Monday, July 11, 2016

The Gorgeous Nothings

The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope PoemsThe Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems by Emily Dickinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a triumph, its worth well beyond the $30 listed on Amazon at the time of this writing. It is a treasure of my library very much akin to The Complete Illuminated Books. Dickinson's envelope poems and Blake's handmade illuminated poems represent an eternal discourse on the marriage of medium and content. Yet while Blake's process was an arduous task of writing and illustrating backwards (so that his self-invented press would stamp everything in the proper direction!) to produce copies to give out and sell himself, Dickinson's envelope poems represent a mind bursting with thought and a hand desperate to keep up. We must bear in mind that Dickinson did not intend for a publication of her "envelope poems"; she wasn't seeking to discover a new artistic medium. She was indeed a product of her time: a girl in nineteenth-century New England repurposing envelopes to capture her wild poetic thoughts somewhat in secret. Jen Bervin, in the introduction, brings in a charming anecdote concerning a book called The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy (purchased by her father for her mother, of course), wherein the author describes a neat little way to turn the envelopes from received letters into scrap paper.

Reading and looking at these poems, one is struck with a sort of nostalgia for the past; a rush of the sublime; and a feeling of intrusion. Nostalgia: I have the sense that I am back in my grandparents' house as a young child, sneaking glances into their "junk drawer." It is filled with stubs of pencils, yellowing letters, rubber bands. I can almost see myself unfolding these dingy envelopes, seizing one of the pencil stubs, and capturing my poetic thoughts in the secret coves of the backyard garden. Sublime: Anyone with any familiarity of Dickinson's poetry is familiar with the level of sublimity she achieved, and this well beyond the envelope poems. Her apparent speed of thought gave way to a compression of language that births profundity. Intrusion: Perhaps trespassing is a better word, but there's this feeling that looking at her handwriting produces that makes one feel that Miss Dickinson herself could walk in at any moment and catch one looking through her private stacks of poems. (Indeed the book is so well produced, the images of the envelopes so well captured, that it seems one is holding each scrap in one's hand.) Perhaps this latter-most sensation has its roots in one of Dickinson's own poems: "As there are / Apartments in our / own Minds that - / we never enter / without Apology - / we should respect / the seals of / others" (A 842, p. 176-177).

This is a book that will remain in my library forever, to be passed down to my daughter.

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Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Selfish Gene

[WARNING: NEEDS EDITING!]


Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.


Reviewer’s Preface


I have attempted to read this book several times in the past, and of the corresponding abandonments of the text, there are two distinct and overarching reasons: (1) loss of interest, typically at the hands of other books begging my attention; and (2) inability to relinquish predispositional baggage--the latter reason being chief. Whether these predispositions be my own (meaning, birthed in my own mind) or adopted from the onslaught of extraminutiae (my word for all the little things we see and hear throughout each day) that homogenize into judgements, I wanted to be the best reader possible. The best reader being, as Bacon defines, one who reads not to refute and argue but rather to weigh and consider. And I take this weighing and considering to imply taking as objective a stance as possible. So, now that I find myself in the ideal frame of mind, I shall keep the hotbed of contention surrounding this book and its author at bay and dig in!


I own a paperback copy of the Oxford University Press publication of the 30th anniversary edition, replete with Dawkins’s introduction to the 30th anniversary edition, a preface to the second edition, a foreword to the first edition (by Robert L. Trivers), and a preface to the first edition. In my usual fashion, I choose to save these prefatory matters for last; I want to see how well I absorbed the original text first. Though I have never read this book before, I’ve read enough opinions (good and bad) in other books to feel as though I’ve read it. I also choose to dismiss all of these interpretations in favor of forming my own. The one premise I take into this journey is that the book presents a theory of evolutionary biology. Full stop.


Chapter 1: Why are people?


As with any quality academic work, the first chapter sets the stage for the book’s main thesis, its objectives, and basic premises. When I read on the first page that “My purpose is to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism” I settle on the word biology, not the following and last two nouns. The context of the book is biology. Biology, of course, branches into various specialization, and I take Dawkins’s to be evolutionary biology. Thus we’re going to be dealing with a sort of calculus of life (note that we must not immediately construe life as the complex organism called man, necessarily) as it evolves towards the concepts we call selfishness and altruism. In addition, Dawkins points out that previous studies of such modes of behavior have failed because “...they misunderstood how evolution works” (2).


The first component in this misunderstanding of the evolutionary biology is thinking that the “...important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene)” (2) It is important to note that when Dawkins speaks of the individual, he is thinking of the gene--these will be the constituents with which we deal in this book; and, indeed, the title should have made that clear enough. This view, a refutation of what is still taught in classrooms, is in contradistinction to one of my favorite lines from the movie Interstellar. In the movie, the aging professor states that we must stop thinking as individuals and start thinking as a species if we want to survive. And yet, to be clear, this is not to refute Dawkins’s claims. Remember, the statement in Interstellar is toward a deliberate attitude that we as complex humans must cultivate; Dawkins is on a much, much lower level of life, looking at how our basic parts so “think.”


Yes, Dawkins takes the view that “we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes”--but before we jump straight into moral judgements (probably at the provocation of the word machine), we should note that he is not “advocating a morality based on evolution” (2). In fact, Dawkins follows with this: “My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live” (3). And, of course, sure, he does add that however much we don’t like the face of something, that alone doesn’t stop it from being true. In any case, let’s choose to take him at his word and throw off our predispositions. Let us attempt to step into the mind of a biologist. Let us begin to go back in time and become a gene, competing for survival. What sort of character would it take to survive? Along with this book not being a position on morality, it is also not a statement on the nature versus nurture debate; and it is also not an “...account of the detailed behavior of man….” (3). In sum, The Selfish Gene aims to show how individual selfishness and individual altruism can be explained by what Dawkins calls gene selfishness.


