Thursday, December 30, 2010

Amphibology & Treason

A quibble [a pun or a riddle] is to Shakespeare what luminous vapors are to the traveler; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents or enchaining it in suspense...a quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career to stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight that he was content to purchase it by the sacrifice of reason, propriety, and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was content to lose it. - Samuel Johnson

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ambiguity = pleasant surprise = happiness?

The worse your art is, the easier it is to talk about, at least I would like to think so. Ambiguity seems to be the same thing as happiness or pleasant surprise. I am assuming that from the moment life cannot be one continual orgasm, real happiness is impossible, and pleasant surprise is promoted to the front rank of the emotions. The idea of relief from pain has something to do with ambiguity. Ambiguity supposes eventual resolution of itself whereas certitude implies further ambiguity. I guess that is why so much "depressing" modern art makes me feel cheerful. - John Ashbery

Monday, December 20, 2010

Borrow a soul (trade up) & write something needed

There is something about writing I haven’t told you, in part because it smacks of the sentimental and abstract—two of the monsters I’ve hoped to drive from your work...For your writing to be great—I mean great, not clever, or even brilliant, or most misleading of all, beautiful—it must be useful to the world...you must love the world as it is...Nothing you write will matter unless it moves the human heart...The world is not a focus group...The greatest love you can show it is to create what it needs, which means you must know that yourself...The writers whom we agree are the great ones...are great because their subjects and themes are great, and thus their usefulness is great as well. Their souls are great, and they have had the good sense and the courage to consult their souls before their pens touched paper...

It is your soul I am talking about, I’ll say it again. And if, upon examination, you find your soul inadequate to the task of great writing, then improve it, or borrow someone else’s. Commencement speakers are forever telling you to be yourself. I say, be someone else, if that other self is superior to yours. Borrow a soul. I am not in the least being facetious. In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov says that the soul “is but a manner of being,” not a constant entity. Dissatisfied with the makeup of your old soul? Trade it in. But always trade up...

You must write as if your reader needed you desperately...You must function as a displaced person in an age that contradicts all that is brave, gentle, and worthwhile in you. Every great writer has done this, in every age. You must be of every age. You must believe in heroism and nobility, just as strongly as you believe in pettiness and cowardice. You must learn to praise. Of course, you need to touch the sources of your viciousness and treachery before you rise above them. But rise you must. For all its frailty and bitterness, the human heart is worthy...Both you and the human heart are full of sorrow. But...you can speak for that sorrow and ease its burdens and make it sing...

- Roger Rosenblatt

(Yet there's also the flip side via the avant-gardists and others that some of the most exciting, sublime, whatever, writing and art is anything but useful, or perhaps, directly useful.)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The lucky Russian poet?

In 1964, a twenty-three-year-old poet was arrested by the Leningrad K.G.B. and charged with the crime of “malicious parasitism.” His name was Josef Brodsky. One Communist Party newspaper denounced his poetry as “pornographic and anti-Soviet”; another noted archly that he wore “velvet pants.” The authorities permitted him to testify in court, but they soon regretted their decision, and their failure to prevent a brave woman named Frida Vigdorova from taking notes on the proceedings. Vigdorova wrote down this exchange—the most famous legal exchange in Russia since Stalin’s show trials—and the transcript was smuggled to the West:


JUDGE: And what is your profession?
BRODSKY: Poet. Poet and translator.
JUDGE: And who told you that you were a poet? Who assigned you that rank?
BRODSKY: No one. (Non-confrontationally.) Who assigned me to the human race?
JUDGE: And did you study for this?
BRODSKY: For what?
JUDGE: To become a poet? Did you try to attend a school where they train [poets] . . . where they teach . . .
BRODSKY: I don’t think it comes from education.
JUDGE: From what, then?
BRODSKY: I think it’s . . . (at a loss) . . . from God.

The judge sentenced Brodsky to five years of internal exile. Living in a village near the Arctic Circle, he crushed rocks and hauled manure by day. At night, he wrote, and he improved his English by reading Auden and Frost. Brodsky’s mentor, the great Silver Age poet Anna Akhmatova, laughed at the K.G.B.’s shortsightedness. “What a biography they’re fashioning for our red-haired friend!” she said. “It’s as if he’d hired them to do it on purpose.”


