Laughter

the human race has one really effective weapon


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Stephen King in The Paris Review, 2006

A great long read from Paris Review’s “The Art of Fiction” series. Check it out here.

INTERVIEWER

Cujo is unusual in that the entire novel is a single chapter. Did you plan that from the start?

KING

No, Cujo was a standard novel in chapters when it was created. But I can remember thinking that I wanted the book to feel like a brick that was heaved through your window at you. I’ve always thought that the sort of book that I do—and I’ve got enough ego to think that every novelist should do this—should be a kind of personal assault. It ought to be somebody lunging right across the table and grabbing you and messing you up. It should get in your face. It should upset you, disturb you. And not just because you get grossed out. I mean, if I get a letter from somebody saying, I couldn’t eat my dinner, my attitude is, Terrific!

INTERVIEWER

What do you think it is that we’re afraid of?

KING

I don’t think there’s anything that I’m not afraid of, on some level. But if you mean, What are we afraid of, as humans? Chaos. The outsider. We’re afraid of change. We’re afraid of disruption, and that is what I’m interested in. I mean, there are a lot of people whose writing I really love—one of them is the American poet Philip Booth—who write about ordinary life straight up, but I just can’t do that.

I once wrote a short novel called “The Mist.” It’s about this mist that rolls in and covers a town, and the story follows a number of people who are trapped in a supermarket. There’s a woman in the checkout line who’s got this box of mushrooms. When she walks to the window to see the mist coming in, the manager takes them from her. And she tells him, “Give me back my mushies.”

We’re terrified of disruption. We’re afraid that somebody’s going to steal our mushrooms in the checkout line.


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“Anyone who doesn’t believe in you and your future, to hell with them”

Lots of great anecdotes, quotes, and writing advice from Ray Bradbury, lifted from this post at Tor.com. The below video includes a whole host of books and writers to check out, and some surprising insights into Bradbury’s mind (“Writing is not a serious business!” and “I don’t write things to benefit the world”). Just make sure to ignore the bit about modern poetry.


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Quote of the Day: “Why are beggars despised?”

Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised? – for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except ‘Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it’? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately.

A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living, like other business men, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.

George Orwell, from Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)


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“The Very Best Thing in All this World”

twain_tesla_labThe following is from Mark Twain’s short story “Luck,” first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1891.

Just to provide a little context, the story begins at a banquet in London, where a war hero, alias Arthur Scoresby, is being honored for his bravery and intelligence in battle. His renown is so great that he is described as a “demigod” unconscious of the “sincere worship” lavished upon him by the military and the public alike.  During the ceremony, a clergyman leans over to the narrator and informs him that Scoresby is, in reality, “an absolute fool.” As proof, the clergyman offers up an account of his time in the military, where he served as Scoresby’s tutor and unwitting accomplice. Right at the end of the story, we get this brilliant and bitter summary of Scoresby’s success.  It made my morning commute through the snow a bit more tolerable:

He is just as good and sweet and lovable and unpretending as a man can be, but he doesn’t know enough to come in when it rains. Now that is absolutely true. He is the supremest ass in the universe; and until half an hour ago nobody knew it but himself and me. He has been pursued, day by day and year by year, by a most phenomenal and astonishing luckiness. He has been a shining soldier in all our wars for a generation; he has littered his whole military life with blunders, and yet has never committed one that didn’t make him a knight or a baronet or a lord or something. Look at his breast; why, he is just clothed in domestic and foreign decorations. Well, sir, every one of them is the record of some shouting stupidity or other; and taken together, they are proof that the very best thing in all this world that can befall a man is to be born lucky.


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“Contact! Contact!”

detail from Robert Rauschenberg's "Mother of God" (ca. 1950)

detail from Robert Rauschenberg’s “Mother of God” (ca. 1950)

Henry David Thoreau, from The Maine Woods:

What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star’s surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one—that my body might— but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?

This little passage caught me off guard. You can almost feel Thoreau trembling a little when he writes “Contact! Contact!” Almost as if his heart is breaking at the idea. Or maybe that’s just a modern reading of it—contact can sometimes feel like a miracle.


