Jun 13 2017

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (III of III)

III. CONVEX

So the literal thesis of the book is Coates (who is six years older than me) warning his 15-year-old son to cherish his physical body. But who else does Coates address in his book besides his son and self-conscious? As a child of the 1990s I don’t feel he was addressing someone like me who:

  • Recalls in 1991 riding in the van with my family past Luby’s in Killeen the day of the massacre heading to the nearby mall to buy my brother a birthday present;
  • grew up in central Texas and one Saturday afternoon in 1993 turned on the TV to learn about the first shots fired in what became known as the Waco disaster at Mount Carmel;
  • heard and saw in 1995 the horror of the Oklahoma City bombing as a response to Waco;
  • amid all of these were things heard and read various school-shootings from the 90s, particularly the 1998 Westside Middle School shooting at Craighead County, Arkansas and the 1998 Thurston High School shooting at Springfield, Oregon so that:
  • when, by the time I was 15 and one day heard on television in its “media language” [1] about the Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, such language and the incidents they described had become routine, jejune, unremarkable.

All of these episodes of violence were committed by Americans who were not labeled black by our country’s media, and I mention this only to show that someone from a very different background than Mr. Coates can grow up well-aware of irrational white violence. Coates also mentions an episode where, as a kid he had a pistol pointed at him by another kid, while I had a rifle pointed at me by a peer when I was college-age––an experience that still stings when recalled.

As a reader I cannot blame a writer older or younger than me for not being a part of my own generation, so when I point out that Coates mentions shootings of the innocent by police to his son,[2] but nothing of school shootings, I cannot fault him for the omission. But out of my own curiosity, I seek to understand his silence, for teaching occurs only in silence.[3] I am curious because this particular silence seems a little strange when in the twenty-first century U.S., a classmate can destroy her peer’s body just as quickly as a cop.

But perhaps I’m being too specific. Perhaps I need to zoom out and inspect the broader picture. Here I find Coates’ overall critique is against systems, bureaucracies, and institutions, not individuals, such as the person who threatened him with a firearm.[4] In this sense he reminds me of Václav Havel.[5] Yet a school shooting is a specific kind of shooting, and all shootings (whether by cops or by classmates) damage human flesh, which is the criterion Coates abides by to warn his son. So maybe it doesn’t matter much that he doesn’t mention school shootings.

And Coates does (quite rightly) ridicule grade schools for their institutionalizing.[6] This is where my reading and dreaming have led me to compare him to Thoreau:

It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.[7]

(go back to PART II of III)

(go back to PART I of III)

NOTES

[1] Coates: “We live in a “goal-oriented” era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything,” (Between the World and Me 12).

[2] Coates, Between the World and Me 9.

[3] Quoting Gershom Scholem: “Teaching is transmitted in silence—not by silence…. Where teaching breaks silence, its relation to life becomes dialectical. The outward history of teaching is based upon this fact.” (Weidner, Daniel. “Reading Gershom Scholem.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. Vol. 96. No. 2. (Spring 2006) at 208–09.)

[4] Coates, Between the World and Me 18, 78.

[5] As Havel puts it: “Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them.” (“Moc bezmocných.” (“The Power of the Powerless”) October 1978. Translated by Paul Wilson. § IV.)

Compare also some passages from Don Delillo’s novel Libra. NY: Viking. 1988:

I’ll tell you what it means, these orbiting sensors that can hear us in our beds. It means the end of loyalty. The more complex the systems [in a novel], the less conviction in people [who read it]. Conviction will be drained out of us. Devices will drain us, make us vague and pliant…. (p. 77) The Agency is always willing to consider a man in a new light. This is the nature of the business. There are shadows, there are new lights. The deeper the ambiguity, the more we believe, the more we trust, the more we band together. (p. 259)

[6] Coates, Between the World and Me 34.

[7] Thoreau, Walden, “I. On Economy.”


Oct 31 2016

More Money = More Theology

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Recall some maxims from William James:

Religion basically means something solemn or serious.[i]

Spiritual ideas are based on instincts, not intelligence.[ii]

We adopt creeds only when they make us feel happy.[iii]

Today at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher writes:

At the present moment, the literature professor, Dante scholar, and orthodox Catholic Anthony Esolen is under severe attack at his own institution, Providence College, for having recently written a couple of essays criticizing the present conception of “diversity” on his Catholic campus, and reflecting on the persecutorial phase of our culture (here’s one, and here’s the other)….

