Category Archives: metastuff

rediscovering Montaigne

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:

  1. Q. How to live? A. Don’t worry about death
  2. Q. How to live? A. Pay attention: Starting to write Stream of consciousness
  3. Q. How to live? A. Be born
  4. Q. How to live? A. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
  5. Q. How to live? A. Survive love and loss
  6. Q. How to live? A. Use little tricks
  7. Q. How to live? A. Question everything: All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that
  8. Q. How to live? A. Keep a private room behind the shop
  9. Q. How to live? A. Be convivial: live with others
  10. Q. How to live? A. Wake from the sleep of habit
  11. Q. How to live? A. Live temperately
  12. Q. How to live? A. Guard your humanity
  13. Q. How to live? A. Do something no one has done before
  14. Q. How to live? A. See the world
  15. Q. How to live? A. Do a good job, but not too good a job
  16. Q. How to live? A. Philosophize only by accident
  17. Q. How to live? A. Reflect on everything; regret nothing: Je ne regrette rien
  18. Q. How to live? A. Give up control (Daughter and disciple; The editing wars Montaigne remixed and embabooned)
  19. Q. How to live? A. Be ordinary and imperfect
  20. Q. How to live? A. Let life be its own answer

And those 20 questions are potential fodder for many Convivium Questions.

The iPad Notebook of my highlightings of passages in the Kindle version captures the excitement of this reading, though any number of other stretches of the text could have been included—it’s that provocative a text.

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:

Wikipedia on The Essays

Jane Kramer’s New Yorker profile (Sept 7, 2009 and I recall reading it at the time)

Cotton/Hazlitt 1685/1877 translation of the Essays

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.

Audible reading of Essays

LibriVox reading of Essays

Essays in the Frame translation (1957)

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).

and somehow it’s 2022

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 I’ve revisited Joan Didion and Jorge Luis Borges profitably, and lately discovered Unflattening (Nick Sousanis) and The Secret To Superhuman Strength (Alison Bechdel), among (many) others.

Reacquaintance with Borges reminded me yet again of the charms of his Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, and The Library of Babel (see Jonathan Basile’s obsession: The Library of Babel and about The Library of Babel) … and if the Work itself is unknown to you, there’s a pdf available). Among the additional resources I’m now navigating, The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel (William Goldbloom Bloch) and The Cambridge Companion to Jorge Luis Borges (Edwin Williamson)

…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.

I resolve to start building my very own Lifebox, inspired by Rudy Rucker’s The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, The Meaning of Life, And How to Be Happy. Well, I’ve been building it all along, but the project longs to have its own dedicated (hyper)space.

Metamaunderings at the end of November

Every now and again I write out a metathoughts summary, for my own future edification. I’ve just finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock, which is more or less a speculative fiction take on geoengineering, and have of course been considering the Crises of the era/moment: epidemiological, ecological , climatological, technical, existential, politico-economical, socio-cultural, psychological and so on, the whole litany of -als … which are of course also dynamical, continuing to evolve, and with which we mess at our Peril. But one does wonder about the notion of Fixability.

The basic problem is that there’s nowhere to stick the Lever to alter one parameter without implicating other parameters: everything is joined in, only sometimes simply and obviously—more commonly, indirectly and even mysteriously. And even if one has some such Lever, let alone a place to stand, or a fulcrum…

So you have what we observe as this mysteriously organized Realiity, with vast numbers of internal connections whose dynamics are only imperfectly understood, through which course energy and information. One’s brain is a local manifestation of this architecture of Reality, and there are now billions of [human] brains in operation; but that operation is not upon independent billions, though the mapping of their interconnections and contingencies would be very complex indeed. And there are surely modalities of exchange amongst those brains [and the brains of many more billions of no-longer-extant individuals, not to mention other sentients…] besides the sight-and-sound that are readily perceived.

The Mechanism is … exquisite. And it’s more organic than simply mechanical levers and circuits. The animation is Life, which comes down finally to the processing, the allocation, of Energy, ultimately (?) stellar in origin. But what is it all for? Amusement of the gods, if gods there be?

The User’s Manual for that Reality is continuously edited, mostly in the direction of greater complexity of what we understand (as opposed to simplification).

And what I’m doing these days is spelunking in that grand territory, poking my nose into various corners of that land/thoughtscape to see and hear and touch what there is to be learned, just for the sake of learning’s pleasure and joy. What a gift, and opportunity, to live therein.

Never too far away is the “and so … what?” question, part of the idea that one might have Responsibilities, in the direction of what to do with that learning, beyond the pleasures of basking in it. If I do, I have no idea how to meet or discharge those Responsibilities, and presently find it satisfying to ignore them, or think of them as discharged in years of teaching [which were more years of learning] and librarianship. Am I writing a book? No. Though the 12 Blurb books are surely products of some of my explorations, and my pile of yellow pads tracks the last 3 years or so of adventures.

