Nov 25 2022

The Riddling Imagination – Part IV

London - Georgian Apartments

The Riddling Imagination – Part IV

(Read PART I here.)

(Read PART II here.)

(Read PART III here.)

Toward the end of Franz Kafka’s (1883–1924) final work, the riddling narrative “Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse” (“Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”) (1924), the narrator asks:

Was her actual piping notably louder and more alive than the memory of it will be? Was it even in her lifetime more than a simple memory? Was it not rather because Josephine’s singing was already past losing in this way that our people in their wisdom prized it so highly?
(The Complete Short Stories, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, (New York: Schocken, 1946, 1971), p. 376)

Here readers are asked to ask: is holding the memory of the piping more important than unlocking the riddle to whether or not the piping is singing? Compare a reflection in Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Dom dzienny, dom nocny (House of Day, House of Night) (1988):

Oddly, it’s never the actual story that comes back to me, but the memory of Marta telling it, a small figure, with her round shoulders in the cardigan with the loose buttonholes and her bony fingers.
(House of Day, House of Night), trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2002), p. 5)

But suppose it is important for readers to consider the question of whether Josephine’s piping is prosaic, while true singing is something poetic? Does her piping constitute a sort of poetry? Or is piping mere prose, so that true singing, then, is true poetry? What if Kafka’s narrator is tone-deaf? And what do readers of Kafka remain blind to when reading “Josephine the Singer?”

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While discussing blind John Milton (1608–1674), Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), himself nearly half-blind since childhood, once explained that:

Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason…. Invention is almost the only literary labour which blindness cannot obstruct, and, therefore, he [Milton] naturally solaced his solitude by the indulgence of his fancy, and the melody of his numbers.
(“Milton,” Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779))

Compare that to when Wittgenstein (1889–1951) spoke of blindness and imagination:

When blind people speak, as they like to do, of blue sky and other specifically visual phenomena, the sighted person often says “Who knows what he imagines that to mean”––But why doesn’t he say this about other sighted people? It is, of course, a wrong expression to begin with.
(Bermerkungen Über Die Farben (Remarks on Colour), ed. G. E. M. Anscombe, trans. Linda L. McAlister and Margarete Schättle, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978), III, no. 294)

What might the right expression be? According to Owen Barfield (1898–1997):

In a word, imagination involves a certain disappearance of the sense of ‘I’ and ‘Not I’. It stands before the object and feels ‘I am that’.
(Romanticism Comes of Age, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1967), p. 30)

In other words, imagination is not “I am” or “I am that I am,” but––“I am that”––as when uttering the old folk phrase, There but for the grace of God go I. As Barfield explains, imagination “seeks to sink itself entirely in the thing perceived,” (Romanticism Comes of Age, p. 39).

And this ability to momentarily lose one’s sense of ‘I’ in imagining ‘I am that’—is a kind of freedom, as Lessing (1729–1781) recognized:

Now that only is fruitful which allows free play to the imagination. The more we see the more we must be able to imagine; and the more we imagine, the more we must think we see….. In poetry a robe is no robe. It conceals nothing. Our imagination sees through it in every part.
(Laokoön oder Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie (Laocoön: an Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry) (1766), trans. Ellen Frothingham, (Boston, MA: Roberts Brothers, 1887), III, V)

Finally, let readers here at Bookbread return to Johnson on Milton, and how:

These are very imperfect rudiments of Paradise Lost; but it is pleasant to see great works in their seminal state, pregnant with latent possibilities of excellence; nor could there be any more delightful entertainment than to trace their gradual growth and expansion, and to observe how they are sometimes suddenly advanced by accidental hints, and sometimes slowly improved by steady meditation.

Kafka’s works are, if nothing else, pregnant with latent possibilities of excellence. Reading them requires steady meditation—the kind of meditation that leads to self-abnegation––where one loses one’s sense of an ‘I’ while reading.

I find this particularly true of his final work “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” Or should I say: I find this particularly true upon reflection of the memory of reading Kafka (but perhaps not during the act of reading Kafka)? ’Tis but another riddle I imagine.


Aug 22 2022

The Imagination: Toy for the Child, Tool for the Adult

pencil shavings

We need more imagination to address our traffic congestion, our housing shortages, our mass-shooter threats, as well as our energy supplies and climate alterations. We need incubators and accelerators of imaginative thought (not just for the arts) but to aid in determining solutions to our greatest social pains. For where there’s pain, there is a problem. But there, there is also life; because only what is dead feels no pain.

I don’t pretend to be clever enough to know exactly what that fully entails—but I believe it begins with taking imagination very seriously—seriously enough to study it and analyze it (at least for starters).

And if, at the start, we’re too ill-equipped to undertake such an analysis, let us, if nothing else, attempt to analyze the findings of those who have already analyzed the human imagination.

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Let’s cut to the chase by beginning with Hamlet (II, i), where he is confronted by his old buddies from university Guildenstern and Rosencrantz:

HAMLET
What you have,
my good friends, deserved at the hands of fortune,
that she sends you to prison hither?

GUILDENSTERN
Prison, my lord!

HAMLET
Denmark’s a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ
Then is the world one.

HAMLET
A goodly one; in which there are many confines,
wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

ROSENCRANTZ
We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET
Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so
: to me
it is a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ
Why then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too
narrow for your mind. 

