After an intense week of thinking and reading and writing about entanglement with computers, I fell to wondering about my own history of writing about things that were on my mind, and Montaigne bubbled up: I wondered if his Essays had been written for himself [they started out that way] and if it was only later that he bethought to publish them for wider readership [yes, in 1580]… and didn’t I have a Kindle book that would remind me… and sure enough I’d bought Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer in April 2011… so, worthwhile (a) to look at again, and (b) to consider the content and directions of that 11 years. It turned out to be a very interesting, worthwhile, and encouraging two days of re-reading Bakewell’s marvelous book. The structure of the book, limned by the subtitle, has chapters thusly:
Q. How to live? A. Don’t worry about death
Q. How to live? A. Pay attention: Starting to write Stream of consciousness
Q. How to live? A. Be born
Q. How to live? A. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
Q. How to live? A. Survive love and loss
Q. How to live? A. Use little tricks
Q. How to live? A. Question everything: All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that
Q. How to live? A. Keep a private room behind the shop
Q. How to live? A. Be convivial: live with others
Q. How to live? A. Wake from the sleep of habit
Q. How to live? A. Live temperately
Q. How to live? A. Guard your humanity
Q. How to live? A. Do something no one has done before
Q. How to live? A. See the world
Q. How to live? A. Do a good job, but not too good a job
And yes, it feels that my own writings are of the same allusive and digressive (not to say wandering…) ilk, such that a Project of attending more closely to Montaigne seems delicious to contemplate. So I’ve queued up several resources to hear, read, and enjoy exploring:
from the Preface: He was, without being aware of it, the leader of a new school in letters and morals. His book was different from all others which were at that date in the world. It diverted the ancient currents of thought into new channels. It told its readers, with unexampled frankness, what its writer’s opinion was about men and things, and threw what must have been a strange kind of new light on many matters but darkly understood. Above all, the essayist uncased himself, and made his intellectual and physical organism public property. He took the world into his confidence on all subjects. His essays were a sort of literary anatomy, where we get a diagnosis of the writer’s mind, made by himself at different levels and under a large variety of operating influences.
Montaigne’s times were in some ways not so very different from our own (France riven by religious conflict and inept government; physical danger from various marauders, including epidemic disease and the unpredictable thrashings of victims of structural inequalities, and uncertainties about the future), despite the vast gulf of differences in technologies that 440 years presents. The wonder of Montaigne’s essays [and it was he who coined the term ‘essai’…] is that they speak so clearly across that gulf, and have done so pretty continuously for all that time. Cotton’s translation of 1685 is still readable, and there’s a long-running Montaigne Industry, which charts a history of extremely varied readings and fashions and emphases (all ably and amusingly tracked by Bakewell).
A bit more than a month since my last post here, and 2 1/2 yellow pads of notes to oneself and transcriptions of trenchant passages from the still-growing mountain of books I’ve been in and out of as I work on library re-organization and explorations of subjects I’ve defined via explorations past and present. The Auxiliary Library in the barn has been the primary locus, warmed by the sun in the mornings and equipped with reasonable music-playing apparatus (though soon to be upgraded), and the succession of interests mostly traced on those yellow pads. If I leaf through them, here’s what I find:
A couple of days ago I happened upon Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books (Georges Perec). Since I’ve been working on Arranging in the Auxiliary Library in the barn for at least a month, it seemed a no-brainer to order. And today along comes email from John-the-son asking about the Nexial Institute, which several of us [consider that we] invented and elected ourselves to in about 1973. His question:
So I’ve always assumed that this idea had some particular vision or principles behind it, but I also get the impression it may have been a joke. Perhaps both.
Have you done any writing about what was or was not within this set of ideas? I figured this included several others from … grad school days? Or early Acadia?
Did you ever do anything formal with this Institute? Or particular ideas that propelled the conservations surrounding it?
I’ve got queries out to the original perpetrators (Kent, Shel, Mom) and I’ll be interested to see their takes. For me the Significance of the Nexial Institute has remained …well… Significant, and I’d even claim that everything I’ve done since 1973 is somehow rooted in the basic notions of everything connected to everything, of Systems, of the Dynamical. But I suppose it was basically a joke, or perhaps more accurately a Joke.
Kent’s response fingered the origin of ‘Nexial’ from A.E. van Vogt’s sci-fi The Voyage of the Space Beagle, which I don’t think I have ever read (and so have ordered…). Wikipedia:
The main protagonist of the novel is Dr. Elliott Grosvenor, the only Nexialist on board (a new discipline depicted as taking an actively generalist approach towards science). It is Grosvenor’s training and application of Nexialism rather than the more narrow-minded approaches of the individual scientific and military minds of his other shipmates that consistently prove more effective against the hostile encounters both from outside and within the Space Beagle.
