Dec 3 2022

The Enveloping Imagination: Wildfire Consuming the Open Prairies of the Mind (Part I of II)

typewriter

The Enveloping Imagination: Wildfire Consuming the Open Prairies of the Mind
(Part I of II)

This fire, these flames, is and are the imagination ablaze across the range and country and prairies and hollows and wildlands that encompass the globe of my mind. Here this mad rush of heat and energy waves both smoke and light on acquired knowledge and endured experience.

This enveloping imagination of mine reaches for whatever it can grab, then, connects it with the larger patch of bursting energy burning across the semiconscious land.

The flames grab Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) and her remarks on certain works by Kafka and van Gogh––how the final act of creation occurs when the reader-listener-viewer begins to think:

It often appears in works of art, especially in Kafka’s early prose pieces or in some paintings of van Gogh where a single object, a chair, a pair of shoes, is represented. But these art works are thought-things, and what gives them their meaning—as though they were not just themselves but for themselves—is precisely the transformation they have undergone when thinking took possession of them.
(The Life of the Mind, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking, p. 184)

And flames of the enveloping imagination found and flung and fed on Arendt’s comments, then, connected them to passages from that tale from 1912––“Das Urteil” (“The Judgement”) by Franz Kafka (1883–1924)––and that tale’s absences of the character of “mother” and of the place of “Russia”––and how those absences reemphasize and highlight the ideas of “mother” and “Russia” rather than negate them:

Two years ago his mother had died, since when he and his father had shared the household together, and is friend had of course been informed of that and had expressed his sympathy in a letter phrased so dryly that the grief caused by such an event, one had to conclude, could not be realized in a distant country….

Georg stared at the bogey conjured up by his father. His friend in St. Petersburg, whom his father suddenly knew too well, touched his imagination as never before. Lost in the vastness of Russia he saw him. At the door of an empty, plundered warehouse he saw him. Among the wreckage of his showcases, the slashed remnants of his wares, the falling gas brackets, he was just standing up. Why did he have to go so far away! ….

 “You have no friend in St. Petersburg. You’ve always been a leg-puller and you haven’t even shrunk from pulling my leg. How could you have a friend out there! I can’t believe it,” [said Georg’s father].
(“Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”), trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, The Complete Short Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, (New York: Schocken, 1971), pp. 78, 85, 83)

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And the flames move on. They now consider and consume shoes painted by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890):

(Wiki Commons)

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The flames now run wild—consuming and connecting everything before them. Before Arendt, Kafka, and van Gogh, there was Gotthold Lessing (1729–1781), who suggests in a line from his play Emilia Galotti (1772), that “one praises the artist most when, in looking at his work, one forgets to praise him.”

(Nathan the Wise, Minna von Barnhelm, and Other Plays and Writings, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Anna Johanna Gode von Aesch, (New York: Continuum, 1991), I, iv, p. 80).

Somewhat following Arendt, Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980) encouraged readers to ponder the negation and opposition of an idea, if one is to understand the motivations behind that idea. This process of imagining the negative—as in the case of Van Gogh’s shoes––is, at least according to Kaufmann, sometimes but haphazardly called Hegelian dialectic.

(Discovering the Mind Vol. I: Goethe, Kant, and Hegel, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1981), p. 266).

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The fire now burns deep: it compares C. S. Peirce (1839–1914)––a reader, but perhaps, not a follower of Hegel––and how, as Peirce and fellow philosopher-logicians might say that the sociology of humans being is based on semiotics––though non-philosopher-logicians might instead say that a human’s place in his or her community is itself a symbolic relation—a relation where the human is a symbol to the community. As Peirce puts it:

There is no element whatever of mans consciousness which has not something corresponding to it in the word; and the reason is obvious. It is that the word or sign which man uses is the man himself. For, as the fact that every thought is a sign, taken in conjunction with the fact that life is a train of thought, proves that man is a sign; so, that every thought is an external sign, proves that man is an external sign. That is to say, the man and the external sign are identical, in the same sense in which the word homo and man are identical. Thus my language is the sum total of myself; for the man is the thought….