Hamlet here seems a bit childish. And one of the major questions, throughout the earlier parts of the play, concerns the audience, along with the rest of the play’s characters, all trying to decide: how authentic is Hamlet’s childish behavior?

While the word imagination isn’t used in this passage, Hamlet’s holding here that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” marks a possible origin to imaginative thought.

I interpret one of the meanings to the line “thinking makes it so” to mean: the act of thinking allows one to discern a difference between two or more things, in this case, the difference between good and bad (whatever that difference may be).

But even if this is but a single legitimate meaning to the line “thinking makes it so”—one might still label it a childish judgment on Hamlet’s behalf.

Rosencrantz tells Hamlet that it is the latter’s “ambition” that “makes” Denmark seem like a prison.

So, from this scene, a reader might extrapolate (or perhaps daydream) the hypothesis that imagination begins either from thinking or from ambition.

Certainly thinking in-and-of-itself is generally not considered to be childish. (But an over-abundance of ambition might be so considered.)

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For the Enlightenment-age sociologist Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), imagination is part of the complex relationship between reason and memory:

Just as old age is powerful in reason, so is adolescence in imagination. Since imagination has always been esteemed a most favorable omen of future development, it should in no way be dulled. Furthermore, the teacher should give the greatest care to the cultivation of the pupil’s memory, which, though not exactly the same as imagination, is almost identical with it. In adolescence, memory outstrips in vigor all other faculties, and should be intensely trained. Youth’s natural inclination to the arts in which imagination or memory (or a combination of both) is prevalent (such as painting, poetry, oratory, jurisprudence) should by no means be blunted…. The Ancients required their youths to learn the science of geometry which cannot be grasped without a vivid capacity to form images.

This is why, writes Vico elsewhere:

As the children of the new-born human race, the first people believed that the sky was no higher than their mountain heights, just as children today think it no higher than the rooftops….

People living in the world’s childhood [that is, the earliest days of humanity] were by nature sublime poets….

By nature, children retain the ideas and names of the people and things they have known first, and later apply them to others they meet who bear a resemblance or relation to the first.

Therefore:

The sublimest task of poetry is to attribute sense and emotion to insensate objects. It is characteristic of children to pick up inanimate objects and to talk to them in their play as if they were living persons.

(Vico, De Nostri Temporis Studiorum Ratione (On the Study Methods of Our Time) (1709), trans. Elio Gianturco, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990), pp. 13–14; Vico, La Scienza Nuova (The Third New Science) (1725), trans. David Marsh, (New York: Penguin, 1999), “Idea of the Work” [¶ 4] 3; I, § 2, xxxvii, [¶ 186], p. 89; I, § 2, lxviii, [¶ 206], p. 92. See also Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophie der Psychologie – Ein Fragment (Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment) [formerly Philosophical Investigations Part II] in Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001), Revised Fourth Edition by Hacker and Schulte, (2009) (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009), (II, xi, 148), p. 208.)

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So I interpret Vico to say: there is this thing called imagination, and its ingredients (or perhaps catalysts) are memory and reason.

But why talk about thinking and memory and reason when the discussion should be about imagination? The terms and concepts keep multiplying, but it seems better to keep it simple and as few as possible.

Yes, the terms and concepts keep multiplying, but that is because, as journalist and social-theorist Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) has explained, when it comes to discussing the particular act of thinking we call imagination, simply because it is a word, it is (and shall always remain) a metaphor for something else:

The chief difficulty here seems to be that for thinking itself—whose language is entirely metaphorical and whose conceptual framework depends entirely on the gift of the metaphor, which bridges the gulf between the visible and the invisible, the world of appearances and the thinking ego—there exists no metaphor that could plausibly illuminate this special activity of the mind, in which something invisible within us deals with the invisibles of the world. All metaphors drawn from the sense will lead us into difficulties for the simple reason that all our senses are essentially cognitive, hence, if understood as activities, have an end outside themselves; they are not Energeia, an end in itself but instruments enabling us to know and deal with the world.

(The Life of the Mind, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy, (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking, p. 123)

In other words, we readers cannot “start from zero” (ex nihilo), for—just as there is no emoji for the word emoji––there is no metaphor for metaphor.

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Imagination isn’t just a mental activity—it can also mean a mental place where such activity can occur. In the tale “Night on the Galactic Railroad” (1927), Japanese novelist-poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896–1933) the child character of Giovanni does this effortlessly:

I’m a great big locomotive! Watch as I speed down this incline! And look, my shadow has slipped out in front of me, swaying like a compass needle, he played around in his imagination.

(Night on the Galactic Railroad & Other Stories from Ihatov, trans. Julianne Neville, (Long Island City, New York: One Peace Books, 2014) “§ The Centaurus Festival,” 54)

But one shouldn’t accept Vico’s statements on children and imagination at face value. Some people, like Canadian comedian (and social philosopher) Norm MacDonald (1959–2021) as a child, imagination takes a tremendous amount of effort psychological effort:

So I decided right then and there to see the picture as it really was. I stared at the thing long and hard, trying to only see the paint. But it was no use. All my eyes would allow me to see was the lie. In fact, the longer I gazed at the paint, the more false detail I began to imagine. The boy was crying, as if afraid, and the woman was weaker than I had first believed. I finally gave up. I understood then that it takes a powerful imagination to see a thing for what it really is.

(Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir, (New York: Random House, 2017), pp. 20–21)

This passage serves as a kind of over-arching metaphor for Norm’s book—readers don’t really know completely what is fiction or fact or some combination of the two, blended by memory.

Adults too, make use of imagination as a place where they can imagine they know things that they actually don’t know. As the glad genius Umberto Eco (1932–2016) once explained:

Even though I too am incapable of telling an elm from a beech, I can easily recognize mangroves (which I was able to identify one day thanks to having read about them in many travel books) and banyan trees, about which I had received plentiful instructions in Emilio Salgari’s adventure books. But I was convinced I knew nothing about the paletuviere (mentioned equally frequently in Salgari’s books), until on reading an encyclopedia one day I discovered that, in Italian, paletuviere is simply another word for mangrovia. Now I could reread Salgari, imagining mangroves every time he mentioned paletuviere. But what did I do for years and years, from childhood on, reading about these paletuviere without knowing what they were? From the context I had deduced that they were plants, something like trees or bushes, but this was the only property I could manage to associate with the name. Nevertheless, I was able to read on by pretending to know what they were. I used my imagination to integrate what little I had been able to glimpse within the half-open box, but in fact I was taking something on trust.

(Kant e lornitorinco (Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition), trans. Alastair McEwen, (New York: Harcourt, 1997), p. 292)

Finally, compare the imagination of patient Leonard L. in the Awakenings (1973) report by Dr. Oliver Sacks (1933–2015), where the imagination is an aid to survival and quality of life:

Leonard L. had in fact, been hallucinating for years—long before he ever received L-DOPA (although he was unable or unwilling to admit this to me until 1969). Being particularly fond of ‘Western’ scenes and films, Leonard L. had, indeed, ordered the old painting of the shanty-town as long ago as 1955 for the sole and express purpose of hallucinating with it—and it was his custom to ‘animate’ it for a hallucinatory matinée after lunch every day….

Most of the patients’ hallucinations lack the ambivalent, often paranoiac, and in general uncontrollable nature of schizophrenic hallucinations; but that they are, in contrast, very like scenes of normal life, very much like that healthy reality from which these pathetic patients have been cut off for years (by illness, institutionalization, isolation, etc.). The function (and form) of schizophrenic hallucinations, in general, has to do with the denial of reality; whereas the function (and form) of the benign hallucinations seen in Mount Carmel has to do with creating reality, imagining a full and happy and healthy life of a sort which has been cruelly denied to them through Fate. Thus I regard it as a sign of these patients’ health, of their enduring wish to live, and live fully—if only in the realms of imagination and hallucination, which are the only realms where they still enjoy freedom—that they hallucinate all the richness and drama and fullness of life. They hallucinate to survive—as do subjects exposed to extreme sensory, motor, or social isolation; and for this reason, whenever I learn from such a patient that he constructs a rich and benign hallucinatory ‘life,’ I encourage him to the full, as I encourage all creative endeavours which reach out to life.

(Awakenings, (New York: Random House, 1973; Vintage Books, 1990), pp. 214–15)


Feb 27 2022

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

typewriter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

One reads in The Nickel Boys that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to come (maybe).

NOTES

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

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

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

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

[5] Wittgenstein, “Notes for Lectures on ‘Private Experience’ and ‘Sense Data’,” Philosophical Review, 77 (July 1968): 275–320 at 295–96; Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001), Revised Fourth Edition by Hacker and Schulte, (2009) (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009) I. no. 384.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Apr 27 2020

Pity for Poverty

typewriter

[The following was a major cut made to a book review I’ve submitted for publication. But I find the cut interesting enough.]

Even if we approve of a person who, from a sense of duty in charity, is sorry for a wretch, yet he who manifests fraternal compassion would prefer that there be no cause for sorrow. It is only if there could be a malicious good will (which is impossible) that someone who truly and sincerely felt compassion would wish wretches to exist so as to be objects of compassion. Therefore some kind of suffering is commendable, but none is loveable.

––Augustine, Confessions (3.3.3)[i]

BOSWELL. ‘Sir, I have not so much feeling for the distress of others, as some people have, or pretend to have: but I know this, that I would do all in my power to relieve them.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it is affectation to pretend to feel the distress of others, as much as they do themselves. It is equally so, as if one should pretend to feel as much pain while a friend’s leg is cutting off, as he does. No, Sir; you have expressed the rational and just nature of sympathy.’

––Boswell, Life of Johnson, March 25, 1776

After reading, among other things, Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (2019), I find myself often wavering between the sympathies of Bishop Augustine, Dr. Johnson, and James Boswell above and the considerations below from longshoreman-turned-philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983):

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.

––The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)[ii]

I waver because for the past twenty years I have ridden the city bus to either school or work in Austin, Texas. As a straight white male alumnus of the University of Texas I have had on that bus the privilege to witness and encounter the less-privileged laugh, converse, fight, beg, pontificate, flirt, and sleep on buses and at bus stops. I’ve seen addicts, the unlucky, and the mentally ill ask strangers for directions to navigate the city, money for bus fares, cigarettes and lights, and even request prayer from strangers who—judging by the perplexions on their faces––seemed never to have prayed before. (But pray they all did!)