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“Perhaps they don’t know what sex is either.”

nabokov_at_workI started reading Lolita for the first time over the weekend. I can’t remember the last time an opening passage left such an impression on me:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

I love that parade of hard T’s in the third sentence and the way Nabokov breaks her name into syllables. I speak like that sometimes, when I’m having fun: Na. Bo. Kov. We hear sounds like these all of the time but rarely slow down to appreciate them.

Before I even opened the book, my impression of Lolita was well formed. Probably too well formed. Critics called it erotica, pornography, and trash. I understood it to be primarily about sex and hebephilia. It was banned in the United Kingdom and France for a short time, and banned books emit a particular aura, especially when their topics are taboo.

Thanks to this book the name Lolita is practically synonymous with perversion. Yet it ranked fourth on Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list and is widely considered a classic of the English language. Speaking to the BBC in 1962, Nabokov said “Lolita is a special favorite of mine. It was my most difficult book—the book that treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real.”

With that in mind, I went to Youtube this evening looking for an interview with Nabokov about the book and found this two-part video from CBC’s “Close-Up” television program. Vladimir spoils a plot point or two during the conversation, so consider yourself warned, but I think it is worth watching because he goes into some detail about how he views his work.

Sex and destructive obsessions are discussed, and Nabokov does not dispute their presence in the novel, but he spends much more time emphasizing love, passion, and tragedy. Responding to the sexual scandal surrounding the book, he says, “If sex, you see, is the servant maid of art, love is the lady of that tower.” The topic shifts away from perversion and toward our perceptions as he asks us to consider how we define sex and love, and whether we can tell the difference. A lot of remarkable things are said at the end of the interview, so be sure to watch all the way through:


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Kafka, the Pugilist

kafka_book_cover

I first read The Metamorphosis when I was 18—maybe 19—after it was recommended to me by my dad. I remember thinking it was a strange science fiction story. Completely unlike the Asimov and Clarke I knew. I registered that there was more going on in it than I could understand and I made a resolution to come back to it eventually. That never happened, at least not for a long time. A couple years later, I read In the Penal Colony when a friend of mine gave me a photocopy he’d made at the library, but my impression of it was quickly obscured and smoothed out by the many other books I was reading at the time. I essentially missed Kafka while in college.

And then, last month, a random conversation on an Internet message board reminded me of him. Now I find myself wrestling with A Country Doctor, the second collection of Kafka’s short stories published during his lifetime. After reading The Judgment and The Metamorphosis, it feels like catching a hard right hook to the jaw. The Metamorphosis eats at you page by page; you can watch it work on your soul and on your spirits; watching it makes it somehow easier. The conclusion doesn’t shock, there aren’t any twists or sudden turns, but it wears you down. At some point, you become Gregor Samsa and the world gets that much dimmer. The Judgment catches you off guard and steals a bit of your breath; it hits hard, but the conclusion is absurd, even to the point of being funny.

The stories in A Country Doctor, on the other hand, are taut, tough, and unforgiving. They jab, dodge, fake left, swing right, and crush. They’re bloody and a little ugly, and I’m left wondering how I am supposed to keep up. A story like “The Cares of a Family Man” isn’t even two pages, but it contains so many ideas that interpreting it looks impossible. It’s compact and muscular and if there is a touch of humor there, it’s camouflaged.

How to approach these stories then? Merely reading them gets me nowhere. I have to do more; come back swinging; get into shape and learn the footwork; I have to laugh off blows and toughen up; get bruised. In terms of reading and writing, that means doing the job of interpretation myself.

It’s temping to look for answers from scholars who have spent lots of time reading and studying Kafka’s life and works. Knowing how other readers have responded to him helps. Context helps. So does taking the chance on a personal encounter with his stories. I take comfort in the idea that Kafka can’t be interpreted. That I have to take from him whatever I can glean, and that if there is someone or something behind the text, something fixed and waiting to be found, it is a total secret impossible to penetrate.