Finally, as what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community. The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows, and from what he and they are to be, is only a negation. This is man.
(“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 2 (1868))

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Flame and soot and smoke and ember—elements indeed of any and all’s imagination––now burn close. Closer to our own time, Umberto Eco (1932–2016) summarizes what Peirce is getting at:

It may seem paradoxical to talk of the icon, which Peirce held was the first moment of an absolute evidence, as pure disposition-to, of pure absence in some way, an image of a thing that is not there yet. It would seem that this primary icon is like a hole, given that we have everyday experience of it but nonetheless have difficulty defining it, and given that 152 can be recognized only as an absence within something that is present. And yet it is precisely from that nonbeing that one can infer the shape of the “plug” that could stop it up.
(“Cognitive Types and Nuclear Content,” Kant e lornitorinco (Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition), trans. Alastair McEwen, (New York: Harcourt, 1997), pp. 110–11. On the point of the plug, Eco cites: Roberto Casati and Achilie C. Varzi, Holes and Other Superficialities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994))

Wittgenstein (1889–1951) has also pointed out that space and object probably cannot be logically isolated. My imagination says I should say “probably” because Wittgenstein left some possibility open by suggesting we humans may not have yet exercised our imaginations to the fullest extent—we have not yet burned through everything:

An atmosphere that is inseparable from its object—is no atmosphere.

Closely associated things, things which have been associated, seem to fit one another. But in what way do they seem to fit? How does it come out that they seem to fit? Like this, for example: we cannot imagine the man who had this name, this face, this handwriting, not to have produced these works, but perhaps quite different ones instead (those of another great man).

We cannot imagine it? Do we try?––

(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, vi, 50), p. 192)

Or, as Owen Barfield (1898–1997) once put it, imagination “seeks to sink itself entirely in the thing perceived.”

(Romanticism Comes of Age, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1967), p. 39).

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Do readers-listeners-viewers really sink themselves into Kafka’s quasi-stories and the painted shoes depicted by van Gogh? I really don’t know. But it sort of makes sense to meme, neither firefighter nor firestarter—me, only a beholder of the enveloping imagination burning across my mind’s land.


Nov 25 2022

The Riddling Imagination – Part IV

London - Georgian Apartments

The Riddling Imagination – Part IV

(Read PART I here.)

(Read PART II here.)

(Read PART III here.)

Toward the end of Franz Kafka’s (1883–1924) final work, the riddling narrative “Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse” (“Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”) (1924), the narrator asks:

Was her actual piping notably louder and more alive than the memory of it will be? Was it even in her lifetime more than a simple memory? Was it not rather because Josephine’s singing was already past losing in this way that our people in their wisdom prized it so highly?
(The Complete Short Stories, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, (New York: Schocken, 1946, 1971), p. 376)

Here readers are asked to ask: is holding the memory of the piping more important than unlocking the riddle to whether or not the piping is singing? Compare a reflection in Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Dom dzienny, dom nocny (House of Day, House of Night) (1988):

Oddly, it’s never the actual story that comes back to me, but the memory of Marta telling it, a small figure, with her round shoulders in the cardigan with the loose buttonholes and her bony fingers.
(House of Day, House of Night), trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2002), p. 5)

But suppose it is important for readers to consider the question of whether Josephine’s piping is prosaic, while true singing is something poetic? Does her piping constitute a sort of poetry? Or is piping mere prose, so that true singing, then, is true poetry? What if Kafka’s narrator is tone-deaf? And what do readers of Kafka remain blind to when reading “Josephine the Singer?”

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While discussing blind John Milton (1608–1674), Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), himself nearly half-blind since childhood, once explained that:

Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason…. Invention is almost the only literary labour which blindness cannot obstruct, and, therefore, he [Milton] naturally solaced his solitude by the indulgence of his fancy, and the melody of his numbers.
(“Milton,” Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779))

Compare that to when Wittgenstein (1889–1951) spoke of blindness and imagination:

When blind people speak, as they like to do, of blue sky and other specifically visual phenomena, the sighted person often says “Who knows what he imagines that to mean”––But why doesn’t he say this about other sighted people? It is, of course, a wrong expression to begin with.
(Bermerkungen Über Die Farben (Remarks on Colour), ed. G. E. M. Anscombe, trans. Linda L. McAlister and Margarete Schättle, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978), III, no. 294)

What might the right expression be? According to Owen Barfield (1898–1997):

In a word, imagination involves a certain disappearance of the sense of ‘I’ and ‘Not I’. It stands before the object and feels ‘I am that’.
(Romanticism Comes of Age, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1967), p. 30)

In other words, imagination is not “I am” or “I am that I am,” but––“I am that”––as when uttering the old folk phrase, There but for the grace of God go I. As Barfield explains, imagination “seeks to sink itself entirely in the thing perceived,” (Romanticism Comes of Age, p. 39).

