Sep 2 2022

Flamenco Friday: “When Juanito Come Marching Home”

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Just an old folk song for this Flamenco Friday.


Aug 31 2022

Toward an Unbound Civic Imagination

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

So, first I said I thought Americans need to think about imagination more, and think about it seriously, as a tool (but certainly not the tool) for addressing the most pressing problems in contemporary society: traffic congestion, housing shortages, healthcare costs, and mass-shootings––perhaps even the malaise of a lot of contemporary American (particularly Texan) art and literature.

Then I said maybe citizens should be careful, because imagination has its costs, and some of those costs Americans may not want to pay for. In other words, “imagination won’t save us; but don’t then let it slay us.”

Still, it feels wrong to remain inert. My mind remains restless, as if I’ve woken up gasping not for air but for fresher thoughts.

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So I continue my studies of imagination, and there I find that poet-polemicist-philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) more than once referred to the imagination as a “restless faculty” of the mind, endowed by “Nature,” and made for “noble” ends (or goals).

Let therefore my “lofty ambition,” my “high hopes” be thus: that we may learn to cultivate (bildung) an “enthusiastic imagination,” one “vivid” and containing civic “reveries” not without spiritual “passion.” Though in this advocacy, I feel as if I’m Dr. Frankenstein wanting to create a new and improved civic American (or Texan):

Clerval! Beloved friend! Even now it delights me to record your words and to dwell on the praise of which you are so eminently deserving. He was a being formed in the “very poetry of nature.” His wild and enthusiastic imagination was chastened by the sensibility of his heart. His soul overflowed with ardent affections, and his friendship was of that devoted and wondrous nature that the world-minded teach us to look for only in the imagination.

(Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), “Ch. XVIII.”)

The doctor further confesses:

My imagination was vivid, yet my powers of analysis and application were intense; by the union of these qualities I conceived the idea and executed the creation of a man. Even now I cannot recollect without passion my reveries while the work was incomplete. I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the idea of their effects. From my infancy I was imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition; but how am I sunk! Oh! My friend, if you had known me as I once was, you would not recognize me in this state of degradation. (“Ch. XXIV”)

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Twenty-nine years after Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855), in her novel Jayne Eyre (1847) mentions “the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of imagination,” (Ch. XXI).

Seventy-seven years after Eyre––but very early in the text of the Manifeste du surréalisme (Manifesto of Surrealism) (1924)––André Breton (1896–1966) describes “this imagination which knows no bounds is henceforth allowed to be exercised only in strict accordance with the laws of an arbitrary utility.”

Breton’s elder, J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), later observed in his essay “A Secret Vice” how:

Language has both strengthened imagination and been freed by it. Who shall say whether the free adjective has created images bizarre and beautiful, or the adjective been freed by strange and beautiful pictures in the mind?

After Tolkien, in one his early studies called The Death of Tragedy (1963), Franco-American critic George Steiner (1929–2020) noted of the English poet Robert Graves (1895–1985):“Graves says, the imagination has extra-territorial rights, and these are guarded by poetry.”

Even so, poetry is not policy.

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As Owen Barfield (1898–1997) once put it, “if law is the point where life and logic meet, perception is the point where life and imagination meet.” So even political and societal perceptions (and the political and societal problems we perceive) inevitably contain a substantial component called imagination.

Moreover, as British philosopher Gertrude Anscombe (1919–2001) reminds us that “what is institutional must exclude all that is personal, casual or sporadic.” I think she means that imagination and institution rarely go hand-in-hand. (One might dare argue that anything “institutional” can never be “imaginative.”)

When faced with a dilemma between the institutional and the imaginative, Tolkien, as a young student, chose the latter path:

I was eager to study Nature, actually more eager than I was to read most fairy-stories; but I did not want to be quibbled into Science and cheated out of Faerie by people who seemed to assume that by some kind of original sin I should prefer fairy-tales, but according to some kind of new religion I ought to be induced to like science. (“On Fairy Stories”)

In a similar vein, Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), someone of a quite different British disposition that that of Tolkien, nonetheless once pointed out that philosophy too has a greater need for imaginative thinking than brute science requires:

[In Voltaire’s novel Candide] Dr. Pangloss’s in his study can ascertain what soil of universe would, to his way of thinking, be the best possible; he can also convince himself, so long as he stays in his study, that the universe means to satisfy his ethical demands [that “we live in the best of all possible worlds”].

