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 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 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))


May 16 2022

To Move from Home into a Land Far Away

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

To Move from Home into a Land Far Away:
The Problem of Getting-by Without Getting Burned-out

Two interesting pieces I’ve recently address the topic of moving from one country to another to see better economic (employment) opportunities:

So, one from Canada, one from Ireland; but both a part of the former British Empire. (A third, related piece I read last week, concerns an Irish woman leaving London life and returning to Ireland):

These three pieces address the problem of “getting by without getting burned out” when living in an urban environment in the West.

Without undergoing severe asceticism and learning to be disciplined as a monk initiate, the struggle to survive persists. Whether one lives in Berlin, Toronto, Dublin, London, or New York, problems don’t go away just because one moves away; often you only exchange one matrix of conflicts for another.

These confessional pieces (told in different ways for different reasons) have stubbornly stuck to me today, probably because, especially for the past year, it has felt most apparent that the City of Austin intends to slowly push me out of its fabled limits.

And one day the city may succeed. And then where would I go? Not Dublin. Not Dallas.

Rónán Riordion went from Kerry to Berlin. But Berlin? It seems a little too close to Moscow for me to move there.

And some acquaintances have suggested Costa Rica, but like the piece where the Canadian comes to accepting the reality that moving to the United States might be best for its author Isen’s prospects, Costa seems like a nice place to retire to if one already has savings or already established steady revenue streams, but if one doesn’t have those foundations already laid, then….

Though I have often imagined myself to be a stubbier, clumsier version of Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. (for I used to be good at finding arrowheads on the family farm), I remain unsure whether I should start searching for “fortune and glory,” in either the heart of the jungles of Central America or the capital of the former Deutsche Reich. (Probably neither; not when it still seems like everyone else wants to come to Texas.) Yet, as my era (and home) in Austin will surely someday end, I may have little choice in the matter of where to go next.


Apr 20 2022

Short Story Review: “Octopus” (2022) by Nathan Willis

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

SHORT STORY REVIEW: “OCTOPUS” (2022) BY NATHAN WILLIS

In Nathan Willis’s short story “Octopus” (Necessary Fiction, Feb. 16, 2022) the reader must confront randomness. There’s some seemingly radical juxtaposition going on, with words, images, and ideas focusing around octopi, the theatricals of choking in public, as well as hostage negotiation. But, overall, it also involves the notion that, while children may later remember specific moments and actions done by their parents, they rarely (even upon reflection in their own old age) understand why their parents did the things they did when they did them.

So “Octopus” is about the nostalgia (grown) children have for certain memories that involve them being with their parents. The mood of the story is contemplative, combined with a detached sympathy of the narrator toward his father—things that remind me of Nicole Nesca’s poem “What would Hemingway Say?” (Let It Bleed: Screamin’ Skull Press, 2017, p. 1), as when she writes:

I never tried to be my father.

But, I was and am him.

Everything that we learned happened before we were ten years old.

But compare a character in Denis Wong’s short story “The Resurrection of Ma Jun” (Missouri Review, Spring 2018) who remarks:

Thinking about this stuff drives me crazy. Who cares about made-up ideas like God? “We can only rely on ourselves,” is what Quian and I have always believed. Not even our parents can save us. (p. 60)

Though I refuse to summarize Willis’s story that was a joy to (re)read, I will say that parts of “Octopus” have––in terms of style––a Wittgensteinian “family resemblance” to some of Kafka’s short stories––particularly “Forschungen eins Hundes” (“Investigations of a Dog”) (1922) and “Der Bau” (“The Burrow”) (1933) with the way each sentence seems to take the story in a new direction than it was seeming headed beforehand.

For the plot in Willis’s “Octopus” makes incredible strives sentence-by-sentence, where, like a corkscrew, each line and clause twists the narrative more and more––and all this strongly resembles the storytelling methods found in the anonymous Tale of Aladdin, a near-novella often lodged in copies of Tales from the Thousand and One Nights but technically not an original part of that anthology.