And this ability to momentarily lose one’s sense of ‘I’ in imagining ‘I am that’—is a kind of freedom, as Lessing (1729–1781) recognized:

Now that only is fruitful which allows free play to the imagination. The more we see the more we must be able to imagine; and the more we imagine, the more we must think we see….. In poetry a robe is no robe. It conceals nothing. Our imagination sees through it in every part.
(Laokoön oder Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie (Laocoön: an Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry) (1766), trans. Ellen Frothingham, (Boston, MA: Roberts Brothers, 1887), III, V)

Finally, let readers here at Bookbread return to Johnson on Milton, and how:

These are very imperfect rudiments of Paradise Lost; but it is pleasant to see great works in their seminal state, pregnant with latent possibilities of excellence; nor could there be any more delightful entertainment than to trace their gradual growth and expansion, and to observe how they are sometimes suddenly advanced by accidental hints, and sometimes slowly improved by steady meditation.

Kafka’s works are, if nothing else, pregnant with latent possibilities of excellence. Reading them requires steady meditation—the kind of meditation that leads to self-abnegation––where one loses one’s sense of an ‘I’ while reading.

I find this particularly true of his final work “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” Or should I say: I find this particularly true upon reflection of the memory of reading Kafka (but perhaps not during the act of reading Kafka)? ’Tis but another riddle I imagine.


Nov 18 2022

The Riddling Imagination – Part III

pencil shavings

THE RIDDLING IMAGINATION – PART III

(Read PART I here.)

(Read PART II here.)

The pipes, the pipes are calling,
From glen to glen,
And down the mountainside.

More thoughts on imagination and Franz Kafka’s (1883–1924) final work, the riddling narrative “Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse” (“Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”) (1924).

Again, throughout the “story,” the narrator repeats (emphasizes?) the difference between true singing and mere piping—amid differentiating this difference emerges an enormous riddle. Here is what I imagine to be the story’s key passage:

Is it in fact singing at all? Although we are unmusical we have a tradition of singing; in the old days our people did sing; this is mentioned in legends and some songs have actually survived, which, it is true, no one can now sing. Thus we have an inkling of what singing is, and Josephine’s art does not really correspond to it. So is it singing at all? Is it not perhaps just a piping? And piping is something we all know about, it is the real artistic accomplishment of our people, or rather no mere accomplishment but a characteristic expression of our life.

We all pipe, but of course no one dreams of making out that our piping is an art, we pipe without thinking of it indeed without noticing it, and there are even many among us who are quite unaware that piping is one of our characteristics. So if it were true that Josephine does not sing but only pipes and perhaps, as it seems to me at least, hardly rises above the level of our usual piping––yet, perhaps her strength is not even quite equal to our usual piping, whereas an ordinary farmhand can keep it up effortlessly all day long, besides doing his work––if that were all true, then indeed Josephine’s alleged vocal skill might be disproved, but that would merely clear the ground for the real riddle which needs solving, the enormous influence she has.

(The Complete Short Stories, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (New York: Schocken, 1946, 1971), p. 361)

Kafka was born only 51 years after the death of Johann von Goethe (1749–1832). They were not as far apart as sometimes seems. Early on in his autobiography Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth from My Own Life) (1811–1830), Goethe recalled the civic piping from his childhood—a piping that linked the living to the dead—generational sounds shared, all received in one accord:

It was impossible to have these ceremonies, with their power of conjuring up the past, explained to use without leading us back into former centuries and informing us of the habits, customs, and feelings of our ancestors, who in a strange way were made present to us by pipers and delegates, apparently risen from the dead, and even by tangible gifts which we might ourselves possess.

