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 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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