Perspective

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Your friendly reminder that dark matter comprises 25 percent of the mass energy budget of the cosmos, while dark energy comprises 70 percent, and the normal matter that you and I are made of is just a wee 5 percent. And it’s all connected by a cosmic web of filamentary bridges that stretch across millions of light years. Carry on.

— Natalie Batalha, astrophysicist

Rumble. Just rumble.

So rumble, young musicians, rumble. Open your ears, and open your heart. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don’t worry, and worry your ass off. Have unclad confidence, but then doubt. It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town, and that you suck. It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy, it will make you strong. And stay hard, stay hungry, and stay alive. And when you walk onstage tonight, to bring the noise, treat it like that’s all we have. And then remember: It’s only rock and roll.

— Bruce Springsteen

Pilpul

Yesterday, Vicenzo Di Nicola, a Canadian psychiatrist, published a manifesto in Aeon announcing a Slow Thought movement, stumping for the liberation of thinking from the mania for urgency, from geopolitical boundaries, from tradition and dogma, and from destination. Slow Thought is an object in itself, never complete, always contingent and improvised, "an appeal to reflection before conviction, clarity before a call to action."

In his essay, the author notes that the mode of thinking he advocates is asynchronic, structured not sequentially in conventional time but "structured by the slow logic of thought." This leads him to observe that one method of Jewish Talmudic exegesis is pilpul, described as a form of philosophical dialogue in which the argument is not constrained by the need to progress through an historical chronology, but  following a logic of thought that's outside of chronological constraint, so that an ethical question posed in Moorish Spain is answered by an ancient Babylonian text from centuries before.

I suspect this does little to accurately convey pilpul, and may actually distort its meaning, but there's something in Di Nicola's explanation that I love—the idea of an answer lying patiently in wait for the right question. Of taking something known and thinking about what it means through a process of determining what question it might answer.

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Di Nicola's essay resides here. Not compelling prose, but the piece has its moments.

Lewis Hyde

The passage into mystery always refreshes. If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom. Then we know they are not a solitary egotism and they are inexhaustible. Anything contained within a boundary must contain as well its own exhaustion. The most perfectly balanced gyroscope slowly winds down. But when the gift passes out of sight and then returns, we are enlivened.

— Lewis Hyde, The Gift

A great meadow of style

The essay, in [William] Gass’ view, is a great meadow of style and personal manner, freed from the need for defense except that provided by an individual intelligence and sparkle. We consent to watch a mind at work, without agreement often, but only for pleasure. Knowledge hereby attained, great indeed, is again wanted for the pleasure of itself.

— Elizabeth Hardwick

Not to be trusted

John Adams, in his memoir Hallelujah Junction:

For me the most difficult moment is always the beginning of a new piece. Even if I’m lucky enough to have come up with a striking opening idea, the first attempts at developing the material and making coherence often sputter and implode. I like to think that this is because I’ve yet to identify the pieces DNA, that I’m still unaware of what’s buried within its strands of information. Often the ‘code’ of a movement, if not an entire symphony or opera, is encapsulated within the first page or two, albeit in fractal form. Beethoven and Wagner packed an abundance of information in their opening motifs and harmonies, investing them with exceptional potential to generate large and complex expressive structures. But who know how much effort it cost them to fully realize the potential of what their first ideas contained? Who knows for sure whether, after the full work was completed, the composer didn’t revisit the opening and tweak it to more perfectly mirror the course of later events?
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One should suspect writers of similar behavior. We're a sneaky lot.

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.