(Poetry and Truth from My Own Life, trans. R. O. Moon, (Washington D. C.: Public Affairs Press, 1949), “Book I,” p. 16)

Kafka’s narrator in “Josephine” also recognizes some social advantages to the piping—that it lets the citizen-listener forget about the workaday world for a little while:

Of course it [Josephine’s singing] is a kind of piping. Why not? Piping is our people’s daily speech, only many a one pipes his whole life long and does not know it, where here piping is set free from the fetters of daily life and it sets us free too for a little while. We certainly should not want to do without these performances. (The Complete Short Stories, p. 370)

Can one gamble on a riddle? If so, then, under the credit of my imagination, I wager that Kafka’s narrator recognizing the social advantages of piping partially answers the great riddle presented in his tale of “Josephine.”

But to gamble is to dream. It is not so much that gambling and dreaming lack certainty but that each activity slacks on certainty (or “certainality”). Without certain certainty there are only resemblances and contrasts. Camouflage versus distinction. One gambles on the resemblance (or contrast). One dreams up the resemblance (or contrast). And if concerns song or pipe, one listens for resemblance (or contrast).

Is the following a resemblance or a contrast? In the preface to his 1946 novel The Great Divorce: a Dream by C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) dreams of a hierarchy that sets the structure for all things Good. Oh, were Kafka’s narrator such a dreamer rather than a riddler! For then: if piping be not as good as singing, Good singing should then continue to differentiate itself from mediocre pipping. As Lewis theorizes:

We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre: rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two, and each of those into two again, and at each fork you must make a decision. Even on the biological level life is not like a pool but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good.

Recall that readers have been told to imagine it was the Pied Piper who took away the children of Hamelin, not a singer like Josephine, nor a dreamer like Lewis. In Hamelin, piping ruined the community rather than soothed it: Yet why the piping ruined the town, remains, as in “Josephine,” the great unsolved riddle:

Parallel to their collection of Volksmärchen, the Grimms also gathered Deutsche Sagen, legends and sagas, which appeared in two volumes in 1816. Only one, but perhaps the best known in this country, is included here, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” It is, of course, not a fairy tale but a popular legend with a basis in historic fact, most probably the story of recruiting officers who enticed young people away to do battle or to colonize in the East.

(Helmut Brackert, “Introduction,” The German Library Vol. XIX: German Fairy Tales, eds. Brackert and Volkmar Sander, (New York: Continuum, 1985), p. xxix)


Nov 4 2022

The Riddling Imagination – Part II

THE RIDDLING IMAGINATION – PART II

(Read PART I here.)

I again return to Franz Kafka’s (1883–1924) final work, “Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse” (“Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”) (1924).

Again, throughout the “story,” the narrator repeats (emphasizes?) the difference between true singing and mere piping—and that differentiating this difference presents an enormous riddle:

Is it in fact singing at all? Although we are unmusical we have a tradition of singing; in the old days our people did sing; this is mentioned in legends and some songs have actually survived, which, it is true, no one can now sing. Thus we have an inkling of what singing is, and Josephine’s art does not really correspond to it. So is it singing at all? Is it not perhaps just a piping? And piping is something we all know about, it is the real artistic accomplishment of our people, or rather no mere accomplishment but a characteristic expression of our life.

We all pipe, but of course no one dreams of making out that our piping is an art, we pipe without thinking of it indeed without noticing it, and there are even many among us who are quite unaware that piping is one of our characteristics. So if it were true that Josephine does not sing but only pipes and perhaps, as it seems to me at least, hardly rises above the level of our usual piping––yet, perhaps her strength is not even quite equal to our usual piping, whereas an ordinary farmhand can keep it up effortlessly all day long, besides doing his work––if that were all true, then indeed Josephine’s alleged vocal skill might be disproved, but that would merely clear the ground for the real riddle which needs solving, the enormous influence she has.

(The Complete Short Stories, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, ed. Nahum Glatzer, (New York: Schocken, 1946, 1971), p. 361)

In Kafka’s one dramatic work Der Gruftwächter (The Warden of the Tomb) (1916–17), readers-audiences encounter the following exchange:

PRINCE: And what about the guard in the tomb itself?