But where would he go? I can think of a few colleges that would love to have him on faculty. Ten years from now, will they? Besides, what about the younger orthodox Christian scholars who, unlike Tony Esolen and James Davison Hunter, don’t have tenure?

Do oRTHODOX Christian plumbers, truck-drivers, oil rig workers, insurance salesmen, and bank tellers, feel the same urgency?

Or is this only a worry for Christians affluent enough to attend universities in the first place?

Do the forgotten citizens of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward or Houston’s Fifth Ward really feel the same threat from Social Justice Warriors and Moral Therapeutic Deists as those who live in the Woodlands and send their sons and daughters to private universities like Baylor?

It is an unfair simplification to be sure, but, as an outsider to most things theological, it often seems like in America, the more complex and rigid the theology one believes, the more money one’s got in their wallet.

Let us return to some words from William James:

We despise any one who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life.[iv]

NOTES

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[i] James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience, “Lecture II,” 1902. NY: Modern Library Classics. 2002. p. 44.

[ii] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, “Lecture III,” p. 85.

[iii] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, “Lectures IV & V,” pp. 90–91.

Following the thought of Gregory Bateson, I abide that explorations are self-validating, and therefore, nearly always successful. Or in Bateson’s words, explanation is “the mapping of description onto tautology,” and this is probably what Thoreau was getting at when he remarked, “whether we travel fast or flow, the track is laid for us.” (Bateson, Mind and Nature 139; Bateson, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia.” 82; Thoreau, Walden, “Chapter I: On Economy.”)

[iv] James, Varieties of Religious Experience, “Lectures XIV and XV – The Value of Saintliness” 401.

 


Oct 19 2016

Three Metaphors Using “Robinson Crusoe”

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Let us consider the old deserted island question about which book to bring along, and let us further consider: has anyone ever answered Robinson Crusoe? Yes, Dr. Johnson praised the book and thought it not long enough, but in regard to the immediate circumstances the question addresses, might he or we want a book that offered a greater suspension of disbelief than Crusoe allows? Imagine Johnson stranded on the not-so-deserted Isle of Skye! (Is every book a potential treasure island?)

Among other things, Robinson Crusoe (1719) prophesizes the self-reliance of Emerson, Thoreau’s hikes through the wilderness, Frederick Jackson Turner’s (1861–1932) long goodbye to the frontier, and the American experience of enslavement of natives. Of the personal life of Professor Turner I know nothing, but I know Defoe went to the pillory on charges of publishing controversial religious-political pamphlets, and I know Thoreau went to local jail for protesting the payment of a tax. Emerson, meanwhile, never skirted the fringes of law, but in 1826 he did visit St Augustine, which exposed him to a geography and climate remarkably similar to Crusoe’s island.

But all of the above are based on literal interpretations of Defoe and his book––what about analogical interpretations? How has Crusoe been used as a metaphor? Here follow some examples, beginning with a general observation from British jurist Frederic Harrison (1831–1923):

Nay, Robinson Crusoe contains (not for boys but for men) more religion, more philosophy, more psychology, more political economy, more anthropology, than are found in many elaborate treatises on these special subjects. And yet, I imagine, grown men do not often read Robinson Crusoe, as the article has it, “for instruction of life and ensample of manners.” The great books of the world we have once read; we take them as read; we believe that we read them; at least, we believe that we know them.[1]

(1) THE METAPHOR OF SLAVE NAMES:

Sooner or later any discussion of Crusoe turns to slavery. Yes, before his shipwreck, the character Crusoe, who was already a plantation owner, had intended to enter the slave-trade. But soon enough Crusoe the castaway was captured by a Moor and made a slave.[2] Then enters, much later in the book, the character of Friday, who binds himself to Master Crusoe in voluntary servitude:

I smiled at him, and looked pleasantly, and beckoned to him to come still nearer; at length he came close to me; and then he kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and laid his head upon the ground, and taking me by the foot, set my foot upon his head; this, it seems, was in token of swearing to be my slave for ever. [3]