Yes, within this city I’ve stepped over a live body sprawled on the sidewalk, stiff and oblivious in a trance induced by the synthetic pseudo-cannabis called K2. I’ve handed my doggy bag full of fresh leftovers from lunch to the passerby beggar asking for something to eat. Very rarely (but not quite never) have I given a downtrodden individual a small amount of cash and a strong hug.

Occasionally I’ve traveled abroad and (again) witnessed and encountered les míserables in larger cities such as London, Paris, Dublin, and Berlin as well as smaller ones like Belfast, Oxford, Seville, and Bologna. Though I don’t recall any encounters with homelessness in Stratford, throughout my travels on the local bus and overseas I have, as Jacques says in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “gained my experience.”[iii] But the price for the “rich eyes” of a traveler means that, also like Jacques, I now possess the “poor hands” and empty pockets that so unimpressed fair Lady Rosalind. Such has been the life of writer Chris Landrum. Thus:

“We may have uneasy sensations from seeing a creature in distress, without pity; for we have not pity unless we wish to relieve them.”

––Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)[iv]

“Pity is one form of being convinced that someone else is in pain.”

––Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951)[v]

“The name of this intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention” is love.”

––Simone Weil (1909–1943)[vi]

NOTES

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[i] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (New York: Oxford UP, 1992) (III, iii, 1), p. 37.

[ii] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §11, p. 23.

[iii] William Shakespeare, As You Like It IV, i.

[iv] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, 18 July 1763.

[v] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001; revised Fourth Edition eds. Hacker and Schulte, 2009) I. no. 287.

[vi] Simone Weil, “Human Personality,” (1943), Simone Weil: an Anthology, ed. Siân Miles, (London: Virago Press, 1986) 92.


Apr 16 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 03: What is the Essence of a Work of Fiction?

book spines

Midwest Mod Squad no. 03: What is the Essence of a Work of Fiction?

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 02 here)

The age of argument appears to be over…. (Is that what’s implied when someone says we live in an age of anxiety?) … But let’s walk away from that question and leave behind the game of Who Can Best Guess this Zeitgeist? Leave that contrivance to the book peddlers….

All I can do is read a story and see what grabs my attention. And what grabs my attention is usually the essence of the story. (I say usually, because any first appearances that grab one’s attention can of course be deceiving.) And just because the essence of a story grabs my attention doesn’t mean I’ll be able to articulate a definition of that essence.

By essence I mean the thing (moment, symbol, character, idea, etc.) that the entire work of short fiction seems to hinge on—the essential thing without which the story would have no reason to be read by the average casual, curious reader. It may or may not mean a Joycean “epiphany,” or an Aristotelian catharsis, or the thesis of a classical rhetorician. The essence may even be something “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”[1]

To find the essence of a story, a reader asks questions, like the four questions of Alfarabi, or other things like:

  • What topics does each story contain and concern?[2]
  • What of things I’ve previously read that concern and compare and contrast with those topics and subjects?
  • Who is the storyteller of each story? (Which is not the same as asking, Who is the creator of each story?)

And in asking these questions I assume the storyteller is separate from the story creator, but I don’t assume or deny any reliability in what that storyteller tells me the reader/listener. At this early stage in the investigation, I don’t even have to worry about defining the word reliability.

The next two posts in this series will examine a pair of short stories by a pair of New York writers: Chris Arp and Nicole Cuffy. And while no one ever confused the Big Apple with the Midwest, Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern (2016) does include much of Upstate New York to be, in terms of regional dialects, part of the Midwest. Keep in mind, however, that both Arp and Cuffy have written pieces of historical fiction set neither in New York or the Midwest.

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 04 here)

NOTESwood

[1] Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus § 7.0.

[2] An infinite number of topics might exist for any story, sure, but see Bateson on Kant:

Kant argued long ago that this piece of chalk contains a million potential facts (Tatsachen) but that only a very few of these become truly facts by affecting the behavior of entities capable of responding to facts. For Kant’s Tatsachen, I would substitute differences and point out that the number of potential differences in this chalk is infinite but that very few of them become effective differences (i.e., items of information) in the mental process of any larger entity. Information consists of differences that make a difference. (Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 81, 99.)


Jan 1 2018

How We Should Rely on Others to Think for Ourselves (According to Machiavelli & Alan Jacobs)

porticos in Bologna, Italia

How We Should Rely on Others to Think for Ourselves
(According to Machiavelli and Alan Jacobs)

“Working toward the truth is one of life’s great adventures.”

––Alan Jacobs

“Don’t regard a hesitant assertion as an assertion of hesitancy.”

––Wittgenstein[1]

The thirty-fifth chapter to the third book of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy is entitled:

“When Dangers Are Borne in Making Oneself Head in Counseling a Thing; and the More It Has of the Extraordinary, the Greater Are the Dangers Incurred in It.”[2]

Machiavelli’s chapter title gets at a point Alan Jacobs repeats often in How to Think: a Survival Guide in a World at Odds (2017): that it is impossible for one to think for oneself. In fact, one must rely on others in order to think for oneself, for “the problem of belonging and not-belonging, affiliation and separation, is central to the task of learning how to think” (p. 54).

