William Dean Howells

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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.