Now compare ex-slave William Wells Brown (1814–1884) and his metaphor for Friday:

I resolved on adopting my old name of William, and let Sandford go by the board, for I always hated it. Not because there was anything peculiar in the name; but because it had been forced upon me. It is sometimes common at the south, for slaves to take the name of their masters. Some have a legitimate right to do so. But I always detested the idea of being called by the name of either of my masters. And as for my father, I would rather have adopted the name of “Friday,” and been known as the servant of some Robinson Crusoe, than to have taken his name.[4]

And consider how much stock Robinson Crusoe puts into his own name:

My father being a foreigner of Bremen … lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called—nay we call ourselves and write our name—Crusoe; and so my companions always called me.[5]

Crusoe embraces a name corrupted by his peers, a nickname that disguises his cultural origins, while Brown refused to accept the name his master gave him. Brown would not be enslaved by an ill-fit name, because, as fellow ex-slave Frederick Douglass put it, slavery “saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth.” [6] Brown’s defiance and Douglass’s passion complement Thoreau’s observation:

It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself. [7]

(2) THE METAPHOR OF TECHNOLOGICAL ADAPTATION

Several times in my random readings have I come across someone so impressed by Crusoe’s usage of technology and its adaptation amid isolation that they couldn’t resist making a metaphor of either the character or his situation. Take again Frederic Harrison:

Where in this terrible world was man? Scanty in umber, confined to a few favourable spots, dispersed, and alone, man sustained a precarious existence, not yet the lord of creation, inferior to many quadrupeds in strength, only just superior to them in mind—nothing but the first of the brutes. As are the lowest of all savages now, no doubt even lower, man once was. Conceive what Robinson Crusoe would have been had his island been a dense jungle overrun with savage beasts without his gun, or his knife, or his knowledge, with nothing but his human hand and his human brain.[8]

From literary critic George Saintsbury (1845–1933):

The poets are always in a Robinson Crusoe condition, and worse: for Robinson had at least seen the tools and utensils he needed, if he did not know how to make them. The scops and scalds were groping for the very pattern of the tools themselves.[9]

And from poet Paul Valéry (1871–1945):

Aren’t you the Robinson Crusoe of the mind? Cast away within himself, remaking in his island of the will his own truths along with the tolls that are required…. Other points to be made. I am owed nothing. I don’t expect anything from other people. This leads to a kind of Crusoeism. I live on a desert island where I manufacture my own tools. And what comes to me from other people is simply jetsam, debris washed up on the shore. [10]

(3) THE METAPHOR OF IMPROVISATION

Kafka admired Crusoe for his ability to survey the situation. Crusoe acted and did not theorize. He explored and exploited his position on the island. He made no excuses and became self-reliant:

Had Robinson Crusoe never left the highest, or more correctly the most visible point of his island, from desire for comfort, or timidity, or fear, or ignorance, or longing, he would soon have perished; but since without paying any attention to passing ships and their feeble telescopes he started to explore the whole island and take pleasure in it, he managed to keep himself alive and finally was found after all, by a chain of causality that was, of course, logically inevitable.[11]

In other words, when Crusoe surveyed his position on the island, he didn’t get caught in any analysis-paralysis, and Kafka admires Crusoe’s method of improvisation, this muddling through. For those who are self-reliant suffer no anxiety of influence.

NOTES

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[1] Harrison, Frederic. The Choice of Books. Chicago, IL: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co. 1891.pp. 106–07.

[2] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. II.

[3] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. XIV.

[4] Brown, William Wells. The Narrative of William W. Brown: An American Slave. Boston, MA: Anti-Slavery Office. 1847. p. 98.

[5] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. I.

[6] Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, July 5, 1852?”

[7] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or Life in the Woods. 1854.“Ch. I – On Economy.”

[8] Harrison, The Meaning of History. 1894. NY: Macmillan. 1911. pp. 27–28.

[9] Saintsbury, George. The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory. London: Blackwood & Sons. 1897. p. 269.

