Oct 31 2018

Scribblings and Droppings no. 03: the Writer as Victim and Victor

Mark Twain in Athens

Scribblings and Droppings no. 03:
the Writer as Victim and Victor

Have you ever been involved in a creative project over a long period of time?

Did you reach a point where you felt the project was kicking your ass? Maybe you had to put it aside, like Goethe did with Faust Part II and Coleridge with Christabel?

This kind of thing happened to me when I was trying to prune an essay from 10,000+ words to under 4,000.

Was there a moment after having endured strife when you finally started to feel like you were kicking the project’s ass? Was there a moment when you realize you’d reached the apex and had overcome the obstacle?

It’s like Stephen King says: writers have to kill their darlings. (In a sick sense, you’ve got to be like Frau Goebbels.) You gotta figure out how to detox your own text, purge it of its poisons.

Now that the essay is done, I feel older, exhausted, and sore. But there’s no time for self-sympathy. Gotta get up and do all again, like the Chairman says:


Sep 22 2016

Hunting for the Well-Read Book

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Hunting for the Well-Read Book

I confess, I was awfully pleased with that schoolboyish explanation. I was strangely anxious to present the story in as absurd a light as possible.

––Dostoevsky[1]

As Signore Machiavelli puts it, a successful politician requires the optics of religious sincerity. That is, princes, if they are to possess any longevity, must appear to be religious…. [2]

Could this mean that in order for a book to become well-read, nothing is more crucial than for it to appear to be virtuous? Wouldn’t that mean books which appear virtuous must not be (or must not appear to be) self-published? A virtuous book should also at least appear to be written by the person claiming to be the author, no matter who actually wrote it….

Sons and daughters of royalty may wander to and fro about the earth as prodigal progeny, but true regents do not drift. Real rulers hunt for game; for unlike wandering children, regents have definite goals in mind. They pursue a prize. If books can be sought and found by regents, a virtuous regent will find a well-read book. But servants and royal children worm through words and thumb through pages looking for things that interest themselves in the moment, never for things that might gain interest over time….[3]

For every coupling of author and reader, one must look through Lenin’s eyes and Tully’s logic and ask: who benefits from this relationship? Who wields the most power? Deep may call unto deep, but the depths are apparent even on the surface—for the answers abide in the way the questions are constructed….[4]

’Tis neither original nor profound to observe that some of the least helpful books sit on shelves marked “self-help.” But I want to read (or dare I say write?) a book whose virtue is its selfless-helpfulness….

There’s a reason why the Bible calls it the Book of Acts, not the Book of Audiences. A century ago, Americans wanted a deity who acted, not one who simply listened. But today I want a book that acts upon me as a reader. I’m tired of being a reader who acts against authors.[5]

NOTES

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[1] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Игрок, Igrok. (The Gambler.) 1867. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. NY: Bantam Classics. 1964. VI, p. 59.

[2] Machiavelli, Niccolò. Il Principe. (The Prince.) in Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica. Translated by Robert M. Adams. NY: W. W. Norton. 1977:

Nothing is more necessary than to seem to have this [religious] virtue. Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see but only a few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few know what you really are; and those few do not dare take a stand against the general opinion, supported by the majesty of the government. In the actions of all men, and especially of princes who are not subject to a court of appeal, we must always look to the end….. (“Ch. XVIII. The Way Princes Should Keep Their Word,” p. 51)

But when these afterwards began to speak only in accordance with the wishes of the princes, and their falsity was discovered by the people, then men became incredulous, and disposed to disturb all good institutions. It is therefore the duty of princes and heads of republics to uphold the foundations of the religion of their countries, for then it is easy to keep their people religious, and consequently well conducted and united. And therefore everything that tends to favor religion (even though it were believed to be false) should be received and availed of to strengthen it; and this should be done the more, the wiser the rulers are, and the better they understand the natural course of things. Such was, in fact, the practice observed by sagacious men; which has given rise to the belief in the miracles that are celebrated in religions, however false they may be….

