The Overweening Generalist is largely about people who like to read fat, weighty "difficult" books - or thin, profound ones - and how I/They/We stand in relation to the hyper-acceleration of digital social-media-tized culture. It is not a neo-Luddite attack on digital media; it is an attempt to negotiate with it, and to subtly make claims for the role of generalist intellectual types in the scheme of things.
Nice of you all to show up. It's good to see you. You look great. Now, I can see you all have much better things to do, so I'll try not to waste your time. Please take your seat and we can begin. Does anyone want any gum?
As a kid, I "invented"the idea that, after we die, we "come back" as some other living thing. I told a relative my great idea and she said "That's called reincarnation." Damn! I thought I was on to something good at 11 years old.
I also invented the idea, around the same age, that, contrary to our idea that history goes in one direction, history and time go around in a circle. At some point, everything will die, then evolve back over billions of years to me, sitting in my living room, during a hot summer in the San Gabriel Valley. I don't recall telling anyone about this invention. But I do remember the feeling I had when I read that the ancient Hindus and Egyptians and some guy named Nietzsche thought something like the same thing, long before me. Jesus H. Particular Christ on a pogo stick! Was there anything that hadn't already been thought of before me?
The idea of cyclical time still intrigues me. Nietzsche seems to think (but we never know when he's joking!), based on passages in The Gay Science and Thus Spake Zarathustra, that you will be reading this Overweening guy's blog, sitting right where you are, with the same clothes on and everything! - in some unfathomably long time from now. Clearly he's trying to blow our minds, this Fred N. But in the extended contemplation and meditations upon infinitude, this all begins to seem - somehow - plausible. But we won't know we'd been "here before"! I don't believe this idea, but I like it. It's an artist's idea, and that's how I take it, for the most part. Esthetic ideas like this add inestimable value to my life...
With Eternal Recurrence, we have infinite time, which equals infinite space. Given that our universe will theoretically become so dispersed that energy will be so thinned out that nothing living can cohere anywhere - the Heat Death of our universe - tends to put a crimp in Eternal Recurrence's style.
Besides: if we have infinite space, why are real estate prices so high? (And why do we seem to automatically accept that someone can "own" the land? But I digress, and parenthetically, too.)
However: more and more cosmologists and astrophysicists think it plausible that our universe is just one in literally trillions of others: the Multiverse. And the laws of physics can vary from universe to universe. But there are so very many possible universes that it seems not too far-fetched that another "you" may be going about your business Somewhere Else, right now. If so, what does "time" really mean?
I know, I know: you'll still get yelled at if you're late for the meeting tomorrow. I don't want to take up too much of your time.
Dang! Will you look at the time!?
For those of you who have a beef with the oppressiveness of "time," please seek out Jorge Luis Borges's short (five pages or so) essay "A New Refutation of Time," which I found in his Selected Non-Fictions. When you've read it, report back here on your findings! Borges pretty much agrees with William James, who said that, for himself, the great problems of philosophy are time, the reality of the external world, and understanding.
In physicist David Bohm's interpretation of quantum reality, there is an Implicate Order underlying our world of fundamental indeterminacy. The Implicate Order gives rise to time and space; they are mere epiphenomena, or something like the foam on top of waves you see when you look at the ocean. Think of what's driving the foamy waves. Think of what's "underneath" the waves. It's the Implicate Order.
When I said I thought Nietzsche was thinking like an artist, I meant it as a compliment. Same thing goes for hardcore physicist Bohm here: he's a far greater artist than he probably ever realized.
I leave us - jeez, the traffic is going to be miserable getting out of here, just take deep breaths, hum a merry tune and you'll be home in no time - uhh...what was I saying? Oh yea: Professor George Carlin questioned the reality of time once...see here...ah! Here it is. If you'll open your copies of Napalm and Silly Putty to page 163, and read along with me:
"Sometimes, in a playful mood, when asked if I have the time, I'll say, 'Yes,' and simply walk away. I do that because I hate to disappoint people. You see, there is no time. There's just no time. I don't mean, 'We're late, there's no time.' I mean, there is no time.
"After all, when is it? Do you know? No one really knows when it is. We made the whole thing up. It's a human invention. There are no numbers in the sky. Believe me, I've looked; they're not there. We made the whole thing up.
"So, when are we? Sometimes we think we know where we are, but we really don't know when we are. For all we know, it could be the middle of last week.
"And the time zones are no help; they're all different. In fact, in parts of India the time zones actually operate on the half hour instead of the hour. What is that all about? Does anybody really know what time it is?
"And never mind a piddly little half-hour difference in India, how about thousands of years? The major calendars disagree by thousands of years. To the Chinese, this is 4699; the Hebrews think it's 5762; the Muslims swear it's 1422. No telling what the Mayans and Aztecs would say if they were still around. I guess their time ran out."
Oh wow! Look at the time! I need to get into the surf on time, like the Beach Boys. Hasta luego!
Writing about time travel in a whimsical fashion yesterday, I found myself daydreaming about "time" today; some of it was not daydream-like, though. Rather: intrusive thoughts on the weirdness of being caught in a system of seeming cause-effect/one thing follows another and so we have "time." And how many of my favorite writers and thinkers have sought to escape from "time" or to brilliantly recontextualize it so that we may incorporate some newness into our cognitions about "time."
1.) "Time is money." We hear this far too often. In the extremely fascinating book Metaphors We Live By, from George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, they note how there's a semantic unconsciousness in modern Western culture about the metaphorical aspect of "time" in our everyday lives. We all have goals, aspirations, desires. We also know there is some sort of upper limit that circumscribes when all that ends, presumably in death. Therefore, "time" is valuable in our culture. If time is money, then smaller chunks of time must come at some expense, and indeed, look at your phone bill. If time is money, then we can "save" time, and "spend" time. And indeed, we all say this stuff. But "time" does not = money. It's a metaphor! Its ubiquity in our everyday phrasing and thinking strongly suggests that time is a valuable commodity to us. The authors give many examples to ponder: "You're wasting my time." "This gadget will save you hours." "I've invested a lot of time in her." "Do you have much time left?" "You don't use your time profitably." "Thank you for your time."