CHAMBERLAIN: In my opinion this would have a police connotation. It would mean a real guarding of unreal things beyond the human sphere.

(The Complete Short Stories, trans. Tania and James Stern, p. 207)

How would one differentiate the two, between the real singing and the unreal singing?

Thus the riddle: What kind of imagination did Kafka, as a writer of “Josephine the Singer,” display? I’ve generally been bred by books to read the Penman of Prague’s texts as a combination of spontaneity and calculated brooding. Every line in the story seems accidentally inevitable as well as inevitably accidental. He sometimes comes across so precise as to seem mechanical—Professor Nabokov (1899–1977) once said of Kafka’s (Germanic) style in The Metamorphosis was nearly “scientific.”Yet Kafka (as a writer) remains wholly, utterly, and merely human-all-too-human.

Though that’s not so bad. For Kafka (or his literary characters and narrators) are often good-humored humans, even amid intense anxiety of the story’s situation—in the case of “Josephine”—readers are treated to a trial over judging whether certain sounds are vibrant songs or simple pipe tunes.

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Confession: I also hear a spirit of reverie welling up out of Kafka’s narrator in the passage from “Josephine the Singer” And in my own reverie of rereading and remembering Kafka and his narrator, I recall what, though in quite a different context, Dr. John Locke (1632–1704) said of the concept of reverie:

When ideas float in our mind without any reflection or regard of the understanding, it is that which the French call reverie; our language has scarce a name for it:

(An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), (II, xix, 1))

For Marie-Henri Beyle a.k.a. Stendhal (1783–1842), a prolonged period of reverie may involve a thousand details—yet those thousands may lead to what he calls “crystallization”:

The imagination finds its progress barred by the ominous warnings of memory, and crystallization stops dead….

I have been advised in the first place to dispense with this word, or, if I cannot do that, to include frequent reminders that by crystallization I mean a certain fever of the imagination which translates a normally commonplace object into something unrecognizable, and makes it an entity apart. Among those who can only achieve happiness through vanity, the man who wishes to excite this fever must take great pains with his cravat and be constantly on the watch over a thousand details, none of which must be neglected.

(De l’amour (Love) (1822), trans. Gilbert and Suzanne Sale, (New York: Penguin, 1957, 1975), (I, xv), pp. 64–65)

Under Stendhal’s scheme, such crystallization is what the seriously idle reader would eventually hope for in the grand (and unrewarding) attempt to understand Kafka’s narrator.

For there remains part of me as a reader that wants to say: Kafka’s narrator is engaged in a Franco-Lockean reverie of determining authentic, bardic singing from the derived pipping of jesters. Kafka’s narrator is trying to determine: What is real, what is unreal? He (or she) is trying to unriddle a riddle. And most of us do this to some extent in everyday life. Will the car ahead actually turn left just because it’s blinker indicates it will? (“Are these girl-scout cookies made from real girl scouts?”)

Post Script

Stendhal the Frenchman (though pretending to be an Italian in his essay De lamour) goes on to explain two kinds of imagination:

1. Keen, impetuous, spontaneous imagination, leading instantly to action, chafing and languishing at a delay of even twenty-four hours…. It is characterized by impatience, and flares into anger against what it cannot obtain. It perceives external objects but these merely add fuel to its fire; it assimilates them and at once converts them to increase the passion.

2. Imagination which kindles only slowly, but which after a time no longer perceives external objects and succeeds in becoming exclusively concerned with, and dependent on, its own passion. This kind of imagination is quite compatible with slowness and even scarcity of ideas. It is conductive to constancy.

(De l’amour, (§ Various Fragments), p. 228)

Thus one can only hope that a deep reverie in piping may lead to the recognition (recognosis, as in, a repeated gnosis—to re-know what you already know, as in Plato’s Menon) of actual singing––a recognition that might even lead to the actualization (via crystallization) of pure song. The great unutterable thing in itself. One cannot rid oneself of the riddle.


Oct 31 2022

The Riddling Imagination – Part I

bookshelf

The Riddling Imagination – Part I

[Look at you trying to read Kafka—like some goody-two-shoes English Major from the late-twentieth-century…. Kafka won’t cure cancer or homelessness or traffic congestion. Why bother with the great be-puzzler of Prague when you have bills to pay in Austin?]

