Oct 31 2022

The Riddling Imagination – Part I


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.

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.


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”)


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.


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 11 2022




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.
  • 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.
  • 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)


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)




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)

Mar 2 2017

I Act to Be Passive: an Introduction to Introspection

Piazza Navona, Roma

I Act to Be Passive: an Introduction to Introspection

Why an introduction to introspection? Why should we inspect ourselves? Because:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Matthew 07:03 (King James translation)

If you wish to understand others you must intensify your own individualism.

–Oscar Wilde “The Critic as Artist – Part II” (1891)

There’s an old cliche I used to hear often at church, although, it could be applied to most secular settings: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” This cliche is not quite a tautology, not quite Russell’s paradox, but what is the formula behind it and similar phrases? It seems strange but feels true to say:

I love to be loved,
I hate to be hated,
I want to be wanted,
I need to be needed,
I desire to be desired,
I smile to be smiled at.

All of the above seem to say: “I purpose to be purposed.”

In a grammatical sense, I act to be passive–yet I don’t pacify to be active–I don’t pacify to be acted upon–and I don’t pacify to be activated.

But there is another arrhythmia in this logarithm. For it does not make sense to ask:

Do I really:

–play to be played?
–pay to be paid?
–drive to be driven?
–grow to be grown? (Maybe)
–sleep to be slept? or wake to be awakened?
–write to be written?
–read to be read?
–live to be lived?
–eat to be eaten? (Like cattle)
–keep to be kept? (Like The Birdman of Alcatraz?)
–clean to be cleaned?
–search to be searched? (Is that not an introduction to introspection?)
–touch to be touched? or feel to be felt?
–see to be seen? or hear to be heard?
–create to be created? or dream to be dreamed?
–destroy to be destroyed? or take to be taken?
–call to be called?
–judge to be judged? (which is the utter opposite of Matthew 07:01)
–ask to be asked?

Certainly I do not lie to be lied to.