Aug 11 2022

REFRIED DREAMS …. WITH CHEESE

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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)


Oct 17 2021

When Nothing’s Not New and Everything’s Always Random

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Some Recent Encounters with Surrealism in Contemporary Literature

I.

I recently reread the Surrealist Manifesto (1924), a habit which, it seems, occurs every five to ten years.

So it was fresh on my mind when I reviewed Nicole I. Nesca’s short-story/poem “Child” (2017).

And maybe, as Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman says, my attention is too “anchored,” too primed and predisposed to see the surreal when reading recent works of prose, poetry, or something in between.

But it can’t be all that. There must be (a little) something more. For, as Kahneman points out, simply being aware of the biases brought on by an anchor is still only half the battle:

You are always aware of the anchor and even pay attention to it, but you do not know how it guides and constrains your thinking, because you cannot imagine how you would have thought if the anchor had been different (or absent). (Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) p. 128)

II.

One of the things (I think) Breton is getting at in the Manifesto is that surrealism existed long before he (or anyone else) gave it a name. Breton, moreover, didn’t let himself be lured by the temptations of Originality. He knew he didn’t invent surrealism. Nor was he afraid to list his precursors on the subject:

Swift is Surrealist in malice,

Sade is Surrealist in sadism….

Hugo is Surrealist when he isn’t stupid…

Poe is Surrealist in adventure.

Baudelaire is Surrealist in morality.

Rimbaud is Surrealist in the way he lived, and elsewhere.

Mallarmé is Surrealist when he is confiding.

And, as I discussed in the Nesca review, part, but not of all, of the “game” (Breton’s word) of surrealism is radical juxtaposition. Let’s let Breton explain again (and admit his unoriginality again):

A man at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, was writing:

The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality. (Nord-Sud, March 1918)….

Now, it is not within man’s power, so far as I can tell, to effect the juxtaposition of two realities so far apart. The principle of the association of ideas, such as we conceive of it, militates against it.

This radical juxtaposition, however, at least in my (mis)understanding of surrealism, brooks no endorsement or herald or call for absolute randomness, á la pseudo-Dadism, anarchism, nihilism, the Voynich manuscript, etcetera. For if surrealism is a “game,” then it must have certain rules. Games remove a certain amount of randomness from any situation. If a game contains so many rules that it (theoretically) removes all randomness from (or within) the game itself, the situation is no longer a game: the situation is a machine: it is completely predictable and repetitive in its outcomes. Or, as anthropologist Gregory Bateson once put it, “Without the random, there can be no new thing,” (Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) p. 147).

On the other hand, as Bateson elsewhere pointed out, pure randomness, whether in literature or natural science, can only be achieved via infinite means across an infinite amount of time:

It may well be that any particular pattern (or redundancy) in the method of search will necessarily blind the searcher to certain possible patterns in the universe; and that only RANDOM search can ultimately catch all possible regularities. This ideal will be achieved, however, only by a searcher with infinite time and in a universe which makes available infinite series of data.

(“The Message of Reinforcement” (1966) in A Sacred Unity: Further Steps in an Ecology of Mind, ed. Rodney E. Donaldson, (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) pp.141–42)

Part of this is because of the difficulty of defining the word “random”:

In both the theory of evolution and the theory of learning, however, the word “random” is conspicuously undefined, and the word is not an easy one to define. In both fields, it is assumed that while change may be dependent upon probabilistic phenomena, the probability of a given change is determined by something different from probability…. The word “random,” upon which all of these explanations turn, appears to be a word whose meaning is hierarchically structured, like the meaning of the word “learning.”

(Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) pp. 254–55)

III.

All this is to say that the game of surrealism strikes a balance between pure randomness and absolute predictability. Surrealism, at its best, offers moments of such balance, often through radical juxtaposition, as Margaret O’Brien has recently pointed out:

It’s an odd one, this painting but I’m around long enough to know that when something gives me that little tingle, that draws me back even though I might be perplexed, I know I ought to pay attention. So it is now with The Listening Room. Look at it. It’s either an oversized apple or a very, very small room. Its surrealism stretches my thinking, as Magritte no doubt playfully intended. 

Some recent encounters with surrealism in literature I’ve had include the following emboldened quotations:

The world is a broken lightbulb / no one cares enough about to sweep up. / Please, Marshmallow, lick the glass/ until your tongue bleeds sunlight.