At the moment, the musical and photographic facets of my enterprises seem to be somewhat in abeyance, but may revive thanks to some nudge—perhaps the just-purchased Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World (Nina Kraus, on Kindle).

Nexial Institute

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 replied

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:

technology
technology

anthropology
anthropology

landscapes
landscapes

information
information

(Those categories are approximate and partial and provisional…)

Equinoctal meta-tation


It’s been a busy fortnight of explorations:

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

  • photography
  • music
  • geography/landscape
  • words
  • The Computer
  • food
  • 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)

Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company

Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia

and so on.

early April

4iv2159x2adj

It’s been quite a month of photographic explorations on the St. George peninsula, with a gallery of Charming Manifestations (constructed near the end of March) and then several more Flickr Albums in the fortnight since.

The sands continue to fascinate:

3iv21015

Rapunzel:
3iv21016

two marvelously lissome dancers
with a portly Easter Bunny supporting:
4iv2108x2adj

and headgear reminiscent of Tenniel’s Duchess:
4iv2110x2adj


I am not much closer to an understanding of the meaning or significance of such legerdemain, but it seems to keep happening will-I-nill-I.

3iv21025x2adj

3iv21032x2adj

Addendum:
This just rolled in and I thought… well, why not? the Veil Nebula as imaged by the Hubble Telescope. I snipped out a portion and did the copy-flip-join thing to produce

Veil Nebula detail mirrored
which clearly shows a red-eyed Elemental (none too pleased, I think) in the center of the image.

Earlier today John-the-son sent a link to a Scientific American article Confirmed! We Live in a Simulation: We must never doubt Elon Musk again (Fouad Khan). The date is April 1, which may or may not be relevant, but here’s a bit of its bite:

Pretty much since the dawn of philosophy we have been asking the question: Why do we need consciousness? What purpose does it serve? Well, the purpose is easy to extrapolate once we concede the simulation hypothesis. Consciousness is an integrated (combining five senses) subjective interface between the self and the rest of the universe. The only reasonable explanation for its existence is that it is there to be an “experience.” That’s its primary raison d’être. Parts of it may or may not provide any kind of evolutionary advantage or other utility. But the sum total of it exists as an experience and hence must have the primary function of being an experience. An experience by itself as a whole is too energy-expensive and information-restrictive to have evolved as an evolutionary advantage.

…There is nothing in philosophy or science, no postulates, theories or laws, that would predict the emergence of this experience we call consciousness. Natural laws do not call for its existence, and it certainly does not seem to offer us any evolutionary advantages. There can only be two explanations for its existence. First is that there are evolutionary forces at work that we don’t know of or haven’t theorized yet that select for the emergence of the experience called consciousness. The second is that the experience is a function we serve, a product that we create, an experience we generate as human beings. Who do we create this product for? How do they receive the output of the qualia generating algorithms that we are? We don’t know. But one thing’s for sure, we do create it. We know it exists. That’s the only thing we can be certain about. And that we don’t have a dominant theory to explain why we need it.

So here we are generating this product called consciousness that we apparently don’t have a use for, that is an experience and hence must serve as an experience. The only logical next step is to surmise that this product serves someone else… The simplest explanation for the existence of consciousness is that it is an experience being created, by our bodies, but not for us. We are qualia-generating machines.

And John’s reply to my querulousness about qualia:

…why dismiss the grindings of imagination? when you tear things apart with symmetry or other challenging art, all kinds of interpretive possibilities suddenly spring up in the observer’s strained mind as it grasps for meaning and sees (for me) a vulture, a jackal, and a beetle stacked totem-wise gazing expectantly. You’ve become expert at tearing apart an image just so that it creates the most potential of interpretation, and another degree or so it would again collapse into baffling noise that is torment to the mind that seeks to grasp at meaning everywhere. And if we’re in a simulation, the possibility that that meaning created might indicate something greater or hidden significance being revealed seems all the more tempting, no? Rather than just flecks of mica rearranged by water.

verbal and visual

A week or so ago, in response to my pants people post, John-the-son asked this question, which I’ve been contemplating ever since:

I’m curious how you observe your thoughts… Like for a complex thought do you have to struggle to transpose it into words because it’s fundamentally an image?

I don’t have the answer to this, but it got me thinking about various domains I have elaborated and how the mind navigates them. How do my thoughts about music, for instance, realize themselves? How much of my anthropological thought is or has been geographic/ecological, couched in terms of numbers and distributions (which seem fundamentally imagistic). And then what of the familiar experience of waking up with words that need to be written down, and that then unfold into texts (these days often on yellow pads, then transferred into .txt files). The process of writing out my wordly thoughts is an essential part of clarifying and then making them distributable: the old “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” keeps coming back, but with that verb see at the core. Evidence again for the visual? But much of my thinking does seem to be verbal, a cascade of words, rather than images that require to be translated into the medium of words in order for them to be expressed, recorded, transmitted, distributed.