Bernard Bosanquet, until his death one of the recognized leaders of British philosophy, maintained in his Logic, ostensibly on logical grounds, that “it would be hard to believe, for example, in the likelihood of a catastrophe which should overwhelm a progressive civilization like that of modem Europe and its colonies.”

Capacity to believe that the “laws of thought” have comforting political consequences is, a mark of the philosophic bias.

Philosophy, as opposed to science, springs from a kind of self-assertion: a belief that our purposes have an important relation to the purposes of the universe, and that, in the long run, the course of events is bound to be, on the whole, such as we should wish.

Science abandoned this kind of optimism, but is being led towards another: that we, by our intelligence, can make the world such as to satisfy a large proportion of our desires.

This is a practical, as opposed to a metaphysical, optimism. I hope it will not seem to future generations as foolish as that of Dr. Pangloss.

So how do we sort the philosophy from the fairy story, the institutional science from an unbound civic imagination? Is democracy the best of all possible governance? We might ought to follow the method given by the narrator of Stephen King’s novel Revival (2014):

We debated the validity of each (first in my living room, later in this same bed), eventually putting them into four categories: utter bullshit, probable bullshit, impossible to be sure, and hard not to believe. (p. 239)

Some Notes to Some of the Above

Gertrude E. M. Anscombe, “On the Source of the Authority of the State” (1978) The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), p. 131.

Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning (1928), (Middleton, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1973; Third Edition), p. 29.

Walter Jackson Bate, Coleridge, (New York: Macmillan, 1968), p. 159.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Lecture on the Slave Trade,” June 16, 1795, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Vol. I Lectures 1795 on Politics and Religion, eds. Lewis Paton and Peter Mann, (Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 1971),pp. 235–36; Coleridge, Watchman No. 4. March 35, 1796. Coleridge Works Vol. II, p. 131.

Bertrand Russell, “Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives,” Unpopular Essays, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950, 1969), pp. 56–57.

George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy,(New York, Hill & Wang, 1963), p. 240.


Aug 26 2022

Immoral Temptations: The Case Against Imagination as a Tool to Ease Society’s Pains

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Immoral Temptations:
The Case Against Imagination as a Tool to Ease Society’s Pains

Maybe everything I wrote about imagination last week was wrong.

Maybe my convictions on the subject were too tight and need to be loosened a bit.

Perhaps, like Louis Renault, the police captain in Casablanca (1942), I should “have no convictions,” be “master of my fate” and “blow with the wind.”

Maybe imagination has a flipside full of adventure, criminality, corruption, immorality—full of things that won’t help my neighbors and me as we confront our society’s greatest perplexities with regard to traffic, housing, public safety (including classrooms), drought, and equality in broadband internet capabilities for both urban and rural areas.

Maybe there aren’t any silver bullets to slay these social werewolves with. Maybe our imaginations fooled us into believing in the bullets. Maybe that was too much to ask.

Maybe readers and voters should be wary of the adventurous side to imagination, as when poet-and-politician John Milton (1608–1674) has Satan say in Paradise Lost (1667):

let us try
Adventurous work (X, 254–55)

And later:

and now expecting
Each hour their great Adventurer from the search
Of foreign worlds, (X, 439–41)

And British novelist Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) has his narrator Marlow say of sailor Jim (who will go on to become Lord Jim):

After two years of training he went to sea, and entering the regions so well known to his imagination, found them strangely barren of adventure. He made many voyages.

(Lord Jim (1900) in Lord Jim: The Authoritative Text, ed. Thomas C. Moser, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968), II, p. 7)

Compare French writer André Gide (1869–1951) and his conspiratorial, comedic novel Les caves du Vatican (1914), usually translated as Lafcadio’s Adventures. In it, Gide elaborates on the juncture of crime and imagination:

“A crime without a motive,” went on Lafcadio, “what a puzzle for the police! As to that, however, going along beside this blessed bank, anybody in the next-door compartment might notice the door open and the old blighter’s shadow pitch out. The corridor curtains, at any rate, are drawn…. It’s not so much about events that I’m curious, as about myself. There’s many a man thinks he’s capable of anything, who draws back when it comes to the point…. What a gulf between the imagination and the deed! … And no more right to take back one’s move than at chess. Pooh! If one could foresee all the risks, there’d be no interest in the game! …. Between the imagination of a deed and … Hullo! the bank’s come to an end.”

He preferred adventure—a word as pliable as his beaver and as easily twisted to suit his liking.

