William Dean Howells

howellspic.jpg

While I would wish you to love America most because it is your home, I would have you love the whole world and think of all the people in it as your countrymen. You will hear people more foolish than wicked say, “Our country right or wrong,” but that is a false patriotism and bad Americanism. When our country is wrong she is worse than other countries when they are wrong, for she has more light than other countries, and we somehow ought to make her feel that we are sorry and ashamed for her.

— William Dean Howells, from a statement written on his 75th birthday and read to students in New York City public schools

Robert Pirsig

You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.

— Robert Pirsig


When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, there were three books we all felt were essential texts: Slaughterhouse-FiveSteppenwolf (or The Glass Bead Game, if you considered yourself among the more discerning readers of Hesse), and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. To a 21-year-old Ohio hickboy, Zen seemed unlike anything I'd ever read. As I read more, I realized it wasn't really sui generis, but no matter—reading it for the first time was an expansive experience all too rare at university.

Pirsig died Monday in Maine. I've been tempted to reread Zen a few times, but I'm afraid the experience will be like rereading Kerouac as a grown man—what was so captivating about this when I first read it? Great books transcend the time of their authorship and the time of your first reading. Good books, sometimes, cannot accomplish that, and there's no reanimating that self you brought to the pages the first time around. Maybe I should have a little more faith.

The good of it

In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples. Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions. I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.
— Ursula K. Le Guin

I recall a cartoon. A cave man contemplates something he has just created—the first wheel. By his side, a cave man colleague with skeptical expression says, "If you can't eat it or screw it, what good is it?"

In other cultures, do artists face the question of art's purpose? Or is that one more example of America's proud exceptionalism? The U.S. Petulant and his henchers seem to believe the purpose of art is to irritate them and their co-conspirators, so no more public money for that. Parents fret that their offspring will spring off in an artsy direction—toward poetry or painting or vocal performance or art history—and warn them to study something practical, so they have a fallback. Because everything that isn't good for something else is falling backwards from the American sense of worth.

Ars longa, sed iam stultitia.

Time troubles

We feel the presence of a deep past, a long history. Of the past, present, and future, the past feels largest; the past has substantial dimension in our imagination. The future feels finite in a way the past does not. But still, we think of the future as also having dimension, and of ourselves as capable of imagining "far into the future." The present? The present has no dimension. The present is evanescent, the instant between past and future. The moment one begins to think, the present vanishes. (One is no longer "in the moment.") The present is in a perpetual state of vanishing, that's what the present does. It can never be measured. It has no duration.

Another view: the present is a Heisenbergian paradox: as light is both particle and wave, the present is simultaneously an instant that can neither be fixed nor measured and a phenomenon with duration.

This presupposes that present and past are not divided by a dimensionless line; instead, the present is a gradient shading into the past, becoming less present and more past as time elapses. (If one can, indeed, be in the moment, the moment must have dimension, for what else could one be "in"?)

Does the present shade into the future? Does the gradient work the other way, making the present a point atop a bell curve? That doesn't seem right. The present cannot shade into the future unless time elapses, and time elapsing will always create a gradient toward the past.

So you see the problem.


Notes

Geologic dating of rocks as 3 billion years old. Radiation from the Big Bang traveling 13 billion years to reach Earth. Deep.

Heisenberg's uncertainty principle states that one can measure the position or the momentum of a subatomic paricle, but one can never measure both at the same time. Measure one and the other becomes unmeasurable.

Tim Kreider

 

The more time you spend immersed in the shitstream of TV/internet/social media the stupider and more boring and just like everyone else you will be. Hang out in real life having good conversations with brilliant and hilarious people, so you can steal their ideas and all the clever things they say. Spend a lot of time alone so you can think up some original thoughts of your own. 

— Tim Kreider

 

 

The accounts will not come right

Palace secrets, and the advice of friends, and services performed by the army, were best undivulged; the throne must not be weakened by referring everything to the senate. The whole point of autocracy...is that the accounts will not come right unless the ruler is their only auditor.

— Tacitus

Ch-ch-changes

This feels a bit like reopening a summer house. Pull the sheets off the furniture, sweep away the cobwebs and mouse droppings, give the place a fresh coat of paint. The Slithery Form is now Noted. The old title seemed clever and literary at the time—it's from Elizabeth Hardwick—but felt more cumbersome week by week. The new title feels more like what I do every day, and a more appropriate title to what will be published in the days ahead. I've decided to begin devoting time and labor to the blog again, prompted in large part by the dire political events in the United States, where I reside.

The design tweaks have been small but to my liking, and I hope to yours.

I believe in living the questions, in paying attention, in taking notes, in bearing witness and recording testimony.  I believe in the written word. I believe in writing it down.

So. Noted.

The morning after

I have voted in American presidential elections for 44 years, and never on the morning after have I felt such despondency and disaffection. In the coming weeks I will come to a more measured, rational place, because as my father memorably observed in the last few days of his life five years ago, I'm a reasonably smart guy. But right now my mood is black.

Had you met me, say, 50 years ago, you might be surprised at my perspective this morning. I grew up in a conservative, working class family in a working class neighborhood. My elders and my friends and I were casually racist; we put no effort into it but we never stopped to think that we might be wrong, either. When my school and neighborhood integrated, we mostly just shrugged, cracked a joke or two about the basketball team getting better, and said "whatever." We never gave a thought to women's rights and we were convinced we knew no one who was gay—they were all in New York and San Francisco. On my street, every woman but one was a housewife; the men were a cop, a postal worker, a sign painter, the owner of a storefront insurance agency, a factory worker, a paper mill worker, a used car salesman, a gas & electric company worker, and that guy on the corner nobody seemed to know. The Vietnam War was raging but I knew no one who opposed it, at least openly. (Wait, there was one teacher in high school...) There had to have been professional people in my town, but I knew not one. My people, including most of my kin, were white, working class, Christian, conservative, Republican, patriotic believers in America.

Then one day I came home from college and my mother said to my father, "That is not the boy we sent away." And my dad, bless his heart, replied, "Well, that's why we sent him to college."

So let me tally this up now. Not the Boy We Sent Away is now almost 63 years old, still white, no longer working class, not Christian, not Republican, and increasingly skeptical of patriotism. I am against racism, against nationalism, against misogyny, against war, and deeply suspicious of organized religion. I am pro-women, pro-LGTB, pro-life, pro-immigrant, pro–African-American, and pro-organized labor. I favor stringent regulation of the financial sector and all the rest of Wall Street; favor stringent environmental regulation; favor legalization of drugs; favor stringent gun control; favor a single-payer health care system; favor public assistance for the homeless, the indigent, the disabled, and the unemployed; and favor tax reform that closes off every loophole that favors the rich and corporations over that alienated working class that just voted for Trump. I stand against fascist punks wherever they live; against the national security state that has largely been a fraud that has looted public coffers without making us safer; against religious fundamentalism of all stripes; against torture; against the mass-incarceration nation; against covert war; and against the craven, cynical, amoral deniers of climate change.

Oh, and for 40 years I've been a journalist.

So you can see why this morning I might feel like more than 58 million of my countrymen just gave me a dismissive glance and said, "Fuck you."

Over the coming months, I will come to some kind of emotional equilibrium about this and begin to think about how to resist the bad shit that I fear is coming. I have a wife to love, friends to love, a magazine to finish, cats to feed. I'm bitter that I might live out what remains of my life dealing with the damage that I'm convinced is imminent. So it goes. The ignorant, the deluded, and the disenfranchised will gloat today, convinced their lot is about to improve, and when the time comes for their reckoning that they've been screwed again, I'll try to be compassionate, but not this morning. I don't have it in me.

Humphrey Trevelyan on creative longevity

From his introduction to  the 1949 edition of Goethe’s autobiography, Truth and Fantasy from My Life:

It seems that two qualities are necessary if a great artist is to remain creative to the end of a long life; he must on the one hand retain an abnormally keen awareness of life, he must never grow complacent, never be content with life, must always demand the impossible and when he cannot have it, must despair. The burden of the mystery must be with him day and night.

[The artist] must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy. Many lesser poets have it only in their youth; some even of the greatest lose it in middle life. Wordsworth lost the courage to despair and with it his poetic power. But more often the dynamic tensions are so powerful that they destroy the man before he reaches maturity.

By way of Brain Pickings