Both Machiavelli and Jacobs focus on the perils of counsel. Now someone might say, “So what? I’m not a counselor,” but I say, that we (as readers and writers) are participating in the public sphere; therefore, following Charles Taylor, I say we (as readers and writers) are, in some sense, counseling the government. In a republic, the political blogger/writer/commenter always potentially advises her authorities via her activities in the public sphere. Donald Trump, for example, could conceivably read something I tweet and act on it.[3]

Yet, according to Machiavelli, dispensing advice is always a gamble, for hesitant assertions are mistakenly interpreted as assertions of hesitancy:

Thus it is a very certain thing that those who counsel a republic and those who counsel a prince are placed in these straits: if they do not counsel without hesitation the things that appear to them useful—either for the city or for the prince—they fail in their office; if they do counsel them, they enter into danger of life and state, since all men are blind in this, in judging good and bad counsel by the end. (Discourses III, xxxv)

In either a principality or a republic bad advice can be fatal for the dispenser. Yet, as Machiavelli points out, bad advice is not judged on the accuracy of its contents, but on whether the results of that advice lead to something satisfactory for the ruling authorities receiving the advice.

Machiavelli writes that what counselors and advisors need (and by writing this he is actually advising readers!) is moderation:

Thinking over in what mode they [those who counsel] can escape either this infamy or this danger, I do not see any other way for it but to take things moderately, and not to seize upon any of them for one’s own enterprise, and to give one’s opinion without passion and defend it without passion, with modesty, so that if the city or the prince follows it, it follows voluntarily, and it does not appear to enter upon it drawn by your importunity. (Discourses III, xxxv)

Following Roger Scuton, Jacobs writes in How to Think how we, as advisors and counselors to the government (as well as to our friends and family and strangers) in the public sphere, must “negotiate our posture toward the other” (p. 83). We must “avoid displaying the zeal that’s all too commonly characteristic of the convert,” (pp. 149–50) because “the real outgroup, for us, is the person next door” (p. 72)—that is, the person who votes differently than we do, thinks differently than we do, etc. For as the author known as Kohelet writes:

Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken; lest thou hear thy servant curse thee:
For oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others. (Ecclesiastes 7:21–22)

To defend one’s opinion with moderation rather than passion is certainly something the twenty-first century public sphere could use more of, particularly when political matters are discussed. But risks remain nonetheless. Jacobs warns how “sheer animus … disables our ethical and our practical judgment” (p. 75). And Machiavelli has observed:

When you do thus, it is not reasonable that a prince and a people wish you ill for your counsel, since it was not followed against the wish of many—for one bears danger where many have contradicted, who then at the unhappy end concur to bring you to ruin. (Discourses III, xxxv)

Machiavelli also warns of those who contradict regularly, fully aware that they contradict without hesitation, will bring a countering writer-advisor to ruin, unless that countering writer-advisor be modest and moderate in their countering:

And if in this case one lacks the glory that is acquired in being alone against many to counsel a thing when it has a good end, there are two goods in the comparison: first, in the lack of danger; second, that if you counsel a thing modestly, and because of the contradiction your counsel is not taken, and by the counsel of someone else some ruin follows, very great glory redounds to you. (Discourses III, xxxv)

Or, as Jacobs writes, “The genuine community is open to thinking and questioning, so long as those thoughts and questions come from people of goodwill,” (p. 59), which sounds not unlike an observation Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) once made:

Unless we make ourselves hermits, we shall necessarily influence each other’s opinions; so that the problem becomes how to fix [stabilize] belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community.[4]

NOTES

wood

[1] Alan Jacobs, How to Think: a Survival Guide in a World at Odds, (New York, NY: Currency Books, 2017) 150; Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. by G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (London: Blackwell, Revised fourth edition, 2009) p. 202.

[2] Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[3] According to Taylor:

This space is a public sphere in the sense I’m using it here. That a conclusion “counts as” public opinion reflects the fact that a public sphere can exist only if it is imagined as such. Unless all the dispersed discussions are seen by their participants as linked in one great exchange, there can be no sense of their upshot as public opinion. This doesn’t mean that imagination is all-powerful. There are objective conditions: internal, for instance, that the fragmentary local discussions interrefer [sic]; and external, that is, there must be printed materials, circulating from a plurality of independent sources, for there to be bases of what can be seen as a common discussion…. (Modern Social Imaginaries, (Durham, SC: Duke University Press, 2004) p. 85)

The public sphere is the locus of a discussion potentially engaging everyone (although in the eighteenth century the claim was only to involve the educated or “enlightened” minority) in which the society can come to a common mind about important matters. This common mind is a reflective view, emerging from critical debate, and not just a summation of whatever views happen to be held in the population. As a consequence it has a normative status: government ought to listen to it. There were two reasons for this, of which one tended to gain ground and ultimately swallow up the other. The first is, that this opinion is likely to be enlightened, and hence government would be well advised to follow it…. The second reason emerges with the view that the people are sovereign. Government is then not only wise to follow opinion; it is morally bound to do so…. (A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007) 188, 189)

It is a space of discussion which is self-consciously seen as being outside power. It is supposed to be listened to by power, but it is not itself an exercise of power. It’s in this sense extra-political status is crucial. As we shall see below, it links the public sphere with other facts of modern society which also are seen as essentially extra-political. The extra-political status is not just defined negatively, as a lack of power. It is also seen positively: just because public opinion is not an exercise of power, it can be ideally disengaged from both partisan spirit and rational. (A Secular Age 189–90)

[4] Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly, 12 (November, 1877): 1–15.