One of my favorite poets, Ed Sanders, writes in his book 1968: Why not waste time for is not time itself the biggest waster of them all?
2.) I love David Lynch's films. In one I've seen about nine times, Lost Highway, which Lynch co-wrote with the novelist Barry Gifford, there is a scene very early on in this (quite bizarre/surrealistic) film in which a husband and wife have called Los Angeles police detectives to their house to discuss eerie video recordings of themselves, in their own house, and they have no way to explain them, because they did not record themselves. Someone is leaving on their front steps an envelope with a videocassette of Fred and Renee on it. Could a burglar be doing it? Who knows? It's very disturbing stuff, it doesn't make much sense, and the cops ask the couple a series of questions, and this brief sequence always gets me:
Detective named Al, addressing his question to the wife, named Renee: Do you own a video camera?
Renee: No. Fred hates them.
[Both detectives look at Fred]
Fred: I...like to remember things my own way.
Al: What do you mean by that?
Fred: How I remember them. Not necessarily the way they happened.
Fred (played by Bill Pullman), seems almost apologetic in giving this admission. He's an avant-garde jazz saxophonist, so we know he's an artiste who's pretty out-there, but he also seems "normal" enough to us. And the first time I saw this film I noted this odd bit of dialogue, which suggests Lynch himself. And I am also that way, in many ways. I've given a transcription of the dialogue, because I once wrote it down on a note card. So I am not remembering those lines the way "I remembered them," but in our everyday lives, most of us operate by default in a way that has us remembering things in the way we need, or want, or are merely able to store them. But how many of us actively seek to remember things the way we remember them, and "not necessarily the way they happened"?
Furthermore, research shows that memories shift imperceptibly over time. Our memories are incredibly fallible! ("But your honor! I am an eyewitness!!! I saw it with my own two eyes!" Yea, yea, yea...) But few of us are aware of it. I think that consciously saying, "I want to remember it my own way," is both liberating and true to neurobiological "facts." It also acknowledges the difference between our memories and the way others might remember an event, and besides, it's sorta trippy.
I will only address my best understanding of the issue of Recovered Memory Therapy if anyone requests it. If you're interested, I consider Elizabeth Loftus the go-to gal here...
3.) In Mary Roach's hilarious study of sex, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, she notes studies that show the brain has an altered sense of "time" in the discrete state of orgasm. It's as if there is some "lost time." And I think all sorts of non-ordinary and ecstatic states invite warped senses of time, because we are usually in our ordinary time, embodied beings with all kinds of biological "clocks" that are unconscious but govern sleeping/waking, digestion, alertness, blood sugar levels that need to be attended to, etc. An unseasonable truth is that, let's face it: much of our waking lives is fairly robotic. The quest is to have less robotic time and more non-ordinary time.
So when we're doing something we enjoy for intrinsic reasons - gardening, knitting, playing a musical instrument, reading, riding a bicycle, listening to music, watching movies, etc: time seems to "flow," and we lose "track" of time. When we're "in" (which suggests space) the new state we must re-orient ourselves. Orient means a certain direction, which also addresses time's other aspect of space. (And space's other aspect is time, of course.) And this altered experience of "time" is almost always related to enjoyment. So: do as much of those things that allow you to "flow" and get outside your "normal" time!
4.) Ezra Pound would be one of those writers (among many) that I love who seem to see "time" as an obstacle, and sought to remake perception of time into something more suitable to a poetic vision both for himself and his readers. Pound scholar Peter Makin notes that Daniel Perelman's 1969 book Barb of Time has remained influential in "arguing that The Cantos set up a duality of mechanical time and of escape from that into a mystical timelessness." In Canto LXXIV:
Time is not, Time is the evil, beloved
In Canto CXV, near the end of Pound's life, when he feels he has hurt everyone he loved with his stupid antisemitism:
When one's friends hate each other how can there be peace in the world? Their asperities diverted me in my green time. A blown husk that is finished but the light sings eternal a pale flare over marshes where the salt hay whispers to tide's change
Time, space, neither life nor death is the answer.
When the younger poet Donald Hall was hanging out with the 75 year old Pound, he told Hall, "All the time - I feel the hands of the clock - moving." And this was in a time of Pound's life when he rarely spoke...Pound's ideogrammic method is a way of retrieving things that are separate in ordinary, chronological time, and rearranging them so that they are brought together in the mind's sense of appropriate juxtapositions. I like this passage from Pound scholar Guy Davenport, on Pound's sense of time:
"To have closed the gap between mythology and botany is but one movement of the process; one way to read The Cantos is to go through noting the restorations of relationships now thought to be discrete - the ideogrammic method was invented for just this purpose. In Pound's spatial sense of time the past is here, now; its invisibility is our blindness, not its absence. The nineteenth century had put everything against the scale of time and discovered that all behavior within time's monolinear progress was evolutionary. The past was a graveyard, a museum. It was Pound's determination to obliterate such a configuration of time and history, to treat what had become a world of ghosts as a world eternally present."
-from The Geography of Imagination
5.) It is now thought by neurobiologists that the obvious warping of memory among smokers of the cannabis flowers is reflected in the endogenous cannabinoids we make in our own nervous systems. Marijuana only "works" because the THC and other psychoactive molecules in the plant mimic the structure of receptor sites and our body's own neurochemicals that we have evolved with over multitudes of millennia. And it's often thought that forgetting is a mental error, but it's a crucial biophysical action that must happen; we need to forget! We do not want to remember every little detail of every day. It would be too scattering! We need to be able to edit down the vast whirling mass of data our nervous systems encounter every single moment of waking life. Our intentionality must be given some space to work, it seems. And pot allows us to amplify the ordinary sensation, and with this non-ordinary state, our sense of time becomes altered. It's more complex than this, if we get to the neurochemistry of smoking pot and the phenomenology of being stoned, but because of pot's ability to mimic our natural chemicals that allow us to forget, it allows us to concentrate in a certain way on the ordinary so that it seems extraordinary. It's yet another way to get yourself "unstuck" in "time." (And if it "seems" extraordinary, we may as well say it "is" that way, for us, then, eh?)