Akhmatova was hardly naïve about the capabilities of Soviet justice—she had lost a husband and countless friends in the Gulag—but she could see that the state was providing a linguistic genius with an aura of heroism. By the time Brodsky returned to Leningrad, he was a mature poet, whose brand of dissidence was an implacable disdain for the Soviet regime and an enduring devotion to the Russian language. The state soon found it necessary to exile this untamable creature abroad. - David Remnick

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Religious experience as cure for inhibition

Religious experiences are so powerful and positive a moral force, [William] James argues, because they have an ability to overcome the inhibitions that prevent most from behaving in morally exemplary ways. "Few people who have not expressly reflected on the matter realise how constantly this factor of inhibition is upon us, how it contains and molds us by its restrictive pressure almost as if we were fluids pent within the cavity of a jar." Moreover, inhibition is typically a subconscious force. So counterbalancing subconscious forces, such as those that are religious, are required to release the individual from their withholding impulses.

Religious experiences are not alone in being able to do this. A soldier will perform extraordinary acts of bravery on account of the training that leaves them closely identified with comrades. However, religious experiences are different. They release subconscious forces that are involuntary. A soldier decides to join the army and submit to the training. James' study of religious conversion has led him to conclude that they are experiences that radically change someone. "The man who lives in his religious center of energy, and is actuated by spiritual enthusiasms, differs from his previous carnal self in perfectly definite ways." - Mark Vernon

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Trying on other selves to help transcend oneself

The point is, we were in a situation [prison] where narratives and story were far more compelling than when we were free. It sounds like a stereotype, but I think a lot of us were locked in poverty and cycles of violence. Most of the black men around me had children, a lot of the young dudes who were my age had fathers who were in prison. When we were in the world, we were locked in a space where we didn’t believe other narratives existed. Coming to prison and reading books was a way for many of us to try on different narratives.
- Dwayne Betts, former inmate who now teaches poetry at the University of Maryland

Monday, December 6, 2010

Surviving crisis: "I will not let you go until you bless me."

These words of Jacob to [whom he wrestled with] lie at the very core of surviving crisis. Each of us knows from personal experience that events that seemed disappointing, painful, even humiliating at the time, can be the most important in our lives. Through them we learned how to try harder next time; or they taught us a truth about ourselves; or they shifted our life into a new and more fruitful direction. We learn, not from our successes but from our failures. We mature and grow strong and become more understanding and forgiving through the mistakes we make. A protected life is a fragile and superficial life. Strength comes from knowing the worst and refusing to give in. Jacob has bequeathed us many gifts, but few more valuable than the obstinacy and resilience that can face hard times and say of them: "I will not let you go until you bless me." I will not give up or move on until I have extracted something positive from this pain and turned it into blessing.
- Jonathan Sachs

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Freedom by giving stuff up

The freelance philosopher Ivan Illich had an idea. He was a great inverter of ideas. Perhaps his most well known book, Deschooling Society, published in 1971, argued that modern education risks not actually educating people. It might rather produce individuals equipped with skills to service the great economic machine that has wrapped itself around world. Today, in an age of education cuts, it’s a diagnosis that clearly has currency.

When it comes to freedom and choice, he notes that our problem, in the West at least, is not having no choice, but is having too much choice. He realised that true freedom comes not from making choices, but from making commitments.

Think of the business of falling in love. In a city like London, the choice of potential lovers is almost infinite. And yet, the proliferation of online dating sites suggests that anxiety about finding a partner is booming. Why is there this contradiction? Illich would diagnose that we’re trapped in a cultural confusion: we’re encouraged to think relationships are about making the right choice, when actually they’re about making a commitment.

More broadly, he came to think that there’s more freedom to be found in giving up some of this excess of choice. He called it renunciation: discovering what you can do without. That’s liberating in a consumer society because to discover you don’t need what you’re being told you do need, is to be freer of the tyranny of choice.

Clearly, a certain amount of choice is good. But perhaps a contented life is one that requires far less choice than we might be disposed to imagine. - Mark Vernon