With the line—“everything that tends to favor religion (even though it were believed to be false)”—can this apply to all lies, superstitions, propaganda, bullshit? But see also Machiavelli’s maxim on Rome:

Nor can there be a greater proof of its decadence than to witness the fact that the nearer people are to the Church of Rome, which is the head of our religion, the less religious are they…. (Discourses on The First Ten Books of Titus Livius in Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica, “Book I – Chapter 12” p. 103)

Compare Poggio:

The worst men in the world live in Rome, and worse than the others are the priests, and the worst of the priests they make cardinals, and the worst of all the cardinals is made Pope. (Braccidini, Poggio. Facetiae [Demenichi] in The Facetiae of Poggio: and other Medieval StoryTellers. Edited and translated by Edward Storer. London: Dutton. 1928. V, p. 37)

But comport Ben Jonson who says, opposite of Machiavelli, that we tend to trust our ears over our eyes:

We praise the things we hear with much more willingness than those we see, because we envy the present and reverence the past; thinking ourselves instructed by the one, and overlaid by the other. (Timber: or Discoveries (1640))

Now compare Jonson to Oscar Wilde, for whom “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.  What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.” For Wilde, our eyes have priority over our ears, though our ears are quite discriminating:

When people talk to us about others they are usually dull. When they talk to us about themselves they are nearly always interesting, and if one could shut them up, when they become wearisome, as easily as one can shut up a book of which one has grown wearied, they would be perfect absolutely. (“The Critic as Artist” (1891))

A prince will appear religious by not talking about how religious he is; therefore, a well-read book will appear virtuous by not referencing its own virtue.

[3] Job 1:07, 2:02; Proverbs 2:04, 25:02, 25:11; Matthew 7:07, Luke 11:09 and 15:11–32; Pirkei Avot V, xxvii.

[4] Psalms 42:07; “The problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things.” Strauss, Leo. “Introduction.” Thoughts on Machiavelli. 1958. Quoted in Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica p. 183.

[5] See James Bissett Pratt who found that Americans weren’t interested in any affirmative knowledge about a deity, but only in what a deity can do:

But one result of the answers as a whole that seems fairly clear is that God’s “attributes” play a comparatively unimportant part in the minds of religious people, and that His relation to individuals is the really important factor in the concept. People are chiefly interested not in what God is, but in what He can do. Two thirds of my respondents describe Him as “Father,” “Friend,” “Companion,” “the ally of my ideals,” or by some equivalent expression; while only 12 thought it worthwhile to mention the fact that He is omnipotent, 9 called Him Creator, 3 mentioned Him as the Trinity, and one as the “Great First Cause.” Doubtless most of my respondents, if asked whether God were all these latter things, would respond Yes; the significant fact is that these attributes play so unimportant a part in their conception of Him that when asked to define that conception these attributes never enter their minds. Professor Leuba seems to be right in the main when he says that God is used rather than understood….

While the concept of God is, however, in one sense decidedly pragmatic, it would be a mistake to suppose that the ends for which the religious consciousness wishes to use God are chiefly ordinary utilitarian ends—such as protector, “meat purveyor,” etc. Unless my respondents are very unusual people, the chief use for which God is desired is distinctly social rather than material. God is valued as an end in Himself rather than as a means to other ends. Most people want God for the same reason for which they want friends, and His relation to them is exactly that of a very dear and very lovable and very sympathizing friend. It is quite naive, no doubt, but perfectly simple. Thus 53 out of 73 of my respondents affirm that God is as real to them as an earthly friend. Doubtless some of the 53 answered as they did in a purely conventional spirit, but that this was not the case with more than a small proportion is shown by the general tone of the answers to the other questions. The God whom most people want and whom many people have is a very real and sympathizing friend. Like other friends he is, to be sure, not only an end in Himself, but a means to other ends; He can help one to many things that one wants. These things, however, are as a rule not material benefits. They are chiefly of three kinds: comfort in trouble, hope for the future, and assistance in striving after righteousness. (The Psychology of Religious Belief. NY: Macmillan. 1908. pp. 263–64)

Compare Pratt’s line––“A very real and sympathizing friend”—to Walter Jackson Bate on Coleridge for whom the former asks:

What was wrong with occasionally prizing literature when it was simply a “friend”––a friend that could comfort while it informed and uplifted? The great English poets could not be viewed (at least not yet) in exactly that way. Only the best were studied—and the best part written by that best. Around them was an inevitable association of demand. In this respect they offered no essential contrast to his other reading—the reading in Greek literature and philosophy, the Neoplatonists, the metaphysical writers generally, the skeptics, the modern writers on science and epistemology. (Coleridge. NY: Macmillan. 1968. pp. 9–10)

That is to say: Coleridge hunted for virtuous books in the same spirit one does when searching across a lifetime for a true friend.


Aug 4 2015

An Epistle to Cousin Paul: or, How to Subvert Irreconcilable Differences

bookbread Canterbury

Hola, Primo:

Oft (how oft!) do I don my contrarian cap and criticize something only for the sake of criticism rather than as a way to pursue truth. Yet I recall your observation from July 18, 2015:

It’s really a shame how low things have gone in our country, with each side of whatever issue willing to demonize the other and vilify anyone with a difference of opinion. Our time in this world is short and winning an argument is pointless. I’m tired of all the anti-Obama AND the anti-Republican stuff out there. It’s hard being a teacher trying to teach kids to treat each other with respect when adults behave even worse.