Chapter 2: The replicators


“In the beginning was simplicity” (12). Taken one way, this second chapter can stall out any and all efforts to grasp the science-based arguments of the book. One cannot help but acknowledge Dawkins’s swapping of “God” and “the Word” for “simplicity” in the beginning verses of the books of Genesis and John. This is also a foretaste of what would become a central tenet of Dawkins’s argument against the existence of God (or, to be more exact, an Intelligent Designer) in his book The God Delusion. But I here cease with theological discussion and choose to take this opening sentence as a reliable way to arrest the reader’s attention. His point, based on a mix of Occam’s razor and reductionist methodology, is that, based on evolutionary processes it doesn’t make sense to begin with something complex; it rather makes sense to begin with something simple.


Although Darwin is an influencer of Dawkins, Dawkins sheds more light on the distorted subject of natural selection and extends the argument lucidly. A key point is made in the substitution of “survival of the stable” for “survival of the fittest.” We must scale our thinking about these points way down from you and I working and travelling and eating nice meals and making coffee and “socializing” on Facebook to the “primeval soup.” In Dawkins’s own words, “...it does not follow that you can explain the existence of entities as complex as man by exactly the same principles….” (13-14). Atoms are linking and forming molecules. Unstable molecules pass away; stable ones remain. And using the example of haemoglobin, we make the amazing discovery that some of these molecules are replicators: that is, they make copies of themselves.  


These replicators were the early forms of what we now know as genes. They made copies of themselves, replete with flaws as one would expect in any repetitious copying process. And as they fought to survive, they built protective machines in which to live. These machines are, of course, you and me. And “...their [the replicators’] preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.” (20) If you find yourself becoming agitated, flip back six pages: “The account of the origin of life that I shall give is necessarily speculative; by definition, nobody was around to see what happened” (14). Fair enough? Let’s move on and reap the benefits of this brilliant scientist’s labor.


(Special note: I know I keep saying I will stave off the temptation to delve into any form of theological discourse, but I must point out the wit of Dawkins’s footnote that reads, “Actually it is a pleasure [to respond to letters demanding proof of a biblical error], for scientists can’t often get satisfyingly dusty in the library indulging in a real academic footnote” (270). The wit of this statement caused me to literally laugh out loud; and the multileveled implications caused me to nod my head, wipe library dust from my own nose, and say, “Well played, sir.”)


Chapter 3: Immortal coils


(First off, what a great moniker for genes: immortal coils. The poet in me savors the assonance of this word pair. Also, I’ve always wanted to start a paragraph with a parenthetical side note.) Having laid out the scope and thesis of the book, Dawkins now moves into a deeper definition of the gene, including its history, its development, and its modern functions (meiosis, mitosis, and crossing-over). He points out that “...there is no universally agreed definition of a gene” and submits his own, in debt to G. C. Williams: “...any portion of chromosomal material that potentially last for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection” (28). This definition sets up for a reinforcement of the main thesis: “...at the gene level, altruism must be bad and selfishness good”; therefore “[t]he gene is the basic unit of selfishness” (36).


Again, we need not let our minds leap to the whole individual (e.g. human being). We are at the gene level. Dawkins uses this chapter to revive dormant memories from college biology, at least for this reviewer. Most of us are familiar enough with “thinking” in terms of inheriting genes and genes controlling the way we turn out, but in a mere fifteen pages Dawkins does a stunning job of clearly fine-tuning our conception of the gene, including debunking a couple myths (e.g. there is no gene that controls eye color). And boy does this guy have a knack for metaphor! In sum, humans (and other animals and plants) are likened to machines, so-called “survival machines,” that genes have constructed for themselves. Formerly, this survival machine for the gene was the primeval soup; now, it is you and me. If we continue to zoom in from the machine level, we get to the gene level, then the cell level, then the DNA molecule level, and then the nucleotide level. DNA molecules are comprised of linked nucleotides (A, T, C, and G, which may be familiar to most of us in the post-Human Genome Project era). DNA are distributed across our cells, and every cell contains a complete copy of that body’s DNA.


This was dormant information for me, but the way it is clearly laid out in this book was rather stimulating. It continues. These nucleotides are the same in all plants and animals! Here is where we can pause and re-assess the topic of evolution, typically thin-sliced down to just the “I don’t come from a monkey!” argument. It is not that we were once all monkeys; we all stem from the same primeval-soup genes. Hence why there are still monkeys around. Same original replicators; different sequences.. As Dawkins says, the important thing in evolution are differences. Truly, this is fascinating stuff!


We learn about genes and their rival allels (opposing genes) and the struggle to march on from survival machine to survival machine through the mixing up of sexual reproduction, and a question begins to arise--why does natural selection not favor survival genes and gene units that would result is the survival machine (our bodies) living longer (i.e. being stronger and healthier)? As Dawkins puts it, “Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting” (35). And, “The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over, they merely change partners and march on” (35). This is a very interesting and important point in that it bolsters Dawkins’s criteria for a unit of natural selection: “longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity” (35). Human beings, as a composite whole, do not exhibit these traits.


Chapter 4: The gene machine


Now we step back up a layer, from the gene to the machine (our body). Using the analogy of a machine, replete with pulleys, cams, gears, etc., Dawkins eloquently sweeps through a foundation on the building blocks genes developed around themselves (in the machine) to improve their survival. Muscle development, nerves, senses, and so on, all culminating in that glorious and mysterious object known as the brain. But this chapter is not about showing how all of the aforementioned stems from genes; it is rather about behaviour, defined as “...the trick of rapid movement which has been largely exploited by the animal branch of survival machines” (47).


