want to be seen as normal. Some of us don't see solitude as akin to power naps, something to make our worker-drone lives even more productive. Some of us would like to preserve solitude as the domain of the eccentric, the socially anxious, and the slightly mad outcasts to keep it from becoming trendy and overrun by day-trippers and weekend warriors looking for an ultra-compact "40 days in the desert" experience that doesn't require turning off their cellphone. At any rate, this mountaintop is taken. Fuck off.

Monday, March 14, 2011

We Might Never Have Met

Chris Clarke:

There are a number of stories that include Coyote being killed, then jumping over his own corpse three times and rising again. This morning I imagined the coyote on Route 62 waiting impatiently for the traffic to subside so that he could do so without anyone watching. I know better. I’m an empirical materialist and I find immense solace in it. No meaning, no morals, the mere existence of unlikely consciousness in a physical universe a phenomenal stroke of luck that should awe each of us every moment for every moment of our participation in it. I don’t need pretend mythical Coyotes inhabiting my cerebellum. I know they don’t exist and I have chosen to populate my version of the world with them despite that fact.

Life is fragile. You and I are living lives just as precarious as those people who got swept away into the ocean last week. We just fool ourselves into believing otherwise.

But that's not a reason to live in fear. Life is a terminal disease. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said that life is like going out on a boat that heads off into the sea and then begins to sink. Yet somehow he managed to find a kind of joy and beauty in that. In fact, it is the precariousness of life that makes beauty and joy possible.

There are times, like last week, when it would possibly be consoling for me to believe in comforting stories about souls, teleology, benevolent destiny, and the like. Loss is much more crushing when you really allow it to be loss without seeking to cushion it with semantics. But by the same token, joys are that much more intense when you realize how precarious they are, how fortunate you are to have experienced them at all. I wouldn't trade this perspective for anything.

Oh, why not; let me quote from Sam Hamill's poem A Rose for Solitude again:

And if, as I pass,
I should look you in the eye,
do not be afraid: I want
only to glimpse the emptiness
at the center of your heart,
I want to reach for you
because I know,
as you do,
we might never have met.


Tauriq Moosa:

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are travelling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it ok for them to make love?

So what’s really clear, you can see it in the videotapes of the experiment, is: people give a reason. When that reason is stripped from them, they give another reason. When the new reason is stripped from them, they reach for another reason. And it’s only when they reach deep into their pocket for another reason, and come up empty-handed, that they enter the state we call “moral dumbfounding.” Because they fully expect to find reasons. They’re surprised when they don’t find reasons. And so in some of the videotapes you can see, they start laughing. But it’s not an “it’s so funny” laugh. It’s more of a nervous-embarrassment puzzled laugh. So it’s a cognitive state where you “know” that something is morally wrong, but you can’t find reasons to justify your belief. Instead of changing your mind about what’s wrong, you just say: “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. I just know it’s wrong.” So the fact that this state exists indicates that people hold beliefs separate from, or with no need of support from, the justifications that they give. Or another way of saying it is that the knowing that something is wrong and the explaining why are completely separate processes.

...The overarching thread that links bestiality and necrophilia and cannibalism – and all manner of repugnant cases – is that we must be consistent in our evaluation. And we need to apply our critical view even to cases we assume are a given: like murder. Being consistent shows that we do in fact have good reasons for applying the term murder to cases like Ted Bundy, but can’t apply that same term to doctors in Belgium. Unpacking our reasoning can help clarify views we find repugnant and not allow the repugnance to cloud our judgement and condemn unnecessarily those who do not deserve it.


Kathryn Lofton:

Assistant professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale, Lofton sees religious preaching methods in the way Oprah hosts her show, as well as a formulaic, sermon-like approach to every topic -- whether it's healing the wounds of sexual abuse or what new exfoliating cream you should buy. Oh Oprah, who art on television, tell us how to live a good life.

...There's a great book about Oprah by Eva Illouz, "Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery," and Illouz points out something that I dig into, and that is the strange way in which the extremity of human despair -- not merely estranged spouses, we're talking stories of people coming home and seeing that their spouse has murdered all their kids and then themselves -- are being dealt with in the same way as these topics that are seemingly shallow. Good glasses for a spring party, best new strategies for boyfriend wear. This exposure of human need at 4 p.m. on a weekday afternoon made me think, "What is this thing?"