And here’s John’s response to my response:
Got it… But did it have as a part of the germ, the inversion of all that complexity, of the observer influencing what was observed, and of the realization that follows that your every intention, conscious and otherwise, is responsible for influencing the “outside” world, just as it is imperfectly creating the illusion of that objectivity within consciousness, replete with ungraspable biases? The unknown knowns that constrain our very conception of what is possible and real? Oh, the paralysis that comes from that realization of interconnectivity, when you realize that every yarn you pull at will bring worlds crashing down and others springing into existence, barely or not even perceptible. The only ways forward I perceive from there is either to blindly follow the habituated momentum (karma) that was put into place before such a realization until the yawning chasm of awareness undilates again, OR fall into nihilism OR to consciously create an intention (art?) which requires an underlying faith that it will come about, and that circumstances will co-incide to bring it about, if the intention is aligned across consciousness, and circumstances will throw cascading obstacles if the different levels of intentions are incoherent or at cross-purposes?
um… probably, what with the amount of consciousness-expanding consumption that was going on?
So this comes from the “duh” perspective of yes, “yeah sure, dad” everything is connected “so what?”
So there’s the next Challenge, unpacking all of that. At the moment, all I have to contribute is the conviction that “a lot of my present-day library could be woven in”, and some photos of a few shelves from the barn to suggest some of what I can draw upon:
(Those categories are approximate and partial and provisional…)
And then yesterday along comes email from John the Son with this challenge:
On the subject of cats in Sarawak, have you read [Paolo Bacigalupi’s] ‘the windup girl‘ it’s very evocative and the GMO cats are everpresent. I’m very curious of your perspective on this vision of southeast Asia in the somewhat near future. And of the tensions between the Malay and Chinese immigrants that are cited as a brutal(future) history in the book. I remember you saying that each of the four groups thought the others were disgusting for different reasons: the Muslims, the Chinese, the Malay and the westerners…
into the answer of which is packed a vast morass of entangled Information. I did read The Windup Girl when it first came out, then passed the book along to my (much-missed since 2016) friend Hutch (whose Thai connections were deep), so I snagged it via Kindle and am reading it again to see what I might have thought before and what I think now.
John’s question dropped me right into Professor mode, to wrangling what I “know” and/or what I have thought I knew over a broad canvas, thinking about what I’d have to weave into any …explication… of the dimensions of a satisfying answer to the question. That’s great sport, in which I’ve lived for a good 55+ years—and which I should have lived in those 60 years ago days of Harvard /opportunities/, but needed then to (a) invent for myself, and (b) develop the requisite background to begin to practise. And of course I’m still learning how to do those things, and how to think about them.
That’s true for all of my Entanglements with subject matter
curiosity [about things not already listed…]
…and so I’ve been exploring the Southeast Asia territory of my mental and bibliographic Catalog, to figure out how to set about providing enough of the relevant background to make a sensible answer (i.e., to Inform the Others Against Their Will). There’s a sequence to the exposition, starting with physical geography, ecology, at least a millennium of human demography, and then finally history… covering the whole of what JOM Broek has summarized as
an area of transit and transition … [with a long history of] foreign intrusions … culturally a low-pressure area … recipients rather than donors of culture … ethnic and political fragmentation—a kind of Asian Balkans.
There’s plenty to quibble over in that summary, but it serves to indicate the diversity that has to be accounted for, understood, and fairly characterized.
That’s a term-long class to even contemplate. But wouldn’t it be fun to … no, it wouldn’t, or rather YES it would but only in the imagination. No names, no pack drill, no papers to write and read, no grades to turn in.
