Day 21: Stories too good to fact-check

Julian Barnes, writing about George Orwell in The New York Review of Books, 03.12.2009:

 Eric Blair’s passport photo, complete with unfortunate mustache.

Eric Blair’s passport photo, complete with unfortunate mustache.

One small moment of literary history at which many Orwellians would like to have been present was an encounter in Bertorelli’s restaurant in London between Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick and Orwell’s widow, Sonia. Crick dared to doubt the utter truthfulness of one of Orwell’s most celebrated pieces of reportage, “Shooting an Ele-phant.” Sonia, “to the delight of other clients,” according to Crick, “screamed” at him across the table, “Of course he shot a fucking elephant. He said he did. Why do you always doubt his fucking word!” The widow, you feel, was screaming for England. Because what England wants to believe about Orwell is that, having seen through the dogma and false words of political ideologies, he refuted the notion that facts are relative, flexible, or purpose-serving; further, he taught us that even if 100 percent truth is unobtainable, then 67 percent is and always will be better than 66 percent, and that even such a small percentage point is a morally nonnegotiable unit.

At least two of Orwell's biographers, including the aforementioned Mr. Crick, believe he did not. Shoot the elephant, that is. To me, a more interesting question now is, Does it matter? Orwell never purported to be documenting elephantcide in the colonies for the historical record. If he was claiming the authority of the honest, diligent journalist all the while inventing some or all of the story, that dishonesty does him dishonor.

But at this point and in this case, I think nothing matters but the quality of the prose, which is high indeed. I do not defend anyone who tries to pass off invention as reportage, especially when accuracy and fidelity to actual events is essential to the moment and situation. But whether or not Eric Blair pulled that trigger is now a mere academic argument.

It's odd, perhaps, but I"m less concerned with the veracity of Orwell's account than I am with the story of the Crick-Sonia confrontation. I very much want for that to have happened.

Day 20: Wham!

I am in New York City today, so the day's post will be succinct, but nicely astringent.

John Dos Passos, after reading Ernest Hemingway's Across the River and Into the Trees: "Hemingway's story (the parts I read) brought out the goosepimples in a different way. How can a man in his senses leave such bullshit on the page?"


Much more about the writers' relationship can be found in Clara Juncker's "Friends, Enemies, Writers: Dos Passos and Hemingway"

Day 19: Work in Progress — Profilia

 Barclay Tagg astride Funny Cide. Photograph by Barbara D. Livingston.

Barclay Tagg astride Funny Cide. Photograph by Barbara D. Livingston.

I have begun to read through profiles to select those I will include in my forthcoming anthology, working title Profilia. (Please suggest something better. Please.) This one is almost sure to make the cut: Barclay Tagg, thoroughbred trainer who nearly won the Triple Crown in 2003 with a big horse you may remember—Funny Cide.

How the piece opens:

Barclay Tagg slips into a stall in a barn at Belmont Park race track, near Elmhurst, N.Y. At 4:45 in the morning, Tagg, a trainer of thoroughbreds, is at work ahead of the sun but not ahead of nearby roosters, who are in full cry. He eases up to a filly named Highland Hope and slides his hands up and down the horse’s slender legs, feeling for heat—a sign of inflammation, perhaps an injury. He checks the flex of each ankle and knee. Highland Hope swings her head down and Tagg nudges it away with his arm. “Now and then one of them will reach around and bite you,” he says. “When she bites you on your bald head, it hurts. There’s a lot of nerves up there.” He stands and runs his hands over the horse’s glutes, to feel whether the muscles are knotted. If they’re sore, the horse will flinch. Tagg finds no problems and rubs the filly’s head. Then he moves to the next stall.

Barn 6, at the corner of Man o’ War Avenue and Count Fleet Road near Belmont’s track, holds most of Tagg’s horses. A strip of tape at each stall identifies the occupant. Hypnotist. Army Boots. Silver Clipper. Andy Boy. Wed in Dixie. Wild About Debbie. Funny Cide.

In 2000, the crop of thoroughbred foals numbered 37,587. Only 16 of them made it to the starting gate of the 2003 Kentucky Derby. Only one, of course, crossed the finish line first, and that one was a big chestnut gelding named Funny Cide. After more than 30 years of near ceaseless work, Barclay Tagg had won the world’s most famous race on his first try. Now, in the dark, Tagg runs his practiced hands down four of the most valuable legs in America, and finds no problems. No injuries sustained overnight. No ill effects from yesterday’s workout. No loose joints, no bubble on a knee, no tendons starting to bow. Good to go for another risky day. Every day is risky in this business. “Anybody who trains a horse is a pessimist, whether they admit it nor not,” Tagg says. “People say, ‘How does it feel to win the Kentucky Derby?’ Well, it makes you feel like maybe the whole 30 years wasn’t wasted.”

