Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Intensity and Character

It is not the intensity or the pleasantness and unpleasantness of one's feelings that prove character, but the intensity of feeling coupled with the capacity to resist believing one's feelings as they first appear. The greater the intensity of feeling, the greater the necessity of coaxing feelings into words.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Passing thought about happiness

People all want to be happy. By this they mean they don't want pain, suffering and unhappiness. But what if the reasons for our happiness are also the same for our unhappiness? There is no love without anxiety, fear of loss and sickness of one's beloved. Ask any parent about that. Ask anyone who has ever desired another human being. And yet without that uncertainty and that possibility of pain reaching down deep into the soul, love or any other passion would be insipid, boring and worthless. Happiness is no different. If the reasons for our best happiness and our worst misery are the same, then are they not entwined tighter and more closely together than any lovers have ever been?

Friday, August 19, 2016

My take on the Law of Karma

[The following is from a letter to my teenage daughter.]

Almost everyone at some point in their life wishes for different parents, or for a different social life, or just simply to be somebody else. I think about this problem in this way. The perfect satisfaction of the law of Karma is that we are eternally reborn/reincarnated as ourselves. It is up to each person to figure out whether his or her life is a punishment or whether it is a blessing, a reward, and whether they are one of the lucky few. If you are one of the lucky few, what might at first seem to be a disaster always seems to turn out to be an amazing piece of luck. Such a person, without meaning to, reaches down deep to find the joy hiding, lurking behind obstacles, expected and otherwise, to plans and desires.

Monday, July 11, 2016

A Pagan retort to Paul, or Speaking of moral absolutes

Paul was right in his Epistle to the Romans. No one is good, not even when judged by their own preferred ethical and moral standards. He, then, proceeded to draw a whole host of suspect conclusions. Guilt, guilt, and more guilt, failures, regrets and bitter self-recriminations. All so profoundly, hauntingly and inescapably irredeemable that the only possible escape was world-historical, metaphysical nonsense and supernatural crudities. Washing away sin with the Blood of the Lamb? Since when has blood ever removed any stain and not made for even worse stains? Who comes up with stuff like that? It sounds like something out of Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood.

The best and highest that we can achieve is to choose the ethical standard by which to fail. What we learn from our failures is a matter of character and conscience. Too much success in following one’s preferred moral code means one has made things too easy. Failure can sometimes be its own answer to the rebukes and condemnations of a predatory conscience. Love redeems all, they say. Even love of an unattainable ideal.

Paul was a coward and gave up too easily.

Monday, June 20, 2016

A little teaser from the book

There’s a scene in Unforgiven in which Gene Hackman’s character is lying on the floor of a saloon after already being shot, begging for his life with Clint Eastwood’s character pointing a shotgun in his face. Hackman’s character says, “I don’t deserve this … to die like this. I was building a house.” Eastwood’s character replies, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” Then shoots Hackman’s character in the face.

This captures in miniature the human condition. Each of us believes there’s something special about our case when confronted by reality’s hard corners and life’s rough edges. We beg, we plead, we bargain in the name of God, fairness, morality, and rationality. If we do exactly this, that, and some other thing, then Reality and Life will reciprocate. In truth, our fates singly and in aggregate are a matter of complete indifference to all of existence and to most other members of our species, the major exceptions being ourselves and those few closest to us, and sometimes not even to them.

Most atheists, rationalists and humanists disavow belief in God but still secretly believe that their playing at ruthless honesty and cold logic (somehow) means that if they do the right thing, then the universe will reciprocate in some way, as if steely-eyed truthfulness might be a sufficient bulwark against untold millennia upon untold millennia of genetic and cultural selection. The deepest and most evasive cognitive bias of the human animal may very well be that overwhelming power can be bargained with even though the poor beast never had anything of value to bargain with in the first place.

This might seem unduly pessimistic and dispiriting to some. I find comfort in it. We humans owe our existence neither to some hidden god nor to anything else. There is no god and no law of history to interfere with being human. The really interesting question is not “what may I hope for?” (Kant’s Third Question), but what kind of human being could not merely survive another day or two, but needs just such a world in order to thrive and be at home in the world?

Monday, May 2, 2016

I'm writing a book.

Well, I am. It will be mostly new material, although I will make use of some material (published & unpublished) from this blog.