So here’s the first page I wrote:
The first thing I’d say is how arbitrary the national boundaries of Southeast Asia are [essentially colonial legacy] and how complex ethnic identities are within each of the current-day nations. Labels like ‘Chinese’, ‘Malay’, ‘Thai’, ‘Burmese’, ‘Indonesian’ project an image of homogeneity within the labels that is at best false-by-oversimplification. There’s an interesting analogy to explore in the shadow theatre so widespread across Southeast Asia; another is the music of gongs, present everywhere as shimmering sound, but in both cases built on illusion: the shadows of the puppets are insubstantial, flickering, turned into narrative by the words of the puppet-master storytellers; the striking of gongs rendered musical and comprehensible as evanescent layers each of which is a pretty simple repetition of a pattern. Somewhere under those visual and aural realizations is a profound syncretism of … Hindu and Buddhist influences, Muslim notions, a Western European and Colonial imposition of “order”, bits of Chinese high and low traditions … and all of that overlaid on a persisting base of indigenous animisms—enormously complex worlds of spirits and ghosts and shamanic manipulations. Add a murky history of trade and gene flows, and natural and anthropogenic ecologies, and human entanglement with plant and animal life, and rising falling seas. And make it equatorial, and subject to annual monsoon/dry cycles…
And there you have the stage set. For next class, please read………
(at least two classes on rice… and there’s rubber… and oil palm… and and and)
Once again I’ve got only a single blog posting for the month. The photostream records a succession of grill-watching evenings:
(Kate does the grilling, I having no genes for that activity. She includes kohlrabi and green beans and zucchini as regular grillage, and it seems possible that ALL garden produce can be grilled…)
Organizing projects in shop and Library Annex proceed:
I bought a couple of professional-grade book carts to facilitate the Library (re-)organization process:
…and it proceeds slowly, arranged by my own idiosyncratic and ever-morphing categories:
It’s been very pleasant to spend afternoons sitting here dipping in and out of a succession of rediscovered books.
In Convivium space, I spent quite a while thinking about the Future. On other frontiers, lots of books read, music played, videos watched, trash picked up. Quite content to be mostly At Home, going from thing to thing.
The London Review of Books is a continual delight, every issue replete with surprises and challenges, lambent writing, and things I had no idea I was interested in until I started reading. This week’s case in point: a review by Francis Gooding of Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds And Shape Our Futures, which I was reading and listening to (via Audible) about a year ago. This (summarizing “what we know of mycelium and its habits”) is from the last paragraph:
The explosive growth of interconnections, the development of flexible new relationships, the filling of spaces with a tangle of new pathways, novel and powerful exchanges and flows of information coursing through an electrically excitable network: what else but this would a fungus do if it really did seize hold of your mind… an entanglement of intimate, sudden, pulsing fresh connections between the things around it?
What a marvelous characterization of Education, I thought, and how very like what I experienced (mostly outside of classes…) with friends in the halcyon days of 1969-1971 at Stanford, and now and again in the years since (though the “electrically excitable network” didn’t really bloom until the 1990s), and mostly on my own in 16 years of retirement. Perhaps the greatest pleasure is never knowing when and in what modality the next inspiration will present itself, but they keep coming.
I’ve been thinking about the perennial problem of Keeping Found Things Found, and about narrating explorations of the past and present, and that has led to consideration of Finding Aids for my various collections. Many happy hours have gone into the process of figuring out how to construct such summaries and guides, and most recently I’ve been using LibraryThing to build the database for my library of photography books (see a list of those tagged ‘photography’ for its current state) and considering how to sort and sub-categorize that collection to make it more useful and accessible. Others will follow.
The closer we look, the more detail we find. The only limitation to our view is the limitation of our ability to see. In order to find something new, we simply have to be willing to look more closely, more carefully.
We refer to the written work of the past to see what has been done and how it has been done… we focus on the maker’s methods and assumptions. We find tools and ways to use them… our work will, inevitably, echo and respond to the work of the past that resonates most strongly for us.
We all have our touchstones.
Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination, pages 207, 220, 221
An astonishing book has fallen into my hands and into my life: Michael Cooperson’s Impostures by al-Ḥarĩrĩ: Fifty Rogue’s Tales Translated Fifty Ways. It’s worth recording how that ‘fallen’ transpired: first, a blog post by Victor Mair at Language Log (which often delights, often mystifies), which pointed to a Wall Street Journal review by Sam Sacks (June 27) and provoked an Amazon order. One of the key hooks in Sacks’ review was reference to maqamat, glossed as ‘improvization’ and so directly parallel to a musical form I’m well acquainted with and always seeking broader understanding of. There’s also a clear link to my explorations of Oulipo (and OuXpos of various sorts) that are themselves a bit more remotely tied to my wanderings in Benjaminia, thus linking several threads of the last 6+ months of reading and thinking. Just what the resulting tissu or macramé amounts to, or might lead to next, is less than clear at the moment, but it surely harks back to Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise Of The Music Of Language, and to the grand problems of translation /übersetzung, ‘over-setting’/, and thence to ruminations on Culture and the deep complexities of understanding and en- and de-coding. I’m a wanderer in these forests, always open to new delights. And rogue threads are forever finding their way into the macramé, viz. Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan “I contain multitudes”. These are all two-bit epiphanies, bits of insight rather than pointers to grand revelations. And mostly probably intransitive, for my own amusement and edification and pleasure. Reason enough.