Day 18: Seth Godin on education

godin.jpeg

Fifty years ago, businesses realized that they were facing two related problems:

They needed more workers, more well-trained, compliant, and yes, cheap workers willing to follow specific instructions, and they needed more customers. More well-trained, pliable, eager-to-consume customers watching TV regularly and waiting to buy what they had to sell.

Dreamers don’t help with either of these problems. Dreamers aren’t busy applying for jobs at minimum wage, they don’t eagerly buy the latest fashions, and they’re a pain in the ass to keep happy.

The solution sounds like it was invented at some secret meeting at the Skull and Bones, but I don’t think it was. Instead, it was the outcome of a hundred little decisions, the uncoordinated work of thousands of corporations and political lobbyists:

School is a factory, and the output of that factory is compliant workers who buy a lot of stuff. These students are trained to dream small dreams.

What about the famous ones we hear about? Surely the successful people we read about have something special going on….

Majora Carter grew up in the 1960s in the South Bronx. She wasn’t supposed to have dreams; neither were her classmates. The economic impediments were too big; there wasn’t enough money to spend on schools, on support, on teachers who cared.

And yet Majora grew up to be, according to > Fast Company> , one of the hundred most creative people in business, a TED speaker, a community activist, and a successful consultant. Her fellow students are still waiting to get the call.

Dreamers don’t have special genes. They find circumstances that amplify their dreams. If the mass-processing of students we call school were good at creating the dreamers we revere, there’d be far more of them. In fact, many of the famous ones, the successful ones, and the essential ones are part of our economy despite the processing they received, not because of it.

The economy demands that we pick ourselves. School teaches us otherwise.

I’m arguing for a new set of fairy tales, a new expectation of powerful dreaming. 1 Seth Godin has delivered two bracing critiques of American education. One was a TED event speech 2 that can be found on YouTube and heard on his superb podcast, Akimbo. 3 The other is a long manifesto 4 that has been posted to Medium. Without reservation, I recommend the TED presentation. You will need to bring a deep interest in schooling to the manifesto, but if you have that deep interest, dig in. You will not be sorry.

A core belief of Godin's is that mass public education was designed to deliver compliant, obedient workers to the industrial economy. The global economy is in the first throes of a massive, epochal change, and schools are nowhere near ready to handle it.

After 26 years in higher education at an elite university, I think college has been plowing the same furrow. I will have more to say about that, and about tragic human propensity for obedience, at later dates.


1 Stop Stealing Dreams: What Is School For?, by Seth Godin. An ebook reprinted in full on Medium.

2 Godin's presentation to TEDxYouth.

3 The podcast Akimbo.

4 The manifesto on Medium.

Day 17: Schope talk

Imagination is strong in a man when that particular function of the brain which enables him to observe is roused to activity without any necessary excitement of the senses. Accordingly, we find that imagination is active just in proportion as our senses are not excited by external objects. A long period of solitude, whether in prison or in a sick room; quiet, twilight, darkness—these are the things that promote its activity; and under their influence it comes into play of itself. On the other hand, when a great deal of material is presented to our faculties of observation, as happens on a journey, or in the hurly-burly of the world, or, again, in broad daylight, the imagination is idle, and, even though call may be made upon it, refuses to become active, as though it understood that that was not its proper time.

However, if the imagination is to yield any real product, it must have received a great deal of material from the external world. This is the only way in which its storehouse can be filled. The phantasy [sic] is nourished much in the same way as the body, which is least capable of any work and enjoys doing nothing just in the very moment when it receives its food which it has to digest. And yet it is to this very food that it owes the power which it afterwards puts forth at the right time. 1

And this is why smart, creative people withold faith in upper management as soon as the phrase generate content enters the discussion. Why smart, creative people smirk when 25-year-old adolescent punks in Silicon Valley boast that they "like to move fast and break shit." Why smart, creative people disengage when consultants and productivity hucksters toss PowerPoint slides into the air that valorize time management and productivity and cite "metrics" to back their empty arguments about how to increase the production of content.

All great creative work is made by smart, creative people who understand that the only way to do this work is to pay attention day after day after day after day, and then walk away from people and the bustle and the yammer to be alone and think it through.

Show me someone who manages time to "produce" every hour of every workday and I will show you a hack. Show me someone who can spend five hours staring out a window and I will show you someone who just might make something worth my attention someday.


1Arthur Schopenauer, "Psychological Observations." Worthy of reading and pondering. Find here.

Brought to my attention by Alan Jacobs, also worthy of your time and consideration.