(Austin Davis, “Marshmallow,” Some Houses Are Built with the Wrong Bricks, Massachusetts: Moran Press, 2020)

*****

At first he is ecstatic and brings in his wife who is overjoyed at the lively giant baby. The joy turns to panic soon when they realize the baby is still growing at an alarming rate. After an hour young Philbert is too big to hold. After his nap he is to [sic] big for the house and eats his parents. By the time for “One Life to Live” he had gone through the beach homes of the rich and famous, and working on the western half of Fire Island. By the third rerun of the “Simpsons” he had devoured four million people including the staring back line for the Islanders.

(James Thornton, “Tony Randall vs. the Giant Baby Who Ate Long Island,” Meaty-Ochre no. 1, Austin, Texas: Self-Published, 2019)

*****

Cool sea water sweeps away his jetlag for the time being. Dried off, we eat ice-cream and return to the airport.

(Anthony Rudolf, “Pedraterra,” Two Fables: Pedraterra, Angleterre, (Les Brouzils, France: The Fortnightly Review, 2021) p. 5)


Aug 2 2019

Meditations of Being a Writer no. 02

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As a writer, I read something and hope to get something out of it: new ideas, ways of thinking, better understanding—I hope to get something.

Nine years before Edward Young (1683–1765) penned his questions on how broad reading affected Shakespeare and Milton differently, Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), though twenty-six years younger than Young, recognized the dangers of excessive hope. Johnson counsels readers as well as writers, to rethink the “anticipation of happiness”:

The understanding of a man naturally sanguine [courageous, a delight in bloodshed], may, indeed, be easily vitiated [spoiled or corrupted] by the luxurious indulgence of hope, however necessary to the production of every thing great or excellent, as some plants are destroyed by too open exposure to that sun which gives life and beauty to the vegetable world….

Perhaps no class of the human species requires more to be cautioned against this anticipation of happiness, than those that aspire to the name of authors. A man of lively fancy no sooner finds hint moving in his mind, than he makes momentaneous excursions to the press, and to the world, and, with a little encouragement from flattery, pushes forward into future ages, and prognosticates the honours to be paid him, when envy is extinct, and faction forgotten, and those, whom partiality now suffers to obscure him, shall have given way to the triflers of as short duration as themselves. [1]

Would-be authors imagine the titles of books they want to write but fail to realize the contents such books must contain. I have a problem of too much planning, an over-abundant need to pre-read things before I write. Too much sun leads only to cancer (ask Icarus). Instead I might need to start doing less planning, more writing. As the esteemed Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky teach us:

Biases in the evaluation of compound events are particularly significant in the context of planning. The successful completion of an undertaking, such as the development of a new product, typically has a conjunctive character: for the undertaking to succeed, each of a series of events must occur. Even when each of these events is very likely, the overall probability of success can be quite low if the number of events is large. The general tendency to overestimate the probability of conjunctive events leads to unwarranted optimism in the evaluation of the likelihood that a plan will succeed or that a project will be completed on time.[2]

Or as Tacitus succinctly put it: “Our men’s over-confidence might even have led to serious disaster. But Agricola was everywhere at once,” (Agricola XXXVII).

Back to Johnson:

That the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time now in our power to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us, has been frequently remarked….

There would, however, be few enterprises of great labour or hazard undertaken, if we had not the power of magnifying the advantages which we persuade ourselves to expect from them when the knight of La Mancha gravely recounts to his companion the adventures by which he is to signalize himself in such a manner, that he shall be summoned to the support of empires, solicited to accept the heiress of the crown which he has preserved, have honours and riches to scatter about him, and an island to bestow on his worthy squire, very few readers, amidst their mirth or pity, can deny that they have admitted visions of the same kind; though they have not, perhaps, expected events equally strange, or by means equally inadequate. When we pity him we reflect on our own disappointments; and when we laugh, our hearts inform us that he is not more ridiculous than ourselves, except that he [Quixote] tells what we [other writers, including Cervantes] have only thought.

In other words, too often writers magnify their advantages for their own advantage, never considering how such magnification distorts the goal of actually writing something that is worth reading (and rereading). I see advantages in pre-reading before writing. But I magnify those advantages, and like ants at the mercy of children, get burned by the magnification.

NOTES

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[1] Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, no. 02, Saturday, 24 March 1750. Johnson’s line of—“As some plants are destroyed by too open exposure to that sun”—might be compared to Hamlet being “too much in the sun,” (I, ii, 67).

[2] Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” Science 185 (1974) in Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) 428.