(Les caves du Vatican (Lafcadio’s Adventures) (1914), trans. Dorothy Bussy, (New York: Knopf, 1953), (V, i), p. 186; (V, ii), p. 192)

Later when Conrad (a Polish sailor writing in Victorian English) penned his novel of Russian affairs Under Western Eyes (1911), he was in a mood to renounce imagination; although, at the same time, he seems to be, as the English say, “laying it on a bit thick”:

In the conduct of an invented story there are, no doubt, certain proprieties to be observed for the sake of clearness and effect. A man of imagination, however inexperienced in the art of narrative, has his instinct to guide him in the choice of his words, and in the development of the action. A grain of talent excuses many mistakes. But this is not a work of imagination; I have no talent; my excuse for this undertaking lies not in its art, but in its artlessness. Aware of my limitations and strong in the sincerity of my purpose, I would not try (were I able) to invent anything. I push my scruples so far that I would not even invent a transition.

(Under Western Eyes (1911), (New York: Modern Library, 1996),(II, i), p. 77)

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In her novel The Custom of the Country (1913), American Edith Wharton (1862–1937) has the character Ralph conclude that the best solution in his particular situation is to restrain his imagination:

An imagination like his, peopled with such varied images and associations, fed by so many currents from the long stream of human experience, could hardly picture the bareness of the small half-lit place in which his wife’s spirit fluttered. Her mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie school-house in which she had been educated; and her ideals seemed to Ralph as pathetic as the ornaments made of corks and cigar-bands with which her infant hands had been taught to adorn it. He was beginning to understand this, and learning to adapt himself to the narrow compass of her experience. The task of opening new windows in her mind was inspiring enough to give him infinite patience; and he would not yet own to himself that her pliancy and variety were imitative rather than spontaneous.

(The Custom of the Country (New York: Scribner, 1913), II, xi, 147)

One might here compare the realization by the character Jesse in Sherwood Anderson’s (1876–1941) American novel Winesburg, Ohio (1919):

He invented a machine for the making of fence out of wire. Faintly he realized that the atmosphere of old times and places that he had always cultivated in his own mind was strange and foreign to the thing that was growing up in the minds of others. The beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world, when wars would be fought without patriotism, when men would forget God and only pay attention to moral standards, when the will to power would replace the will to serve and beauty would be well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions, was telling its story to Jesse the man of God as it was to the men about him.

(Winesburg, Ohio (1919), (New York: Viking, 1960), “[VII] Godliness – Part II,” pp. 58–59)

Finally, German writer Thomas Mann’s (1875–1955) first novel Buddenbrooks (1922) tells how the character of Thomas Buddenbrook “found himself forever falling behind his own active imagination.” In a similar vein, William Yeats (1865–1939) has discussed how hatred may be the “basis of imagination,” which, in the case of Ireland, led, in his opinion, to literal sexual abstinence as well as imaginative impotence:

The symbol without emotion is more precise and, perhaps, more powerful than an emotion without symbol. Hatred as a basis of imagination, in ways which one could explain even without magic, helps to dry up the nature and make the sexual abstinence, so common among young men and women in Ireland, possible. This abstinence reacts in its turn on the imagination, so that we get at last that strange eunuch-like tone and temper. For the last ten or twenty years there has been a perpetual drying of the Irish mind with the resultant dust-cloud….

In the eighteenth century Scotland believed itself religious, moral and gloomy, and its national, poet Burns came not to speak of these things but to speak of lust and drink and drunken gaiety. Ireland, since the Young Irelanders, has given itself up to apologetics. Every impression of life or impulse of imagination has been examined to see if it helped or hurt the glory of Ireland or the political claim of Ireland. A sincere impression of life became at last impossible, all was apologetics. There was no longer an impartial imagination, delighting in whatever is naturally exciting. [William] Synge was the rushing up of the buried fire, an explosion of all that had been denied or refused, a furious impartiality, an indifferent turbulent sorrow. His work, like that of [Robert] Burns, was to say all the people did not want to have said. He was able to do this because Nature had made him incapable of a political idea.’

(Mann, Buddenbrooks (1922), trans. John E. Woods, (New York: Knopf. 1993), (VII, v), p. 369; Yeats, Extracts from a Diary Kept in 1909 in The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats, (New York: Doubleday, 1958), (“Estrangement,” XLII), p. 330; (“The Death of Synge,” XXX), p. 352)

So perhaps Texans should be so quick to “applaud innovation” that comes from imagination:

(Harvey is, however, usually right when it comes to analyzing Texas politics.)