I found the following quote while browsing different essays on Kafka. It reinforced this idea of Kafka as a pugilist for me, as somebody I have to fight directly, not vicariously. It’s from a letter written in 1904 to Oskar Pollak, one of Kafka’s classmates at the Altstädter Gymnasium:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

Wounded is a great way to describe how I feel after reading some of these stories. Especially the end of “An Old Manuscript.” Kafka describes an alien presence in an unnamed city; armed soldiers that steal and threaten violence; a cowardly defense force; animals eating other animals from starvation; nomads gnawing on bones and consuming raw flesh; and then a conclusion that falls like a blow to the gut:

“What is going to happen?” we all ask ourselves. “How long can we endure this burden and torment? The Emperor’s palace has drawn the nomads here but does not know how to drive them away again. The gate stays shut; the guards, who used to be always marching out and in with ceremony, keep close behind barred windows. It is left to us artisans and tradesmen to save our country; but we are not equal to such a task; nor have we ever claimed to be capable of it. This is a misunderstanding of some kind; and it will be the ruin of us.” (Willa and Edwin Muir translation)

Everyone knows Kafka’s a writer. He’s also a boxer. I can’t always see what he’s fighting with, but sometimes I catch one of his punches and it sends me reeling.

small portrait of Nietzsche from Wikipedia


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Nietzsche Contra Science, Part I

blackboard with equations

Two weeks back I finished reading Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. As I read it, I was happy to find all the critical remarks Nietzsche makes about science, especially its relation to interpretation and truth. I’d forgotten about these comments in the nearly ten year break I’d taken from reading his work and the few memories I had left were of the “God is dead” variety. So it was with surprise that I found an already cleared path on which I could test some of my suspicions about the limits of science and its interpretive scope. My interest in this topic stems both from Nietzsche and from authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who I take to be very popular and of the opinion that scientific conclusions are both more true and more valuable than other truths, like those we find professed by various religions.

This post is not meant to be a refutation of their positions, however, and it’s not necessarily an endorsement of Nietzsche’s views either. The following commentary is just a series of notes, clarifications, reactions, and various suspicions aroused by Nietzsche’s attacks on science in Beyond Good and Evil. I hope to write further posts like this one, probably in short installments that will focus on just a few sections at a time. My aims are to clarify his positions for myself and to test some of my own thoughts on the subject. For the record, I read this Cambridge University Press edition, translated by Judith Norman.

Nietzsche begins his book with a brief but striking—and infamous—introduction. “Suppose that truth is a woman — and why not? Aren’t there reasons for suspecting that all philosophers, to the extent that they have been dogmatists, have not really understood women?… What is certain is that she has spurned them…”

Philosophers seek the truth and are turned away again and again. This is the idea he wants you to consider from the start. No matter how passionate the pursuit, philosophy is doomed to a life of unrequited love. But Nietzsche’s not just having fun at our expense. He continues, questioning why we seek truth in the first place and not something else. Nietzsche asks, “What in us really wills the truth? … why not untruth instead? And uncertainty? Even ignorance? The problem of the value of truth came before us, — or was it we who came before the problem?” (§1).

His answer is, in part, that individuals will a truth suitable to their own needs and personalities. In section five he writes, “[Philosophers] act as if they had discovered and arrived at their genuine convictions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely insouciant dialectic… while what essentially happens is that they take a conjecture, a whim, an ‘inspiration’ or, more typically, they take some fervent wish that they have sifted through and made properly abstract — and they defend it with rationalizations after the fact. They are all advocates who do not want to be seen as such.” We desire the truth in order to rationalize our beliefs, ideas, and actions. There’s none of the noble or heroic ideals about finding truth because it is the highest or best thing in life. At least, not here. What matters instead is the psychological element. Truth is a mutable thing, bent and sculpted into different shapes by different people with different purposes.

Nietzsche cuts even further into the idea of a firm and unchanging truth by attacking the idea of a “thing-in-itself”.  First he considers what it means for there to be a “thing-in-itself,” then he makes an important distinction between the value of truth and the nature of truth. As far as the “thing-in-itself” goes, Nietzsche associates it with a tendency to divide the world into pairs of opposites. He states, “The fundamental belief of metaphysicians is the belief in oppositions of values. It has not occurred to them to start doubting right here at the threshold, where it is actually needed the most, even though they had vowed to themselves ‘de omnibus dubitandum’ (§2).