[10] Valéry, Paul. Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1931. AP, XV, 161–63.) pp. 78, 161. The sentiment is not reserved only to Valéry. Consider Eliot on Blake:

We have the same respect for Blake’s philosophy (and perhaps for that of Samuel Butler) that we have for an ingenious piece of home-made furniture: we admire the man who has put it together out of the odds and ends about the house. England has produced a fair number of these resourceful Robinson Crusoes; but we are not really so remote from the Continent, or from our own past, as to be deprived of the advantages of culture if we wish them. (“Blake,” The Sacred Wood. NY: Knopf. 1921)

And take Frye on all of the above:

T. S. Eliot in an essay on Blake … speaking of Blake’s resourceful Robinson Crusoe method of scrambling together a system of thought out of the odds and ends of his reading. (The Great Code: the Bible and Literature. 1981. NY: Mariner Books. 2008. p. xxi)

[11] Kafka, Franz. Parables and Paradoxes. NY: Schocken. 1961. p. 185.


Aug 17 2016

That New Car Smell: Autonomy & Automation

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Whether or not civilization collapses following the election this November, are we not on the cusp of a new epoch in travel? For in the Valley of the Silicon Kings and Queens and TransRegents, Google, Apple and Tesla have all doubled down on automotive innovation, while in the Far East Uber courts China. Down in weird Austin, Lord British is busy thinking way outside the ballpark with his “pod” transport system, while New Jersey considers outlawing drivers from drinking coffee.

Let’s jump in the time machine:

When I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.

––Thoreau, Walden (1854), Ch. IV

Surreys rumbled lightly by, with the plod-plod of honest old horses, and frequently there was the glitter of whizzing spokes from a runabout or a sporting buggy, and the sharp, decisive hoof-beats of a trotter. Then, like a cowboy shooting up a peaceful camp, a frantic devil would hurtle out of the distance, bellowing, exhaust racketing like a machine gun gone amuck—and at these horrid sounds the surreys and buggies would hug the curbstone, and the bicycles scatter to cover, cursing; while children rushed from the sidewalks to drag pet dogs from the street. The thing would roar by, leaving a long wake of turbulence; then the indignant street would quiet down for a few minutes—till another came.

––Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), Ch. XVIII

Folks, the interurban ain’t coming back, and ride-sharing essentially streamlines new efficiencies on an old system, but why must we continue to tolerate the flood of false hope—perhaps what Thoreau meant by “new Mythology”––of hyper speed locomotion, whether in the guise of California’s bullet train or the Texas Central Railway? (And can we retire the word “boondoggle” for at least the next decade, or better yet, put it out to pasture altogether?)

Once upon a time cultural conservatives, even fictitious ones like Congressman George Amberson, thought cars were a temporary novelty:

[Eugene Morgan] will soon begin to build his factory here for the manufacture of automobiles, which he says is a term he prefers to “horseless carriages.” Your Uncle George told me he would like to invest in this factory, as George thinks there is a future for automobiles; perhaps not for general use, but as an interesting novelty, which people with sufficient means would like to own for their amusement and the sake of variety. (The Magnificent Ambersons, Ch. X)

But will further automation of the automobile be mistaken by cultural progressives as improvement rather than impediment? For as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan points out in his contribution to Why Place Matters(2014), the American driver’s license is one of our primary valves for unleashing our self-reliance:

The closest thing Americans have to an identity card is their driver’s license—a card that gives them license to drive into the blue yonder and there discover who they are and can be.

Stability can be found amid the chaos of such mapless journeys. As Wendell Pierce, best known from HBO’s The Wire, put it in his memoir about the recovery and renewal of post-Katrina New Orleans The Wind in the Reeds (2015):

My father’s mantra kept going through my head, strengthening my resolve: “You can’t get lost in America.” (pp. 126, 239)

So even before GPS apps became widespread, there existed possibilities that not all who drove (or wandered) would get lost, and this, Pierce points out, is one reason why, particularly for his father:

You can take the man out of the segregated South, but you can’t take the segregated South out of the man. (p. 51)

Yes, we travel. As Thoreau says, we “make haste past those houses” and accumulate experiences of multiple places, so much so that now we have Shakespeare’s “rich eyes and poor hands.” Nonetheless, we refuse to stand still:

Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free…. eastward to realize history, and study the works of art and literature…. westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure…. The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. (Thoreau, “Walking,” The Atlantic, May 1862)

We are born to be wild. So let us get our “motors running and head out on the highway.”


Jul 21 2016

Rereading Ruthie Leming – Part I: Tattoos & Taboos

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Just yesterday in trendy-all-too-trendy Austin, Texas lived and labored the world’s greatest tattoo artist: Homer Milton. He was as blind as the bats reverse-perched under the downtown bridge, but his work was known throughout the world, even among Japan’s Yakuza.

One day Milton could hear cane taps and paw patter outside the store door. A client entered the tattoo parlor covered from top to toe in ink and design. In one hand was a retractable cane; the other, the leash to a docile Rottweiler. His name was Dick McKeon and he was as blind as the mice in Longhorn Cavern. He was a white man who no longer looked white because of the overlap and intricacies and intersections of symbols, numbers, icons, and forms sprawled over his skin. It was as though he were permanently clothed in every tattoo conceivable, where the diversity of one only dithered another.

McKeon: Sir, today I wish to inquire about acquiring a new tattoo. Something to remind me of the joy of good old days.

Milton: I remember someone reading to me a long time ago that the common joy of the soul is the foundation of genuine community.[1]

McKeon: Right, I want a tattoo that will remind me of the common joy created when cheering for local sports teams––cheering for victory!

Milton: You remind me of when and why I quit baseball as a child. It wasn’t because of the winning or the losing or the cheating or the bruising. It was because of everyone else’s parents, the mob rule of the crowd. I remember I quit baseball because I’d rather have gone fishing and taken a dip in the river than deal with the rabble.

McKeon: Well, it sounds like you tried to escape both the conformity of childhood teamwork as well as the herd mentality of the helicopter parents of your fellow players.

Milton. I tried to escape, but successfully failed. For, “wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions.” [2]

McKeon: I’m impressed with your quotation but regret its lack of trendiness. You should be reading newer works that express the old ideas. Like the other day I was listening to this book called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013). Ruthie’s friends would go to the river to escape from small-town parentage:

During her junior year Ruthie’s crowd began hanging out at the river, where they could build bonfires and drink beer without adults hassling them.[3]

The river at Starhill was (and probably still is) a place to congregate, a place of sociological sifting of wheat from chaff.

Milton: I know what you mean. As Americans we know this scene inside and out. It’s well portrayed in films like American Graffiti (1973) and Austin’s own Dazed and Confused (1993). We know it not because it’s cliché but because it’s so essential to our own understanding of ourselves within our own culture.

McKeon: While Ruthie’s friends tried to temporarily escape from their parents, her brother Rod tried to permanently escape the entire town:

The intolerance, the social conformity, the cliquishness, the bullying. At sixteen this is what I thought small-town life was and always would be. There, on the far side of the river, was the rest of my life, straight ahead. I had no intention of looking back.[4]

Milton: Yeah, but every army needs a system of rank and can’t survive without one. But you’re right. Rod tried, but we suffer no escape. None for me with baseball back then. None for Rod or Ruthie or her friends. None even for small town folks of last century. They could not escape the in-group/out-group resentment inherent to our anthropology. Take for instance the psychology of a small southern town found in Carson McCuller’s novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940):

The place was still now crowded—it was the hour when men who have been up all night meet those who are freshly wakened and ready to start a new day. The sleepy waitress was serving both beer and coffee. There was no noise or conversation, for each person seemed to be alone. The mutual distrust between the men who were just awakened and those who were ending a long night gave everybody a feeling of estrangement…. They shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow.[5]

McKeon: So whether at a river or in a café, we sell ourselves this idea that our collective feeling of shared estrangement within our communities is a new, unique twenty-first century problem. We say all the billions of people for millions of years have been inescapably trapped in history, but we in century twenty-one are exceptional because we are aware of, and attentive to, the trap itself.

Milton: But it’s unique to no one but us. Everyone from the past would find no difference between now and then.

McKeon: But difference is the key to it all.

Milton: How so?