Aug 26 2022

Flamenco Friday: “Oh Shenandoah”

Texas wildflowers

Oh Shenandoah“–now an American standard, originally a French trapper song, and later became a sea shanty:


Aug 22 2022

The Imagination: Toy for the Child, Tool for the Adult

pencil shavings

We need more imagination to address our traffic congestion, our housing shortages, our mass-shooter threats, as well as our energy supplies and climate alterations. We need incubators and accelerators of imaginative thought (not just for the arts) but to aid in determining solutions to our greatest social pains. For where there’s pain, there is a problem. But there, there is also life; because only what is dead feels no pain.

I don’t pretend to be clever enough to know exactly what that fully entails—but I believe it begins with taking imagination very seriously—seriously enough to study it and analyze it (at least for starters).

And if, at the start, we’re too ill-equipped to undertake such an analysis, let us, if nothing else, attempt to analyze the findings of those who have already analyzed the human imagination.

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Let’s cut to the chase by beginning with Hamlet (II, i), where he is confronted by his old buddies from university Guildenstern and Rosencrantz:

HAMLET
What you have,
my good friends, deserved at the hands of fortune,
that she sends you to prison hither?

GUILDENSTERN
Prison, my lord!

HAMLET
Denmark’s a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ
Then is the world one.

HAMLET
A goodly one; in which there are many confines,
wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

ROSENCRANTZ
We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET
Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so
: to me
it is a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ
Why then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too
narrow for your mind. 

Hamlet here seems a bit childish. And one of the major questions, throughout the earlier parts of the play, concerns the audience, along with the rest of the play’s characters, all trying to decide: how authentic is Hamlet’s childish behavior?

While the word imagination isn’t used in this passage, Hamlet’s holding here that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” marks a possible origin to imaginative thought.

I interpret one of the meanings to the line “thinking makes it so” to mean: the act of thinking allows one to discern a difference between two or more things, in this case, the difference between good and bad (whatever that difference may be).

But even if this is but a single legitimate meaning to the line “thinking makes it so”—one might still label it a childish judgment on Hamlet’s behalf.

Rosencrantz tells Hamlet that it is the latter’s “ambition” that “makes” Denmark seem like a prison.

So, from this scene, a reader might extrapolate (or perhaps daydream) the hypothesis that imagination begins either from thinking or from ambition.

Certainly thinking in-and-of-itself is generally not considered to be childish. (But an over-abundance of ambition might be so considered.)

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For the Enlightenment-age sociologist Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), imagination is part of the complex relationship between reason and memory:

Just as old age is powerful in reason, so is adolescence in imagination. Since imagination has always been esteemed a most favorable omen of future development, it should in no way be dulled. Furthermore, the teacher should give the greatest care to the cultivation of the pupil’s memory, which, though not exactly the same as imagination, is almost identical with it. In adolescence, memory outstrips in vigor all other faculties, and should be intensely trained. Youth’s natural inclination to the arts in which imagination or memory (or a combination of both) is prevalent (such as painting, poetry, oratory, jurisprudence) should by no means be blunted…. The Ancients required their youths to learn the science of geometry which cannot be grasped without a vivid capacity to form images.

This is why, writes Vico elsewhere:

As the children of the new-born human race, the first people believed that the sky was no higher than their mountain heights, just as children today think it no higher than the rooftops….

People living in the world’s childhood [that is, the earliest days of humanity] were by nature sublime poets….

By nature, children retain the ideas and names of the people and things they have known first, and later apply them to others they meet who bear a resemblance or relation to the first.

Therefore:

The sublimest task of poetry is to attribute sense and emotion to insensate objects. It is characteristic of children to pick up inanimate objects and to talk to them in their play as if they were living persons.

(Vico, De Nostri Temporis Studiorum Ratione (On the Study Methods of Our Time) (1709), trans. Elio Gianturco, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990), pp. 13–14; Vico, La Scienza Nuova (The Third New Science) (1725), trans. David Marsh, (New York: Penguin, 1999), “Idea of the Work” [¶ 4] 3; I, § 2, xxxvii, [¶ 186], p. 89; I, § 2, lxviii, [¶ 206], p. 92. See also Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophie der Psychologie – Ein Fragment (Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment) [formerly Philosophical Investigations Part II] in Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001), Revised Fourth Edition by Hacker and Schulte, (2009) (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009), (II, xi, 148), p. 208.)

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So I interpret Vico to say: there is this thing called imagination, and its ingredients (or perhaps catalysts) are memory and reason.