Now even though I pursue the truth in my spare time, I cannot call myself a philosopher. I’m a student, and while actual philosophers and scientists have the advantage of peer review, students can only review their own self-understanding. Actual philosophers and scientists contribute to everyone’s understanding, but students can only contribute to their own. Students pursue truth but do not speak, write, present, or publicize anything about their pursuit. Students can, however, read (alone or aloud) texts and quotations from actual philosophers as well as take notes. So to be absolutely sincere, I must first admit that I’m really not writing to you, but only to me, and only for my own understanding.

 NEED FOR THE SCHEME

A philosopher might have the capability to organize their thoughts into a formal model, but since I am a student, an informal scheme should suffice. Being informal, I write in a casual manner in proposing a scheme to solve some disagreements between citizens of our country who are divided on particular political issues. I propose this scheme because “agreeing to disagree” does nothing to prevent the rash of resentment from spreading over the entire body politic.

But I also believe a scheme is needed simply because the sages (at least the male ones) point out over and over how it is so much easier to tear things down than rather to build them up. So often do folks make divisions, even when they know there are none:

To offer objections against a discourse which has been delivered is not difficult, but very easy; but to set up a better against it is a very laborious task.

––Plutarch[i]

And generally let this be a rule, that all partitions of knowledges be accepted rather for lines and veins than for sections and separations; and that the continuance and entireness of knowledge be preserved.

––Francis Bacon[ii]

The greater part of our success & comfort in life depends on distinguishing the similar from the same…. It is a dull and obtuse mind, that must divide in order to distinguish; but it is a still worse, that distinguishes in order to divide. In the former, we may contemplate the source of superstition and idolatry; in the latter, of schism, heresy, and a seditious and sectarian spirit.

––Samuel Taylor Coleridge[iii]

Be afraid to destroy the unity of people by stirring bad feelings amongst them against another with our words.

––Leo Tolstoy[iv]

Must you again divide the indivisible?

––Martin Buber[v]

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

––Albert Einstein[vi]

But because we must divide, to reduce the emphasis on any one traditional division must, in the long run, mean an increase of emphasis on some other division. And that is the subject I want to discuss. If we do not put the Great Divide between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where should we put it? I ask this question with the full consciousness that, in the reality studied, there is no Great Divide.

––C. S. Lewis[vii]

CONTEXT OF THE SCHEME

My scheme requires four “givens” or assumptions, that is, the immediate context, or brute facts concerning political disagreements between groups of citizens. These four givens are:

1. Group A and Group B disagree to an irreconcilable degree (so much so that they cannot even “agree to disagree”).

2. A group is bound together by a “declared cause,” which is the idea that binds and makes its members part of the group. The declared cause is also the principle issue of disagreement between the two groups:

 By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community….

So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts. (Madison, “Federalist 10”)

3. Because all causes, including declared causes, are derived from other causes, all causes can be deconstructed in terms of their prior causes. Hence there are no monolithic or indestructible causes. Nor is a group monolithic––not even in an age when human bodies can be cloned––for while a group is united around its declared cause, each member of that group has a distinct, individual perception of the declared cause. In other words, if a group was monolithic, it would cease to be a group of anything, and would only be one, indivisible thing. (Again from “Federalist 10”: “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”)

For example, groups that advocate gun control and groups that advocate gun rights both have a declared cause of “guns.” But an analysis (or deconstruction) of the rhetoric of both sides reveals that whatever they’re arguing over has very little to do with actual armaments. The word “guns,” for all of these groups, really refers to the conflict of mental illness and its alleged relationship to crime as well as the question of its limitations and intrusions on privacy; the word “guns” for these groups means the lack or surplus of law enforcement in the immediate lives of the members of these groups; the word “guns” for these groups also means reading the Constitution literally, pragmatically, practically, critically, cynically, or skeptically.

4. The history of humanity shows that resentment from one group toward another group increases the resentment both groups have toward each other. No matter the origins, the aim of one group’s resentment toward another ends only in “mutually assured resentment.” Or as Baylor Professor Alan Jacobs has recently put it:

Both sides agree that morality is a matter of rules; but one side thinks that since rules require elaboration and enforcement, and other people are the ones elaborating and enforcing them, they would prefer what they see as the only alternative, a rule-rejecting, morally minimal commitment to freedom.[viii]

 STEPS OF THE SCHEME

My scheme proposes that the two groups might come to an agreement via a technique of subversion, or more specifically, a counterintuitive method of divide-and-conquer. Through this method all members of all groups can arrive at the goal of united disagreement. United disagreement then makes for a new foundation to build understanding upon.

