Wednesday evening Convivium discussions often start hares that occupy me for hours or days. And of course each hare draws one to any number of interesting rabbit holes, and so it goes. Last night, the Question was, essentially, How’s It Going?. There was much talk of disappointments and rampant commodifications, so perhaps there’s an underlying Question: Can It Be Fixed?. The answer is (generally, and often resoundingly) No. And yet we keep wanting the answer to be Yes, <== granting us efficacy in the world, having our efforts and energies mean something, and not to have been somehow in vain… and so evoking rueful reflection on naïvetes of the past…
Or perhaps (I thought to myself) it’s a matter of thinking about which windmills we’ve chosen to tilt against. That Quixotic image keeps coming up, ever since Cervantes 1604, and wants looking into as a prevailing recurrent trope. It begins in a Tale of
…attacking imaginary enemies… …striving for visionary ideals…
It didn’t take too long (just 40 years) for the windmill-tilting trope to find its way into English as a fully-fledged metaphor. A bit of googlement discovered the first occurrence, in John Cleveland “The Character of London Diurnall” (1644), in which we find
The Quixotes of this Age fight with the Wind-mills of their owne heads; quell Monsters of their owne Creation; make Plots, and then discover them; as who fitter to unkennel the Fox, than the Tarryer, that is part of him.
The Windmills now stand for
…to waste time fighting enemies or trying to resolve issues that are imaginary, unimportant, or impossible to overcome…
…the pursuit of “an unrealistic, impractical or impossible goal”…
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).
Has it really been a month since the last blog post? Of course lots of stuff in that time, books arriving and being wolfed down and at least partially digested, various end-of-year summings-up, and the plunge into 2022. Staying home, minimizing f2f encounters, watching It All Go Down.
Preparations for the weekly Convivium have supplanted blogging to some degree, and
tell the tale of my wandering attentions pretty well.
By way of paying attention to the world outside the many comforts of home, I’ve been following Heather Cox Richardson and Umair Haque, both sort of paywalled (or anyhow I’m not sure if hyperlinks to their posts on Substack and Medium are readily accessible), and both painting not-rosy pictures of what’s just around the corner.
…and then consult The Aleph (pdf), when you’re ready for the next thing… Hell of a ride. I’ve just ordered The Total Library : Non-Fiction, 1922-1986, so The Future Is Assured for the rest of January. And of course other things will appear, seemingly out of nowhere.
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)
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 often have the experience of being inspired by something I read or see to order a book (used via Amazon, most often), but when it arrives I don’t recall the details of the inspiration, having by then moved on to yet more inspirations… Today’s case in point is Louis Kronenberger’s Quality: Its Image in the Arts (1969), which turns out to have a very interesting chapter on Photography by Walker Evans (which I had read about a couple of weeks ago in Svetlana Alpers’ Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch (2020), and was, as I now reconstruct it, the source of the inspiration to order). The Kronenberger book has chapters by a variety of mid-20th century luminaries (Virgil Thompson on Music, Gilbert Seldes on Popular Arts, Milton Glaser on Graphics, Ada Louise Huxtable on Architecture, Eliza beth Hardwick on Literature…), some of which are a bit musty a half century later (though their points of view are memorable to those of us who were there then). There are lots of wonderful illustrations, some very familiar and others quite new to me. One that especially delights me is this from George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, ca. 1922 (that is, nearly a century ago):
Now, Herriman himself is an interesting character, subject of the biography Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White (2016), and “a visionary whose influence helped shape popular culture for decades after his death… you may never look at the zigzag on Charlie Brown’s t-shirt again without remembering that it was Charles Schulz’s tribute to the Navaho designs that recurred in Herriman’s work…” (from the Amazon blurb). I retrieved it from the Auxiliary Library in the barn and started reading it again.
And Herriman drew the cartoons for Archy & Mehitabel (written by Don Marquis):
i have had my ups and downs
but wotthehell wotthehell
yesterday sceptres and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthehell
i wake the world from sleep
as i caper and sing and leap
when i sing my wild free tune
under the blear eyed moon
i am pelted with cast off shoon
but wotthehell wotthehell
An early morning riffle through this week’s New Yorker produces a marvelous collision of Americas. The first is a two-page spread advertisement for Sensei Lānaʻi, a “Four Seasons Resort” which proposes “Elevating Wellness into Wellbeing”:
This is the single most offensive ad I’ve encountered so far this year, and maybe ever. You owe yourself a close reading of the text:
I then turned a couple of pages to arrive at The Talk of the Town, the lead piece of which is Adam Gopnik’s “Fault Lines” which begins
Readers of “Through the Looking-Glass” may recall the plight of the Bread-and-Butterfly, which, as the Gnat explains to Alice, can live only on weak tea with cream in it. “Supposing it couldn’t find any?” Alice asks. “Then it would die, of course,” the Gnat answers. “That must happen very often,” Alice reflects. “It always happens,” the Gnat admits dolefully.
Gopnik goes on to consider America’s current crisis of democracy, and says
The default condition of humankind, traced across thousands of years of history, is some sort of autocracy.
…Keeping a republic is a matter not of preserving it like pickles but of working it like dough—which sounds like something you’d serve alongside very weak tea. But it is the essential diet to feed our democracy if we are to make what always happens, for a little while longer, happily unhappen.
What a juxtaposition: the utter crass ME-ness of Larry Ellison’s Lānaʻi (“Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison bought 98% of the island of Lanai in 2012 for an estimated $300 million…”) with Gopnik’s rendition of our current slide toward the “default condition of humankind.” But Gopnik tells only a part of the story, which includes Lewis Carroll’s discription of the fatal anatomy of the Bread-and-Butterfly:
its wings are thin slices of bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.
Thus, if the Bread-and-Butterfly did find its weak tea with cream, it would die as its head dissolved; if it didn’t find its weak tea with cream, it would starve. The Bread-and-Butterfly is, as Gregory Bateson noted, a classic example of the Double Bind:
the essence of a double bind is two conflicting demands, each on a different logical level, neither of which can be ignored or escaped. This leaves the subject torn both ways, so that whichever demand he or she tries to meet, the other demand cannot be met. “I must do it, but I can’t do it” is a typical description of the double-bind experience.
Hobson’s Choice is another common trope, in which the Choice is between something and nothing. Both are all too present in today’s world.
sustained by belief, ritual, and sacrifice and relies upon the devotion of a group of people, from a small coven to an entire nation, for its existence. An egregore that receives enough sustenance can take on a life of its own, becoming an independent deity with powers its believers can use to further their own spiritual advancement and material desires… provides instructions on how to identify egregores, free yourself from a parasitic and destructive collective entity, and destroy an egregore, should the need arise. Revealing how egregores form the foundation of nearly all human interactions, the author shows how egregores have moved into popular culture and media–underscoring the importance of intense selectivity in the information we accept and the ways we perceive the world and our place in it. (from the Amazon precis)
How very like the ‘Trumpism’ that seems to stalk the land and contribute to that “current crisis of democracy.”