My presumption has been that thinking is verbal, and trying to imagine what visual thinking would be like calls upon pattern and form in their visual plumage. And is perhaps exactly what I’m employing as I stalk the spaces at Drift Inn and Marshall Point. There’s little there that seems to express itself verbally—rather, a recognition of a flow of imagery punctuated by non-verbal recognition of creatures, faces, personalities that I can collect without needing to name. A pattern recognized: eyes, noses, mouths, even in their splayed and warped Cubist configuration. And the more I practise, the more easily I resolve the patterns into versions of the face, often calling upon remembered images to help to parse what’s before me.

Surely I do see things in other things; Broot has said that my photographs “make something out of nothing” where hers are more abstractive, and “make nothing out of something.” I spend a lot of every day seeing things that then reside in my imagination, as readings of sensory input.

How to account for the differences in how Broot and I see the contents of my photographs? She ‘sees’ as I do probably less than 1/4 of the time—the creatures are REAL for me, in my imagination, but often they need to be elucidated, in effect drawn out, for her to ‘see’ them. Is this just a matter of practise on my part, or ‘just’ a manifestation of the Blackmer gene for whimsy? And is whimsy a matter of manipulating, of turning up previously hidden/unobserved facets, of turning things inside out, of treating analogies/homologies as if they could be manipulated to have other readings… and is that somehow a visual/imagistic transformation?

And what of Broot’s and Kate’s highly-developed puzzle-making skills (in which I scarcely participate), an exercise in pattern-matching, a quintessence of the visual? The notions of pattern and form have very strong visual components, and are at the core of Broot’s own photography.

It’s interesting that I sometimes have to revolve an image (while processing it) in order to ‘see’ what it contains, which I might or might not have discerned in the original ‘seeing’ that prompted the digital capture/shutter release. And the process of making mirrorings and tessellations is almost entirely a post-processing activity. The thing about mirrorings is that the beings in them don’t exactly exist, but they are nascent and potential in their seed images, and once created they take on a sort of life and identity that arises in the viewer’s imagination: they are synthetic and imaginary, but recognizable as other-dimensional beings who exude personality. And they are mostly looking right at the viewer, daring the viewer to assign character and identity. The paradox that they really are unliving rock (or ice or dead wood, etc.), while appearing to radiate personality or at least personhood, is a conundrum. Mere figments? Or emergent potentials of being?

10iii2133x2adj

The viewer assigns features: that depression is an eye because it looks one of the ways eyes can look. If there’s an eye there may also be a mouth, or an abstraction of mouth-ness; likewise a nose, an ear, a facial contour. The viewer reads the image as if those might-bes really are. There’s so much might-be and could-be, all of it exercises in fitting the perceived with handy templates, many of which are stored-up visual algorithms from a lifetime of image viewing. But how to fit Kian’s 7 1/2 year old view into the calculus? He has the beginnings of image knowledge, and he knows the fundamental eyes-noses-mouth face formula and can apply it wittingly, but he doesn’t have the images of Queen Victoria

5916detail
or Haydn/Bach
10iii2104
or the various Cubist unconstructions, not yet. So his “that’s like…” is in the early stages of accumulative development, and coming along very nicely.

My own highly-elaborated visual memory is a resource for naming images (often whimsically) with what I see, viz: the ‘nesting pair’ of long-billed creatures in this image:

11iii21011


Or consider the Cheshire Cat, in several manifestations:

7iii2158

10iii2140

23ii2104

DriftInn30xii48

Driveway ice

A skim of morning ice is the acme of ephemerality, catch it while you can. Here’s what I found soon after sunrise today:


28ii2105

My first thought was a mirroring, and it’s a nice enough image,
with the expected array of creatures:

28ii2105x2adj

And then I saw the familiar illusion in the northwest corner:

28ii2105crop



So how did it get there? Or was it even ever there, or was it just in my Mind’s Eye? Where did it go? Non-trivial questions.

And a bit later I discovered this in the southern end of the original image:

28ii2105crop2

The jury is still out on what it is, though I’m tempted to see it as a 1950s hood ornament.

Updates and evolutions

I just remembered another verse of Ken Stallcup’s wonderful anthropologist/linguist song, cited in a post last April and now updated with the missing bits included.