In terms of substance—particularly the (yes, I know) surrealistic content of radical juxtaposition to be found in “Octopus”––this reader also detects some resemblances to Nesca’s short story “Child,” (from Let It Bleed), the late, great Norm MacDonald (1959–2021) and his quasi-memoir-novel Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir (Random House, 2017), as well as Me & Mr. Cigar (Soho Teen, 2020) by Gibby Haynes…. (perhaps even Terry Southern (1924–1995) and his novel The Magic Christian (1959)….)

While I won’t quote from “Octopus,” which is brief enough to be read across a single lunch break, with regard to substance, things in it can be found that are reminiscent of the way Norm could twist a seemingly ugly remark until it blossomed into revelation:

 “Yeah,” says Adam Eget. “I really wish I’d met him, but it was before my time. There are so many great Kinison stories at the Store [a New York stand-up comedy club]. It’s so unfair that guys like Sam have to die so young and a sonofabitch like Nelson Mandela lived to be an old man.”

“Nelson Mandela wasn’t a sonofabitch. He fought apartheid and they put him in prison for more than twenty years. And when they finally released him and he took power, he never exacted revenge on his enemies. Instead, he exacted forgiveness on them and brought his torn nation together.”

“I thought he stole some diamonds.” (pp. 30–31)

The randomness of “Octopus,” furthermore, harkens back to my recent reading of Gibby’s own randomness, as when in his debut novel Me and Mr. Cigar he writes:

About halfway there in the wooded hollow right before Catfish Creek (where you’re more likely to catch a washing machine than a catfish), there’s a police car on the side of the road. Halfway across the bridge, just past the cop, I sneak a look back. He’s pulled out onto the road and turned on his lights. The cab of the pickup is suddenly filled with red flashing lights. For some reason the thump-thump-thump of the metal slats on the bridge is particularly loud tonight. I pull the truck over, stick it in park and look over at Lytle and Mr. Cigar. Wide-eyed, we simultaneously mouth an elongated Ohhhh shiiiiit. (p. 141)

So check out Nathan Willis’s “Octopus”––I think you’ll like it.


Feb 27 2022

What Dreams May Come After Awakening? Review of Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” (2019)

typewriter

The Elgonyi, natives of the Elgon forests, of central Africa, explained to me that there are two kinds of dreams: the ordinary dream of the little man, and the ‘big vision’ that only the great man has, e.g., the medicine-man or chief. Little dreams are of no account, but if a man has a ‘big dream’ he summons the whole tribe in order to tell it to everybody.

––Carl Jung, “Relations between Ego & Unconscious” (1928)[1]

I don’t know. But I don’t vote anymore. I’m now a radical nonvoter (I think). I feel utterly powerless, ever since the snow storm last year. It was like a revelation, an epiphany, an awakening.

Recently I started reading Colson Whitehead’s novel The Nickel Boys (2019) and, in a particular passage, recognized a shared sense of powerlessness:

It was hard to miss the smile that tugged at Jaimie’s mouth from time to time. Turner wasn’t angry that Jaimie lied to their faces. He admired liars who kept on lying even though their lies were obvious, but there was nothing anyone could do about it. Another proof of one’s powerlessness before other people.[2]

Yes, once upon a time I possessed the capacity to admire politicians who “kept on lying even though their lies were obvious”—James Traficant (1941–2014) for example, whom I gather, was sort of low-rent version of Huey Long (1893–1935).

But now I’m stuck in a bog of disenchantment. And when you’re stuck, you feel mediocre. The Roman historian Livy tells readers that “men of mediocre ability escape envy, it generally aims its shafts at the highest”[3]––after the ice storm of 2021, I feel I am the very measure of a mediocre man.

But even though one is stuck, one is going to have to suck it up. For no one envies a person in pain (especially the pain of powerlessness in politics), for “nothing makes itself more unpopular quite so quickly,” wrote the Roman stoic Seneca, “as a person’s grief.” [4]

In more modern times, Professor Wittgenstein has taught that: “you learned the concept ‘pain’ in learning language”[5]––such as the pain of feeling powerless when being lied to––as with the character of Elwood in The Nickel Boys, as in Texas politics etcetera….