Behaviour at this point should not be construed with a moral judgement attached to it. This rapid movement is the muscle reaction to stimuli. But what is fascinating to me is how Dawkins develops the argument from the need to create muscles with which to achieve movement all the way to what is perhaps our most debated and undecided phenomena: consciousness. The final stage of this discursive trajectory hinges on the concept of “purposiveness.” In Dawkins’s words: “When we watch an animal “searching” for food, or for a mate, or for a lost child, we can hardly help imputing to it the subjective feelings we ourselves experience when we search” (50). How true this is! My daughter and I were watching a BBC Earth series called Life Story, and we marveled at how “aware” and “thinking” some of the animals were. Indeed, for certain moments, it were as if we could hear the animals’ thoughts. And, ergo, these “subjective feelings” we have bespeak the development of consciousness.


At this point I began to feel that a contradiction was emerging. Did not Dawkins earlier state that no one gene creates a certain feature and that we had to be careful not to leap from the genes to the overall machine behaviour? Well, as quickly as the questions arose, the answer came--yet again in the form of a beautifully rendered analogy. This book was first published in 1979, yet the analogy is prescient: a computer program. A programmer codes a set of instructions in a program, compiles it, and runs it. At that point, while the program is running, the programmer has no control. Likewise, the genes are likened to both the programmer and the program (very intriguing!), in that, once they are in an active gene machine they cannot be amended. “All [the genes] can do is set [up the rules] beforehand; then the survival machine is on its own, and the genes can only sit passively inside” (52).


This analogy prompted another question, and I even wrote it in the margin of my book (then, of course, I soon had to go back and append a note to my note: “read on!”). Why wouldn’t genes respond to stimuli and improve themselves more rapidly? The answer is summed up in the term “time-lag”: “Genes work by controlling protein synthesis. This is a powerful way of manipulating the world, but it is slow” (55). So how have they improved given that the world seems to present more eventualities than this time-lag makes possible to cover? The answer is delicious. “[T]he genes have to perform a task analogous to prediction” (55; credited to J. Z. Young). Thus, genes are perhaps the first business intelligence professionals, dealing with big data and predictive analytics!


Though Dawkins does not veer into the territory of philosophy of mind and cognitive science, he gives this reader enough stimulus to begin to question the role of organic genes in computers. My nascent argument is that, given that Dawkins is right that genes are the building blocks of natural selection that led to forms of awareness, would it not follow that we would need computers/programs built (evolved?) from organic replicators (or artificially organic replicators)? Admittedly, I am vastly ignorant of the field of biology, but I will tuck this line of thinking away for further research. My apologies in advance to my wife. I will be buying more books, it seems.


Chapter 5: Aggression: stability and the selfish machine


Chapters five through seven I read in a single sitting on a late Friday night. I told myself I would limit myself to a chapter a day with this book, but I couldn’t help myself with these three chapters--I was both utterly fascinated and striving for clarification. My snag was in separating in my mind the perspective of gene-selfishness and individual-selfishness. Dawkins has taken pains in the text to reiterate the point that the individual is a survival machine that the genes within have constructed to keep themselves alive, yet time and time again I find myself unable to dispense with thinking of selfishness in terms of the deliberate moral actions of a composite conscious individual operating in a world of other composite conscious individuals. The question looms for me: What is the difference in saying that genes are selfish and individuals (as most of us think of them) are behaviorally/morally selfish?


I believe the means of clarification is found, again, in thinking of genes “as a whole” and not as a single gene mapped to a single property: “We shall continue to treat the individual as a selfish machine, programmed to do whatever is best for its genes as a whole” (66; emphasis added). On the flip side, we must also discard the common evolutionary misunderstanding that natural selection favors the species and not the individual, another point that Dawkins is at pains to drill into his readers’ heads. Indeed, were I able to achieve a tabula rasa in my mind before reading seminal books like this, I believe the journey would be much easier.


Dawkins builds on the concept of our genes being pre-programmed with policies for survival and introduces the concept, credited to Maynard Smith, of an evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). “An evolutionarily stable strategy is defined as a strategy which, if most members of a population adopt it, cannot be bettered by an alternative strategy” (69). Dawkins then simplifies the point: “...the best strategy for an individual depends on what the majority of the population are doing” (66). This concept spearheaded, at least for me, the path to grasping how to thinking about selfishness in the contexts and terms Dawkins elucidates. What follows from this introduction of ESS are various examples of the complexity of how these policies are developed and fine-tuned over time. The examples are written out like qualitative decision trees, showing how the policies cannot be as simple as “kill every adversary on sight.”


As expected with an evolving system of policies that  ensure the betterment of the majority, it is virtually impossible to ensure (remember, policies are basically predictive) the betterment and stability of the whole. Just think about policies and processes used in the workplace! There can be oscillation in effects and even a breakdown. Supposing a gene is introduced to the gene pool that disrupts an achieved ESS, there will be a time of temporary instability.


All this is well and good, very intriguing, but my “human, all too human” brain cannot help but think in terms like, “Well, all right, I’m getting this about gene selfishness and ESS and all, but, look, I’m human. I’m complex. I have a will and consciousness. Can I not just override my gene pool with deliberate action and will power?” As usual, Dawkins has anticipated this thinking and addresses it a couple of pages after the thought bubbles up in my mind: “It is possible for humans to enter into pacts and conspiracies that are to every individual’s advantage, even if these are not stable in the ESS sense. But this is only possible because every individual uses his conscious foresight, and is able to see that it is in his own long-term interests to obey the rules of the pact” (73). So, Dawkins affirms that presence of advanced consciousness for our species, but then shows how this would imply a form of selfishness! Well played. Furthermore, by “not stable in the ESS sense” he means not “immune to treachery from within,” in that, it is highly likely that an individual within the pact could benefits short-term from breaking the pact.


I can feel my former thinking challenged, and that is the mark, in my opinion, of a great theory/work/book.