I (finally and) recently got around to reading Franz Kafka’s (1883–1924) final work, “Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse” (“Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”) (1924), a story which, like most of the other works by that slippery author, evades interpretation.

(Let the last reader then instead try excavation and extrapolation upon this last of stories).

Throughout Kafka’s story, the narrator repeats (emphasizes?) the difference between true singing and mere piping—and that differentiating this difference marks an enormous riddle:

Is it in fact singing at all? Although we are unmusical we have a tradition of singing; in the old days our people did sing; this is mentioned in legends and some songs have actually survived, which, it is true, no one can now sing. Thus we have an inkling of what singing is, and Josephine’s art does not really correspond to it. So is it singing at all? Is it not perhaps just a piping? And piping is something we all know about, it is the real artistic accomplishment of our people, or rather no mere accomplishment but a characteristic expression of our life. We all pipe, but of course no one dreams of making out that our piping is an art, we pipe without thinking of it indeed without noticing it, and there are even many among us who are quite unaware that piping is one of our characteristics. So if it were true that Josephine does not sing but only pipes and perhaps, as it seems to me at least, hardly rises above the level of our usual piping––yet, perhaps her strength is not even quite equal to our usual piping, whereas an ordinary farmhand can keep it up effortlessly all day long, besides doing his work––if that were all true, then indeed Josephine’s alleged vocal skill might be disproved, but that would merely clear the ground for the real riddle which needs solving, the enormous influence she has.

(Franz Kafka – The Complete Short Stories, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, (New York: Schocken, 1946, 1971), p. 361)

With a riddle, at least for a bookly-breaded reader like Christopher Landrum, one is never content until it is solved. As Antipholus of Syracuse says in the Comedy of Errors:

He that commends me to mine own content
Commends me to the thing I cannot get. (I, ii, ll. 33–34)

I don’t know if William Arden Shakespeare (1564–1616) held this opinion personally. I know only that Shakespeare was capable of imagining someone else thinking, believing, and feeling this restless way about solving the riddle––the experience of one’s doubt searching for certainty—the mental sensation of an original emptiness currently seeking a final contentment—a drive of conscience that distorts the very way (both as a means and a path) to which it is driven.

To further scratch this itch I turn to Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), for whom I think has a very good answer (or beginning to an answer) to the riddle presented by Kafka’s narrator above. According to Russell:

I think it is the duty of the philosopher to make himself as undistorting a mirror [of nature via language] as he can. But it is also his duty to recognize such distortions as are inevitable from our very nature. Of these, the most fundamental is that we view the world from the point of view of the here and now, not with that large impartiality which theists attribute to the Deity. To achieve such impartiality is impossible for us, but we can travel a certain distance towards it. To show the road to this end is the supreme duty of the philosopher.

(“The Retreat from Pythagoras,” My Philosophical Development, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959)in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, eds. Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961), p. 256)

Russell’s holding that “distortions are inevitable” seems to be one answer to the riddle of Kafka’s tale.

Yet the answers may be legion, infinite—because that’s what you get when you get to Kafka. So I read it this way: the duty of the serious writer (whether philosopher, historian, or prose poet) is to solve the riddle of differentiating pipping from singing––to differentiate the silence that teaches from the silence that forgets.


Oct 16 2022

Left Blinker, Right Turn: Tricked by My Imagination

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Left Blinker, Right Turn: Tricked by My Imagination

In the fourth book of the Confessions, Rousseau of Geneva says his imagination was too fertile to appreciate Paris:

How contrary to what I had expected was my first sight of Paris! The external ornament I had seen in Turin, the fine streets, the symmetry and disposition of the houses, all this made me look for something better still in Paris. I had imagined a city as broad as it was fair, whose every aspect was imposing, where all one would see were magnificent streets and palaces of marble and gold. Entering by the Faubourg Saint-Marceau, I saw nothing but dirty, stinking little streets, dark and ugly houses, an air of filth and poverty, beggars, carters, old crones mending, hawkers of herbal teas and old hats. I was so immediately and so forcibly struck by it all that none of the true splendour I later saw in Paris has erased this first impression, and I have been left ever since with a secret dislike of living in this capital.