*****

But today’s post really has to do with a succession of images emerging from an original capture yesterday at Drift Inn. The raw version as it came from the camera (a broken fragment of sea ice floating above sand):

and as adjusted (vibrancy, clarity, sharpness) and uploaded to Flickr:
12ii21045

and then I saw a figure within the original, and cropped and rotated:

and eventually with minor adjustments it resolved to this:
5209cropadj

And then I wondered about that baleful yellow eye at the top, and did the by-now-familiar copy-flip-join to produce a mirror image:

13ii2104

And while we’re considering the experimental, a new perspective arrived yesterday in the form of a 10 mm fisheye lens that has no very serious purpose (or not yet, anyway) but does that thing of making me think differently about what I see via the medium of the camera. Among the experiments I tried was this:

meta

Now, that’s all very meta: a photograph of a photograph, and probably of no consequence… but another example of where the feet wander as one stumbles from thing to thing.

One more image from that lens, which has pretty startling quality for not much $$:

13ii2101
(click on that image to zoom in, and then click again…)

self/no-self

“I” (me, my, etc.) figures prominently in this blog and in the thinking that precedes the construction of an entry. This seems a fact to acknowledge, rather than a failing to expunge or an error to vitiate, and reflects the personal nature of its contents, which emerge as a catalog of mental states and doings and projects, mostly quotidian and only occasionally nudging into territory of the sublime or transcendent. The author is no Bodhisattva:

no Bodhisattva who is a real Bodhisattva cherishes the idea of an ego-identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality

as Dr. W.Y. Evans-Wentz puts it in his Foreword to the Shambhala 1969 version of The Diamond Sutra.

My citation of Minor White’s dictum

The photographer projects himself
into everything he sees,
identifying himself with
everything
in order to know and feel it better

All photographs are
self-portraits.

(which ended a post that followed a post on the Dude abiding, which itself harked back to discussion of the Convivial question of the previous week…) evinced this response from one of my Convivial interlocutors:

Which raises the question of the “self” if every _______ is a self-portrait. Assuming, of course, that there is a self. Or are there more than one “selves?” Nobody seems to agree on any of these possibilities.

Hm. I thought. Well, I’m a self, conscious of constructing myself over a lifetime, in continuing inner dialog that continues to be constructive, and aware that sometime it will all cease. But meanwhile it’s not an illusion, but rather a performance space in which various plays are enacted, alone and with others. I can be self-critical, self-absorbed, self-centered, self-involved… but those are choices made. I can also attend to the broader performances outside my own little theater of the mind, and choose to participate, or not. Choose to display and communicate, or not. Have close alliances with others, or not. Engage with external stimuli and events, or not. That choosing is done from within the wheelhouse of the mind, where attention may be directed as I choose.

And what’s the point of it all? It’s continuously interesting as a story with episodic complexities and pleasures/gratifications. My own performance space is happy, untrammeled, little bothered by slings and arrows of tragedy, suffering, dissatisfaction. In short, felicitous. Just why and how I’m not sure, perhaps more by “luck” and ultimately chance of the initial draw than by any inherent virtue, or any karmic head start.

I am at home in the Sensorium, attentive to Umwelt. The Dude abides.

I can imagine that there might not be “an ego identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality” just as I can imagine breathing into my toes, shoulder blades, etc., or that the rocks are peopled. It’s the imagining in which I take refuge.

All of that stuff emerges in the contemporaneous context of reading Madeleine Thien’s Poems Without an ‘I’ in the October 8th issue of NYRB, a review of 3 books on classical Chinese poetry, a subject in which I didn’t know I was interested. She avers that “The essential experience of Chinese poetry is all but untranslatable” (which set off a kerfuffle among linguists) and continues

the dimensionality of the Chinese writing system itself is akin to a forest we walk through (where the trees keep grouping and regrouping as we move among them), rather than a series of twigs arranged on a surface. Cheng observes that the writing system “has refused to be simply a support for the spoken language: its development has been characterized by a constant struggle to assure for itself both autonomy and freedom of combination.” To add to the constellations of meaning within any given poem, the disciplines of poetry, calligraphy, and painting are not considered distinct but rather facets of a single complete art.

Hinton notes that the Chinese language is not constructed around “a center of identity”; each time we see an “I” in a translation of Tang poetry, it was almost certainly not in the original text. Chinese grammar—a genderless and verb-tense-less system in which past, present, and future are inferred by context—allows for a complex blurring of subjectivities, which is not just a side effect but a fundamental aspect of the language. In Chinese poetry, fiction, and philosophy, the “I” is not the nerve center from which thought and knowledge begin.

The whole business of translation has amused me ever since high school Latin, and Thien’s characterization of David Hinton’s approach is elegant:

Hinton’s translations have always gone against the grain. He has been building, translation by translation, an English language for a Chinese conceptual world. His versions get closest to what makes Du Fu sublime for Chinese readers. He isn’t afraid to baffle us; the gaps remind us that we are only guests here, and that the poems do—indeed should—hover a bit beyond our grasp.

So does all this sort out the self/no-self question? Um, no, but it surely puts me on one side of the chasm.