Turns out, I work better with pencil & paper. Postings will be further and fewer between than usual.

FWIW, I'll probably end up cutting a deal with Satan's chief minion and self-publish through Amazon. I'll look at the alternatives first, and then make my decision.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

My Definition of a Christian & a Thumbnail Sketch of the Implied Theory of Religion

A Christian is someone who limits her- or himself to a particular aggregation of symbols, concepts, doctrines and teachings which are then held to be exclusively sufficient to express and describe the most important elements of human nature and existence.

Any Christian stumbling upon this blog would undoubtedly object that it's not about the symbols, concepts, doctrines and teachings but faith, Jesus, and His Redemptive Acts. That may all be true, but for the sake of this definition that speaks to questions of motivation for the self-limitation referred to in the definition.

Rather that get into questions of truth, authenticity and historicity, this definition brings a social element of being a Christian to the fore.  Even though I arrived at this definition by ruminating on Section 15 of The Antichrist, it could be just as easily be derived from Wittgenstein's language-game (Philosophical Investigations, Sect. 1-7).

Defining religious adherence in this way, also makes strikingly clear that Christians are no better than the rest of us. As if the fact of child molesters, thieves, adulterers, and breakers of the various Commandments didn't already make this clear. This definition also puts front and center the sometimes comical efforts of Christians to describe all kinds of things using exclusively Christian language: hatred toward minorities (anti-LBQT doctrines and legislation) all the way to Christians committed to Social Justice for the poor, the downtrodden, and other misfortunates. It also makes discussions of whether Christianity "really" supports slavery or libertarian economics moot.

Lurking behind this definition is a theory of Religion. Defining religion in terms of deities and belief ignores the most salient feature of all religions: community. Gods, rituals, sacrifices, angels, nymphs, buddhas, avatars, etc are means and tools for creating community: we are the ones who .... For Westerners brought up in the shadow of Christianity, it is difficult to understand that seemingly solid concepts like God, race, sin, guilt, Jesus, etc do not have anything at their foundation other than people talking and behaving in certain ways to other other people. The picture I have is of each generation walking in on a conversation already in progress and trying to figure out what the conversation is about: explanations are made for what's been said so far, which in turn are the raw material for the succeeding generation. After a certain point, how the conversation really started is unimportant for the participants. Historical events and their meaning are rarely, if ever, unambiguous, except within religious histories.

But I digress. I'd like to offer a history of religion in a nutshell. Pagan, pre-Christian religion was centered around the experience of participation in a group activity. This group activity could be hunting, harvesting crops, being members of a city, sailing, and so on. It is important to remember than pre-Christian religions have their own, even if largely unrecorded histories, stretching back millennia. What is seen in antiquity is already ancient beyond human reckoning. In late antiquity, many pagan religions became centered around fellowship and feasting. However tenuous the connection, ties to the old Nature religions were still maintained in urban centers.

As all this was happening, there was an underclass of slaves and mixed ethnicities in the Empire. Especially among the slaves there was no common practice and community. Communities and fellowship rooted in the experiences and lives of slaves were lacking. There was also a problem of resources: no temples, no resources to finance feasts and celebrations. Slaves are typically poor and lacking in leisure time. Given the religious history prior to Christianity, this is not promising ground for religious life.

At some point, Platonism and Judaism began to blend. Fellowship came to be grounded in answering ritual questions together. We are the ones who believe X, Y, and Z. Communal recitation of the Nicene Creed ought to make this abundantly clear. Judaism provided much of the content and Hellenic philosophy gave Christianity the language of propositions, Truth and belief. The founding moment of Christianity was the discovery that fellowship and community could be grounded in recitation and linguistic rituals. Everything after that was negotiating the contents of those recitations and rituals.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Thought for the Day

On the bad days laugh and smile that in spite of the best efforts of God & Man, you're still here, a light-hearted mockery of their best efforts. On the good days, listen to the birds sing under a blue sky. Then, maybe one day you won't be able to tell the difference between your worst and your best, good days from bad days.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Liberation, Fear and a Stupid Quote

I don't remember who it was that said just recently "Liberation is freedom from fear." I did some unfruitful googling. It was a tweet from some singer to her fans. Why is it stupid? First things first, there will always be something new and unexpected to make us afraid. Liberation as freedom from fear really means one remains afraid of fear itself.

Liberation, if it means anything, means the recurring experience of finding oneself, contrary to all hopes and expectations, to be bigger than one's fears. Fear treated as resistance, as obstacle (and dare I say intoxicant?) is something completely different from fear as objectively and irredeemably evil in its propensity to destroy human happiness and potential.

It will be objected that not everyone is cut out to be an existential daredevil, nor will even the best of us prove herself to be bigger than her fears each and every time. Occasional failures, that is to say running away by dressing up one's cowardice as something else, are assured even in the best cases. A little failure sweetens every success. One of my students shared a Chinese proverb: Failure is the mother of success.

Or, is a little failure not sweet at all? Maybe we shouldn't think of failure in terms of sugar, honey and sweetness. Why not in terms of heat, capsaicin and Scoville units? Repeated and continual failures in pursuit of one's ideal might prove to be a stronger stimulant to happiness than any promise of a land rich in milk and honey. Not everyone finds the allures of capsaicin irresistible, and not every chilihead enjoys ghost peppers.

This all presumes, of course, fear as an inextricable  part of the human animal. If one has once known liberation from fear even in passing, it would make for sadness to think liberation could only happen just once in a person's life.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Going Further (A Ramble of Sorts)

Taking this further and building on Section 15 of The Antichrist.

Christians of whatever stripe believe themselves in possession of the Truth. Part of Christianity is that Christian teachings of whatever local variety are all that a human being needs to know about being human. This roundabout phrasing brings out a crucial element that explains why Christians are notoriously easy to troll and often lack any sense of self-irony.

Faith in one's belief to possess The Truth (or at least only the parts that really matter) means one need look no further to understand doctrine or other people than some Bible verse or maybe a Papal Encyclical or some other commentary. This means that self-reflection outside the confines of the local doctrines is pointless, even blasphemous as an assault on the sanctity of the Holy Mother Church.

This last point should be distinguished from self-criticism and striving for moral/spiritual purity. No, I mean that the most heretical, immoral blasphemy possible would be an anthropological description of Christians (of whatever stripe) doing Christian things. Or better yet, setting the ghost of Erving Goffmann loose in the pews.

Consider a hypothetical: deciding who will "serve" as chair of a bake-sale committee. The last thing any candidate can point to is objective qualifications. There must be be prayer and appeals to the Spirit beseeching God to show His Will, etc. What this means for an ambitious member of Christ's attainment of the chair of our hypothetical bake sale committe requires cloaking one's intentions and character flaws in the proper Christian symbols, concepts and words. Unlike many critics of Christianity, I do not consider the difference between a self-deluded charlatan and a scheming con man to be of any importance. Well, maybe for psychologists of religion, but outside that narrow interest, not so much. The former results from ethical and intellectual sloppiness in the care of their immortal soul & the latter is possible because of the ethical and intellectual carelessness of others to the fate of their immortal souls.

The problem is not prayer or pleadings to supernatural beings. Those are contentious enough. Part, maybe all, of "accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord & Savior" means limiting oneself to one collection of symbols, doctrines and concepts. One of which is the belief that this aggregation of symbols, doctrines and concepts is sufficient to describe all the important parts of being human. And what does it mean for a religion to be True, if not that?

As a matter of logic finding the truth of a matter concludes the investigation. However, as a political matter (politics is always local and face-to-face) Truth is a powerful tool to silence dissent and opposition.Whether the local Truth is actually true in any meaningful sense is irrelevant. Politics is a science of expediency in attaining goals.

Faith in one's Truth precludes self-understanding, or rather precludes a priori consideration of material that doesn't fit. Perversely, Truth gets in the way of truth. Or less perversely phrased, the attitude one has toward feelings of certitude, of being right, error, and (possible) objections often unnecessarily interferes with resolving a conundrum.

Returning to the bake sale, it is easy enough to imagine a minister's niece, or maybe even his wife, as feeling not only deserving but also ambitious, seeking to be the person responsible for making final decisions and responsibilities. Depending on who you read, how this power and responsibility are to be exercised  this may be at one extreme a tale of domination and submission and at the other one of negotiation and cooperation, or something in between. The glory, respect and even admiration that comes from running a successful bake sale campaign is the sought after prize.

To circle back around to the prayers and promptings of the Spirit, arbitrarily self-limitation to a rigid set of symbols, doctrines and beliefs makes it is impossible describe and understand one's own behavior and the behavior of others. The certitude one has of one's own rightness excludes consideration of the experiences, thoughts and views of others when it might prove corrosive of one's certitude.

Regardless of whether Christianity is an aggregation of half-baked profundities about Humanity, God and History, or a precise system of rational argumentation and rigorous logical deduction that would put St. Thomas of Aquinas to shame, or something in-between, the difficulty remains: it is impossible to describe behavior in the pews as anything other than a battle of the forces of Light against the forces of Darkness. With Satan occasionally appearing as an Angel of Light, it is impossible to determine through self-inspection, prayer and Bible Study the purity of one's motives. All commentators agree on the point of the vast superiority of his diabolical intelligence to merely human faculties.

What does this mean for life in the pews? The only argument that remains after banishing discussion: force and violence. If the uses and abuses of Christian talk is foreclosed as a matter of principle, faith becomes a smoke screen behind which passions, instincts, emotions can run amok with a clear conscience. The person is most proficient in using the language, symbols and doctrines of Christianity in articulating & describing their intentions and desires is the one most assured of success in the local congregation and beyond.

The alternative obviously enough requires admitting that the language of Christianity is because of intrinsic limitations incapable of describing, Christian, and human behavior generally as other than as a battle of Good vs Evil. I expect that most Christians would find This entirely unacceptable. Conciously or not, they sense that it is the beginning of a long road, at the end of which stands the a sphinx with her riddle, "Does Christian talk do anything other than express approval or disapproval of the speaker?" This in turn raises the uncomfortable question of whether Christian talk is of any use at all in describing and understanding the human world, and does its own insistence on the supreme value and utility of Truth itself impede truth and Truth?

* * *

Lest the reader be too smug, the logic outlined above applies just as well to Soviet Marxism, Scientology, or any other prepackaged world view. These thoughts grew out of considerations of the petty and spiteful behavior of my ex-wife (as well as my own on occasion). The certainty of one's own rightness closes one's and ears to alternatives. This is the mustard seed of that willful and principled stupidity better known as fanaticism. This defect of the soul remains the same whether considered as a problem of individual psychology or as of a fatal institutional defect as in the collapse of Soviet Marxism, or something in-between.

* * *

The lazy charms of believing oneself to be right make for a poor appreciation of the subtle charms of irony.

I had wanted to work in a hunch that I have that day-to-day life in 21st Century requires at least a rudimentary capacity for irony and Vieldeutigkeit. Trump's appeal to mostly authoritarian-minded voters strongly implies that not everyone is happy about this fact.

The old ways of negotiating and containing ironies and ambiguities don't work. They themselves have become bit players in larger narratives, instead of defining the boundaries of what it means to be American. It is impossible to watch a cowboy movie any more without also wondering about what Native Americans are up to. And when discussion turns to US History and the History of the West generally? Trump's presidential campaign marks the explicit overflow into American electoral politics that has raged for some time in Academia.

Is the Great Theme of American History White Privilege versus Equality before the Law?

Monday, February 29, 2016

What Is Happiness?

A distinction between being happy and causing happiness needs to be drawn. It's easily imaginable for someone to find themselves waiting in vain for their unhappiness with no clue as to why the misery that they expected failed to show up. Happiness is more than numbness, comfortable or otherwise. It's not in the middle.

It was either Nietzsche or Schopenhauer who defined it as a preponderance of feelings of pleasure over feelings of displeasure. If you feel good more often than you feel bad, you're much more likely than not to find yourself thinking of yourself as happy. Does this mean a boundless appetite for pleasure is a prerequisite for pleasure? Or is it the appetite for pleasure itself? Contra Buddhism with more Desire comes greater happiness until even "life is suffering" itself becomes a goad and blessing?

* * *

That was all terribly abstract. I can only speak to my own case: a multiple depressive episodes, some severe and debilitating. PTSD, traumas of one sort or another. An impoverished childhood. Oh, and ADD thrown in for good measure. I remember being surprised the first time someone described my life as tortured. That's certainly not how I think of my life, well at least not unironically.

There were times when I thought this last depressive episode was going to do me in. But afterwards? At times I was surprised to catch myself pleased with how I had handled myself there in the dark where even God doesn't see. That is what births confidence.  The ego shattered, Dionysus torn to pieces. The self & ego are invented retrospectively.

I live for those times when I look my life over and find myself satisfied, sometimes even pleased, with it. The flip-side to this is that there are times when I am just as painfully dissatisfied and at odds with myself and my surroundings. It would seem the root of it all is feeling myself being the one deciding the good and the bad of my existence. To put it in a phrase: being the author of my actions and of my life generally.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Happiness and Suffering

Any conception of happiness that cannot also incorporate some measure of pain, suffering and misery strikes me as what? Feeble? Anemic? Weak? Deficient? Laughable, even? Or maybe cowardly? Escapist? Or instead how about limited? Impoverished? Unimaginative? Uninteresting? Boring?

No one enjoys pain and suffering for their own sakes. Ascetics and neurotics bring pain on themselves in order to achieve something else. Setting self-inflicted pain and suffering, pain and suffering are an inescapable part of being human life. Even Christians admit this, but they use this fact as grounds for finding human life deficient and therefore in need of redemption, if not in this world, then in the world to come. Chasing after happiness and running away from unpleasant sensations is doomed to failure.

Clearly happiness, if such a thing is possible for mere mortals, must be something besides a simple abundance of pleasant sensations. Buddhism, Nietzsche and studies on gratitude strongly imply that happiness lies in one's attitude towards the objects of consciousness: thoughts, feelings, concepts, memories and the like. Happiness as metacognitive: thinking about thinking. Less abstractly and less meta, one's habits and style of thinking. This also means that happiness is not a matter of truth and falsehood anymore than any other practice such as martial arts, being a Christian, or literary interpretation. A person learns to be happy.

* * *

It is impossible for me not to think of some of Nietzsche's last writings, especially Ecce Homo and his amor fati. I'd like to suggest a perverse reading of Nietzsche: Nietzsche as a utilitarian.

Jeremy Bentham in thinking through utilitarianism came up with an elaborate scheme of assigning a numerical value to various kinds of pleasures. This quantification of the different pleasures made it relatively easy and straightforward to calculate the greatest pleasure of the greatest number. Maximization of the quantities of pleasure or happiness for society at large was to be the yardstick by which to evaluated laws, customs, social policies etc.

But now, think about Nietzsche and his insistence on his own happiness. Could one person experience such intense and prolonged pleasure that it would be so much greater than aggregations of lesser (but no less real) pleasures and happinesses? Could one person experience such an intense and lasting happiness (or pleasure) so that it would in Bentham's reckonings and tables of pleasures outweigh the misery of millions? This sounds very Nietzschean and very aristocratic.

Of course such an extreme offends our sense of equality. If we bring our feeling for equality to bear on this extreme situation, what do we get? A mediocre happiness for the greatest number, or rather a relatively easy to achieve goal: avoidance and reduction of unhappinesses. Will and desire are dampened for the sake of everyone else's happiness. No one in this scheme is particularly happy or particularly unhappy, and worrying about the happiness of others is of paramount importance.

Just to be clear, a notion of personal happiness that doesn't have room for the happiness of others lacks imagination and subtlety.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Questions about Creativity

Could creativity in some cases be a simple misunderstanding?
As an infant becomes a child on its way to adulthood, it learns the language(s), morality, values, etc of its familial and social environment. This is done inductively for obvious reasons. Before any structured instruction can take place, there needs to be communication between parent and child. The child in however rich the environment is on its own to make sense of its surroundings. Luckily for the infant, and the rest of us, our brains are predisposed to ordering and organizing its perceptions.
Occasionally, there's a misunderstanding. But what is a misunderstanding here? Seeing one's surroundings differently than other people. This element of novelty implies some sufferers of mental illness are failed creatives. Not all such misunderstandings are happy ones. Being different guarantees nothing, least of all happiness or that great American fetish of being right.

* * *

I can also imagine a different, albeit similar, engine of creativity. Imagine someone, maybe a child, maybe an adult, with irreconcilable experiences. The necessity of the self to feel itself as an occasional unity results in a string of failures to achieve a lasting reconciliation. In an artist and in other creative types this merciless necessity results in "works." This trash thrown out the car window of the soul is just that, refuse, on the soul's aimless journey to the grave, even if others believe it to be the whisperings of God Himself.

* * *

Added later that day. The remark about "failed creatives" could be taken amiss. Often it seems that some sufferers of mental illness are endlessly inventive in coming up with new ways to make themselves miserable: self-destructive, guilt-ridden, eternally at pitted against themselves. Whatever intellect, creativity, or sensitivity they might have become tools of their misery.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Taking a Short Break

I've decided to get a handle on my insomnia and more generally bring order to my everyday life. This will be done in stages. 

The first stage is getting a handle on my insomnia. Rather than trying to keep a regular bedtime, I'll get up at 7 on weekdays and at 8 on weekends.

Then when that is working, I'll bring bring regular writing sessions, then when that's working, guitar practice.


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Word About Citizenship & Immigration

A word to Evangelicals: when you stand before Jesus on Judgment Day do you really think the color of your passport is going to make any difference, good or bad, as He determines your place for all of Eternity?

* * *

It’s an election year, time for all Americans to reflect on politics and party affiliations. I’ve decided that I’m a socialist. Broadly speaking, this means that one of the responsibilities of good government is the well-being of the persons living within its borders, not just its citizens. Citizenship is a piece of paper like a marriage license. Having one makes navigating federal and state bureaucracies less difficult. In the grand context of personhood it is a piece of trivia, not unlike white skin, red hair, freckles, or kinky hair. Possession of that piece of paper means there are some bureaucratic procedures that can be invoked in pursuit of employment and housing and others that are preemptively foreclosed such as deportation and imprisonment. In this country for most citizens citizenship is an accident of birth. It is not a result of virtuous action and it is not earned. Naturalization is an exception and in principle revocable. The triviality of possessing a piece of this paper does not imply anything about a person’s character. Holding to the belief that it does imply something significant ironically does very much have unfortunate implications about one’s character.

Because citizenship confers so many bureaucratic benefits at essentially no cost, it is an easy rallying point around which to organize identity (read exclude foreigners). Unfortunately, because citizenship is nothing more than a flurry of paperwork, it is also without broader content or context. Being a citizen has no bearing on one’s worth or character as a human being. The concept itself contains no ethical or moral impediments to being hateful, spite-filled, failed human beings. Red tape is not a rope by which to hoist oneself to a higher ethical and moral plane of existence.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

He Could Have Written It About This Year's Presidential Election

Something I stumbled across here. I emphasized some juicy bits.
I must say I believe, or fear, that taking the world as a whole these things are on the increase. Hitler, no doubt, will soon disappear, but only at the expense of strengthening (a) Stalin, (b) the Anglo-American millionaires and (c) all sorts of petty fuhrers of the type of de Gaulle. All the national movements everywhere, even those that originate in resistance to German domination, seem to take non-democratic forms, to group themselves round some superhuman fuhrer (Hitler, Stalin, Salazar, Franco, Gandhi, De Valera are all varying examples) and to adopt the theory that the end justifies the means. Everywhere the world movement seems to be in the direction of centralised economies which can be made to ‘work’ in an economic sense but which are not democratically organised and which tend to establish a caste system. With this go the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible fuhrer. Already history has in a sense ceased to exist, ie. there is no such thing as a history of our own times which could be universally accepted, and the exact sciences are endangered as soon as military necessity ceases to keep people up to the mark. Hitler can say that the Jews started the war, and if he survives that will become official history. He can’t say that two and two are five, because for the purposes of, say, ballistics they have to make four. But if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three great superstates which are unable to conquer one another, two and two could become five if the fuhrer wished it. That, so far as I can see, is the direction in which we are actually moving, though, of course, the process is reversible.
As to the comparative immunity of Britain and the USA. Whatever the pacifists etc. may say, we have not gone totalitarian yet and this is a very hopeful symptom. I believe very deeply, as I explained in my book The Lion and the Unicorn, in the English people and in their capacity to centralise their economy without destroying freedom in doing so. But one must remember that Britain and the USA haven’t been really tried, they haven’t known defeat or severe suffering, and there are some bad symptoms to balance the good ones. To begin with there is the general indifference to the decay of democracy. Do you realise, for instance, that no one in England under 26 now has a vote and that so far as one can see the great mass of people of that age don’t give a damn for this? Secondly there is the fact that the intellectuals are more totalitarian in outlook than the common people. On the whole the English intelligentsia have opposed Hitler, but only at the price of accepting Stalin. Most of them are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history etc. so long as they feel that it is on ‘our’ side. Indeed the statement that we haven’t a Fascist movement in England largely means that the young, at this moment, look for their fuhrer elsewhere. One can’t be sure that that won’t change, nor can one be sure that the common people won’t think ten years hence as the intellectuals do now. I hope they won’t, I even trust they won’t, but if so it will be at the cost of a struggle. If one simply proclaims that all is for the best and doesn’t point to the sinister symptoms, one is merely helping to bring totalitarianism nearer.
You also ask, if I think the world tendency is towards Fascism, why do I support the war. It is a choice of evils—I fancy nearly every war is that. I know enough of British imperialism not to like it, but I would support it against Nazism or Japanese imperialism, as the lesser evil. Similarly I would support the USSR against Germany because I think the USSR cannot altogether escape its past and retains enough of the original ideas of the Revolution to make it a more hopeful phenomenon than Nazi Germany. I think, and have thought ever since the war began, in 1936 or thereabouts, that our cause is the better, but we have to keep on making it the better, which involves constant criticism.
Yours sincerely,
Geo. Orwell
  The page at OpenCulture.com explains that this letter tells why us Orwell wrote 1984. The bit about "a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth" certainly calls to mind Stephen Colbert's "Reality has a liberal bias." and climate change denialists and a whole host of tomfooleries on the side of the Right in this country. The Democrats are not as bad but there is an unfortunate tendency for all Americans to live in bubble chambers. In our immediate surroundings we Americans by and large try to avoid political and religious conflict. Society-wide we are passionately partisan. It seems to be the general rule that we hate anyone of a different opinion or ethnicity.

Other People

Sometimes when I listen to other people I find myself astonished that they speak of things that I haven’t seen, felt or tasted. Maybe my imaginings conjured up by their words and tales are accurate, maybe not, I don’t know. Their reports feel like dispatches from some far away, exotic land than idle conversation while ordering coffee. We speak the same language, know the same foods, and yet I can’t help but wonder if sometimes gods & demigods along with imps and archdemons walk the earth unbeknownst to themselves.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Remedial Retconning

The following is a text given out at a small workshop for ESL teachers:
An Evening with Friends

Every Saturday night, four good friends get together. When Jerry, Mike, and Pat arrived, Karen was sitting in her living room writing some notes. She quickly gathered the cards and stood up to greet her friends at the door. They followed her into the living room but, as usual, they couldn’t agree exactly on what to play. Jerry eventually took a stand and set things up. Finally, they began to play. Karen’s recorder filled the room with soft and pleasant music. Early in the evening, Mike noticed Pat’s hand and the many diamonds. As the night progressed, the tempo of the play increased. Finally, a lull in the activities occurred. Taking advantage of this, Jerry pondered the arrangement in front of him. Mike interrupted Jerry’s reverie and said, “Let’s hear the score.” They listened carefully and commented on their performance. When the comments were all heard, exhausted but happy, Karen’s friends went home.

After reading it, we were asked what the text is about. We had no context, just a bare text. All we had to go on were the clues to be gleaned from the text itself. Normally, ambiguities in meaning are resolved as the story goes along. This text exploits the multiplicity of possible meanings to achieve its effect of prolonged ambiguity. Usually ambiguities cancel themselves out through a process of elimination until according to normal expectations only a single answer to the question of "what the text is about" remains. Here, instead of the multiple possible meanings canceling each other out, they line up to avoid resolving ambiguities.

There are two answers to the question of what this paragraph is about. The group of friends got together to play music, or they got together to play cards.If you think they got together to play cards then Karen's recorder refers to a device for playing musical recordings, like a stereo. Or it could refer to the musical instrument. Similarly with "Jerry eventually took a stand ...." or the with the word "play." An important element for the card-playing interpretation is the sentence "Mike noticed Pat's hand and the many diamonds." "Diamonds" could be about the card suit or it could be an offhand remark about jewelry and unimportant in the overall meaning of the story.

Some detail catches our eye and we make it disproportionately important, it doesn't fit in as well with the other other details, therefore ...? It's more important or maybe it doesn't mean much. But in the larger context of the reader's life, music maybe more frequent than card-playing, or vice versa.
Turning our attention away from this curiosity to thoughts and memories of our past. So incredibly much happens in the course of a day, there is so much to remember just from yesterday and before yesterday there thousands of days just as busy and eventful before it. How and why do we remember this and not that? Why the crush with little Suzie Jenkins, but not all the times teacher was kinda mean to her? If we were to examine our memories carefully and with inhumane attention to detail and possible ambiguities, would we concoct the same story of our life that we told ourselves yesterday?

And if it's not the same story doesn't this destroy the whole notion that a person's life is a story with a narrative structure? The exigencies of the present push us to revise the past, not in some neurotic mischief of pretending that something didn't happen, but to pull other events forward into the foreground and push others into the background. Same text, different story.

* * *

If the same events can be used to tell different stories, doesn't this destroy the whole notion of a person's life as a narrative? If the same life can tell different stories, then what is the self? What is the ego? Is there even a "what"  to be discussed?

I can imagine some naive twit objecting that multiple interpretations means that a person is free to choose whatever arbitrary "story" fits the needs of the moment. We call people who do this liars and con artists. People who believe their own lies we call neurotics.

These questions and objections lead to an interesting problem: what does it take to believe in one's new reinterpretation? What does "believe" mean here? Endless repetition of one's new story will not manufacture belief. It only leads forbidding clarification (= questions) and bullying others into agreement.

I vaguely recall a passage from Pascal's Pensées about if one acts like a Christian: praying, going to church, confessing, etc, then belief in God and in the Truth of Christianity would become progressively easier. It is unnecessary to believe or have some feeling of certainty. It is necessary to oppose the psychological and spiritual resistance to living the "new" story. Or the Freudian term "cathexsis" can be used. Or "emotional and spiritual investment." Make no mistake: underlying all of this is chaos, formlessness and an absence of Truth, Being and Goodness. Our brains did not evolve to recognize truth and goodness.

The answer to the question of what belief means here is simple enough. You act in accordance with the story. The more that can be assimilated into the new narrative, the more believable it becomes. This part is nothing new. It's the old tale of emotional investment. In keeping with the economic metaphor, sometimes investments go bad and bankruptcy is declared. A person has to start over. Sometimes pieces of the past can be salvaged, sometimes not. I don't remember which one, but it was one of the James's in 19th Century America that came up with notion that some statements are not true yet. The truth of living a reinvented life is in the living of it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Something Against Liberation

My difficulty is simple. Liberation presumes a prior lack of freedom. The change from a state lacking freedom to one of possessing freedom lies in the future. Seeking this change of state however fervently just as fervently asserts this lack of freedom. Escape from a lack of freedom is a mirage, or maybe a carrot at the end of a stick for a jackass hard at work. 

If there is such a thing as liberation it is resolving to live as if one were already free. This resolve is an internal event and is no respecter of the obstacles encountered in one's environment. Freedom, if it means anything, is living according to what one knows to be true, even as discoveries along life's way are made.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Near Death Experiences

I don't care how close you get to the edge of the Abyss. It's not the same as actually going in. Wave your arms frantically at the edge of the Sinkhole, use a securely fastened safety line so as to be pulled back, avoid falling in by the most unlikely bit of slapstick, it's not the same as that uncontrolled and uncontrollable fall into the Bottomless Pit surrounding our mortality.

We fear death because we have been taught to fear and be ashamed of our ignorance. No one knows what it's like to die, when the last moment of life passes without return. What we fear when we speak of the fear of death is not death, but our own imaginings and fantasies. Many find even the worst fantasies of Eternal Damnation to be preferable to a simple admission of ignorance of the good, the bad or the indifference of what we lack both knowledge or experience. To wax poetic, our beliefs about death are our own scribbles on the blank canvass of our ignorance.

There is no sightseeing in that undiscovered land. All tales of that strange land are lies, delusions or frauds.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

To Retcon or Not to Retcon?

An appleseed is no more the cause of an apple than past experience is of today's opinions and beliefs. 

It took me ages to figure out how to express the connection between past and present and how the present reaches back to the past without being controlled by it.

The things we do and the things that happen to us live on so much longer in our memory than the time they took to happen. The meaning (or trauma or gratitude) emanating from an event grows over time, even if the bare recitation of facts is mostly unchanged.

At its best a human life is continually retconning.

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