What does he mean by opposition of values?

I’ll use moral values to help figure that out. If we jump ahead to section 44, we find Nietzsche proposing that humanity’s worst qualitiesour disposition to violence, deception, even slaveryare valuable for human life. Maybe even more valuable than qualities like selflessness and honesty. Someone who isn’t too cynical might ask how that could be. Lying and selfishness are typically categorized as destructive or negative traits, selflessness and honesty as positive ones. Every kid knows that lying might help in a pinch, but that it can also come back to bite you in the ass. Selfishness is worse. We associate that with narcissism, parsimony, greed, and other reprehensible traits. So what could Nietzsche mean when he claims that even tyranny could be good for humanity?

We might think that he means “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” and I think that’s at least partly right. But this isn’t just a matter of casting a positive light on difficult times. Nietzsche goes further.

In order to think of something as inherently good or inherently bad, in order for us  to think of paired oppositeslike self-interest/selflessness, deception/honestyas opposite, it’s necessary for us to think of them as fixed concepts. If self-interest and selflessness were at all confused or muddled together, were we to find even the hint of one in the other, then the opposition they represent would fall apart. Think God’s laws as they appear in the Old Testament: they’re firm, clear, and distinct. They stand in clear opposition to other laws or rules we might formulate like “only the strong survive” or “jealousy is the sign of a healthy appetite.”

The problem is that the world we’re familiar with, the one made up of jobs and families, of social circles and private thoughts, is always in flux. Knowledge, on the other hand, is supposed to be fixed and unassailable. Because of this, a space opens up between the world and the knowledge that is supposed to help us move through it. Moral laws like “don’t kill,” or even physical descriptions, like general relativity, are the kinds of things we expect to stay the same no matter what the case. But when we look around the world we find that there isn’t much that’s standing still. Everything is constantly changing, from the global level right down to the atomic.

This is, I think, at the root of Nietzsche’s attack on both philosophy and science. Both hope to describe or explain the world in fixed terms and, what’s more, they hope to show that their descriptions and explanations constitute the truth, exclusive of other explanations.

But Nietzsche’s claim isn’t that these explanations and descriptions are just false; it’s not that we have the wrong moral laws or bad physical descriptions and need to change them. His claim is that all truths derive their strength from a lie about the existence of opposites. So what if selflessness turned out to be the product of a twisted self-interest? What if truth were possible only because of a lie? What if the philosopher and the scientist didn’t find truth so much as construct it with bits and pieces of fiction?

Nietzsche makes that claim in section four:

§ 4

We do not consider the falsity of a judgement as itself an objection to a judgement; this is perhaps where our new language will sound most foreign. The question is how far the judgement promotes and preserves life, how well it preserves, and perhaps even cultivates, the type. And we are fundamentally inclined to claim that the falsest judgments (which include synthetic judgments a priori) are the most indispensable to us, and that without accepting the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the wholly invented world of the unconditioned and self-identical, without a constant falsification of the world through numbers, people could not live—that a renunciation of false judgments would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life…

Just like most philosophy, science seeks absolute truth. Reproducible results, precise measurements, rigorous logic, the elimination of doubts and of superstitions, unconditional results—these are its hallmarks. Nietzsche seeks truth too, thinks truth is even necessary for life, but his contention is that no truth is unconditioned, which is to say that absolute truths are useful myths.

There’s a lot to unpack in that section, but what I notice first is the way Nietzsche frames his discussion. The promotion and preservation of life usurps everything else. If a perceived truth proves somehow fatal for life—a term Nietzsche will develop throughout the text—if it threatens the health of humanity as a species, then he will denounce it, preferring a falsification that yields vigor, strength, enthusiasm, originality. Nietzsche constantly elevates these kinds of athletic and artistic qualities above the more traditional ones, shifting the philosophical discourse from a desire for truth to a desire for cultivation, strength, and individuality.

This is a major shift, and it entails a deeper corollary: that all so-called truths are actually falsifications in disguise. So it’s not as if philosophers and scientists, through deeper thinking or scientific method, can discover more certain truths and discard the less certain ones. Re-read that section. All logic is a fiction. Apparently unconditioned truths are inventions—even numbers get tossed under the bus.

Consequently, calling any kind of information the truth is meaningless, because even if a particular truth is a functioning, life-affirming one, it’s still also a lie. Nietzsche’s suspicions about the “opposition of values” extends that far.  True and false—no two things could appear more distinct, but here Nietzsche draws them closer, asking what if?

Well, what if all oppositions are illusions? What if all knowledge is built on a lie? What does that mean for philosophy and science?

One of science’s great seductions is that it works. It’s produced penicillin and manufactured jet engines, explained the motions of the stars and described the variety of life on this planet; it shot man into space and made photographing Saturn’s moons possible. How could something that so plainly works be the product of falsification and fabrication? Nietzsche’s contention that some truth could be unappealing or even life-defeating isn’t unusual and it isn’t contradictory. We’ve all heard that “the truth hurts” and anyone who thinks about it long enough might question whether science, as technology, has had a positive or a negative effect on humankind.

To think that Nietzsche would deny the practical results of good engineering, however, seems somehow crazier.

At least, crazier at first glance. When I think about it, I can imagine a scientific explanation that produces practical results, but does not produce an unconditional, universal truth. Modern medicine, for instance, has made it possible to treat illnesses that were once impossible to treat, and this because it has access to more information about what causes illness, how chemicals react in the body, how cells mutate, and so on. Treat the right cause and the effect disappears.

But does this mean that the practice of medicine—and all the associated research—has unearthed some fundamental and unconditional truth?—about biology, chemistry, compounds, atomic elements? Or has it added just another descriptive level to an already complex nexus of data and events that includes everything from feelings of illness to social stigmas about the sick? That one cure works and another doesn’t… that anything works while another doesn’t—is that enough to claim sole ownership of the truth?

The more I consider that possibility, the more ludicrous it becomes. That view reduces truth to a game of identifying causes and predicting effects. We take the predictive power of science to be an indication that we’ve understood something fundamental about a particular subject, which may be true.  But then we extrapolate on that indication and apply the lessons we’ve learned in one subject to numerous other subjects. By that means, we make conclusions about the existence of God using the laws of physics, or we model our understanding of societies on models of the atom. And by this I don’t just mean that we use images from one field to help describe ideas in another. I mean that we take the physical description of the universe as being the fundamental, all-encompassing description over and above all others merely because the physical description produces empirical results that we can measure and use for our own satisfaction. 

And satisfaction is exactly where this post started. “They are all advocates who do not want to be seen as such.” They might be philosophers, artists, or scientists. No matter who proposes it, we can see here how a truth might be built on a lie. Why should we presume that the physical model of the universe is sufficient for describing all phenomena? What rationale do we have for applying the lessons of one science to the questions of another? Is it a lie that such a leap is even possible? Could cause and effect itself be a lie? As a side note, that something good and true could be founded on a lie isn’t an idea original to Nietzsche. Plato either wrote or recorded such an idea roughly 2000 years earlier, in Book Three of The Republic.

I can hear someone asking, “What other kinds of truth, beside the scientific, might there be?” Religious and cultural truths are the first that come to mind. They are not without their own rationale, and some are even based on simplistic empirical observations. Philosophy produces its own truth too. Within it there are many different perspectives about what constitutes truth and even some dispute about whether or not the truth—along with virtue—is something we can learn.

In my next post I plan to look at section 21 and the way it connects with Nietzsche’s view of nature, which is basically that it is unlawful and without order. He calls it “profligate without measure.” His contention in that section, that the notion of cause and effect is itself a convenient fiction, tosses science, along with philosophy, into an even deeper mire.

(Please leave comments if you’ve found this even remotely helpful, or if you think I’ve gotten something terribly wrong. My intent in writing these is not to pontificate, but to work through the book actively.)