Chapter 6: Genenship


That last point I touched on from the previous chapter is picked up in this chapter: “...a gene might be able to assist replicas of itself that are sitting in other bodies. If so, this would appear as individual altruism but it would be brought about by gene selfishness” (88). Gene selfishness can cause perceived altruism! This bit, found at the end of the opening paragraph of the sixth chapter, is perfectly timed and caused me to take a deep breath and relax. It is the key to my overarching questions. Since reading this, my mind has been reeling with examples (much more elementary than Dawkins’s copious selection of examples, of course), but I must place limits around my ruminations, lest I become more cynical than I am already.


On cynical thought that bubbled up is along the lines of how we interact with our family members. Are our familial relationships at base truly bound by Rousseau’s contrat social? Surely not. I rejected this when I first read it in Rousseau’s eponymous book. This thinking delves into the area of kin selection, which Dawkins has some important points to make. His first point is that, in line with my thinking, “Kin selection accounts for within-family altruism; the closer the relationship, the stronger the selection” (94). Of course, we need to properly construe the phrase “the closer the relationship” in terms of shared genes, not in terms of how socially healthy or intimate the relationship is. Indeed, I am bound to my parents and my grandparents because we share common genes, albeit selfish genes that assist each other in survival.


Chapter 7: Family planning


We enter this chapter with an understanding of kinship altruism (Dawkins, remember, does not define kinship in terms of the group). I have a better grounding on the altruism within my close family, and, at least in my opinion, it settles my concern about the human-level selfishness at play versus the described gene-level selfishness at play. But what about relationships outside of my kin? Taking the intriguing thought of genes assisting their replicas in other bodies, how do we reconcile this with the possibility of those other bodies being outside of our immediate family? Based on information from previous chapters (I cannot easily locate it; I wish I had made a note when I first came across it), it seems possible that the same replicators can be found in other bodies of the aforementioned qualification. Dawkins tackles this argument by dividing altruistic decisions into two categories: “bringing new individuals into the world” (child-bearing) and “caring for existing individuals” (child-caring) (109). Decision, in this context, is defined as an “unconscious strategic move” (109). The term “unconscious” is crucial for reading this chapter, perhaps the whole  book for that matter.


Chapters 8-10: Battle of the generations; Battle of the sexes; You scratch my back, I’ll ride on yours


This chapter, and, indeed, the next two chapters, left me with the feeling of awe (e.g. honey-pot ants have a caste of workers that serve only as food pods to other ants (171)) and, admittedly, information overload. In these four chapters, Dawkins responds to the interesting questions presented at the end of the seventh chapter. I will do the book an injustice with this summation, but I cannot possibly blanket the wealth of examples, cause-and-effect analysis, and conclusions Dawkins provides here. In the end, however, we find familiar themes: “...there is no genetic reason for a mother to have favourites” (125). “There is...no general answer to the question of who is more likely to win the battle of the generations” (139). Even though I did get a bit bogged down with all of the ever-branching propositions in these chapters, they are some of the most thought-provoking pages I’ve ever read. Dawkins seems to have anticipated this response (though, to be clear, he is here referring specifically to speculation about reciprocal altruism within our own species): “...I leave the reader to entertain himself” (188).


Chapter 11: Memes: the new replicators


Way to end on a high note! Want a reason to read this book? For this chapter alone. But don’t just read this chapter on its own--the full impact of its original thought comes from the force of all the pages that lead up to it. Now, that’s not to say that I objectively view the concept of the meme and the meme pool as Dawkins’s crowning achievement in this text, but for this lover of culture and communication and art and language it is well near a crowning achievement.


Yes, Dawkins coined the term meme, the same word we use for those silly images and text we send flying all over the Internet. But this limits the original definitions, which Dawkins has as “a unit of cultural transmission” which can take the form of “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches” (192). The idea here is that the meme is the “new replicator,” but that’s not to say it has usurped the gene. The gene is still the biological replicator. But the meme is a cultural replicator, and they “propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain” (192). As with genes and natural selection, there are good memes and bad memes. Good memes will take hold in the mind and continue their high-fidelity copying.


The more one thinks through these conclusions, there more one appreciates this concept of the meme, which serves to beautifully underscore the concept of the selfish gene.


Author’s Final Note: Is this book worth reading?

Yes. But heed this disclaimer from John Maynard Smith: “If you are not interested in how evolution came about, and cannot conceive how anyone could be seriously concerned about anything other than human affairs, then do not read it: it will only make you needlessly angry” (359).

Addenda

Here are some various thoughts that have continued to simmer after reading this book.

  1. Free will versus determinism. A popular debate, of course; and The Selfish Gene presents what I believe to be a great way of thinking about the two seemingly mutually exclusive/conflicting philosophies. Our genes are deterministic, pre-programmed and unchanged from the start (in terms of a single human life); yet our consciousness has evolved to the stage where we can override the determinism of our genes via free will.
  2. Reductionism versus collectivism. A basic premise in reductionist frameworks is that breaking down an object or a phenomenon into its basic parts and understanding those basic parts will tell us everything we need to know about the complete object. In other words, if we understand an object's parts, we gain a better understanding of the object. Thoughts and examples presented in this book, however, offer a nice provocation to this premise. The gene on its own versus within a group of genes (or chromosomal unit) can present quite different behaviour.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas by David Mitchell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't read much contemporary fiction because, for the most part, it pales in comparison to older, mightier literature of the canon; and as I find myself "reading against the clock" (to borrow Bloom's words) it's hard for me to expend my precious reading hours on literature that doesn't have a payoff confirmed by many ages before myself. But I still take chances in the name of curiosity and, I suppose, keeping at least a pulse on the state of the literature of modernity. Yet, oftener and oftener, when I take the chances, I find myself disappointed and wishing I had allotted the time to, say, absorbing some unread Shakespeare, Borges short stories, or perhaps tilling the soil of some of Montaigne's wisdom. But--alas!--with this treasure of 2004 from one David Mitchell, disappointed I was not! Far from it, in fact.