Aye, even a glass of tap water tastes magnificent to me on pot. Music is even BETTER! And I love it just fine when I'm not stoned. Similar things could be said for sex, perception of paintings, having a conversation (which is filled with curlicues of meanderings and forgetting what your point was, but still: fun!), and for some, writing.
I have heard it said that stoned bloggers write posts that are too long, but I have no proof of this, do you?
Or to render time and stand outside The horizontal rush of it, for a moment To have the sensation of standing outside The greenish rush of it. -from "Time and Materials," by Robert Hass
I see that recent experiments in physics have ("temporarily"?) put the kibosh on our hopes for time-travel, especially travel backwards in time. (See links at the end of this article.) When you've fantasized about somehow traveling to another time, is it usually the past or the future? I think when I was a child I'd fantasize about some future-world, one with my own jet-pack. Now I tend to fantasize about going back...and not to kill my grandfather, either: that, as I understand it, is definitely out-of-bounds, and leads to all manner of hideous paradoxes. Not to mention: I loved my grandpa!
(But if I ran into Hitler, I wouldn't hesitate to shoot that mutha; I'm usually a Gandhi nonviolent dude, but in this extreme case I'd make an exception, even though I'd probably be haunted by an old Ray Bradbury short story in which some Disney-like company allows you to travel back in time and see the dinosaurs, but you must not step off the special track and change the world "back then" in the slightest way, because it could have enormous ramifications down through the years. One person steps in the jurassic mud, and...oh, you go ahead and read "A Sound of Thunder" from The Golden Apples of the Sun; it's also collected in Twice 22.)
It seems to me a psychological state of openness to infinitude aligns with daydreams about time-travel. Unless you catch yourself wishing you could go back to that time not long ago when you said or did something deeply embarrassing, and...not do that thing (but then you'd have to stay stuck there in time, or do you imagine you get back into the telephone-booth-like dealio and presto!: you're back in "real time," whatever that is?), you probably want to see for yourself what Things Would Be Like Then. And I don't blame you. But the physicists have just outlawed it, so forget it. But we can't forget it, right?
If I met someone and eventually I asked him or her, "When you fantasize about time travel, where do you go?," and the person quickly replied that they had never fantasized about time travel, it's for imbeciles and science fiction freaks and seriously disturbed people or all of the above, I would assume there was something wrong with a person who asserts they'd never dabbled with their imagination in such a way. I just tend to assume there's something a bit off-kilter with the person who - truly - has never fantasized about time travel. But maybe I'm the weird one in this instance. It wouldn't be the first time!, to put it mildly...
Now, I admit: the people who've memorized every line from every script of Star Trek and the convention is the best three days of the year for them, every year: those people seem a tad "much" for me. I just think it's healthy to fantasize about time travel every now and then, even if you know it's "impossible."
Why would I think it's somewhat unhealthy to not fantasize about time travel every now and then, even if you know it's impossible? Maybe because I think we ought to desire freedom from the constraints and limitations of time. It just seems healthy to me to desire an ecstasy like that. And it seems culturally ubiquitous (nota bene science fiction and movies and TV), which makes me happy. There are a lot of others who'd like to somehow transcend time's vast-yet-still-limited elbow room. Sure, it's impossible. But...
I think maybe I time travel when I read books and see movies. It's good enough for me. When I'm reading Plato, I can't help but see myself in a white robe and sandals, walking through the Agora in Athens, listening in on Socrates. (In recent years, I tend to favor the Sophists, but that's for another blogspew.) When I read Montaigne I find I've developed a picture of what his round book-lined tower room looks, feels, and even smells like.
"Are you kiddin' me? You wanna be wit all dem whattyacall philosophy majors? Don't know 'bout you, but, uhhh...Me? I'm goin' back in time for one ting and one ting only: to get into Cleopatra's panties! She looked exactly like Liz Taylor when she was thin...Oh! Hold on a minute! Wait! No, no, I got it: I'm going back to 1951 and jumpin' Marilyn Monroe's bones! Wham bam thank you m'am and then I hop out the window, find the gizmo in the bushes, and ZAP!: I'm back here in time for the game."
Yea, okay. Different strokes for different folks. Good luck to you anyway...and how did you get into this blog? Who let you in? Anyway...
Hey, I'd like some circa-1960 Anne Bancroft sex, but somehow that's not the kind of scenario that comes to me, unbidden, when I find myself thinking of "being" back There somewhere, in "time."
I put "time" in quotes, because we know that space and time are two sides of the same coin. So we ought to say "space-time travel." But we don't. It's a convention, I guess. Kinda like how we say,"I don't have time for this nonsense, " and not "I don't have the space-time for this nonsense."
Space travel! For now, it's impossible, but could we engineer the worm hole thing? It keeps the dream alive, at least. As for us, we'll have to alter out own perceptions of time via sex, drugs and rock and roll.
If that's all I have to offer you, I'm okay with that. Enjoy.
Do you tend want to go forward or backward in time, if you could?
Recent studies that tend to suggest time travel is a no-no are found here and here. The Wikipedia article on time travel is pretty cool, and it's here.
"A child-like man is not a man whose development has been arrested; on the contrary, he is a man who has given himself a chance of continuing to develop long after most adults have muffled themselves in the cocoon of middle-aged habit and convention." - Aldous Huxley, who is 127 today. I say "is" because he's immortal to me.
I went through a very heavy Aldous phase in the late 1980s/early 1990s. It wasn't because some teacher made me read Brave New World. I read that on my own one summer in the late 80s, back-to-back with Orwell's 1984 and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. I guess I sought more worries about the future that were not "my" own worries; but at the time I think I was simply enjoying the momentous paranoia to be had in the reading of those books, of which Huxley's seems to have cashed in the most prophetic chips so far.
No, the way I remember it: I bought some 800 page book for a dollar at a yard sale, something like The 100 Greatest Short Stories In English. There was a very short story in there by Aldous about a genius child born in Africa, but because Africa was so desperately poor, the world would, ignorantly, never know the fruits of the kid's genius, and how many other geniuses have we allowed to die on the vine?