When social conservatives talk about restoring the link between sex, monogamy and marriage, they often have these kinds of realities in mind. The point isn’t that we should aspire to some Arcadia of perfect chastity. Rather, it’s that a high sexual ideal can shape how quickly and casually people pair off, even when they aren’t living up to its exacting demands. The ultimate goal is a sexual culture that makes it easier for young people to achieve romantic happiness — by encouraging them to wait a little longer, choose more carefully and judge their sex lives against a strong moral standard.

If people know anything at all of Nietzsche, they probably know that he's the guy who said God is dead. Often, they read that statement as sounding a jubilant tone, but he was actually expressing trepidation. Are you fully aware of what you've lost? Do you recognize what a vacuum you've created, and do you have any idea how you're going to fill it?

Reading the above articles, the theme that caught my attention was something along those lines. What does it mean that our most wrenching grief and most personal problems have become public entertainment, presented on the same level as advertisements for deodorant and cell phone plans? What does it mean that sexuality is largely seen as just another lifestyle accoutrement of no great significance, as opposed to an exclusive symbol of deeper commitment and intimacy? How do we distinguish between the sublime and the mundane now?

I'm not interested in the particulars of either argument, especially in Douthat's case, disingenuous sumbitch that he often is. No, the takeaway for me is: What does it mean when things that used to be shared only with those closest to you, things that used to define a hierarchy of importance and meaning, are now in the public domain and ubiquitous? What changed? Have we lost anything, and if so, what did we replace it with?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Conversation and Distillation

Alain de Botton:

What explains such limitations? Why would one be unable to chat, as opposed to write, In Search of Lost Time? In part, because of the mind's functioning, its condition as an intermittent organ, forever liable to lose the thread or be distracted, generating vital thoughts only between stretches of inactivity or mediocrity, stretches in which we are not really "ourselves", during which it may be no exaggeration to say that we are not quite all there as we gaze at passing clouds with a vacant, childlike expression. Because the rhythm of a conversation makes no allowance for dead periods, because the presence of others calls for continuous responses, we are left to regret the inanity of what we have said, and the missed opportunity of what we have not.

By contrast, a book provides for a distillation of our sporadic mind, a record of its most vital manifestations, a concentration of inspired moments that might originally have arisen across a multitude of years and been separated by extended stretches of bovine gazes.

Furthermore, conversation allows us little room to revise our original utterances, which ill suits our tendency to not know what we are trying to say until we have had at least one go at saying it, whereas writing accommodates and is largely made up of rewriting, during which original thoughts—bare, inarticulate strands—are enriched or nuanced over time. They may thereby appear on a page according to the logic and aesthetic order they demand, as opposed to suffering the distortion effected by conversation, with its limits on the corrections or additions one can make before enraging even the most patient companion.


Richard Grant:

Then he dropped a bomb into my brain. "Many narcos are bisexual and they are my specialty, you might say. At a certain point in the night, with all the drinking and the cocaine, another side of them comes out. And they're risk-takers by nature. They don't expect to live long and they will try anything. You know how there is an active and passive position in homosexual intercourse? Well, the narcos are always passives. Always, always."

"How interesting. Why do you think that is?"

"I think it's the eroticism of the reversal for them. Normally they are the chingón, the one screwing over other people, the hombre muy macho, and it excites them to turn the whole thing around."

This was an unforeseen facet of Mexican machismo but in general I was growing very tired of it. At first it seemed amusing and outlandish, the way they growled and swaggered and cursed and talked about their testicles and each other's mothers all the time. Nowhere in the world had I encountered men more fixated on either subject. The bus driver between Creel and Batopilas, I remember, had a separate wife and family at both ends of his route and a withered bull's scrotum hanging from his rearview mirror, which he would stroke for luck before swinging the bus around the next hairpin curve.

Then it got wearying, the constant crude sexual bantering and self-aggrandizement of the macho, his contempt for women, his bristling pride and enjoyment of violence, his needless cruelty to dogs and horses and livestock.