If you haven't read this book, please do yourself a favor and stop reading these comments. Surely the best way to read this book is to simply take a chance and read it cold, without any prior knowledge (except the inevitable knowledge that we all seem to have that (1) it's a tough book; and (2) the Wachowskis adapted it for the big screen in 2009). Allow me to jettison the idea that the novel is difficult. For any real reader of books, the novel is one big homage, one big love letter to reading and books and authors and so on, both in its content and its form. The only two reasons I could see the book being avoided are the style of the opening story and perhaps the foreign structure of the book. But, be apprised, both of these elements serve to enhance the majesty of this masterpiece.

As for the opening story's style. Like that of, say, Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, Mitchell chooses to write in the manner of a late nineteenth-century travelogue (Mitchell's first of 7 total styles!), and as has happened with the aforementioned Pynchon book, this will act as a sort of colander that will sift out certain readers from others right from the start. Some will think, "There's no way I can read a whole 500-page book written in this manner" and the will to endure the work will wane if not depart; others will delight in their Golden Age syndrome, only to be disappointed about 40 pages into the book. Thus, as I've already informed, my advice to those who are turned off by the opening style is to persevere. There is major payoff.

For me, the structure of the book is the highlight that elevates a contemporary novel into the annals of art. As one of Mitchell's characters lays out: this book proves that we must stop begging for literature to be original in the way we're asking and realize that art is the how, not the what. Stories are recycled throughout the ages of artistic creation--this is well known. But forms change. What does this sound like? Well, to me, this alone is the metaphor of a cloud: same material, an infinitude of possible forms. So, yes, the stories interlink in various ways and repeat themselves in various ways, though they're seemingly so different due to being far removed historically. Anyone can flip through the book, finding the story divisions, reading the titles, and conclude the manner in which the chronology is set; and Mitchell himself indulges in invoking the concept of the sextet explicitly in the stories themselves (the book's own analogy of a Matryoshka egg is my favorite!). Lastly, whoever was in charge of the production of the printed Random House US paperback delighted this reader endlessly with the little cloud at the tops of the pages (no doubt this is intended as the reproduction of a certain birthmark). Cheers!

Reading Cloud Atlas, I kept thinking of this as a Ulysses for our time. Just as Joyce contrived to create a collection of episodes in the day of a life of Leopold Bloom around the story of Homer's Ulysses, while also playing with the style and voice of every episode, and including things like making each episode correspond to a particular human organ, so too does Mitchell create a glorious artistic contrivance with his masterpiece. In fact, one of the later episodes in Ulysses narrates scenes of birth and is written in the various phases of the English language from beginnings to the present as the episodes progresses! Well played, Joyce and now Mitchell! But there's one place where Mitchell sets his work apart from Joyce: the stories aren't simply a day in the existence of one fellow (well, ahem, let's just leave that alone here, shall we?). Each story and the bridging story between the sextet are immensely enjoyable and enthralling on their own. And only as you begin to see the interlockings of the sextet will an already enjoyable experience be pitched into a time of literary transcendence.

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Friday, December 6, 2013

J. D. Salinger and the Effect of What Isn't Said


Earlier this week a colleague of mine walked into work with a blue and red paperback cradled against his laptop.  I do not work for a publishing house or anything connected with the literary world unless you draw an indirect line to eReaders, so to see anyone with a printed book--let alone literature of such high ilk--apprehends my attention (at least, for me: someone who is always curious as to what others read, if they read at all).  From the colors of the jacket alone, I recognized it as the most recent Back Bay Books publication of J. D. Salinger's Nine Stories (1953).  Though he is unquestionably known as the author of Catcher in the Rye (1953), the collection my colleague possessed contained mostly stories published prior to Catcher, and in The New Yorker, which, at the time and to Salinger himself was the paramount literary journal.  After a brief palaver with my colleague regarding Salinger and the cultural milieu in which he wrote, my interest in his work was rekindled, and I went home on lunchbreak that day, located my copy of Nine Stories, and settled in for "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."


It had been a while since I read Salinger--the last piece I remember reading was the Franny and Zooey, which story Amy Hungerford of Yale has an excellent lecture--but I was immediately reminded of an author whose work is more recent in my mind.  That author is Raymond Carver, a master of the minimalist/compressionist story.  At the mention of these aesthetic movements, other names come to mind: Hemingway, Salter, Didion, to name a few; but Carver and especially Salinger stand out in my mind for other reasons.  For example, with Hemingway there's this attention to the sparseness of the short, declarative sentences to construct his prose; with Didion the prose is as a series of impressionist paintings, strung together to convey a milieu and story.  But with Carver, there's a longing that achingly stretched its fingers toward some truth or understanding and never finds it.  The form of the writing doesn't call as much attention to itself as it does the emotion (though, admittedly, the same argument could be made for Hemingway; I suppose I'm getting into degrees of feeling).  And, finally, with Salinger, there is a subtle level of depth and profundity that couples with the characters' gropings for enlightenment in the face of seemingly insurmountable quotidian circumstance.

"Bananafish" spearheads the collection, and as much as I would like to talk about this incredible work of short fiction, I want to deny it its proper attention and skip to lesser-addressed stories of the book.  A staple of writing fiction is the tenet "show, don't tell," which means, for example, don't say "Johnny was mad."  Instead, say "Johnny clenched his fists until the fingernails pressed crescents into his palms."  You see the difference?  One is simple a statement, narrative, some information; the other is emotionally charged.  When you read prose like the second example, you begin to feel what the character is feeling.  Now, taken a step further, we could also omit the explanation as to why he's angry, and instead reply on showing the source of the anger.  Taking it to this second level is what Hemingway and Carver and Salinger do so well.  One only need read Hemingway's "Up in Michigan" or Carver's "What's in Alaska?" for exemplification.