But why talk about thinking and memory and reason when the discussion should be about imagination? The terms and concepts keep multiplying, but it seems better to keep it simple and as few as possible.

Yes, the terms and concepts keep multiplying, but that is because, as journalist and social-theorist Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) has explained, when it comes to discussing the particular act of thinking we call imagination, simply because it is a word, it is (and shall always remain) a metaphor for something else:

The chief difficulty here seems to be that for thinking itself—whose language is entirely metaphorical and whose conceptual framework depends entirely on the gift of the metaphor, which bridges the gulf between the visible and the invisible, the world of appearances and the thinking ego—there exists no metaphor that could plausibly illuminate this special activity of the mind, in which something invisible within us deals with the invisibles of the world. All metaphors drawn from the sense will lead us into difficulties for the simple reason that all our senses are essentially cognitive, hence, if understood as activities, have an end outside themselves; they are not Energeia, an end in itself but instruments enabling us to know and deal with the world.

(The Life of the Mind, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy, (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking, p. 123)

In other words, we readers cannot “start from zero” (ex nihilo), for—just as there is no emoji for the word emoji––there is no metaphor for metaphor.

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Imagination isn’t just a mental activity—it can also mean a mental place where such activity can occur. In the tale “Night on the Galactic Railroad” (1927), Japanese novelist-poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896–1933) the child character of Giovanni does this effortlessly:

I’m a great big locomotive! Watch as I speed down this incline! And look, my shadow has slipped out in front of me, swaying like a compass needle, he played around in his imagination.

(Night on the Galactic Railroad & Other Stories from Ihatov, trans. Julianne Neville, (Long Island City, New York: One Peace Books, 2014) “§ The Centaurus Festival,” 54)

But one shouldn’t accept Vico’s statements on children and imagination at face value. Some people, like Canadian comedian (and social philosopher) Norm MacDonald (1959–2021) as a child, imagination takes a tremendous amount of effort psychological effort:

So I decided right then and there to see the picture as it really was. I stared at the thing long and hard, trying to only see the paint. But it was no use. All my eyes would allow me to see was the lie. In fact, the longer I gazed at the paint, the more false detail I began to imagine. The boy was crying, as if afraid, and the woman was weaker than I had first believed. I finally gave up. I understood then that it takes a powerful imagination to see a thing for what it really is.

(Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir, (New York: Random House, 2017), pp. 20–21)

This passage serves as a kind of over-arching metaphor for Norm’s book—readers don’t really know completely what is fiction or fact or some combination of the two, blended by memory.

Adults too, make use of imagination as a place where they can imagine they know things that they actually don’t know. As the glad genius Umberto Eco (1932–2016) once explained:

Even though I too am incapable of telling an elm from a beech, I can easily recognize mangroves (which I was able to identify one day thanks to having read about them in many travel books) and banyan trees, about which I had received plentiful instructions in Emilio Salgari’s adventure books. But I was convinced I knew nothing about the paletuviere (mentioned equally frequently in Salgari’s books), until on reading an encyclopedia one day I discovered that, in Italian, paletuviere is simply another word for mangrovia. Now I could reread Salgari, imagining mangroves every time he mentioned paletuviere. But what did I do for years and years, from childhood on, reading about these paletuviere without knowing what they were? From the context I had deduced that they were plants, something like trees or bushes, but this was the only property I could manage to associate with the name. Nevertheless, I was able to read on by pretending to know what they were. I used my imagination to integrate what little I had been able to glimpse within the half-open box, but in fact I was taking something on trust.

(Kant e lornitorinco (Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition), trans. Alastair McEwen, (New York: Harcourt, 1997), p. 292)

Finally, compare the imagination of patient Leonard L. in the Awakenings (1973) report by Dr. Oliver Sacks (1933–2015), where the imagination is an aid to survival and quality of life:

Leonard L. had in fact, been hallucinating for years—long before he ever received L-DOPA (although he was unable or unwilling to admit this to me until 1969). Being particularly fond of ‘Western’ scenes and films, Leonard L. had, indeed, ordered the old painting of the shanty-town as long ago as 1955 for the sole and express purpose of hallucinating with it—and it was his custom to ‘animate’ it for a hallucinatory matinée after lunch every day….