All I know is, I will no longer sacrifice anything upon the altar of admiration for political leadership, particularly at the local level. Those who look to leadership for answers are no different than those who look at pornography for partnership.

But, whether in novels or the minds of mediocre book-bloggers have those who have become disenchanted from such dreams of realpolitik now awakened? Do they now rise and walk in a brand-new life?

*****

One reads in The Nickel Boys that

[Thus said Dr. King]: Throw us in jail, and we will still love you…. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom.

The capacity to suffer. Elwood—all the Nickel boys—existed in the capacity…. Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing…. No, he could not make that leap to love. He understood neither the impulse of the proposition nor the will to execute it.[6]

That passage dimly resembles the Revelation in the second partition of the first volume of Proust when:

… at the hour when there awakened in me that anguish which, later on in life, transfers itself to the passion of love, and may even become its inseparable companion…. since one has doubts of them at the moment when one believes in them.[7]

Then again, the passage by Whitehead reminds me also of one by Professor Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me (2015) when he explains that, “The question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.”[8]

But now emerges the question of whether or not waking life and dreaming (or nightmaring) are interchangeable, something that can be exchanged for something else, like at the back-counter at Wal-Mart. For all dreams are ideologies; all ideologies are dreams. As the Czech playwright-politician Václav Havel (1936–2011) says in his essay “The Power of the Powerless”(1978):

Ideology becomes at the same time an increasingly important component of power, a pillar providing it with both excusatory legitimacy and an inner coherence. As this aspect grows in importance, and as it gradually loses touch with reality, it acquires a peculiar but very real strength. It becomes reality itself, albeit a reality altogether self-contained, one that on certain levels (chiefly inside the power structure) may have even greater weight than reality as such. Increasingly, the virtuosity of the ritual becomes more important than the reality hidden behind it.[9]

There are times when I just can’t stop questioning. I find virtue in it as a ritual. Questions like:

  • Is The Nickel Boys more about doubting the possibility of loving one’s harm-makers rather than having become disenchanted by their capabilities?
  • Must readers interpret Whitehead’s character of Elwood to interpret King’s words literally?
  • Or must readers investigate the historical context of the speech to see if King was speaking literally, metaphorically, poetically, spiritually, subculturally, bureaucratically, democratically, and/or theologically?
  • Or does the character within the book possess no need for adjectives in order to possess disbelief in King’s admonition?

After all, who needs specifics when the generality is already within one’s grasp?

Is political dreaming just a form of quackery (just as philosophy is a form of medicine)?[10]

And if Jung was not a quack but someone who studied dreams––the way a political scientist studies various ideologies––can readers accept his realization-as-remedy? Would Carl Jung and Colson Whitehead agree that dreaming is primitive, and waking life (in political as well as physiological ways) a more evolved, more enlightened mode of consciousness? For Jung reminds readers that dreams cannot be unbound from the paleolithic past out of whence they came:

Fantasies always have a highly original and ‘creative’ character. They are like new creations; obviously they derive from the creative activity of the brain and not simply from its mnemonic activity….[11]

The symbol-producing function of our dreams is an attempt to bring our original mind back to consciousness, where it has never been before, and where it has never known it. We got rid of it before understanding it…. Dreams and old primitive things from which the mind freed itself in the course of its evolution: illusions, childish fantasies, archaic thought-forms, primitive instincts.[12]

More to come (maybe).

NOTES

wood

[1] Jung, “Relations between ego and unconscious” (1928) in The Jung Reader, ed. David Tacey, (New York: Routledge, 2012) 126.

[2] Whitehead, The Nickel Boys, (New York: Doubleday, 2019), 129.

[3] Livy, The History of Rome Vol. VI – books xl–xlv, trans. Canon Roberts (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1924) XLV, xxxv, 282.

[4] Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, trans. Robin Campbell, (New York: Penguin Classics, 1969), Letter LXIII, p. 116.

[5] Wittgenstein, “Notes for Lectures on ‘Private Experience’ and ‘Sense Data’,” Philosophical Review, 77 (July 1968): 275–320 at 295–96; 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) I. no. 384.

[6] Whitehead, Nickel Boys, 172–73, 195–96.