As for Salinger, let's take a snippet from "Uncle Wiggly Up in Connecticut."  Here we have a female character who gets drunk, is mean to her little daughter, short with her friend, and so on.  We have the familiar anodyne of alcohol to relieve suffering (thanks for that inspiration, Ms. Dickinson).  We witness a woman who stifles her feelings and represses the past in exchange for a drunken present.  And it is in the final juxtaposition of her heavy-handed drunkenness and her daughter's youthful innocence and fragility that Salinger delivers the emotional punch without stating why.  Certainly we can deduce the source of these frustrations and draw a conclusion as to why the woman acts as she does, but the power, the emotion Salinger evokes, comes from, I argue, two things: (1) the trope of the daughter's Donald Duck night table (at least, I think it's Donald Duck; I'll have to reread when I have the book with me); and (2) the woman's question to her friend, "I was a good person once, right?" on the heels of a memory wherein she was ridiculed and hurt by someone.  In these brief, seemingly perfunctory images, Salinger is able to convey so much.  The power lies not in what is narrated but in what wasn't narrated.  Even in the memory of the woman's dress being made fun of, very few words are needed to made it click for the reader.





Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Human Struggle: Sibelius, Titian, God

It's been a long time since I've posted, but I certainly haven't stopped exploring the wealth of great art that's available to us.  Lately, I've found myself confronted with religious questions, and, of course, with the nature of human beings--our struggles, our hopes, our fears, our future beyond this corporeal existence.  What or who is God?  Which theology is right?  To what do we turn in times of extreme struggle?  Is there any point to life, or is it just a theatre of the absurd?  Humans have been struggling to make sense of it all since the beginning, and here are a few works that depict this inherent propensity for questioning life.

Titian's Abraham and Isaac (1542-1544)
The struggle of spiritual faith and logical reasoning.

Genesis 22
[10] And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
[11] And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
[12] And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
 

Even if you haven't read the Bible or heard the verses of Genesis recited, you're probably at least vaguely familiar with this harrowing, grotesque story.  Abraham was called to be the father of a nation, the father of the tribes of Israel, and as such he needed to be tested by God.  Thus Abraham was instructed to kill his son Isaac for the Lord.  As depicted in Titian's highly dramatic rendering, an angel of the Lord stopped Abraham's knife just before striking his son.  At that moment God knew that he had the right guy for the job, since he, Abraham, was willing to sacrifice his son due to his fear of the Lord.

The struggle here is obvious, and it divides many people when it comes to the God-based religions.  The question inevitably arises, "What kind of God asks his people to kill their own children just to prove their loyalty?"  Such is the struggle to reconcile spiritual faith with human logical reasoning.   

Sibelius's Symphony No. 6 in D Minor (1923)
The struggle of loneliness and late-life achievement.
 
The first of the four movements.

It seems that all too often geniuses are plagued with mental insanity, or at least attributes of psychological breakdown.  Think about Schumann, Schubert, Poe, Rimbaud, Kerouac, and a host of others who've struggled with mental balance and meaning and loneliness in the midst of possessing the greatness of creativity.  It seems almost as if the human mind does not have the capacity to handle (what we think of as) normalcy and genius--the two are, in a way, mutually exclusive.

In the case of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (whose work, Finlandia, I highly recommend), the struggle of loneliness and late-life achievement (the search to produce more of his art) culminated in a dependency on alcohol.  He even wrote that he had no friends left to turn to--they were all dead--and alcohol was the only substance sustaining his life.  He desperately sought to continue creating his art in the face of isolation and hopelessness.

Yet in the face of this despair, Sibelius produced these beautiful, if ghostly, late works, including the sixth.

Armstrong's A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (2004)
The struggle of religious reconciliation among many diverse peoples.


I've only read 100 pages (~1/4) of this book, but already I feel as though I've amassed a whole college semester's worth of theology, cosmology, history, and religious thought-provocation.  Karen Armstrong is a fantastic writer.  She is able to take a lode of information on complex topics and forge them into a clear, lucid text for the lay reader.  In A History of God, her purpose is to tell the story of the way in which people have conceived God throughout history.  Most striking is the more objective perspective Armstrong brings to the history, a tough thing to find in the branch of religious literature.  By that I mean that she sticks to the form of a historical survey rather than a religious tract or one-sided iconoclastic antagonism.

At the same time, Armstrong keeps the current skepticism and atheistic perspectives in mind, and she even views them as new ways in which to conceive God.  Indeed, the ways in which humans has understood God have changed throughout history; and ipso facto, the ways in which people have denied the existence of God have changed too.  Note, for example, this excerpt from her introduction:
Like any other human activity, religion can be abused, but it seems to have been something that we have always done.  It was not tacked on to a primordially secular nature by manipulative kings and priests but was natural to humanity.  Indeed, or current secularism is an entirely new experiment, unprecedented in human history.  We have yet to see how it will work.  It is also true to say that our Western liberal humanism is not something that comes naturally to us; like an appreciation of art or poetry, it has to be cultivated.
Armstrong's purpose is not to deliver more theology, but to narrate the ways in which humans have understood God.  Not Jesus; not Christianity; but God, El, Yahweh.  And already in the first 100 pages it is remarkable to gain a perspective of the Hebrew people in their historical context.  For example, the Hebrew people at the time described in the Old Testament did not have the concept of philosophy or scientific reasoning (though, of course they would be surrounded by this in the Hellenized world).  Instead they were very pragmatic, and this pragmatism played into religion.  They accepted God because God worked for them.  He solved their problems, so no matter whether he fir a philosophical proposition or a mathematical proof.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Details: Proust, van Eyck, Nabokov, et al.

This week I've been thinking about details in the arts. I'm thinking of the intricate layering of Bach's powerful, divine music; the almost painfully realistic details of Jan van Eyck; and the sprawling, nearly neurotic prose of Proust. The small image of Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (1434) to the left does the masterwork no justice. Click the image or view the image at this location. Zoom in on the image, spend time grazing over every piece of it, and, above all, savor the fine details. This is an oil painting on wood panel, and Jan van Eyck has obviously given much attention to detail: look at the fabric of the foreground characters' clothing, look at the chandelier, look in the mirror! I would post a picture of one of Bosch's triptychs, but looking at both van Eyck's picture and Bosch's would effect a sort of Stendhal syndrome that wouldn't allow you to read the rest of my post!

In his Cornell University lecture, Vladimir Nabokov urged readers to give themselves over to the authors words. Good readers take in and process and feel and see and hear and smell every detail because good readers recognize that the author has taken time to use her or his creative genius to construct a world the reader can live in. In fact, Nabokov views writing as a medium of connection between reader and writer. The two parties, through the world the author has created for the reader, can meet at the top of the mountain and have a conversation. So, the more refined the details are, and the more we as readers take in these details, the more realistic and powerful this mountaintop communication between reader and writer, or observer and painter, or listener and composer, will be. Is too much detail gratuitous and superfluous? Well, look at van Eyck's painting again and ask yourself if it would have the same power with less detail. The same theory, in my opinion, can be applied to literature.I've also been reading Stanley Fish's latest book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, the basic premise of which is that good readers and good writers (to allude back to Nabokov) love sentences. And it's true. I've never thought to focus on sentences as the objects of my literary affections--usually I refer to really enjoying an author's style (form, tone, etc.)--but Fish is right. Words by themselves are discrete objects wandering around looking to join with one another to establish meaning. Sentences string words together in such a way as to construct meaning. So when it comes down to do it, a writer's merit can be measured by her or his ability to write sentences. And those sentences--thinking in terms of content--work to create details that paint a picture that tells a story. Sentences, then, are time capsules of details, waiting for the reader to discover them.

Some call him trite and others call him genius, while still more call him mostly boring with a chance of sunshine. I call him a master of his craft. He sets out to capture a world he once knew in all its vivid details, which flood his mind as he lies on his sickbed in his sickroom, writing out the final moments of his life. This is far more than the psychoanalysis equivalent of free association (Henry Miller's Tropic of... books come to mind when thinking of disjointed free association; William S. Burroughs's fragmentary "cut-ups" too). This is an artist's ability to reach down into the depths of the human psyche and survey the strange elusive lands against the details that weave together the diorama of everyday life. Whenever I think of details, Marcel Proust comes to mind. Instantly. It's an association as tightly coupled as the associations Proust himself describes when he tastes the madeleines and lime blossom tea. Let's take a moment to enjoy Lydia Davis's superb translation of the most popular moment in Proust's magnum opus (the original French version of Proust's first volume, Du Coté de Chez Swann, is available for free on Gutenburg):

But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside of me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.

This is, in fact, to be a defining moment for Proust, who is attributed with voluntary (or Proustian) memory. But this is a small taste (pun intended) of Proust's ability to take a single action or object and meditate on it sentence after sentence, clause after clause. And, really, this is a very minor example; it just happens to be a portion of his work one cannot omit. Further along in this first volume, the reader encounters details of musical pieces and several paintings that will give you quite a literary workout. As most know, his prose is very demanding of the reader: there is very little dialogue, and there are subordinate clauses that stretch sentences for pages, shifting and tuning a deep meditative thought until Proust qualifies it with a single verb and ends the whole mini event with a bang. This is, of course, captured better in the original French, but as I've already mentioned Lydia Davis's English translation does justice to Proust's form. And she doesn't use British slang like some of the Penguin translators of the subsequent volumes.

But details aren't limited to the prose heavyweights. The iconic minimalist himself, Ernest Hemingway, does not eschew details as a result of his minimalist style; he just packages the details a little differently than, say, Proust or Milton. If we want to explain it in formal terms, we might say the difference can be described as between hypotaxis and parataxis, where Proust's writing exemplifies the former and Hem's the latter. In parataxis, we are given what Stanley Fish refers to as additive sentences. That is, we just keep adding to and adding to, without subordination. Consider this excerpt from "The Big Two-Hearted River, Part I":

The coffee boiled as he watched. The lid came up and coffee and grounds ran down the side of the pot. Nick took it off the grill. [...] He put sugar in the empty apricot cup and poured some of the coffee out to cool. It was too hot to pour and he used his hat to hold the handle of the coffee pot. He would not let it steep in the pot at all. Not the first cup. It should be straight.

Short, clear sentences with simple words. Taken from their context these sentences seem pretentiously banal--I've heard at least one person say that Hemingway, at this point, was just writing whatever because he'd secured an audience. That is, I suppose, Hemingway has established an ethos that allows him to ruminate everyday occurrences to a captive audience without care. I don't pretend that the above snippet or the entire story is without vulnerability to being construed as such, but banality happens to be the point of the details here, and Hemingway was almost insane about his style, sometimes spending hours writing only one paragraph that he was satisfied with. The onslaught of details wrapped in Hem's trademark sharp, cutting, raw, terse sentences, in the additive manner, move the reader headlong through the story. Then, here and there, Hem simply drops in one of Nick's thoughts, usually without a narrative indicator such as "he thought," which allows the story to produce the perfect simulation of a man alone in the wilderness with only his thoughts. Through not only detail after detail, narrative descriptor after narrative descriptor, the reader is able to feel the full arch of human emotion, from Nick's being content with the simplicity of Nature all the way to Nick's anxieties about the independence of Nature from humanity. Note: You'll really need to read both parts of "The Big Two-Hearted River" to feel these two spectra concerning Nature, but you'll get my formalistic points no matter which story you read.

I've often heard readers' complaints that follow a pattern of "I don't need three pages describing a sunset" or "Why does this writer feel the need to weigh my mind down with exhaustive biographical exposition for a minor character?" (the psychoanalytic critic in me always stirs at this latter complaint!). There's also the common writing advice that urges authors to write only what's necessary, which ends up being an interesting paradox with most artists and seems to reveal the chasm that separates high and low art. In the world of cinema, Michael Haneke comes to mind. He is constantly berated for annoying, pointless lingering and empty space, while at the same time Haneke states that he "shoots only what is necessary" (I have no citation for this, and I'm not being graded for a change! Seriously though, check out this essay for the reference). Typically what happens is the two sides of the argument--those who herald the meticulous details and those who deride them--settle on the fact that writers like Proust are writers' writers and auteurs like Haneke are filmmakers' filmmakers. In other words, only an aspiring writer could admire Proust. I believe the fact is that there are no facts. We might do as well to argue over euthanasia or capital punishment because it's a battle of subjectivity. All I can offer is my opinion, and my opinion is that details can be savored just as the otherwise boring bits of everyday life can be savored. We need only to stop, settle ourselves, and yield to the artful details all around us.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Freud's Uncanny in the Arts

My two favorite essays of Freud's are "Creative Writers and Daydreaming" and "The Uncanny." The latter essay is packed with interesting thoughts and examples, but I will limit the scope of what Freud terms the uncanny to encompass that which at once repels and attracts us. In some cases, repels may be too strong a word, but I mean repel in the sense of a negative psychological response. The uncanny, therefore, is that which arouses fear/suspicion and intrigue. It's a feeling perhaps best attributed to fans of horror: the paradox of enjoying the state of being frightened. And Henry James's novel, The Turn of the Screw (1898),--itself a terrific psychological horror novel from the classic canon--is a perfect subject for Freud's theoretical uncanny.

In grad school I criticized The Turn of the Screw using Freud's theory of the uncanny--not to say that I am the only one who has done this by any means. The debate over whether the "entities" in James's novel are real or not is as pervasive in the literary community as Achebe's war on the racism of Joseph Conrad. The book is more of a novella, and it's a good read whether you're reading it for leisure or "for serious"[1]. (Some consider it James's most accessible work, so it's a good entry point to his oeuvre.) There is definitely validity to the argument that the "ghosts" appear as a result of the protagonist's sexual repression, but, of course, this limits the work to a predominantly psychoanalytical reading. It is ripe for much wider inspection. The point in the context of my post is that James's novel is a perfect example of the uncanny. We, the audience, and the protagonist, experience exactly what Freud describes: something that frightens and entices us.

In visual art, a couple of paintings come to mind. In this sense I am associating the uncanny with aesthetics. That is, the uncanny is exemplified in these two pieces insofar as the pieces are beautifully done works that portray dark content. The first painting is, as you can clearly see, an execution of the Lady Jane Grey, who was executed on account of high treason in London. But the work positively attracts the eye in its rich use of color, shading, and lighting. Notice how the lighting obscures some of the figures in the background, giving a sense of foreboding--yet it is undeniable that the painting is nicely done and attractive, despite its content.


The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, Paul Delaroche, 1833, oil on canvas

And again with Munch's work (below). Most are familiar with Munch's popular piece The Scream. In Evening on Karl Johan (a street in Oslo), the eye is attracted to the nightmarish illustration. Here, unlike Delaroche's painting, reality has been skewed into surreality. At first glance we ascertain that this is a simple street scene, but then the eye registers the skeletal faces, and, ultimately, the lone shadowy figure who walks against the grain. It is both familiar and unfamiliar.


Evening on Karl Johan, Edvard Munch, 1892, oil on canvas

Let's turn to classical music. The following three pieces share properties of Freud's uncanny in that the music is both beautiful and hauntingly mysterious. It evokes a fascination with something darker, something unknown. It is only necessary to listen to the first minute of each piece to understand what I'm saying. Note: You will need to crank your volume in order to hear all of the low subtleties.


Schubert's "Unfinished" 8th symphony


Debussy's "La Soirée Dans Grenade"[2]


Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" 6th symphony

Again, I am limiting Freud's complete theory of the uncanny, so if you're interested please do yourself a favor and give it a read. It's an interesting theory that gives us a way of observing and discussing our fascination with the macabre in the arts[3]. I really appreciate the efforts of psychoanalysis applied to the arts (i.e. psychoanalytic literary theory) because it makes sense: art is produced by and concerned with people, thus it follows that the same theories we apply to analyze people--whether mentally ill or struggling through a hard time--are applicable to the arts. On the other hand, I do acknowledge that some of what psychoanalysis gives us tends to be either too far-fetched (i.e. theoretical; not validated through experimentation) or too concerned with sexuality; but the efforts of the field cannot be denied their overwhelming plausibility most of the time[4].

In terms of, specifically, psychoanalytic literary theory, there's no better Freudian out there than Norman Holland. His books Literature and the Brain and 5 Readers Reading are among the best in literary criticism, and his "handbook" for Literature-and-Psychology is an indispensable resource. If you find that the sources (Freud, Lacan, etc.) prove too "out there," give Holland a try. He has done extensive research and studies, especially in the realm of literary interpretation, and has an uncanny[5] ability to break the wealth of psychoanalytical theories into palatable arguments.

The next time you find yourself disgusted but unable to look away, consider it a brush with the uncanny!

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Footnotes*
[*] Including footnotes to this post is an homage to the late David Foster Wallace.
[1] "For serious" is intended to pay homage to Chuck Palahnuik.
[2] Some people say that Stanley Kubrick stole this motif from Debussy for several musical scores, including The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, both of which could be included in the discussion of the uncanny.
[3] Macabre is probably too strong a word, as is horrifying, terrifying, frightening, etc. But, by this point, you get what I'm saying. Feel free to use "not happy" as a substitute for just about every other adjective I've used in association with the uncanny.
[4] "...[O]verwhelming plausibility most of the time" is a great example of being critically correct.
[5] I couldn't resist.