Nov 10 2017

An Attempt At Meditating on Metaphor

porticos in Bologna, Italia

An Attempt At Meditating on Metaphor

A metaphor is just a particular tool for mythmaking, and as C. S. Lewis points out, there are two ways in which we use metaphor: one for teachers, another for students. When a metaphor starts with a teacher attempting to teach a student, the teacher is free to choose the metaphor because the teacher already knows the meaning behind it. Here, one might say the teacher’s myth is certain. It is either true or false, and can be proven to be one or the other, because the teacher, by definition, knows the meaning of what he teaches and can, therefore, provide the evidence of the meaning behind the myth that would necessarily make it certain. [1]

On the other hand, as Descartes observed, “One cannot so well seize a thing and make it one’s own, when it has been learned from another, [but] as when one has himself discovered it.” In a state when learning has decreased, as when the teacher is unavailable or inaccessible to the student, or when communication overrules conversation, the student, suffering confusion, is left in Lewis’s words, “to the mercy of the metaphor.” She must make her a myth on her own. But the student’s metaphor is never true or false. No matter how true it “feels” it cannot be made certain. For when the student creates an original metaphor, she is bound by her subjective certainty and is not free to choose it the way the teacher did. She thinks and feels, and indeed may know it to be an appropriate metaphor but is probably unable to explain why. [2]

Metaphors are fine; but they need to be labeled says Gregory Bateson:

The conceptual models of cybernetics and the energy theories of psychoanalysis are, after all, only labeled metaphors. The peculiarity of the schizophrenic is not that he uses metaphors, but that he uses unlabeled metaphors. He has special difficulty in handling signals of that class whose members assign Logical Types to other signals.

That is to say, he must live in a universe where the sequences of events are such that his unconventional communicational habits will be in some sense appropriate. The hypothesis which we offer is that sequences of this kind in the external experience of the patient are responsible for the inner conflicts of Logical Typing. For such unresolvable sequences of experiences, we use the term “double bind….”

Among human beings we meet with a strange phenomenon—the unconscious falsification of these signals. This may occur within the self—the subject may conceal from himself his own real hostility under the guise of metaphoric play—or it may occur as an unconscious falsification of the subject’s understanding of the other person’s mode-identifying signals. He may mistake shyness for contempt, and so on. Indeed, most of the errors of self-reference fall under this head…. He may learn to learn.[3]

Compare Wittgenstein’s Investigations: we concurrently play two different games with the same word at the same time:

It can never indicate the common characteristic of two objects that we symbolize them with the same signs but by different methods of symbolizing. For the sign is arbitrary. We could therefore equally well choose two different signs and where then would be what was common in the symbolization.[4]

NOTES

wood

[1]. C. S. Lewis. “Bluspels and Flalansferes” Rehabilitations and Other Essays, (London: Oxford University Press, 1939). Quoted from Max Black, ed., The Importance of Language, (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1962) 39–40.

[2] René Descartes, Discours de la Methode, § VI. For the differences in “belief” versus “certainty” versus “truth,” see: Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, (New York, NY: Viking, 1976) 108; Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1958), 112–13; Plato, Meno 79C–81A, 85C–86E; John Searle, “Language and social ontology,” Theory and Society, (October 2008): 443–59 at 445.

[3] Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia,” (1956) in Theories of Schizophrenia, eds. Arnold H. Buss and Edith H. Buss, (New York, NY: Atherton Press, 1969) 132, 130–31.

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus, Translated by C. K. Ogden, (1921) 3.322.


Dec 28 2016

The City Toad and the Country Toad

grass and soil

The City Toad and the Country Toad:

A Conversation Concerning Some Things I’ve Read & Reread in 2016.

Odious toadies are
All we, rolling in dust,
Licking ants red as rust.

Recently I  read the following:

I then compared the ideas gained by reading these things to other things read awhile back (listed in the footnotes) and the conversation between two toads is the below result:

Moses: It’s strange a book should poison me into believing the corruption of my prior innocence is what has lately made me more…. civil.[1]

 Mercury: Who?

 Moses: Me: Moses.

 Mercury: Who?

 Moses: Mr. Hughes. Mr. Moses Hughes, brother of Nimrod. We are the Brothers Hughes who chartered the city of Healthy Rapids out in the west Texas country, just off Quicksilver Creek. [2]

 Mercury: I’m sure the rapids of that creek were once healthy, but now that you’ve built a city along its banks, I wonder if the running waters are still so salubrious? No, I bet not, because it’s to the country where you must go for fresh air and clean water. As is written: for the lost who are weary of the maze of the city, the countryside offers sanctuary.

 Moses: Well, I don’t agree. I say the city is amazing, and it’s in the country where one gets lost in the woods. As is written: where one remains stationary, one stagnates.

Mercury: Yes, but wildflowers may grow out of doors––

Moses: ––But in a drought they stay stunted! Meanwhile, flora planted inside a greenhouse burst and blossom all winter long.[3] Yes, I’m afraid innocence is corrupted by experience––

Mercury: ––Ha! That is no secret! Hence innocence preserves itself by evading the dangers of the city, by retreating to the balmy countryside, where everything’s quite cozy and carefree.