[7] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) – Vol. I Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way) (1913), trans. C. K. Moncrieff, § “Combray.”

[8] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015)11–12.

[9] Havel, “Moc bezmocných” (“The Power of the Powerless,”) (1978), trans. Paul Wilson, The Power of the Powerless, ed. John Keane, (Armonk, NY: Palach Press, 1985) V, 32.

[10] Livy has some old Roman named Appius Claudius cry out: “Ye gods, they are like quack physicians looking for work, who always want the state to be suffering some affliction that you will call them in to cure. Are you tribunes the champions or the enemies of the plebs?” (The Rise of Rome, Books 1–5, trans. T. J. Luce, (New York: Oxford UP) (V, iii), p. 284).

Marcus Aurelius says that philosophy is supposed to be a medicine, not an entertainment (V, ix); for “philosophy is a modest profession, all simplicity and plain dealing. Never try to seduce me into solemn pretentiousness,” (IX, xxix). See Meditations, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, (New York: Penguin, 1962).

[11] Jung, “The role of the unconscious” (1918), The Jung Reader 66.

[12] Jung, “Healing the split” (1961), The Jung Reader 359.


Feb 11 2022

Book Review: “Coyote Songs” (2018) by Gabino Iglesias

Western book stack

Book Review: “Coyote Songs” (2018) by Gabino Iglesias

I don’t read a lot of horror, but occasionally I find myself gandering afield. So I feel confident enough to claim Gabino Iglesias’s novel Coyote Songs: a barrio noir (El Paso: Broken Books, 2018) can, at times, be just as vicious as parts of other novels I’ve encountered such as McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: or The Evening Redness in the West (1985), a lot of the little I’ve read of Stephen King––particularly his It (1989)––and perhaps even Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse (1996).

One very poignant passage for me in Iglesias’s book was:

The men made phone calls and used the equipment in their cars to report the finding. Then came the white vans. Men and women wearing masks and latex gloves packed the bodies into black bags, zipped them up, and loaded them into the backs of the vans. The process was quiet, ceremonial. Every time they pulled a kid out, everyone looked down, refusing to make eye contact with the others. They were temporarily ashamed of being human. (Coyote Songs 132)

This is a fictional world, yet it is one akin to the world of Ayotzinapa––a world where, instead of the bright cliché of how “the eyes are the windows to the soul”—readers instead find only sight shattered, vision lost, ocular organs gouged out like Gloucester on the moor when he laments:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport. (King Lear IV, i)

Iglesias’s line––“ashamed to being human”— reminds me also of the story of Pio Bigo (1924–2013), an Italian who refused to fight for Mussolini, then, endured time in Muthausen, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald, only to return home after the war to find that no one wanted to hear his story. It seems they were too “ashamed of being human.” For to be ashamed to be human is to be human-all-too-human.

(See the thumbnail sketch of Bigo’s story in Volkhard Knigge, “To Each His Own [a Preface],” Buchenwald: Ostracism and Violence 1937 to 1945, trans., Judith Rosenthal, eds. Knigge, Michael Löffelsender, Rikola-Gunnar Lüttgenau and Harry Stein, (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2017) p. 126.)

What I encountered in Coyote Songs was a visceral admixture of the real-unreal-ethereal—not unlike David Dorado Romo’s Ringside Seat to a Revolution: an Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893–1923 (El Paso: Cinco Punto, 2005), a factual text whose epilogue involves a literal encounter with un fantasma de Pancho Villa—and also not unlike how Cabeza de Vaca’s (1488–1560) La Relación (Narrative of the Navárez Expedition) (c. 1542) includes not only cannibalism and three kinds of mosquitos, but an encounter with a dark, devilish spirit.

(Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, La Relacíon, ed. Harold Augenbraum, (New York: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 2013), pp. 72, 93, 107–08. For other, recent devilish encounters in modern America, see Chris Arnade, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, (New York: Sentinel, 2019), p. 111; Ray Wyle Hubbard with Thom Jurek, A Life … Well, Lived, (Wimberly, Texas: Bordello Records, 2015), p. 132.)