McKeon: Well, take Dreher’s sequel to Little Way, How Dante Can Save Your Live (2015), where he talks about in the world of––indeed, the anthropology of––his small Louisiana town of Starhill, a place where anything different made for a severe taboo:

As I reported the book [Little Way], I learned from questioning my sister’s friends, her husband, and my parents more about why Ruthie held me in such disdain. It had to do with my moving away to the city; Mike said that she always felt that I belonged in Starhill, and that she took my leaving as a personal rejection. It had to do with my having tastes and beliefs she didn’t understand; for Ruthie, as for Daddy, “different” was a bad word. It had to do with her believing that I was getting away with something, being paid to write for a living instead of doing honest work. And it had to do with, well, me; even her best friend, Abby, said that she couldn’t fathom why Ruthie’s patience with everyone else was endless, but she could barely tolerate me for a moment….

And there it was. We would be held responsible for doing more and more to win the Leming children’s love, though it would be impossible to do so because of our original sin: being unlike my father, my sister, and the rest….

A thick iron gate slammed shut within me, and from behind it I regarded my father with cold contempt. He had struck me where he could do the most damage: my sense of manhood. I followed him and my sister out of the field, my face on fire, this time not with shame but with wrath. And from that moment on, I saw him not as my champion. I saw him as my adversary. [6]

Milton: You should compare Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound (2008) whose story is set in the same Mississippi delta region as Dreher, but about 100 years prior. In Mudbound “lend” is a taboo four-letter word.[7]

McKeon: It’s because difference is a debt owed to the community. For community equals conformity and both make up a system of checks and balances that is intolerant toward debt.

Milton: And difference is the key. The atheist anthropologist Gregory Bateson once explained why all information, including cultural information, is binary. Bateson holds that facts—in any context––are but “effective differences,” and “information consists of differences that make a difference.” The human mind “is an aggregate of interacting parts or components,” and the interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in space or time.”[8]

McKeon: A––“nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in time or space”––and you say the guy was an atheist?

Thus the blind tattooed the blind—both knowing exactly what they wanted—both of whose origins and orientations toward the world were completely incompatible in comparison to the other.

NOTES

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[1] Buber, Martin. Meetings: Martin Buber. Edited by Maurice Friedman. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co. 1973. p. 39.

[2] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: or, Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 1854. “Ch. VIII – The Village.”

[3] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. p. 28.

[4] Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming p. 19.

[5] McCullers, Carson. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. 1940. Modern Library. 1993. I, ii, p. 36; II, vii, p. 238.

[6] Dreher, Rod. How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. pp. 26, 32, 11.

[7] Jordan, Hillary. Mudbound. Algonquin Books: Chapel Hill, NC. 2008. p. 117.

[8] Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature. NY: E. P. Dutton. 1979. pp. 61, 81, 92, 99. Cf. Plato, Republic 521c–523b, 524e, 525a–526d.


Jun 10 2016

But Myths Are Contagious

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Consider some unthing truly believed—I mean a myth. Consider how the consequences of one individual believing in a myth affect everyone else who happens to encounter that believing individual.

Then think about how everyone else’s awareness of that individual’s belief in the myth further perpetuates, spreads the myth.

Even for nonbelievers, myths are contagious––because nonbelievers remain susceptible to encountering knowledge of, attention to, awareness of myths they don’t believe in.

Now consider the myth of nostalgia: “the ole time religion,” Springsteen’s “glory days,” the search for lost time. Yet one can argue against all that crap, as a character does in a scene from Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1918):

“My Lord!” Kinney groaned, half in earnest. “Old times starting all over again! My Lord!”

“Old times?” Morgan laughed gaily from the doorway. “Not a bit! There aren’t any old times. When times are gone they’re not old, they’re dead! There aren’t any times but new times!”

And he vanished in such a manner that he seemed already to have begun dancing.[i]

Yes, the old times are no more. Times and habits change so fast, and we adapt so quickly to them, that we forget all that went on before—even though some of what went on before still goes on now. For old habits leave traces of themselves behind. They leave skidmarks and footprints of previous passages.[ii]

While the old habit said: “To protect the weak, we must first enslave them,”[iii] and the new diagnosis for overcoming the old habit is: “When we should still be growing children, we are already little men,”[iv] some, nonetheless, say humans are beasts; and children, insects. Now folks have trained many beasts of pleasure and disciplined many children of burden, but whoever dared to condition an insect?[v]

To pursue only your own interest is to be a beast.  To pursue only the interest of others is to be an insect, to be a hive-minded colonist.[vi] You may fight to survive and serve for leisure,[vii] yet only the acknowledgement of the absolute unknown (or what used to be called “kneeling before religion”) can put you on an even keel.[viii]

NOTES

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[i] Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons VI, 98. See also Paul Valéry:

For every man, and from the same materials, several ‘personalities’ are possible. Sometimes coexisting, more or less equally.––Sometimes a childish personality re-emerges during one’s forties. You think you’re the same. There is no same.