I may even be mangling the thrust of that short story, it was so long ago. But suffice: there was a brilliance to Huxley's ideas and the way he presented them, that I made a note to look further into him.
(Isn't that probably the main value of those massive collections of short stories, essays, or Best-Loved Poems of Slavic Peoples - type books? Aside from being forced to read them in school, for the outsider: if we stumble upon just one writer in those books, it can change our entire lives?)
I was overwhelmed when my eyes traveled down the list of Huxley titles in the college library: novels, books of essays, non-fiction scattered in many different parts of the library: books in religion, science, technology, and...hello! What's this? Books on psychedelic drugs, too. He also wrote film scripts and plays. He lectured at Berkeley, Harvard, everywhere.
He seemed to agonize about his own privilege and his responsibility as a Huxley. His grandfather T.H Huxley defended Darwin's ideas against all comers, especially Christians. Aldous's half-brother Andrew won the Nobel Prize in Biology. His full-brother, Julian, was an extraordinary contributor to neo-Darwinism. By the 1940s the name "Huxley" had become a signpost for "towering intelligence." Predictably, there's lots of madness in the family, too. (See this Wiki for more on Aldous's genetic lines.)
I became a voracious Huxleyan. In fat novel after fat novel, I was stunned by his erudition. Only later did I realize that, in his novels, Huxley was carrying on in a tradition of Thomas Love Peacock or George Meredith: the Novel of Ideas. In a Huxley novel, a cast of disparate characters meet in some manor or estate for a few weeks, or a summer, and all they do is discuss ideas. The major-general, the painter, the lady with lots of money, the sportsman-womanizer, the bohemian guy, the stuffy pretentious puritan woman, the man of the cloth, etc. Huxley had poetic gifts. These were truly novels. But the main thing that happens is the many points of view these types of characters embody (the word "type" has at minimum two meanings here) are juxtaposed with the others. These novels are like Aldous's essays, with the ideas he dislikes being articulated by the types he dislikes, there are some "progressive" ideas articulated, and he uses enough novelistic technique to satisfy the requirement. How much does the reader need to triangulate, quadrangulate, and quintangulate in order to ascertain, "What's Huxley's view?" He doesn't spell it out.
But when you've read four or nine of his novels and a handful of his essays, it's a lot easier to guess.
Someone should write a learned piece on the sociology of knowledge in the novels of Aldous Huxley. The only literary genre (not crazy about woid "genre") these days - possibly since 1950 - that can be said to consist heavily as Novels of Ideas would be science fiction. (And possibly some historical novels.)
The late American philosopher Richard Rorty thought the free philosophically-minded person in an open society ought to look into a lot of things and see how they"hang together," in a Nietzschean project of self-creation. In Huxley novels we see profound, gleaming examples of this sort of self-creation. Another way to say it: he was a Generalist in the most extreme senses of the term...
I was thumbing through a recent book on the history of Indian philosophy and yoga and how it influenced the West, American Veda, by Philip Goldberg. In the chapter on Vedanta Goldberg writes about "The Public Intellectuals," and three who left England for Hollywood near the beginning of what we call "World War Two." The three were Huxley and his possible equal in erudition, Gerald Heard, and Christopher Isherwood. Goldberg says of Aldous:
"A Renaissance Man if ever there was one, Aldous Huxley had intellectual passions that ranged far and wide, from philosophy, politics, and religion, to the social sciences, the physical sciences, history, and the arts. Since his death in 1963, Huxley tributes have been offered on a regular basis, and Huxley conferences have convened around the world. Through his work and his friendships, he affected vast numbers of people, some of whom were highly influential themselves. In this regard, he did as much as any other individual to introduce Vedanta to Western culture." -p.94
Yes, yes, yes. But there are many Aldouses to get lost in. He wrote a tiny book at the end of WW2 called Science, Liberty and Peace that blew my socks off. It was maybe 86 pages long. It reads like proto-Green Party philosophy. It is a plea to get our act together, now that we know how to harness the atom for megadeath. There is a worry that, we have made enormous strides in science and technology but we are still the same apes, morally, that we were 50 million years before. We're just better-dressed.
Aldous could be funny too. He was a terrific traveler and had special cases made so he could carry the entire 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica with him. He read that edition cover-to-cover, or so the legend goes. Alan Watts said he could tell at parties what volume Aldous had been reading in, because he would regale a small group about fascinating aspects of the Reformation, then, a little later, the wonders of refrigeration.
He was almost clinically blind, yet astonished people with his learnedness about different painter's techniques. He'd get up so close to a painting his nose would almost touch it, and he'd talk about brush strokes.
He died of tongue cancer the same day JFK was assassinated; his wife Laura Archera, a concert violinist, read from The Egyptian Book of the Dead quietly, into Aldous's ear, as a massive dose of a psychedelic drug called "LSD" (Hey, I'm as in the dark as you are on this one) coursed through his brain. Laura read, "It is easy, and you are doing this beautifully and consciously." She repeated this a few times. Then, "Forward and up, light and free, forward and up toward the light, into the light, into complete love." He died at 5PM. (At this moment I can't help but think of Montaigne - who Aldous loved! - and what Montaigne would think of Huxley's death. Montaigne's essay about studying philosophy is learning how to die! Could Montaigne conceive of such a death scenario? He catalogues famous people who died in flagrante delicto, but LSD? Voluntarily? I still find it marvelous.)
Regarding the large dose of psychedelic, Laura said, "Aldous asking for the moksha-medicine while dying is not only a confirmation of his open-mindedness and courage, but as such a last gesture of continuing importance. Such a gesture might be ignorantly misinterpreted, but it is history that Huxleys stop ignorance, before ignorance stops Huxleys."
"For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication." - Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
I'm too lazy to look it up, but it's pretty close to this, from the 18th century lexicographer and all-around character Samuel Johnson: "Nobody but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." Or something very close to that. And how many of us write, for zero to almost no money to very little dough, to mere pittances, to "slave wages," to...O! The ignominy! Fools and blockheads: there are many of us, apparently.
Sticking with Dr. Johnson: even therapeutic writing would land you in Blockheadville. Is that legitimate? Did Johnson really mean it? And if so, who gives an effing eff?