Finally, while I did happen to notice the line––

She wanted to show her white liberal friends how some of their discourses were thinly-cloaked attempts to make up for their racist families or white guilt or just crap they’d picked up from popular television personalities and later regurgitated with ludicrous levels of self-assuredness and conviction. (Coyote Songs 45)

––let me finish by reaffirming that (while I’m a straight, white (liberal?) male) I’m also but a reviewer, not an Ivy-League gatekeeper, not an editor (except to myself), not a Rogan listener or a Trump voter, or vaccine denier, nor a gangster of love; nor do I wield any influence, bear any wealth, possess any insight, claim any authority, nor manifest any charisma to “change the System,” (though a change might be nice, particularly in the world of publishing). But I nonetheless think all readers here at Bookbread should check out Iglesias’s book(s). I know that, for me, this first encounter is not enough; I want more.


Feb 1 2022

My Best Read for 2021: Short Story Review of “The Feast” by Mark Marchenko (2020)

la casa

My Best Read for 2021: Short Story Review of “The Feast” by Mark Marchenko (2020)

After spending a month brooding on what I’ve read over the past year, I’ve determined that Mark Marchenko’s “The Feast” (Zeenith, (Wyandotte, MI: New Pop Lit, 2020) was the best short story I read for 2021.

It is a straightforward narrative of entanglement with bureaucracy (and those armed bureaucrats we call “cops”), genuinely Kafkaesque in the best sense of the word (as the LA Review of Books recently pointed out)—a nightmare of inane questioning, hindering, holding (as in being held in custody):

“Yes, I understand,” I assured him, but at the same time, to say the truth, I felt a bit lost. It is like when you explain something so simple that is not even worth explaining, and if you are not understood, you start doubting if the problem is not in reality on your side. (“The Feast”)

In other words, this is a place where all logical arguments fail to change the circumstances. The story also contains a bit of radically juxtaposed imagery, in a very dreamlike, authentically surreal manner.

And though it is a “fictional” Moscow where Marchenko’s story takes place, the endless netting and knotting of empty explanations from security officials, accompanied by a preference for nonsensical commands that must be obeyed, reminds one of Baylor professor Alan Jacob’s recent encounters with American healthcare bureaucracy—a nauseous trek and trial that led him to later compare his experiences to Dicken’s circumlocution machine. For Jacobs, “the object of these systems is the generation of despair.”

 Yet I was also reminded of the dread from Yiddish writer (originally from Ukraine) Sholom Aleichem’s (1859–1916) short story of “The Pair”––a story where a couple are doomed to be cannibalized, and yet, while in their holding cell (or coup), one explains to the other how

There is nothing in the world to which God’s creatures can’t become accustomed. Our prisoners had grown so used to their troubles that they now thought things were as they should be, just like the proverbial worm that has made its home in horseradish and thinks it sweet. (“The Pair,” trans. Shlomo Katz, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, eds. Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, (New York: Viking, 1954) p. 202)

Marchenko’s “The Feast,” however, also resembled that moment in “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm” chapter to The Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf reads from the Book of Mazarbul the words of the doomed dwarves: “we cannot get out.” But while the circumstances are crystal clear for the characters in Tolkien, in Marchenko’s tale, the main character is trapped in convolutions of organizational documentation, entangled in endless obscurities:

The document consisted of two parts: the main text and the area below where you put your signature. The annotation said that the person who signed it was aware of the information in the text and that this person was not going to file any complaints should he decide that he in fact wasn’t acknowledged with the text. (“The Feast”)

Still, let us hope for Marchenko’s protagonist, as well as for Jacobs and ourselves, that we never get too used to these obstacles of institutionalization. Let us hope that we too, like the hardy band in Tolkien, are able to “get out.”


Nov 26 2021

In Defence of Les Femmes Françaises

pencil shavings

I am very glad to my essay “In Defence of Les Femmes Françaises” out by Fortnightly Review. It uses French literature of the past to explain French beauty at present, with aid from Balzac, Camus, Montaigne, Valéry and others.


Sep 30 2021

Lévi-Strauss: a Recent Assessment

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia