Overweening Generalist

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Books, Reading, Memory

When Timothy Leary first began to be hounded for his advocation of "internal freedom" he was asked about the dangers of hallucinogenic drugs for some young people, and don't you think we should keep them from such drugs?

Leary, playing out (basically) the same cultural script Giordano Bruno played in the late 16th century and Socrates twenty centuries before Bruno said yes, we should keep kids from finding out about their own nervous systems. And furthermore, close all the libraries! Because books have caused far more damage than drugs! Look at the crazy - even murderous - things done in the name of some ideas someone read in a book! Aye, Leary was flippant. But isn't there a kernel of truth there? Or more than a kernel?

I say yes! To the unprepared mind, or the mentally unbalanced, books are freakin' dangerous things! And I call History to the stand as my first witness!

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While openly admitting my life of inveterate-unto-stupefying reading has produced quasi-psychedelic moments, I think on the whole my reading has lead me to understand the "Lotus Eaters" section of Homer's The Odyssey quite deeply. Because books are more opioid (or narcotic?) for me than any other drug. Marshall McLuhan ingeniously wrote about different media as distinct environments. The fact that I was holding a "book" and decoding 26 letters in their combinations as "words," with adjunct punctuations, eyes moving left to right, left to right, decoding and visualizing, decoding and left to right, silent subvocalizations as I read, an abecedarian heretic of the worst sort, left to right, left to right, decoding and glossing abstract printed letters, words, left to right, left to right (psst! you're doing it right now!!!)....THAT was an "environment!" THAT was "the message." The "content" of the book was minor, compared to the historical fact of me (and you) doing those mental gymnastics that were now second nature to us.

And millions of people doing that since Gutenberg? The fallout was tremendous, and not entirely healthy. (Wanna blow your mind? Check out McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy. There you'll be, sitting quietly reading McLuhan's incredibly abstracted-from-actual-experience 26 letters plus peripheral marks and he'll be telling you what that very thing did to the Mind of Europe, over a period of 400 years. You gotta hand it to Irony. She gets the upper hand in the gol-derndest ways.) 

McLuhan once wrote about the environment of the morning newspaper. I'll never forget it: the newspaper was an avant-garde collage! The way it absurdly juxtaposed stories of war and bankruptcy with an ad for an elegant lady's evening dress and dimestore baldness cures. And yet, Daddy got into it like he got into his warm bath...Actually, that's a lot like what books were/are for me: opiate, but my mind is buzzing, alive. My interiority is jumpin'. I want to be enchanted, even by some book on semiotics, or a few pages of Hegel, or even a history of mathematics. Fiction? That's mainlining the good stuff. This enchantment is like a return to the opiate amniotic fluid-existence, and I'm safe and warm...But enough about me. Tell me a bit about yourself?

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The older I get the more I find I'm perturbed by how much I've read that I know I've read, and some of it made a major emotional impression upon me, but I can't tell you the title sometimes. Oh, it'll come to me in a minute. What were the main ideas? What was that guy's name? Well, it was mostly about how we respond emotionally to philosophical...no, that's not it: it was how I responded to it. But I wish I could tell you more. 

And yet I go on and on about books and ideas and a friend will say, "How can you remember so much of what you read?" I have no idea. It seems like the more I've read the dumber I've gotten! It seems like....no, I think it "is" true: the more I read the more I realize how ignorant I am! 

I never thought it would be that way when I was a kid. 

Noam Chomsky cheered me when I read an interview with him once. He said that when he was a kid he remembered...Oh wait I'll go find it in my stacks...

Ah, here it is:

James Peck: You once said, "It is not unlikely that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called 'the full human person' than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do."

Chomsky: That's perfectly true and I believe that. I would go on to say it's not only not unlikely, but it's almost certain. But still, if I want to understand, let's say, the nature of China and its revolution, I ought to be cautious about literary renditions. Look, there's no question  that as a child, when I read about China, this influenced my attitudes - Rickshaw Boy, for example. That had a powerful effect when I read it. It was so long ago I don't remember a thing about it, except the impact. (The Chomsky Reader, p.4)

This was Plato's big attack on this hot new medium of writing. It would degrade the old, pure medium: speech and memory. And we would lose our grip on the Real. Speech would become coarse, people would go out in the Agora and spout out things they had READ! (Television, anyone?) And I have a lot of problems with Plato, especially his proto-fascist utopian State, The RepublicBut he may have had a point about that, like, ya know? That writing thing. Or did he have a good point? And what really was that point? Because, ya know...I forget.

Soooo...what have you been readin'? Anything good?

1 comment:

Eric Wagner said...

Eric Wagner here. I enjoyed this piece. I work as a high school and community college teacher, teaching English, music history, film history, humanities, and psychology this year. I just finished reading James Joyce A - Z, and I hope to finish rereading Ulysses tomorrow. You and I and some others have a Pale Fire reading group going on right now, and find myself teaching Dante and reading three different translations these days. I have also begun teaching and rereading Leave It to Psmith by Wodehouse, which I love. I have tried a lot of different novels in my community college literature class, but I suspect I will stick with the Wodehouse until I retire in fifteen years or so.