Moses: Yes, certain pleasures attend us upon the absence of particular pains, and yes, their attendance may sometimes occur in the country, but the innocence you describe remains inert, cold and motionless as a marble obelisk. Yes, it’s easy to be carefree in a country cemetery among the obelisks. Perhaps the grass is always greener over there. Perhaps you can hear the wind whistling among its urns.

Mercury: You may mock me, Mr. Hughes, but when in the city, whether in the street or on the sidewalk, you may get run over,[4] for as it is written:  the word on the street is the language of the city. [5] The city speaks to you and about you, yet you cannot speak back. You are too lost in its maze, too busy questing for better paths between pylons and shopping carts.

Moses: In the city I walk beside my friends, and they talk to me. But I confess that, later when I’m home alone, I realize I’m only “me” to others, not to myself. I am only me to them when I’m not around them. (Furthermore, this means that since I’m always around me, I can never be me to me.) In the city I’m around my friends, but when I go to the country, they miss me. Yet it’s the being missed that makes me me,[6] just as the white spaces of the Constitution make just as much a part of the Law as the black marks on the animal hides which constitute it. One seems to hide the other, and yet they both reveal everything.

Mercury: In other words, it comes down to either our presence in the census, or our absence.

NOTES

[1] Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Ch. XI. Compare also: “Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us,” (Ch. II).

[2] Moses Hughes (1819–1903) is buried at Pleasant View Cemetery, Troy, Bell County, Texas; his brother, Nimrod Hughes (1830–1862) at Cook Cemetery, Lampasas, Texas. See also: Elzner, Jonnie Ross. Relighting Lamplights of Lampasas County Texas. 1974. pp. 18–22; Lampasas County Texas: its History and its People. Vol I. eds. Lampasas County Historical Commission. Walsworth Publishing Company: Marceline, MO. 1991. pp. 1–2, 217–18; O’Neal, Bill. Lampasas: 1855–1895: Biography of a Frontier Texas Town. Waco, TX: Eakin Press. 2012. pp. 1–13.

[3] From The Picture of Dorian Gray:

Anybody can be good in the country. There are no temptations there. That is the reason why people who live out of town are so absolutely uncivilized. Civilization is not by any means an easy thing to attain to. There are only two ways by which man can reach it. One is by being cultured, the other by being corrupt. Country people have no opportunity of being either, so they stagnate. (Ch. XIX)

Compare also Wilde’s use of “uncivilized” above to Mark Twain’s usage of “sivilized” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), Ch. I, VI, XLIII.

[4] Gary Toth has pointed out how modern American streets constitute one-third of a city’s geography space; furthermore, streets are now exclusively for vehicles when they used to also be play areas, much more public than they are now. See: Toth’s “Place-Conscious Transportation Policy.” Why Place Matters. (eds.) Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 55.

[5] See Wittgenstein:

“Do not be troubled by the fact that languages (2) and (8) consist only of orders.  If you want to say that this shews them to be incomplete, ask yourself whether our language is complete;—whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of the infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language.  (And how many houses or streets doe sit take before a town begins to be a town?)  Our language may be seen as an ancient city:  a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions form various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.” (Philosophical Investigations, I, #18)

“Language is a labyrinth of paths.  You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.” (ibid I, #203)

[6] Based on three quotations:

“Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.” (Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children “I “The Perforated Sheet”).

“I don’t know what doesn’t change—within me….” (Valéry, Paul. Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. (1932. Untitled, XV, 827.) [p. 354]).

“I am I, and wish I wasn’t.” (Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World 1931. NY: Harper Collins – First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition. 2006.) Ch. IV, p. 64.


Mar 2 2016

Plato and Dante: Scattered Thoughts on Spinning Tops

bookbread pencil shavings

This is a scattered post I’ve been working on for the past three weeks…. Is it pastiche, goulash, a patchwork quilt perhaps? ….

Some old books, such as Plato’s Republic and Dante’s Commedia, act on the reader like spinning tops,[1] where each page can be read both centrifugally and centripetally. The centrifugal reading seeks the essence, the thesis, of Plato and Dante—it asks how those authors relate to themselves within their works. On the other hand, centripetal reading seeks to connect the Commedia and Republic to any and every other kind of knowledge—it asks how their works relate to everyone else’s works and knowledge.

I’m thinking about things centrifugal and centripetal because after Texas’ Super Tuesday 2016 my head keeps spinning. So weary of hearing a conservative political-follower say America has lost its faith in a god––so weary of hearing a liberal political-follower say America has lost its faith in a government.[2] Have we lost faith in political leadership and believe only in our own political followership?

I do not expect our poets to be politicians, nor do I expect our politicians to be poets. Yes, in the days of Plato and Dante a poet and politician could be one in the same, but why now does that dual-role sound like a contradiction? What is the clash ringing in our ears? ….

Both Plato and Dante were politician-poets. But Plato gave up politics, while politics gave up Dante. The Florence comune exiled Dante with threat of death while the Athenian jury sentenced Socrates to self-execution….

Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth. Plato was a corrupted youth who forswore politics. Dante was accused of being an incorruptible politician. Socrates is offered exile, but death, for him and unlike Dante, is a better choice….

In the Commedia, Dante is the representative of the living. In the eyes of the dead he is poet-politician-leader. Neither Plato nor Socrates speaks to the dead. But Plato does bring Socrates back to life, for by the grace of Plato’s pen, Socrates is resurrected into the everlasting life of dialogue….

When Plato has Socrates speak of contradictions, he writes things like:

[Someone] might say of a spinning top that the whole thing stands still and turns at the same time, when it fixes the peg in one spot and goes round and round upon it, and so also anything else does this that goes round in a circle in the same place, but we should not accept that. We should say that such things are not resting and revolving in the same parts of themselves, but they have a straight part (the axis) and a circling part (the periphery); in the straight part it moves round; and when it leans the perpendicular to right or left or front or back while it revolves, then it does not stand still anymore…. So such a saying will not dismay us, and it will never convince us that the same thing in the same place towards the same thing could sometimes be or do or suffer two opposites.[3]

So contradictions for Plato are like spinning tops where two things––a centripetal-axis from which the top spins and a centrifugal tangent of the outermost edge of the top’s surface––almost appear as one. (Yet here it might be apt to recall a dictum from Gregory Bateson: “it takes two to know one.”)[4] We know that the two things really aren’t one but aren’t quite sure where to mark the divide between them.

Wittgenstein says that when you encounter a contradiction, instead of worrying about whether it exists or not, you must repent from the way of thinking that originally led you to the contradiction––

to get a clear view of the state of affairs before the contradiction is resolved.  (And this does not mean that one is sidestepping a difficulty).[5]

For Wittgenstein, comprehending a contradiction is all about backpedaling, retrenching, repenting of present sins (mistakes in one’s thinking) and returning to prior piety. In other words, one must turn around and retread over the previous course, just as YHVH repents to Moses…. [6]

Now when Dante speaks of contradictions, he writes things like:

dal quale in qua stato li sono a’ crini;
ch’assolver non si può chi non si pente,
né pentere e volere insieme puossi

 [one can’t absolve a man who’s not repented,
and no one can repent and will at once;
the law of contradiction won’t allow it.][7]

The Italian humanist Poggio Braccidini, who lived a generation after Dante, provides a perplexing twist to Dante’s take on contradictions:

A certain man, either seriously or to play a trick on the priest, went to him saying that he wished to confess his sins. Invited to say what he remembered of his wickedness, he related that he had stolen something from another, but added that this other had stolen more from him.

Said the confessor: “One thing cancels out another, so you are quits now.”

Then the man added that he had beaten a certain fellow with a stick, but that he had received several blows in return from this person.

And the priest said that here, too, one thing cancelled out another, and that all was well.

At last the penitent said that there remained a sin for which he was much ashamed, and blushed before the priest to have to tell it.

The confessor exhorted him to forget his shame and reveal the sin. Yielding at last to the persistence of the friar, the man said: “I once had your sister.”

“And I”, replied the priest, “on several occasions had your mother, and here, as in the other cases, one thing cancels out another.”

And for this equality in sin, he absolved him.[8]

Does Poggio’s facetiae, his bawdy, brief tale, lead to contradictions, or does it absolve contradictions?

I leave as I came: with my head spinning.

 

wood-h-small

NOTES

[1] See Northrop Frye’s remarks in The Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton UP (1957):

Whenever we read anything, we find our attention moving in two directions at once. One direction is outward or centrifugal, in which we keep going outside our reading, from the individual words to the things they mean, or, in practice, to our memory of the conventional association between them. The other direction is inward or centripetal, in which we try to develop from the words a sense of the larger verbal pattern they make. (p. 73)

Compare, George Steiner in The Death of Tragedy, NY: Knopf (1961), for whom Dante is more centrifugal than Shakespeare, while the latter is vice versa:

Whereas Dante’s vision bends all light rays toward a controlling centre, Shakespeare’s sense of the world appears to move outward. (p. 21)

[2] For examples, see: Johnson, Byron. “The good news about evangelicalism.” February 2011. First Things. (http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/02/the-good-news-about-evangelicalism); “Trust in Government” Gallup. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/5392/trust-government.aspx); “Confidence in U.S. Branches of Government Remains Low” Gallup. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/183605/confidence-branches-government-remains-low.aspx).

[3] Plato, Republic, IV 436A–436D. In Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6. Translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1969.

[4] Nachmanovitch, Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 113.

[5] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. 1953. I, § 125.

[6] Exodus 32:9–14; Kaufmann, Walter. “Prologue to I and Thou,” In Martin Buber’s Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) 1923. Translated by Kaufmann. NY: Scribner. 1970. pp. 34–37.

[7] Alighieri, Dante. Inferno XXVII, 117–19. In Divine Comedy. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Notes by Peter Armour. NY: Everyman’s Library. 1995.

[8] Braccidini, Poggio. In The Facetiae of Poggio: and other Medieval StoryTellers. London, UK: Dutton. 1927. LXXX 106–07.

 


Feb 12 2016

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) & Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

bookbread athens

From Carol Zaleski at ChristianCentury.org–I never knew this:

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein loved to read Johnson’s prayers as much as he disliked to read anyone else’s. There was something so human about Johnson, Wittgenstein said; and this was no faint praise, since for Wittgenstein, philosophy’s supreme task was to understand one’s own humanity and recognize the humanity of others.

Read the rest here.