Most of the patients’ hallucinations lack the ambivalent, often paranoiac, and in general uncontrollable nature of schizophrenic hallucinations; but that they are, in contrast, very like scenes of normal life, very much like that healthy reality from which these pathetic patients have been cut off for years (by illness, institutionalization, isolation, etc.). The function (and form) of schizophrenic hallucinations, in general, has to do with the denial of reality; whereas the function (and form) of the benign hallucinations seen in Mount Carmel has to do with creating reality, imagining a full and happy and healthy life of a sort which has been cruelly denied to them through Fate. Thus I regard it as a sign of these patients’ health, of their enduring wish to live, and live fully—if only in the realms of imagination and hallucination, which are the only realms where they still enjoy freedom—that they hallucinate all the richness and drama and fullness of life. They hallucinate to survive—as do subjects exposed to extreme sensory, motor, or social isolation; and for this reason, whenever I learn from such a patient that he constructs a rich and benign hallucinatory ‘life,’ I encourage him to the full, as I encourage all creative endeavours which reach out to life.

(Awakenings, (New York: Random House, 1973; Vintage Books, 1990), pp. 214–15)


Aug 21 2022

Blue Skies Over Berlin

cross on a steeple

Aug 11 2022

REFRIED DREAMS …. WITH CHEESE

bookshelf

PART I. AGAINST PERFECTIONISM

So, just horsing around, not really meaning anything by it, I told myself I was tired of old lessons from old books—lessons most people never followed anyway, which is why we are where we are now, right? Still, I told myself:

  • The Perfect is not the enemy of the Good.
  • But seeking the Perfect may lead one to bypass the Good. One bypasses the forest in search of the perfect tree. How many good books have been passed over in search of the Perfect Book?
  • Give me the imperfect. If the Tower of Pisa were plumb, its remarkability and marketability would diminish to some great degree.
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  • At some point, the pursuit of the Perfect requires tunnel-vision. It requires putting up unnatural barriers to blind one from so-called distractions, digressions, and other sundry paths one fancies. For the winning horse always wears blinders, and always stays in its designated lane.
  • Yes, if one is hyper-focused on an object or goal, one may feel lots of feelings while focusing––but, in that moment of focus, one will always be too busy focusing to instead take the time to reflect on those feelings which occur while one is focusing.
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  • So one shouldn’t look for a perfect trip to Europe. A good trip can be good enough. For there is no perfect plan for a good trip. Why, just yesterday didn’t 孫子兵法 (Sun Tzu) (~544 BC–495 BC) warn against the totalitarianism of perfect planning? Didn’t he say:

When the front is prepared, the rear is lacking, and when the rear is prepared the front is lacking. Preparedness on the left means lack on the right, preparedness on the right means lack on the left. Preparedness everywhere means lack everywhere.

(孫子兵法 (The Art of War)(c. ~500 BC), trans. Thomas Cleary, (Boston: Shambhala, 1988),“VI. Emptiness and Fullness,” p. 108)

  • Nor can I write the perfect novel; though I would like to write a good one. I can’t play the perfect song on guitar, but I will try to continue to go farther in my playing than from where I’ve been before. I will try to remember that 孔子 (Kong Fuzi a.k.a. Confucius) (~551BC–479BC) wasn’t that interested in perfection:

The Master seldom spoke on profit, on the orderings of Providence [divination?], and on perfection.

(論語 (Analects) (475 BC–220 AD) in The Analects: or, the Conversations of Confucius with His Disciples and Certain Others, trans. William Edward Soothill, (Oxford UP, 1910; 1955), (IX, i), p. 80)

And C. S. Peirce (1839–1914) once reflected that:

It is but charitable to be a little inaccurate.

(“Think Again!” Harvard Magazine 4 (April 1858), [pp. 100–105] in The Writings of Charles S. Peirce: a Chronological Edition. Vol. I: 1857–1866, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1982), p. 24)

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Still, can such proverbs be rendered into protocols? Who dares to maximize the maxims of the past? Was Don Quixote the only one who dared to not only read and recite dichos, but actually apply them? Is this what 老子 (Lao Tzu/Laozi) meant by:

The way to use life is to do nothing through acting,
The way to use life is to do everything through being.

(道德经 Tao Teh Ching (The Way of Life) (c. ~500 BC), trans. Witter Bynner, (New York: Putnam, 1944; Perigee 1986) XXXVII, p. 64)

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PART II. SOME INGREDIENTS FOR PREPARING TO COUNTER PERFECTIONISM; or,

HOW TO MAKE REFRIED DREAMS (WITH CHEESE)

Beginning with Francis Bacon (1561–1626):

Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that sheweth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond or carbuncle, that sheweth best in varied lights. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure.

Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?

