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