Day 14: Work in progress

I made the longlist for the anthology of profiles I plan to publish next year. The working title of that impending volume is Profilia, and will cover work going back about 35 years. The longlist has 27 names, and I should end up with half that on the shortlist. I need to reread all of them and make up my mind, but so far the probables include:

  • an Irish-American writer
  • a forensic psychiatrist
  • a humorist
  • a thoroughbred horse trainer
  • a deaf boxer
  • a historian of sideshows
  • a novelist
  • a polymathic film editor
  • a sign painter

Much more to be worked out. I would like to get it out in both print and digital form by June 2019. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Day 11: Laplace's Demon

In 1814, Pierre-Simon Laplace wrote this, in "A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities":

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

Laplace,_Pierre-Simon,_marquis_de.jpg

For reasons I've not yet fathomed, these sentences, or at least the encompassing intelligence so described, have come to be known as "Laplace's Demon." This reaching for the most profound certainty, for "a single formula" that would collapse time—"future just like the past would be present before its eyes"—and reveal the universe's first causes, could not be informed in 1814 by what physicists now understand, at least those who adhere to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics—that when you ascertain "all forces" of "the tiniest atom," you render yourself unable to know "all positions of all items." And the converse: ascertain the positions and the forces become unknowable.

How's that for a demon?

For the second time in three days, I find myself back to James Gleick and The Information. Gleick notes Laplace and his demon of a thought experiment, and draws in Alan Turing. Turing saw the possibility of creating Laplace's supreme intelligence within the deterministic confines of a computational machine, but not in the universe. Why? In 1950, Turing wrote:

The system of the "universe as a whole" is such that quite small events in initial conditions can have an overwhelming effect at a later time. The displacement of a single electron by a billionth of a centimeter at one moment might make the difference between a man being killed by an avalanche a year later, or escaping.

The impossibility of Laplace's deterministic demon that can know all and understand all and plot the course of all, is the crack in the vessel that lets the artist in. It is the microspace in which the poet or the singer or the painter can say well, perhaps this, and a new universe is born.

Day 6: Be astonished

alice.jpg

Novelist Alice McDermott made a rare appearance before an audience last night at the Parker Metal Building in Baltimore. She was interviewed by Jay Perman, the president of the University of Maryland,Baltimore, which sponsored the event, and she was acutely intelligent, articulate, and personable. I have been in Perman's seat as an onstage interlocutor, and McDermott was everything you could ask for in a guest.

She made a number of incisive observations, but I wrote down only one:

As human beings, we have access to astonishment, if only we pay enough attention.

She put me in mind of Mary Oliver, who wrote:

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.

Which led me back to this, from Marilynne Robinson:

This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.

And back to Mary Oliver:

Ten times a day something happens to me like this—some strengthening throb of amazement—some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest, and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.

There is no improving on that.

Day 4: Garbage in...

We are positively encouraged to create for ourselves minds we would want to live with. I had teachers articulate that to me: "You have to live with your ind your whole life." You build your mind, so make it into something you want to live with.

Four years ago, Wyatt Mason wrote a brilliant profile of Marilynne Robinson for The New York Times Magazine. The above is one of several penetrating observations made by Robinson in the course of their conversations.

Annie Dillard wrote, of writers:

He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know.

What mind have I built for my life? The brain remains plastic throughout our lifespans, so I am still building it, more mindful now of what I put into it and sorry for how much time I have spent taking in crap. Especially crap reading. To build an optimal mind, I think we must make the careful consideration of input habitual. No easy task as William James observed:

The acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall reenforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.

Hoo boy.

Day 3: Gnawing

Fictions, in this respect, have it all over the truth. “More truth than poetry,” Yelverton likes to say but misses the point. True-to-life shows a muddle, the poet showing the truth as it might be. This is what all honest writing comes down to, not imagination but the estimating eye. The writer, privileged, fills in the blanks, seeing how the ending is only the tip of the iceberg. His privilege doesn’t extend to sleight of hand, though, where they want you to think that what ought to be might be. 1 Clever people invented fiction, first, one might say, as cave paintings, but certainly as song and poetry and eventually stories and novels, to sort the muddle. Because we have to sort the muddle, the muddle becomes unbearable when that seems to be all there is. Science sorts the muddle, and that is essential, too, but science is an arc that bends toward clarity about what is, and we crave clarity on what might be and what ought to be. We are drawn to emotional clarity, though we are not good at interrogating it to make sure it is grounded in truth.

“Showing the truth as it might be” is a crucial phrase. Shallow, self-satisfied scribblers of fiction enjoy hearing themselves say that they pursue “a higher truth” than those who report and document. This is horseshit and Russell Fraser, author of the above, squares up to the poet as one who does not apprehend truth, but says, “Here, this is what the truth might be in my estimation.” By his or her “estimating eye.”

As crucial, perhaps more, is the last sentence. The honest writer, purveying fact or fiction, does not get to put forth an estimate of truth based on what the poet thinks truth ought to be. Honest writing that gnaws on its subject until it gets at the true and the real is hard. It is rigorous, stressful, scary labor. It is not a card trick.


63.2_spring_1987.jpg

1 From “Wadi-Bashing in Arabia Deserta” by Russell Fraser, published in the Spring 1987 edition of Virginia Quarterly Review.