(“Of Truth,” Essays or Counsels Civil and Moral (1625) in Essays, ed. Brian Vickers, (New York: Oxford UP, 1999), p. 3)

Next from Daniel Kahneman:

I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success:

I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the fact of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers….

(Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011), p. 264)

*****

You should know that correcting your intuitions may complicate your life.

A characteristic of unbiased predictions is that they permit the prediction of rare or extreme events only when the information is very good.

If you expect your predictions to be of modest validity you will never guess an outcome that is either rare or far from the mean.

If your predictions are unbiased, you will never have the satisfying experience of correctly calling an extreme case.

You will never be able to say, “I thought so!” when your best student in law school becomes a Supreme Court justice, or when a start-up that you thought very promising eventually becomes a major commercial success.

Given the limitations of the evidence, you will never predict that an outstanding high school student will be a straight-A student at Princeton.

For the same reason, a venture capitalist will never be told that the probability of success for a start-up in its early stages is “very high.”

(Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 192)

Then from Karl Popper (1902–1994):

No conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be produced; for it is always possible to say that the experimental results are not reliable, or that the discrepancies which are asserted to exist between the experimental results and the theory are only apparent and that they will disappear with the advance of our understanding.

(In the struggle against Einstein, both these arguments were often used in support of Newtonian mechanics, and similar arguments abound in the field of the social sciences.)

If you insist on strict proof (or strict disproof) in the empirical sciences, you will never benefit from experience, and never learn from it how wrong you are.)

(“Scientific Method,” (1934), Popper Selections, ed. David Miler, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1985), p. 137)

Popper is, of course, following Bertrand Russell (1872–1970):

Scientific theories are accepted as useful hypotheses to suggest further research, and as having some element of truth in virtue of which they are able to colligate existing observations; but no sensible person regards them as immutably perfect.

(“Philosophy and Politics,” Unpopular Essays, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950, 1969), p. 18)


Jul 15 2022

Flamenco Friday, “Wait till You See the Pool”

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

Another Flamenco Friday, time for something for summer: “Wait till You see the Pool”


Jul 13 2022

I’m (Almost) Levitating

typewriter

“I’m (Almost) Levitating” – tribute to Dua Lipa


Jul 8 2022

Of Texas, to Teach and Learn from that State No More

Western book stack

Of Texas, to Teach and Learn from that State No More

With regard to Texas as something to ever be discussed for any reason, I agree with much of what Jay Leeson of Lubbock wrote this week:

https://twitter.com/jayleeson/status/1544330548818382848

I too “am out.” The bad guys have won, and it is time to go all the way and “abandon all hope” as Dante says before the Gates of Hell, rather than try to cut one’s losses.

A slightly witty essay that uses Edmund Burke to explain the book-banning situation in Texas won’t change minds or votes or status quos regarding rural Texas. Therefore, I don’t intend to write any more of them.

I will instead, pursue the truth about contemporary Texas, not that it can teach me anything, not so I can teach Texans anything, but simply to love the pursuit.

As a very non-Texan, Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) once explained, the desire to find the truth for oneself has little to do with teaching truth(s) to others. Montaigne would rather know someone also seeking the truth rather than try to teach that person anything about it:

The active pursuit of truth is our proper business.

We have no excuse for conducting it badly or unfittingly. But failure to capture our prey is another matter. For we are born to quest after it; to possess it belongs to a greater power….

The world is but a school of inquiry. It does not matter who hits the ring, but who runs the best course. The man who says what is true may be as foolish as the man who utters falsities, for we are concerned with the manner of speaking, not with the matter. It is my nature to consider the form as much as the substance, the advocate as much as the cause….

And every day I entertain myself by browsing among books without a thought for their learning; and examining their authors’ style, not their subject. In the same way, I seek the company of some famous mind, not so that he may teach me, but that I may know him.

(Essais, Tome III in Essays, (New York: Penguin, 1958, 1988), trans. J. M. Cohen, “8. On the Art of Conversation,” pp. 292–93. [Cohen’s numeration follows Montaigne’s Édition Municipale.])

René Descartes (1596–1650) also got tired of teaching as well as learning. So he decided he would start being independent in his thinking, and would muster no enthusiasm for teaching others the methods of life he had learned for himself. He wanted to describe the vision of his method, not teach that method to (un)willing students:

My present design, then, is not to teach the Method which each ought to follow for the right conduct of his Reason, but solely to describe the way in which I have endeavored to conduct my own.