Whatever. I can't help but write, money or no. I'm guessing only the halfway decent writers (on up to "good" ones) pretty much constantly worry about whether that last thing was up to par. Worries about punctuation and editing. Worries about what they left out, and what maybe shouldn't have been included. Were there any "howlers"? Will they actually come through and pay what they said they would? There seem no end of worries. And that's why a lot of them drink? "Some men are like musical glasses - to produce their finest tones you must keep them wet." - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
If you want some staggering data on alcohol and writers, see Donald W. Goodwin, Alcohol and the Writer. "Six Americans had won the Nobel Prize in literature and four were alcoholic. (A fifth drank heavily and the sixth was Pearl Buck, who probably didn't deserve the prize.)" The very long list of chronically sozzled writers in Goodwin is sobering. (Not really?)
I've been thinking a lot about Nietzsche's assertion that to improve one's mind you must improve your style. But "style" is tricky enough. For one, it seems like fingerprints to me, although, in my more rational moments I know I write in certain styles in certain domains, and I probably subconsciously picked up my themes, rhythms, word choice, forms, tones...from a huge variety of writers I both admired and - horrifyingly enough - did NOT admire. Why is that?
Okay, so I write in this blog with a certain voice. The form is pretty constrained. I'm not doing experimental writing here, that's fer damned sure. And when I've written in other places - and you know this well, why am I telling you? - we somehow get some sort of idea of who our "audience" is, and do a bit of code switching, and out pops some writing that's yet another aspect of our "style." Maybe it's your academic mode. Maybe it's your epistolary mode. (Or mine.) All kinds of modes. But still, it's you. It's me. And sometimes, this style thing seems un poco oppressive...
So how to get away from your own fingerprints? I don't know, but I have a hunch it has to do with lots of reading in different areas, maybe new areas for you (me.). It has to do with increasing recognition of one's (my own) writing habits and tics, and indexing them, if only mentally. Then: le resistance!
Yep: so my rambling mish-mash, too-long sentences (often including parentheticals) that meander and probably annoy and lose the reader as I may have lost you now, here, in this sentence? I make a concerted effort to not do that. I (You?) say, "Write simple, declarative sentences. Use one form of punctuation per sentence, aside from the period. Limit yourself to one or two clauses; three if you are in some heightened state." And I do that. (Yea, right...)
There's a long history of writers imposing constraints on their writing in order to produce more interesting texts. See, for example, the OULIPO. My problem seems to reside far apart from those Wonderful Weirdos.
Then, when I blink, I notice I've gone back to writing in that same old way I have for years. Fingerprints! But they're not fingerprints; to use the fingerprint metaphor seems to absolve me of any aspect of my writing I don't like, because after all, we're born with our fingerprints. We can't help having those fingerprints. But can we "help" how we ended up writing, with something I hesitate to call a "style"? (In my case at least?)
Read interviews with writers and they'll say, "My style came from..." and then they name writers. But does it really work that way? Maybe it does and I've just been too hypnotized by those writers I both admired and disliked and many in-betweeners, and let my guard down and allowed them to worm their way into my writing DNA, much like mitochondria did in humans, very very early in our development as mammals. Mitochondria - by which we can trace our mother's ancestry in us - seems to have been a parasite that got into our cells. Except it wasn't a parasite at all, really: it found a convivial environment in our cells. Mitochondria became symbiotic. Maybe it was symbiotic from the get-go, I'm not sure. What am I an Evolutionary Molecular Cytologist? No, I'm a Generalist. An overweening one, at that...
Anyway: in what ways - if any - is mitochondria like our style? Does it work as an analogy? Probably Burroughs's language as "virus" metaphor-complex works better...
I guess all some of us can hope for is to communicate something of interest, to someone. And how do you really know your audience in a place like a blog? I suspect if I were an expert in automobile insurance I'd have a much better idea of who was reading me, what they were looking for, and why. And I'd be making much more money as a writer, according to some Google statistics I read recently.
Anyway, the metaphor stuff seems one way to really hijack a reader's imagination and/or nervous system. It almost seems too powerful. There is a school of cognitive science that argues very cogently and persuasively that metaphors are not literary devices, as so many of us were taught in school; they are primary objects of all thought on the level of what we call "thinking." You can't help but speak in metaphors. The metaphors reside in clusters of neural circuits, built up over a lifetime of exposure to them. They are imbibed and exchanged unconsciously! See, for example, Metaphors We Live By, Johnson and Lakoff. Or better yet: From Molecule To Metaphor, by Feldman.
So, if you didn't know anything about cell biology and you read my bit about mitochondria above, you didn't have the circuitry (in a strong sense) that I was playing on. But you may have gotten the gist. Metaphors can enchant, provide information, and even lie to you in a very subtle way. (Notice I'm making the metaphor into a Conjurer/Magician right now: are they "really" that?) Aye, I just pulled a collection of biology articles from Scientific American off my shelf, and found this sentence, "Although the associations that form the symbiotic corporations we know as eukaryotes are now obligate - that is, mitochondria and chloroplasts cannot survive on their own since too many of their genes have been transferred to the cell nucleus - there are still many examples of intermediate stages of cooperation." - p.6, Life at the Edge, edited by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould.
How well does my mitochondria metaphor for writing style work now? ------------------------------------------------- Raymond Chandler, one of my favorite writers (and one hell of an alcoholic, by the way), said that style was "the most durable thing." Which seems a wretched thing to me, considering my quandary. He also said style was a "projection of personality," which seems fair, if unpleasant. I would have preferred a lot more of whatever David Foster Wallace had in the way of style. Or Tom Robbins. Or William Gibson or Robert Anton Wilson. Or Aldous Huxley (see other blogpost today).
I sat down to write about something having to do with experimental writing and I ended up blathering on and on and on about...whatever it was you (presumably) just read. And yes, I just let the Nietzsche quote hang there. Turns out it had nothing to do with the rest of the article, eh?
In my friend Eric Wagner's book An Insider's Guide To Robert Anton Wilson he uses the term "number poetry" in at least one place, and this has stuck with me: A moment's thought will probably reveal that you have a number or two that you, for some reasons all your own, particularly "like." Or you've long noted and memorized certain "deeper" meanings" regarding certain numbers, such as seven is "lucky" or thirteen is damned near evil, or that sixty-nine has something to do with naked yoga. Or for some reason (?) this number has meant something to you, or it's been involved in some synchronicities in your life. Perhaps you've simply always felt drawn to this number, for some - and I hesitate again to use this term because there's probably a more apt one - "reason."
We probably have a-rational "reasons" for our peculiar relationship to certain numbers. And many of us have wondered if Nature or (our?) Universe has Its own favorite numbers. And then we wonder if, with our limited knowledge, we've only created or discovered what we assume must be - as the brilliant and entertaining mathematical writer Ian Stewart called one of his books - Nature's Numbers: The Unreal Reality of Mathematics.
A recent article on our odd affinity for certain numbers showed up here, and linked to a mathematician's site where he asks us to tell him what our favorite number is, and why.
Because I was born on my father's 23rd birthday, and then I had three girlfriends who were born on the 23rd - three girlfriends in a row in my early twenties, two of them born on the 23rd of September - I had begun to notice how seemingly mysterious my relationship with that number was. I say "seemingly mysterious," because I had enough mathematics and statistics and reading in the psychology of perception to realize that, if I fixated on 23, that number would more likely be noted and that there's a subroutine of circuitry in the brain - probably developed through evolution, as we are a species very adept at pattern-recognition - that would "see" 23s everywhere.
Then I stumbled upon the writer Robert Anton Wilson in my late 20s. Have you ever so quickly fallen in love with a new writer that you could hardly believe your luck? It's happened to me a few times. But I had never heard of him before! Certainly not in college.
I had been promiscuously browsing in a bookstore in Torrance, California and picked up a book called Right Where You Are Sitting Now. It was a certain species of "experimental writing" mixed with journalistic pieces, pop quizzes, zen-like humor, and addressed what many academics would call "fringe" knowledge, but Wilson wrote about Odd Things in a very intellectual way. And I noticed he was using William S. Burroughs' "cut-up method," that Burroughs largely got from Brion Gysin, and which seems antedated by the Dadaist Tristan Tzara.
Burroughs also had a story and/or "routine" in which he talked about his own very eerie relationship with persons named "Captain Clark" and ships that crashed that carried the number 23.
Robert Anton Wilson, 1977 The Wilson book was filled with 23s. That a-rational part of my brain sent my rational part a message: Is this some sort of sign? And even more non-rational: If so, from where or what? What is the connection to...if anything? Is chance weirder than I thought? Is there some kind of quantum effect on the macro-level that has my nervous system attracting or "causing" this number to keep showing up?
(There may be a genetic predisposition towards thinking along these lines, too. The lines between very creative people and manic-depressives and schizophrenics are blurrier lines the more you look at it. See Kay Redfield Jamison's Touched With Fire for startling data on poetic genius and manic-depression; note the continuum between Joyce, Einstein, and Bertrand Russell, for example, and their schizophrenic offspring. My favorite theory about schizophrenia from the last 15 years is that it is a manifestation of a "cliff effect": in neurobiology and human physiology, too much a good thing. I have emotional reasons for why I "like" that idea...Anyway, most of us in families with manic-depressive genes or schizophrenia will not develop the full-blown versions of those two quite dire illnesses; we will just be "weirder" than most other people. But we can get along in life.)
Since the first volume of Wilson's tripartite autobiography was released in 1977, 23 has become a sort of cultural meme. (There was even a Joel Schumacher film starring Jim Carrey that seems to have mined a few things from Wilson, although not credited.) You may have noticed 23 pops up in too many odd ways; maybe it seems to appear in an "unreasonable" frequency? Or are you the one who notices it? Is it some sort of conspiracy? You mention it to a friend and they say, no. They notice 42 far more often than seems "natural."(42 people and me tend to get along really well.)
Notice how I used the term "odd" in the above paragraph (and others): I was not cognizant of my word-choice when I wrote; "odd" is synonymous with "something strange" in many Western cultures, if not all of them...why is this? "Odd" is clearly a metaphor from mathematics, but how easy it seems to not notice this! The even numbers seem stable; the odd ones maybe not so? Some part of us considers them a tad queer or "off," for some...reason. Prime numbers? Don't even get me started! (But note: 23 is prime. And we have 23 chromosomes...)
This goes back at least to the Pythagoreans, who saw qualities in individual numbers, perhaps even something like what we would call personalities. What "is" it about us? One part of us knows that numbers serve a basic utility, starting with counting on our fingers. And some compelling neuroscience suggests that the mathematical faculty seems to have piggy-backed on the evolution of the linguistic faculty, but I leave that for better minds than mine, for now.
Is there "really" something odd about our favorite numbers? Why do they keep intruding in our lives in ways that seem "above chance," or in just plain spooky ways? Wilson himself - being a skeptic, despite what his detractors said of him - thought this was probably a trick of perception, and was revelatory of the human mind and its ability to see patterns, or impose patterns on dense clusters of information, which seems related to selective perception, a basic bias most of us are prone to, even the highly educated ones. And then we forget our own minds made these connections, and look for the causes "out there." (Nature seems, to quote William James, a "blooming, buzzing confusion," and what we want is a narrative. Much editing needs to be done, literally every second, if only to cop a story that seems pleasing or plausible, or provides some sort of harmony with our current working models of "reality.")
But Wilson also wondered at times if there might be something Unknown, eldritch and exceedingly weird that might be going on...I call this Wilson's Conjecture Regarding Recurring Numbers: That we ought to appreciate the creativity, even of the unconscious mind!, to see the "uncanny" aspect of recurring numbers, even while knowing that our minds tend to impose patterns based on our prior conditionings. Basically stated: recurring numbers tend to happen when you pay attention. Wilson's Conjecture Regarding Recurring Numbers: don't look for it in the math books, folks: I just made it up, on the 23rd of July!
(Most educated people tend to be flattered by how much we know; it seems equally likely that we know closer to 1% of what there is to be known, rather than the idea that we know about 99% of the Possible Knowable. This too is conjecture...For a book of dialogues with great scientific minds on this topic, see John Horgan's The End of Science.)
In a book that appeared earlier than Wilson's Right Where You Are Sitting Now, a "wild" and mind-blowing autobiographical/magickal book titled Cosmic Trigger Volume 1, Wilson related his own experiments over a roughly 14 year period in which he sought to find out how far a human nervous system can be pushed, and what could be found "there." And ethically, the only person he could experiment on was himself. In this he's in a long line of scientific self-experimenters.
In Cosmic Trigger vol. 1 he relates the "23 Enigma" in a lucid way, but he also describes his exceedingly odd experience, that he asserted started on July 23rd, 1973, in which, after years of pushing his consciousness and/or nervous system (use of psychedelics, intense study of kabbalah, yoga, exploring different "reality tunnels," and diligently studying and practicing magickal techniques of Aleister Crowley, intense readings of Joyce and Pound and quantum mechanics, among other Things) to extremes and noting, scientifically, what might be "going on," he woke up on July 23rd, 1973 and, as he writes, "the Shaman [this is one aspect of "self" or a "mask" for Wilson - OG] awoke with an urgent message from Dreamland and scribbled quickly in his magickal diary, 'Sirius is very important.'"
Sirius the "Dog Star." If his life hadn't been weird enough, it gets very weird from thereon, but I will let the Reader decide what was "really" happening to Wilson.
Anyway, through the years, RAW and his fans gradually began to call July 23rd "Maybe Day," in honor of Wilson's love of what became "maybe logic." This is a logic in which there are at least three values: True, False, and Maybe. Wilson went to great lengths to show how anyone can adopt this logic for their everyday lives, and he thought it would add more sanity to the world and possibly lead to more human happiness. With hardcore ideologues who seem sure of Everything making the rest of our lives miserable, this seems like maybe a good idea. One story has it that a quantum physicist Wilson knew, named David Finkelstein, said, "In addition to a yes and a no, the universe seems to contain a maybe." (John von Neumann [say "fun NOY-mahnn"], one of the great scientific minds of the 20th century, proposed a three-valued quantum logic that seems pretty much the same thing here.)
Our nervous systems and cultural conditionings urge us to want to know what the truth "really is," but all of our epistemologies suggest our knowledge seems always contingent and subject to more information and investigation. Our points of view about politics, diet, musical preferences, what ideas in culture are "really" based on truth and what ones are hokum....all manner of our taken-for-granted worlds, should be subject to maybe logic: My entire blog has some sort of attitude, but verily, I tell you, I do not "know." What I write here is what I think, as of that day. I always want a new angle; I am always searching for some new way to think about something I find I thought I had a handle on. I find this mode of embracing uncertainty in knowledge both more honest according to the epistemologies of the 20th century and early 21st, AND it opens the mind to constant wonder and creativity. It turns out, for Wilson and for me at least, that most "things" seem to reside in the "maybe" state.
So: as an experiment, try thinking and verbalizing much more using "maybe" over the next week or so, maybe until August 1st, and see if you learn anything interesting from this exercize. Anyone can do it, too! You can do it, right where you are sitting now.
A final observation: in my years of reading about this topic - seemingly recurring numbers and people's reaction to this phenomenon - there seems a certain psychological disposition among some to get disproportionately snarky, even angry that a person should bring up the topic at all. It's out of bounds, and like talking about one's own masturbatory habits, or alien abductions or the JFK assassination. "Ut-oh! Mister Woo-Woo is gonna tell us about his latest New Age spirulina nonsense!" I've never been able to clearly tell if these people are pretentious, overly rational, deadened to that human faculty of "play" or that they think someone is trying to do some dangerous ju-ju out in the open, trying to get away with some subtle wizardry, trying to pull a fast one. I used to think, "Probably a little of all the above." Now I've pretty much given up trying to understand this intellectual position, or psychological disposition...There seem far too many other interesting things to think about.
Journeying through the world To and fro, to and fro Cultivating a small field. -Basho, 17th century Japanese poet
In an earlier post (here), I wrote about Morris Berman's NMIs, or New Monastic Individuals. These are people (probably like you?) who travel or have traveled, both inward and outward, and cultivate a small field. Berman spots a poetic manifest statement on NMIs in a 1939 essay by E.M Forster called "What I Believe," of which a snippet here:
"I believe in aristocracy. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos...On they go - an invincible army, yet not a victorious one. The aristocrats, the elect, the chosen, the Best People - all the words that describe them are false, and all attempts to organize them fail. Again and again, Authority, seeing their value, has tried to net them and to utilize them as the Egyptian Priesthood or the Christian Church or the Chinese Civil Service, or the Group Movement, or some other worthy stunt. But they slip through the net and are gone; when the door is shut they are no longer in the room; their temple...is the Holiness of the Heart's Imagination, and their kingdom, though they never possess it, is the wide-open world."
Berman's NMIs are not "monastic" in the sense of asceticism or religious practice, or any sort of organization, but they are about renunciation. Of trash culture and trash politics. (Read Berman's books for much elaboration, especially The Twilight of American Culture!)
Berman saw Paul Fussell's book 1983 book Class: A Guide Through The American Status System and recognized Fussell's "Class X" as having a strong similarity of structure to his NMIs. He also saw the "guerrilla" nature of this class's lives in Deleuze and Guattari's Nomadology: The War Machine. For these latter post-structuralist thinkers, we make our ways in "smooth space," which is fluid, slippery, stealthy. Everyone else is playing life by strict, rigid rules ("striated space") like chess, whose pieces are "coded"; nomads or NMIs live like the game of Go, and deal with reality situationally and via encirclement. They are unruly, but not likely to confront Authority directly.
Karl Mannheim's "relatively unattached stratum of free-floating intellectuals" seem to intersect a lot with these "nomads" and NMIs.
Fussell called his classless stratum "Class X," before demographers named the population born c.1965-1982 "Generation X." (Actually, that term was used by a photographer after WW2, but it wasn't in common currency when Fussell wrote his [very funny] book.)
But when I read Fussell, his Xers seem much more like intellectual hippies than Berman's NMIs, although I suspect much of this has to do with the difference between Berman's and Fussell's personalities and writing styles. Fussell delineates his Class X in the last main chapter of his delightful, short book (which reminds me a bit of Thorstein Veblen in both tone and aim although Fussell's style is more elegant; Veblen's more barbed and baroque), pp. 179-187. He says, "'X' people are better conceived as belonging to a category than a class because you are not born an X person, as you are born and reared a prole or a middle. You become an X person, or, to put it more bluntly, you earn X-personhood by a strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensable." Fussell also sees the Forster essay as a sort of manifesto for this class.
Certainly freelance artists, poets, countercultural entrepreneurs, musicians and other denizens of bohemia can possibly fit into this "class," but I doubt most of them do. Only some. Fussell and Berman both agree, and I've read Mannheim very closely and I think he'd agree too: if you put out many fliers telling this class/group/whatever to meet at X place on Y day at Q time, no one would show up. As Forster says, "there is a secret understanding between them when they meet."
I realize that a square, a cop, a pink, a cowan, a rube, a normal, a larval...reading this thinks I might be talking about a terrorist group!
I feel I can assure anyone who feels threatened: they (we) are anything but violent.
But we do make "trouble,"depending how you define that term.
Bohemia in Paris, 1920s - Mannheim's FFUIs all over Europe, with some in Unistat and Canada - Forster's "aristocracy" - the Beats - Maslow's self-actualizers - dropout intellectuals (not Samuel Ellsworth Huntington's "policy intellectuals," rather, the "bad" intellectuals) of the 1960s/70s - Stewart Brand/Buckminster Fuller's Whole Earth people - Ferguson's Aquarian conspirators - Fussell's Class X - Berman's NMIs - Deleuze and Guattari's "nomads" - Hakim Bey's seekers after the T.A.Z.and the Boing Boing crowd : a loose genealogy for the past 90 years or so.
Feel free to add to this list. Or quibble with it. You may even cavil!
Yesterday a fellow blogger-colleague related in his blog a conspiracy involving Ezra Pound that was new to me. (It's HERE. See July 20th) I'm a big Pound freak, and everyone knows about his, as he dolefully told Allen Ginsberg, Michael Reck, and Peter Russell in a Venice restaurant in 1967, "stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-semitism."
What's most interesting to me regarding Mad Ol' Ez and "conspiracy" thought is the knotted matrices of his ideas about monetary reform, how banks operate, and economic thought in general. It is in this mire that many of you might find yourself astonished to agree with such a Mad Genius as Pound. (Sans the whacked-out antisemitism, I hope!) But entire books have been written on this, and I don't want to go into it here, now.
I will add that the term "conspiracy" with regard to the entirety of Pound's ideas about economics becomes rather tangled, to put it mildly.
No, I'd rather talk about some minor Pound conspiracies. For example, he seemed to think that publishers colluded to keep vital works - books and articles - from staying in print. Why? Possibly some consortium of bankers didn't like what was being said about something such as "usury" in a book.
Pound also asserted that when a literary critic recommended his readers read some other critic's work, that something conspiratorial or underhanded was going on. I personally find this hilarious, and in some cases, probably true.
Regarding the publisher and the critic conspiracies: I think it pays to ask oneself, "Is it a conspiracy, or are there socially-created structures in place that compel actors within those structures to do things that look, from the outside, like conspiracy, while from the inside, it's more like 'getting ahead of the competition.'"?
There are other ways to look at it, obviously.
There's a really weird idea Pound had that I don't think can be considered a conspiracy at all, unless you really stretch it. I find it rather colorful, though, and perhaps mystically odd and garish: Pound seemed to believe that semen stemmed from the brain and was therefore the source for fertility was in the brain. This will remind some readers of their studies of tantra. As a metaphor, it translates easily. As literal physiology it seems delightfully odd to us postmodernists. When I first read about it - if memory serves it was in Pound's work on Provencal love poets in an early work, The Spirit of Romance (some Poundian will correct me, please?), it reminded me of sports figures who believed they should abstain from ejaculating the night before the game/big fight, in order to keep their vital currents at their optimum: damned up, the vital currents overflowing and ready for release...in the big game.
This idea seems ancient to mankind. The cultural anthropologist Weston LaBarre says this idea goes back to Paleolithic times and was probably a world-wide belief that led to head-hunting, capturing another guy's manly essence. (See the index to Robert Edgerton's Sick Societies)
Aleister Crowley's contemporary, magician-poet and exceedingly odd character named Austin Osman Spare also believed in the brain-semen idea, and he is a big influence on contemporary avant-garde artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, who also believes in the mystical powers of semen, although I do not think Genesis thinks it originates in the brain, or brainstem. At least I don't think so. He seems too fond of science, but then you never know.
For a deliriously fun, short history of semen as life-force, see Mary Roach's book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, pp.144-145.
To my mind, by far the most interesting conspiracy theory about Pound is one I simply deem a "conspiracy"for rhetorical purposes, although it's talked about openly in many books as a literary technique. Pound was candid about wanting to start a revolution in poetry, and I believe his technique of using the ideogrammic method was instrumental in this "conspiracy." And he was successful in his revolution, as I argued in this article. I think this method can still be used to subvert "normal" thought-patterns in readers, and only a bit of study will allow you to use the method too. Reading Pound's numerous writings on this will help, and his use of Ernest Fenollosa's notebooks in the short pamphlet The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry will pay big dividends. Or spend an afternoon wrestling with one of Pound's Cantos. That's the real deal, right there...
I have used this technique in a very minor way a few times in this blogspot. The technique constitutes a sort of "hidden logic" that operates in the reader's mind as (s)he tries to make sense of everything, and it seems genetically related to the montage in film, the collage in art, the literary critic Kenneth Burke's "perception by incongruity," Remy de Gourmont's "dissociation of ideas," and a few other techniques that exploded onto the early 20th century scene. It is not the "dialectic," although I admit they seem like related techniques; the ideogrammic method does seem to relate to the gestalt psychology of perception even more than dialectic, but the Method has an intent. Watching the films of D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein could possibly make all of this very easy to understand, if one is bent towards digging the visual juxtapositioning of images.