We believe that we might, from childhood, have become a different person, lived a different life––We picture ourself being quite different. But the possibility of re-grouping the same elements in several different ways still remains––this calls into question how we see time. There’s no lost, past time, as long as these other persons are possible. (Valéry, Paul. Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1913. N 13, V, 92.) [p. 329].)

[ii] Bateson, Gregory. NY: E. P. Dutton. 1979. p. 98; Vico, Giambattista. Vico: the First New Science. 1725. Translated by Leon Pompa. Cambridge UP. 2002. II, viii, [¶ 90] p. 66.

[iii] Fitzhugh, George. “Southern Thought (cont’d).” De Bows Review. November 1857.

[iv] Thoreau, Henry. Walking – Lecture at the Concord Lyceum on April 23, 1851.”

[v] Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. 1919. “Introduction,” by Malcom Cowley. NY: Viking. 1960. “[II] Hands” 12; Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. 1931. NY: Harper Collins – First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition. 2006. I, p. 16.

[vi] Vico, New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations. Third Edition. Translated by David Marsh. NY: Penguin. 1999. “Idea of the Work” [¶ 2] 2.

[vii] Vico, The Third New Science, I, § 2, xciv, [¶ 290], p. 109. Compare Henry Miller:

It’s hard to know, when you’re in such a jam, which is worse—not having a place to sleep or not having a place to work. Even if it’s not a masterpiece you’re doing. Even a bad novel requires a chair to sit on and a bit of privacy. (Tropic of Cancer. 1934. NY: Grove Press. 1961. II, p. 32.)

And compare Anthony Burgess:

Party names mean nothing. The tradition of liberty means all. The common people will let it go, oh yes. They will sell liberty for a quieter life. That is why they must be prodded, prodded––. (A Clockwork Orange. London: William Heinemann. 1962. III, v.)

[viii] Vico, The Third New Science, I, § 2, xxxi, [¶ 177], p. 87. See also Lewis’s Elmer Gantry:

There was no really good unctuous violence to be had except by turning champion of religion. The packed crowd excited him, and the pressure of rough bodies, the smell of wet overcoats, the rumble of mob voices. It was like a football line-up. (Elmer Gantry. NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1927. I, p. 17.)


Aug 17 2015

Muddling through Books with Dreher, Bateson, and Sontag

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Over at The American Conservative Rod Dreher writes:

The older I get, the more appreciation I have for Just Muddling Through as the only realistic solution to anything. It’s not a “solution” at all, but in the absence of a solution, it’s usually the best we can do. Every solution comes with a new set of problems.

I think this is what anthropologist Gregory Bateson was getting at when he said that explorations are self-validating, and therefore, nearly always successful. Or in Bateson’s words, explanation is “the mapping of description onto tautology”–and this is probably also what Thoreau was getting at when he remarked, “whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us.”[1]

But while explorations may be self-validating, our biases, whether in life or art, protect us. As Susan Sontag reminds us:

It will be seen that stylistic decisions, by focusing our attention on some things, are also a narrowing of our attention, a refusal to allow us to see others. But the greater interestingness of one work of art over another does not rest on the greater number of things the stylistic decisions in that work allow us to attend to, but rather on the intensity and authority and wisdom of that attention, however narrow its focus.[2]

 

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[1] Bateson, Mind and NatureA Necessary Unity. NY: Bantam. 1980. p. 139; Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland. “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia.” Theories of Schizophrenia. Edited by Arnold H. Buss and Edith H. Buss. NY: Atherton Press. 1969. p. 82; Thoreau, Henry David.  Walden: Or Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 1854. “Chapter I: On Economy.”

[2] Sontag, “On Style” (1965) in Against Interpretation. NY: Dell. 1969. p. 36; see also Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Place/Space, Ethnicity/Cosmos: How to Be More Fully Human.” Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America. Edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. pp. 102–19 at 111.