(Discours de méthode (Discourse on Method)(c. 1637), The Method, Meditations, and Philosophy of Descartes, trans. John Veitch, (New York: Tudor Publishing, 1901), (§ I), p. 150)

Later John Locke (1632–1704) affirms that “I pretend not to teach, but to inquire” into the “dark room” of how the mind understands itself. Locke desired to “inquire” and to “examine,” but not to “teach”:

I pretend not to teach, but to inquire; and therefore cannot but confess here again,—that external and internal sensation are the only passages I can find of knowledge to the understanding.

These alone, as far as I can discover, are the windows by which light is let into this DARK ROOM.

For, methinks, the understanding is not much unlike a closet wholly shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external visible resemblances, or ideas of things without: which, would they but stay there, and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion, it would very much resemble the understanding of a man, in reference to all objects of sight, and the ideas of them.

These are my guesses concerning the means whereby the understanding comes to have and retain simple ideas, and the modes of them, with some other operations about them.

I proceed now to examine some of these simple ideas and their modes a little more particularly.

(An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) [1689], Fifth Edition (1706), ed. Roger Woolhouse, (New York: Penguin, 1997, 2004), (II, xi, 17), p. 158)

Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) seems to have gotten closer to the source of the phenomenon of the abandonment of teacherhood. The student learns differently than the teacher, for their imaginations, at least, according to Vico, function in slightly different ways:

Just as old age is powerful in reason, so is adolescence in imagination. Since imagination has always been esteemed a most favorable omen of future development [divination?], it should in no way be dulled.

Furthermore, the teacher should give the greatest care to the cultivation of the pupil’s memory, which, though not exactly the same as imagination, is almost identical with it.

In adolescence, memory outstrips in vigor all other faculties, and should be intensely trained.

Youth’s natural inclination to the arts in which imagination or memory (or a combination of both) is prevalent (such as painting, poetry, oratory, jurisprudence) should by no means be blunted.

Nor should advanced philosophical criticism, the common instrument today of all arts and sciences, be an impediment to any of them.

The Ancients knew how to avoid this drawback.

In almost all their schools for youths, the role of logic was fulfilled by geometry.

Following the example of medical practitioners, who concentrate their efforts on seconding the bent of Nature, the Ancients required their youths to learn the science of geometry which cannot be grasped without a vivid capacity to form images.

Thus, without doing violence to nature, but gradually and gently and in step with the mental capacities of their age, the Ancients nurtured the reasoning powers of their young men.

(De Nostri Temporis Studiorum Ratione (On the Study Methods of Our Time) (c. 1709), trans. Elio Gianturco, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990), pp. 13–14)

I don’t pretend to know exactly what Vico is getting at, other than I think he is following in the footsteps of Montaigne, Descartes, and Locke with this idea of renouncing the discipline of teaching in favor of a discipline of knowing.

But can their diagnoses concerning the problem of being a burned-out teacher find remedy through some kind of gnosis (knowing)? Vico seems to suggest this. But it also seems too much to resemble the obscurantist, the guru, the mystic. And as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) likes to remind us: “We gropewhen we read, particularly things tinged with mysticism, (Journals and Emerson Notebooks Vol. V (1835–1838), ed. William H. Gilman et al, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP), May 24, 1835, Journal B, p. 44; April 29, 1837, Journal C, p. 307).

Moreover, says Emerson:

The great distinction between teachers sacred or literary,—between poets like Herbert, and poets like Pope,—between philosophers like Spinoza, Kant, and Coleridge, and philosophers like Locke, Paley, Mackintosh, and Stewart,—between men of the world, who are reckoned accomplished talkers, and here and there a fervent mystic, prophesying, half insane under the infinitude of his thought,—is, that one class speak from within, or from experience, as parties and possessors of the fact; and the other class, from without, as spectators merely, or perhaps as acquainted with the fact on the evidence of third persons.

It is of no use to preach to me from without. I can do that too easily myself. Jesus speaks always from within, and in a degree that transcends all others.

In that is the miracle. I believe beforehand that it ought so to be. All men stand continually in the expectation of the appearance of such a teacher.

But if a man do not speak from within the veil, where the word is one with that it tells of, let him lowly confess it. (“The Over-Soul,” Essays: First Series (1841))

Emerson continues:

The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics! ….

Mysticism consists in the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for an universal one….

And the mystic must be steadily told,––All that you say is just as true without the tedious use of that symbol as with it.

Let us have a little algebra, instead of this trite rhetoric,––universal signs, instead of these village symbols,––and we shall both be gainers. (“The Poet,” Essays: Second Series (1844))