It could even be said that such time as I have spent there since has been wholly devoted to acquiring the means to enable me to live somewhere else. Such is the fruit of too lively an imagination, which exaggerates still further the exaggerations of others, and always enhances what it is told. I had always heard Paris acclaimed in such terms that I had pictured it to myself as a second Babylon, although, had I seen this city, I might perhaps have found that it, too, fell no less short of the portrait I had painted of it in my mind’s eye.

The same thing happened at the Opéra, which I rushed to visit the next day; the same thing happened later at Versailles, later still when I saw the sea, and the same thing will always happen when I see sights that have been too warmly recommended: for it is impossible for men and difficult for nature herself to outdo my fertile imagination.

(Confessions (1779), trans. Angela Scholar, ed. Patrick Coleman, (New York: Oxford, 1994, 2008), IV, p. 155.)

And these thoughts on imagination from Rousseau came to me in the middle of traffic—when I saw the blinker to the car in front of me indicating it would soon turn left. Then, of course, the car slowed down and turned right.

The expectation I imagined (of the car turning left) turned out to be false. It turned out to be the exact opposite of what one should expect from such an indication.

Chaucer might’ve said of this an example that “Thou hast a veyn imaginacioun,” (The Knight’s Tale, Part I, ll. 1091–93).

Spenser might’ve said that I have a “gross imagination” from reading too many “rude Irish books,” (See Endnote).

Milton might add to this conversation that “man will hearken to his glozing lies,” (Paradise Lost, III, 93)––whether “his” means the lies of Satan or those of other men.

But then comes Lord Bacon, to remind me that:

Fascination is the power and act of imagination intensive upon other bodies than the body of the imaginant, for of that we spake in the proper place….

But for mine own judgemt it, if it be admitted that imagination hath power, and that ceremonies fortify imagination, and that they be used sincerely and intentionally for that purpose.

(The Advancement of Learning (1605), ed. William Aldis Wright (1858), (Oxford: Clarendon, 1957, fifth edition), (II, xi, 2), p. 146.)

For “superstition,” Bacon tells readers, “erecteth an absolute monarchy in the minds of men.” Still:

There is a superstition in avoiding superstition, when men think to do best if they go furthest from the superstition formerly received; therefore care would be had that (as it fareth in ill purgings) the good be not taken away with the bad; which commonly is done when the people is the reformer.

(“Of Superstition,” Essays or Counsels Civil and Moral (1625) in Essays, ed. Brian Vickers, (New York: Oxford UP, 1999), pp. 39–40.)

I am but at the mercy of my imagination, whether it be vain, gross, rude, glozing with lies, or perhaps fascinating, or perhaps, as seems to be somewhat the case with the insincere blinker in Austin traffic, superstitious.

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An endnote from Spenser:

Eudox. Believe me, this observations of yours, Irenaeus, is very good and delightfull; far beyond the blinde conceipt of some, who (I remember) have upon the same word Ferragh, made a very blunt conjecture, as namely Mr. Stanihurst, who though he be the same country man borne, that should search more nearly into the secret of these things; yet hath strayed from the truth all the heavens wyde, (as they say,) for he thereupon groundeth a very groose imagination, that the Irish should descend from the Egyptians which came into that Island, Irish should descend from the Egyptians which came into that Island, first under the leading of one Scota the daughter of Pharoah, whereupon the use (saith he) in all their battailes to call upon the name of Pharaoh, crying Ferragh, Ferragh. Surely he shootes wyde on the bow hand, and very far from the marke. For I would first know of him what auncienet ground of authority he hath for such a senselesse fable, and if he have any of the rude Irish books, as it may be hee hath, yet (me seems) that a man of his learning should not so lightly have bin carried away with old wives tales, from approvance of his owne reason; for whether it be a smack of any learned iudgment, to say, that Scota is like an Egyptian word, let the learned iudge. But his Scota rather comes of the Greek [Greek], that is, darknes, which hath not let him see the light of the truth.

(A View of the State of Ireland (c. 1596, 1633), eds. Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley, (Oxford: Blackwell’s, 1997), p. 60.)


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

bookshelf

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: