Stephen Greenblatt

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We arrive in the world only partially formed; a culture that has been in the making for hundreds of thousands of years will form the rest. And that culture will inevitably contain much that is noxious as well as beneficent. No one is exempt—not the Jew or the Muslim, of course, but also not the Cockney or the earl or the person whose ancestors came to America on the Mayflower or, for that matter, the person whose ancestors were Algonquins or Laplanders. Our species' cultural birthright is a mixed blessing. It is what makes us fully human, but being fully human is a difficult work in progress.

—Stephen Greenblatt

 

Lawrence Weschler

We long to lose ourselves in stories—that's who we are. Well-crafted stories transport us, allow us to soar. One day perhaps, things being close enough for all practical purposes, to soar right over the Uncanny Valley, to traverse the Cusan Divide.

I don't know. Could be.

…God invented Man, the wise man says, because he loved stories. And maybe the other way around: Man invented God for the same reason. Or maybe Narrative invented both of us: couldn't do it without us. Hallelujah. Amen.

Lawrence Weschler, from Uncanny Valley: Adventures in Narrative.


The Uncanny Valley is a piece of metaphorical real estate, first suggested by Japanese roboticist Mashimiro Mori to mean the state of eeriness and discomfort generated by a robot (or computer simulation) when its face comes very, very close to being, but not quite perfectly, human. There is a threshold, Mori observed, past which something unsettling settles in, or perhaps our settled sense of what is human becomes unsettled. Here, Weschler, writing about attempts to generate lifelike computer actors for film, ponders a storytelling so evocative, so complete in its verisimilitude, that it vaults over this threshold and becomes some pure embodiment of human experience, the ultimate story.

Weschler has a discursive way about going about an essay, connecting his subject to sundry knowledge on the way. The "Cusan Divide" refers to 15th-century mystic Nicholas of Cusa, who imagined true knowledge of God as a circle. Put a polygon in the center and keep adding sides, one after another. You will eventually achieve a polygon very, very close to a circle, but you'll never achieve true circularity—or true knowledge of the absolute, at least not through deliberate thought.

There's a thought. Story creates itself by creating the storyteller. Which fits an idea expressed by some physicists that the purpose of life is to evolve beings—that'd be you and me—to bring the universe in existence by being here to witness it. The universe exists because of human observation and measurement. Did deep into quantum physics and it's not such a nutty idea. At least, you can see how the equations get you there.

I like how Johannes Kepler thought. I like his wife, too.

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Yesterday, when weary with writing, I was called to supper, and a salad I had asked for was set before me by my wife. "It seems, then," I said, "if pewter dishes, leaves of lettuce, grains of salt, drops of water, vinegar, oil, and slices of eggs had been flying about in the air from all eternity, it might at least happen by chance that a salad would finally appear." "Yes," responded my lovely, "but not so nice as this one of mine."

— Johannes Kepler

Brian Doyle

There is a story in every thing, and every being, and every moment, were we alert to catch it, were we ready with our tender noses; indeed there are a hundred, a thousand stories, uncountable stories, could they only be lured out and appreciated; and more and more now I realize that what I thought was a skill only for authors and pastors and doctors and dream-diviners is the greatest of all human skills, the one that allows us into the heart and soul and deepest layers of our companions on the brief sunlit road between great dark wildernesses. We are here to witness, to apprehend, to see and hear, to plumb, with patience and humility, the shy stories of others; and in some cases, like mine, then shape and share them; so that they might sometimes, like inky arrows, sink into the depths of other men and women and children, and cause pleasure, or empathy, or a sort of delicious pain, as you realize that someone somewhere else, even perhaps in a time long ago, felt just as you did. Stories, among their many virtues, are messages from friends you did not know you had; and while you may well never meet the friend, you feel the better, with one more companion by your side, than you thought you knew.


— Brian Doyle
The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World

This is how you open a book review

Start with a mustard seed of irrelevant fact. Rutherford Hayes’s wife, Lucy, was the first American president’s wife to be referred to as the first lady. Scribble this on a scrap of paper and present it to Karen Russell. Tell her she has to write a story about this old dead guy and reincarnate him as a horse. Give her a couple of pencils. Put her in a locked safe à la Houdini. Tie one arm behind her back. Give her the sniffles. Let her go after a modest interval and see what she comes up with: the hilarious, impossibly realized, even moving, story "The Barn at the End of Our Term."
Or how about this? Instead of menses, drugged young girls in feudal Japan produce silk. We’d like 9,000 words, please. Blindfold Karen Russell. Make her compose wearing mittens, her only sustenance Red Bull and those little mandarin orange Cutie things. See what happens: the exquisite "Reeling for the Empire"—first-rate, ­­­­elegant horror.
Vampires, krill, a stolen rabbit renamed Saturday: Russell will make magic of them all.
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That's Joy Williams writing about Vampires in the Lemon Grove in The New York Times about Karen Russell. Williams notes that a "grim, stupendous, unfavorable magic is at work in these stories," and what a fine thing to aspire to as a writer—grim, stupendous, unfavorable magic.

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The full New York Times Book Review text is here, but behind a firewall that will repel non-subscribers. 

You may read a portion of Williams' essay courtesy of Book Marks.

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.

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