So if the four givens are met, a four-step scheme is proposed:

1. One member from Group A subverts the opposition by “joining” Group B; and one member from Group B subverts its opposition by “joining” Group A. The subversion is driven by each group’s mutual will-to-grudge (the drive to resent the opposition). These subversives are called “undercover members.”

2. The undercover members of each group cannot be blatant in their subversion. Instead, each undercover member “preaches to the choir” or, in other words, promotes the declared cause of the subverted group so tirelessly as to induce ennui within that subverted group. Through rhetorical bombast, the undercover member invokes boredom in the minds of the actual members. Each undercover member should recall Tolstoy’s advice:

When you are in company, do not forget what you have found out when you were thinking in solitude; and when you are meditating in solitude, think about what you found out by communicating with other people.[ix]

A counter-intuitive subversive approach by undercover members fosters faction within the actual group, because boredom among members of the subverted group will eventually spur those actual members to deconstruct the declared cause of their group. In other words, if the undercover member holds up the whole, sooner or later other actual members of the group will pick it apart. Actual group members will start to “split hairs,” championing exclusivity among themselves. By then, the undercover member has successfully divided-and-conquered. For:

3. As both Groups A and B become more inwardly divided, soon enough no one within either group will agree on their particular declared cause, and the majority from both groups will begin to disagree within their own group as well as continue to clash with the group they originally opposed.

4. If no one from either group agrees on anything, then both groups are united in disagreement. An equilibrium of resentment will have been achieved.

 CONCLUSION

“What was the one thing?” asks Oedipus, for: “One may be the key / To everything, if we resolve to use it.” Perhaps counter-intuitive subversion is not the one thing. For Plato, at least according to Aristotle, the mind is the one thing, while knowledge (science) divides into infinite specializations. Neither knowledge nor science can ever be one thing, because they are collaborative group activities requiring peer review.[x]

Nearly 2000 years after Aristotle, James Madison saw property as the one thing:

From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties. (“Federalist 10”)

This is probably why Ben Jonson pointed out, a century before Madison, that––no matter the faction, or the direct cause of the faction, or the strength of its resentment––the whole of humanity remains united in greed, which can be a synonym for property.[xi]

But Tolstoy taught a century after Madison:

 If you see that some aspect of your society is bad, and you want to improve it, there is only one way to do so: you have to improve people, you begin with only one thing: you can become better yourself.[xii]

I hope to read more and think more and write more––that I may one day improve my community.

Obscurely,

Cousin Christopher

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NOTES

[i] Plutarch, “On Listening to Lectures” Moralia. Vol. I. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1927. § 6, p. 221.

[ii] Bacon, Francis. Advancement of Learning. 1605. Edited by William Aldis Wright. 1858. Fifth Edition. Oxford UP. 1957. II, ix, 1, p. 129.

[iii] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Chapter XXII.” Biographia Literaria. 1817; “Introductory Aphorism XXVI.” Aids to Reflection. 1825.

[iv] Tolstoy, Leo. A Calendar of Wisdom. Translated by Peter Sekirin. NY: Scribner. 1997. January 5, p. 17.

[v] Buber, Martin. I and Thou. 1922. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. NY: Scribners. 1970. I § 10.

[vi] Einstein, Albert. “On the Method of Theoretical Physics.” The Herbert Spencer Lecture, delivered at Oxford (10 June 1933); also published in Philosophy of Science. Vol. 1, No. 2. (April 1934.) 163–69.

[vii] Lewis, Clive Staples. “De Descriptione Temporum.” [“A Survey of Time.”] Inaugural Lecture at Cambridge. 1954. So They Asked for a Paper. p. 11.

[viii] Jacobs, Alan. “Code Fetishists and Normolaters.” The American Conservative. July 29, 2015. (http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/code-fetishists-and-normolaters.)

[ix] Tolstoy, Calendar, March 28, p. 100.

[x] Sophocles. The Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles. Edited with introduction and notes by Sir Richard Jebb. Sir Richard Jebb. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 1887. l. 120; Aristotle, De Anima. Translated by John Alexander Smith. Oxford: Clarendon. 1931. I, 2.

[xi] Jonson: “The great herd, the multitude, that in all other things are divided, in this alone conspire and agree—to love money.” (Timber: or Discoveries Made Upon Men and Matter. Edited by Felix E. Schelling. Boston: Ginn & Co. 1892. p. 47.)

[xii] Tolstoy, Calendar, March 17, p. 89.