...Most long journeys have their sour, depressive times and mine arrived with a vengeance in Baborigame. I was tired and run down and my body ached all over from being rattled and jolted. The constant breaking down of the Suburban wasn't helping but what I really lost tolerance for, as I chauffeured Isidro on his rounds, met his friends, and dodged his enemies, was Mexican machismo. I came to hate it with as much venom as the most strident lesbian feminist. It was the root of the worst evil in Mexico, I decided, the real reason why men killed each other and raped women in such horrifying numbers. Not that those numbers are available. According to Mary Jordan of the Washington Post, fewer than 1 percent of rapes are reported in Mexico, because it is not treated seriously as a crime and because rape victims who do go to the police are usually mocked and blamed for inviting the crime, and are sometimes raped by the police, who get aroused hearing the victim's story. In the Sierra Madre the practice known as rapato, where a man kidnaps a girl and forces her to marry him, is still commonplace. Raping an underage girl is not against the law in many Mexican states if the rapist marries her.

..."In a world of chingónes..." wrote Octavio Paz, "ruled by violence and suspicion—a world in which no one opens out or surrenders himself—ideas and accomplishment count for little. The only thing of value is manliness, personal strength, a capacity for imposing oneself on others."

...There speaks the true macho. How dare she sleep with another man before she met me? The man must be humiliated and the woman deserves to die for such an affront to my masculinity.

Machismo came to Mexico from Spain, a Spain that had been under heavy Moorish or Arab influence for seven centuries when Columbus set sail. This is not to say that Native American societies weren't patriarchal or oppressive toward women, but the men weren't macho in the Spanish way. Spaniards, like Arabs, believed that women were inferior wanton creatures whose sexuality needed to be strictly controlled and firmly dominated, and that women from other cultures were fair game for rape. Octavio Paz in his analysis of Mexican machismo points to the old Spanish saying, "A woman's place is in the home, with a broken leg," and identifies the conquistador as the model for the Mexican macho, the original chingón, the hard isolate killer who raped and seized Indian women and so brought the mestizo Mexican race into being... If you looked at it in this light, disapproving of Mexican machismo was like disapproving of weather or plate tectonics. But I couldn't help feeling outraged that the punishment for stealing a cow was more serious than the punishment for rape in most of Mexico. I still recoiled at the idea of a raped teenage girl being forced to marry her rapist, like Chana in Babarigame and thousands of others every year. I still thought it was indefensible that so many unfaithful husbands and boyfriends thought women should be beaten or killed for infidelity. It was pointless to make these judgments. It was none of my business. But I couldn't help making them.

In a Nutshell


After a 130 thousand years of all human beings living in the south of Africa, some few were pressured by food shortage to head north into Europe. Far from the equatorial sun, the palest of them survived best because only their skin let in enough ultraviolet to make Vitamin D. After a long time of not much, they found that their land held the largest deposits of iron on the planet. This iron made them very powerful. It made for plows, swords, armor, and later, guns. That happened in the past 10 thousand years.

Only a few hundred years ago, the pale ones “discovered” the continent they had left ages ago. In Europe they were used to fighting each other for land, metal, money, and workers, and here they found these goods undefended by swords, guns, or horsemen. The people they found had very different markers of culture, such that each seemed uncultured to the other. The pale ones wanted to steal the land, metal, money, and workers and not much was stopping them beyond morality. They got past the morality by using their own pale skin as a marker for quality, which they backed up by lamenting the absence of salad forks on the African continent, and then they stole everything they wanted. They treated the human beings there as animals.

For a quick response written in the small hours, that's not too bad a synopsis of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, come to think of it.


"What's your favorite color?"

Such an easy question, wouldn't you think?

That was my mom asking, though, and given the context, I had a feeling she was aiming to get me a gift, most likely clothing. Gods, please, no. Not that again. Not a godawful honkin' bright purple shirt that will never get worn, even out of pity and obligation, even while lounging around the house. How do I answer? Let's go full-on philosophical. Split every hair in sight.

"It depends. What are we talking about?"

"Huh? Just... your favorite color, that's all!"

"But it depends. Do you mean like pure, abstract, contemplation of color for its own sake? Then I like purples and blues. If you're talking about clothing, I like faded, worn colors -- whites, greys, blacks, olive drabs; nothing bright. If you're talking about painting my living room for me, I like soft, warm colors, anything from yellows to browns to greens. If you mean when it comes to vehicles, I like that grey-green color that I've seen on some Toyota trucks. If you mean hair, almost anything goes. If this is about flowers, the brighter and more varied, the better. So, again, what are we talking about?"

She made an exasperated noise and went back to what she was doing.

I don't try to make people's lives difficult, I really don't. I just can't play along with questions that demand a one-size-fits-all answer.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Let It Shatter Your Heart and Then Move On, Move On

Joyce Carol Oates:

Profound losses leave us paralyzed and mute, unable really to comprehend them, still less to speak coherently about them. Yet, eventually, we do speak — we breathe, we sleep, we eat, we go for walks in the sun, we find ourselves laughing with our friends — we marry again (as I have), to our astonishment — as we lose the white-hot flame of the most intransigent grief, and pass into another, less desperate sort of being.

Intellectually, I know it's true, but it takes so long to feel true. And sometimes, in the worst episodes of grieving, I find myself wishing for that white-hot flame to just completely incinerate me, because nothing else will suffice to express the loss. Surviving certain things seems to make a mockery of them, seems like an insult to their memory.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

As Lookers-On Feel Most Delight that Least Perceive a Juggler's Sleight

Fear has promoted knowledge of men more than love has, for fear wants to divine who the other is, what he can do, what he wants: to deceive oneself in this would be disadvantageous and dangerous. On the other hand, love contains a secret impulse to see as much beauty as possible in the other or to elevate him as high as possible: to deceive oneself here would be a joy and an advantage – and so one does so.

- Nietzsche

I thought of that while reading this from Ed Yong:

Whether it’s a drug-addled actor or an almost-toppled dictator, some people seem to have an endless capacity for rationalising what they did, no matter how questionable. We might imagine that these people really know that they're deceiving themselves, and that their words are mere bravado. But Zoe Chance from Harvard Business School thinks otherwise.

Using experiments where people could cheat on a test, Chance has found that cheaters not only deceive themselves, but are largely oblivious to their own lies. Their ruse is so potent that they'll continue to overestimate their abilities in the future, even if they suffer for it. Cheaters continue to prosper in their own heads, even if they fail in reality.

She showed that even though people know that they occasionally behave dishonestly, they don't know that they can convincingly lie to themselves to gloss over these misdeeds. Their scam is so convincing that they don't know that they’re doing it. As she writes, "Our findings show that people not only fail to judge themselves harshly for unethical behaviour, but can even use the positive results of such behaviour to see themselves as better than ever."

I like to think of myself as a mostly honest person, to the extent that I would often rather face unpleasant situations than weave a tangled web of deceit to avoid them. But that's just it; it has just as much to do with the fact that I really prefer my life to be as straightforward and uncomplicated as possible as it does any noble idealism. If I didn't feel overwhelmed and scattered by having too much to focus on, perhaps I'd get a kick out of lying just to amuse myself with my own cleverness. Of course I've lied my ass off in various circumstances, and will probably do so again. But it just so happens that I find it too taxing to have to keep various falsehoods straight in my own head, so I generally prefer to just be up front and deal with whatever results.

In the same way, then, the most efficient and effective liars will be the ones who can mostly convince themselves of their story, enough to not get tripped up by a nervous conscience.

As biological beings who mainly need to feast and fuck (and possibly fight) above all else, it really doesn't matter if we know ourselves. Plenty of unreflective people do just fine in life when it comes to food and sex and driving off enemies. In fact, you could argue that the examined life, while a goal I personally endorse, can be an onerous burden to impose on oneself for what can often appear to be a negligible payoff. What really matters with regards to advantageousness is how others perceive us, how well we can manipulate them to get what we want and need from them. And sometimes, it might be much more to our advantage to be misleading here, especially if we're so smooth about it we don't even consciously notice it anymore.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Not a Prisoner, I'm a Free Man

How about some more Owen Flanagan?

To decide whether the scientific image spells death for free will, we need to know what conception of free will is being discussed. There are two main conceptions of free will. One is the libertarian view, which is relatively new and Western. The other is older and can be found in ancient Greek and Eastern texts (I see it in Confucius, Buddha, Aristotle). The first conception cannot be fused with the scientific image; the latter conception can. So let it return.

The view that won't work is stated by Descartes this way: "[T]he will is so free in its nature, that it can never be constrained....And the whole action of the soul consists in this, that solely because it desires something, it causes a little gland to which it is closely united to move in a way requisite to produce the effect which relates to this desire."

...No one has ever explained how any animal, or any natural being, could possess a part—an extremely important part, "the will"—that is not subject to causal principles but nonetheless produces astounding effects.

...We can make peace between the scientific and manifest images in the following way: Accept that (as best we can tell) everything that happens has a set of causes that make it as it is; then proceed to distinguish the voluntary and involuntary, the free and the unfree, in terms of the kinds of causation or causes that distinguish them.

Aristotle championed the voluntary-involuntary distinction long before there was a conflict between the Cartesian image of mind and agency and the scientific image. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle drew the involuntary-voluntary distinction this way: "What is involuntary is what is forced or is caused by ignorance. What is voluntary seems to be what has its origins in the agent himself when he knows the particulars that the action consists in." What Aristotle had in mind was something like this: An action is involuntary if it results from some sort of compulsion against which effort and thinking are impotent, or if the agent in no way knows or grasps what he is doing.

Voluntary action involves the agent's knowing what action he is performing, and acting from reasons and desires that are his own. How is this possible? It is possible if I am conscious and if my consciousness has some causal efficacy. And it does. Mother Nature put me in conscious touch with some of my most salient desires, hopes and expectations. When I see what I want and/or need and judge it to be choiceworthy, I adjust some circuitry (thanks to how I am designed, what I have learned, etc.) to do what gets me what I want. These actions are voluntary. We call actions "voluntary" when we think about means and ends and act in accordance with our thinking (or could have).

...[Dewey's] answer was that the myth of a completely self-initiating ego, an unmoved but self-moving will, was simply a fiction motivated by our ignorance of the causes of human behavior. He saw no need for the notion of a metaphysically unrestrained will or of an independent ego as a prime mover itself unmoved in order to have a robust conception of free agency. For there to be agency, we need the person (or the ego) as a cause, possibly even the proximate cause of what we do. But the person (or the ego) may serve as the proximate cause of action and still himself be part of the causal nexus. Indeed, a person, in virtue of being a natural creature (an animal), must be part of the causal nexus.

...Spinoza diagnosed the source of the libertarian illusion this way: "Men believe that they are free, precisely because they are conscious of their volitions and desires; yet concerning the causes that have determined them to desire and will they have not the faintest idea, because they are ignorant of them."

Saturday, March 05, 2011

All the New Rage Against the Machine

I haven't paid much attention to the uprisings in Africa and the Middle East so far, and when I have tried to read about it, I find it difficult to keep my eyes focused on the page instead of rolling around in their sockets, given how many people only want to talk about social media's supposed role in all this. When I kept seeing the story pop up about the Egyptian guy who named his newborn child "Facebook", I pretty much threw my hands up in defeat and went back to more interesting things.

But Evgeny Morozov earned my appreciation with his dissenting voice against the ubiquitous Nicholas Carr-worship last year, and now he's done it again with a new book that Ima hafta read:

Social networking mattered in Egypt, but the root causes of the uprising were scarcity, official corruption and social conflict, none of which fit the cyber-utopian narrative or flatter America’s technological vanity.

...The unfortunate propensity to log on to the web and pronounce it a global revolution in the offing is what Morozov dubs "the Google Doctrine"—the overconfident conviction, inherited from the West’s cold war propaganda, that the simple transmission of information beyond the reach of state-sanctioned channels has the power to topple authoritarian regimes. But just as the Eastern bloc’s downfall had far more to do with the internal stresses besieging the dying Soviet order, so does the Google Doctrine paper over a vast nexus of real-world causation in global affairs.

...It has never been the case that authoritarians are allergic to information technologies. Quite the contrary: as pioneers in the production of mass propaganda, they love mass media, and maintain an intense interest in later-generation digital technologies such as GPS and Twitter location that permit them to plot the real-time whereabouts of online dissidents. Yet one never encounters these uses of digital technologies in Shirky-style broadsides on cyber-liberation; in them, digital technology by definition unleashes and pools human creativity and generosity, because that’s what we Western progenitors of these technologies like to imagine them doing.

..."While many in the West concede that the Internet has not solved and may have only aggravated many negative aspects of political culture," as is the case with James O’Keefe’s gotcha YouTube videos, "they are the first to proclaim that when it comes to authoritarian states, the Internet enables their citizens to see through the propaganda. Why so many of their own fellow citizens—living in a free country with no controls on freedom of expression—still believe extremely simplistic and misleading narratives when all the facts are just a Google search away is a question that Western observers should be asking more often."

Friday, March 04, 2011

For Loan Oft Loses both Itself and Friend

Victor Lavalle:

I shut the book. “Can I borrow this?”

She smiled and put her hand on my shoulder—so nice!—and said, “No.”

I almost dropped the book. It bobbled between my hands so she grabbed it from me and slipped it back onto the shelf, right where it had been before.

“I don’t lend my books out,” she said. “I can’t. They always used to come back, if they came back, with stains or bent pages, or even someone’s little ink stains in the margins! I decided, years ago, that I would never let them out of my sight again. I’m sorry.”

Poof, that was it. She left for the kitchen or the front door or the moon. And I stood there for minutes. Actual minutes. Waiting for her to return, laugh, slip the book off the shelf and hand it to me. But she never did. My disappointment burned my face, like shame, but it wasn’t just the rejection. I was also stunned that this person I liked, and respected as a writer, would treat her books this way. As if the objects themselves were, somehow, as valuable as the words and ideas they contained.

My philosophy professor once told us that when asked, she tells friends that she won't loan them anything, but if she can afford to give it without needing it back, she will. I always thought that was a good idea. Too many times, you get annoyed at your friend's inability to return things within a reasonable amount of time, or at their carelessness with the object, and they in turn start to avoid you out of guilt, and maybe even start to resent you over their own nagging conscience. I'd rather spend a few dollars buying another used copy of the book, either for myself or as a gift to them, than to go through all that drama.

To me, though, being lent a book is no meaningless gesture. This shit matters. Someone enjoyed this book and has attempted to forge some sort of connection with me through it, hoping that I'll derive a similar pleasure from it. I'm currently awaiting a book in the mail from a friend who insisted on sharing her personal copy with me as a gift. What greater honor for a bibliophile could there possibly be? As important as books were to me growing up, as vital to my identity as they were, it's impossible for me to not see the act itself as weighted with major significance. Books are repositories of meaning in more ways than one.

Most of the books on your bookshelves might be beautifully designed, and not exactly cheap, but they’re no more divine than a toaster. They are mass-produced items, sold in (occasionally) mass quantities. So what, exactly, makes them so dear?

It’s not the book, but the idea of the book. Some man or woman spent weeks or months or years or a lifetime bleeding on the page! Now you hold that essence in your hands! And other melodramatic nonsense. It all strikes me as a pretty Old Testament way of thinking. Treating a book like a pair of stone tablets. A series of commandments, inviolable, handed down by a deity.

Point taken that it's really the ideas contained in the books that ultimately matter. However, allow me to suggest an alternate reason for valuing the books themselves: for ordinary people like me, these are my artworks. These are what I have throughout my house to make it look interesting. I don't collect things like paintings, antiques, and exquisite furniture, and couldn't really afford to anyway. Three-quarters of what little I do own along those lines was given to me by someone else. Hand-me-down furniture and a few cheap art prints in even cheaper frames are all I have to show anyone who visits... unless you count the huge wrought-iron CD rack (maybe around 700 discs) and the dozen or so bookcases scattered through every room (1,216 books as of this writing). They bring color and a pleasing sense of symmetry to the room (yes, I'm the type of person who meticulously arranges the books on the shelves from tallest on the ends to shortest in the middle). Two of the bookcases themselves are actually beautifully handmade (given as gifts). That other stuff is just a collection of useful objects. This is where all the meaning resides in my house. I'm baffled by people who would look at all that and see merely wasted space or senseless fetishism.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Art of Time and Place

From Umberto Eco's On Ugliness:

But Lessing's idea was to attribute the difference between the poetic rendition and the sculptural one to the fact that poetry, the art of time, describes an action, in the course of which one can evoke repugnant events without making them unbearably evident, while sculpture (like painting, the art of space) can only portray an instant, and in fixing it could not show a disgustingly distorted face because the disfiguring violence of physical pain would not be reconcilable with the beauty of the portrayal.

I don't have anything profound to say about that. It just made me think of poetry and music as the arts of time, and sculpture, painting and photography as the arts of place, which for some reason struck me as a fascinating way to start considering them. Shrug.

Blinding Me with Science

The Internet sure hasn't been providing me with much stimulation lately. But fortunately, I have read a book or three in my day, so I can always dredge up one interesting passage or another for your entertainment and illumination. Here's one from Owen Flanagan:

The claim that science can, in principle, explain everything we think, say and do—that it can, in principle, provide a causal account of human being (a causal account of Dasein)—should be distinguished from the claim that everything can be expressed scientifically. Consider art and music. It is patently crazy to say that the works of Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Mozart, Chopin, Schönberg, Ellington, Coltrane, Dylan or Nirvana could be expressed scientifically. Assuming something like the best-case scenario for science, we might want to say that artistic and musical productions can be analyzed in terms of their physical manifestations—painting in terms of chemistry and geometry, and music in terms of sound waves and mathematical relationships.

Furthermore, some very complex combination of the culture, individual life, and the brain of the artist might allow for something like an explanation sketch of why that artist produced the works he or she did. Kay Redfield Jamison has done some very interesting work on the high incidence of bipolar disorder among great nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets and musicians. Such work might lead us to understand more deeply what ordinary and creative imagination consist in. But such work does not replace or reveal what Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, or Seamus Heaney says, means or does in the language of poetry.

There is nothing remotely odd about these kinds of scientific investigation of art or music, or of the creative process itself. But although such inquiry takes artistic or musical production as something to be explained, it does not take the production itself as expressing something that can be explained scientifically. The claim that not everything can be explained scientifically is not a claim that art, music, poetry, literature, and religious experiences cannot in principle be accounted for scientifically, or that those productions involve magical or mysterious powers. Whatever they express, it is something perfectly human, but the appropriate idiom of expression is not a scientific one. The scientific idiom requires words and, often, mathematical formulas. Painting, sculpture and music require neither. Indeed, they cannot in principle express what they express in words or mathematical formulas. Therefore, whatever they express is not expressible scientifically. To be sure, poetry, literature and music use words. But their idiom is not a scientific one. And the reason is doubly principled: Many of the relations explored are not explored causally (the relation in which science excels). A good love song can make you feel love, but it never does so by getting into the "pheromonics" and the neurobiology of love. The arts work our imaginations with all the playful tricks of language, allegory, metaphor and metonymy that science, for its purposes, doesn't much care for.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Art of Happiness

Josh Rothman:

And the truth about happiness, as Bruckner sees it, is that it's rarely very effectively pursued. Happiness is really about luck and grace; you can be thankful for happiness, but you can't manufacture it. In fact, thinking of being happy as the sole aim of life makes happiness less meaningful. "Now that it has become the only horizon of our democratic societies," Bruckner writes, happiness, "being connected with work, will, and effort... is necessarily a source of anguish." We work at being happy - and, in working at it, rob ourselves of everything spontaneous and really joyful about happiness.

...In fact, many unhappy people lead very valuable lives, and assiduously cultivated happiness is sometimes not particularly valuable. Bruckner's argument, like his prose, is necessarily over the top, because it has to swim upstream against the unceasing current of books and articles about how we can and must be happier. It boils down, though, to a simple and valuable idea. Suffering is a natural part of life; it counts as living, too.

Nietzsche fan that I am, I of course have an appreciation for the power and importance of the irrational, frightening and unpleasant aspects of existence. You don't have to romanticize sadness and suffering, though, in order to recognize that we do tend to have an unhealthy fixation on the idea that life should be a linear path of endless improvement. There must be some ebb for there to be any flow. (I think that was Lao Tzu. Or maybe The Sphinx.)

Anyway. There's a certain type of happiness that comes from comfort and predictability; maybe we can call that contentedness. But there's also a type that depends on novelty, a fresh feeling of surprise that invigorates us and makes everything old seem new again. Sometimes a novel experience can deepen into a contented one, but sometimes people can become addicted to the high of novelty, fixating on the object that initially provides it, only to cast it aside when the thrill wears off. The line between yearning and regretting is so ultra-thin, it seems; we're either slightly unhappy because we don't have something we think we want, or we're slightly disappointed because it didn't turn out to be as potent or lasting as we hoped it would. I don't know if it's even possible to perfectly balance on that line.

A perceptive friend once noted to me that so often, we become attached to objects, people, and experiences, forgetting that we don't necessarily want them, we want the way they make (or made) us feel. In our complacency, we expect happiness to come from them, but much of our happiness is in what we bring to them.

One of the functions of art is to take aspects of life that we ordinarily overlook or dismiss and delineate them in such a way as to draw out their beauty and significance. If we can train ourselves to become artists in our own lives, to approach our everyday existence with an eye for finding beauty and joy in the most routine settings, we might find that the effort itself uncovers a lot of happiness we never even knew was there.