Saturday, September 28, 2019

Can We Learn From Fiction: Some Back And Forth


I was sceptical of the idea that there was a significant relationship between fictions and faith, but now I might agree.  I believe we do not learn anything from fictions, from Antony and Cleopatra or Madame Bovary. Nor from TV soap operas or Harelequin romances.  Many works are didactic and intend to teach, but there it is clear what and how they teach.  The work illustrates the idea to be taught.  I don't think it makes what is taught true, just illustrates a truth already known, like Plato's Cave Allegory.  However, great works offer an intense experience, and that makes us believe that behind it there is something deep, significant.    That is what happens  I would guess in ritual dances and singing, during the mass, in hymn singing, etc.  They offer an experience that transcends one's self.  Mystics have other ways of doing it, but the result is the same, a sense of transcendence.  


A few points:

Didactic works apart, works of literature do teach us various kinds of things. Take Huck Finn, for example. Among others things, we learn about social formation as we see how Huck’s surroundings impinge on him so decisively; and another one we learn is about the contrast between a kind of isolated purity against corrupt and corrupting deeply embedded social convention that exerts such powerful formative influence; and, too, we learn how a society can be marked lousy by its deepest pervasive rot. Multiply these kinds of lessons by every worthwhile piece of fiction and drama and poem ever written, long and short, and lo and behold, learning galore. Contrary to what you say, as I take it.

Another thing we can learn from is the recreation of common scenes, as in visual art, so that we understand in them in new and vivid ways and keep for as long we have memory, like Wordsworth’s wandering lonely as a cloud, and then seeing a field of daffodils, or Milton’s “still doth sway” as a way of seeing motion in rootedness, or Stevens’s depiction of a bare wintry scene. Multiply these recreations of common scenes by every recreation in every worthwhile poem and every worthwhile piece of prose. And, you guessed it, learning galore.

And all this learning is without mentioning the ideas lurking within these recreations when they’re there. From the plainest single insight to entire cosmic systems such as Blake’s transvaluation of Christian values. 

That is all on top of, or, rather, the culmination of, the intense experiences of which you speak as we try to think through what they mean.

Another point applies both to didactic and non didactic works: we, in the way I’m arguing for what constitutes learning from literature, always learn something new from both types of work. Every exemplum of some common sense point—“haste make waste,” “look before you leap,” “slow and steady wins the race”—teaches us something new, adds texture and depth to the point. Similarly but exponentially richer and more complex is that kind of learning from worthwhile works.

So all of that takes me to your final point, faith and fiction, as I have it. As I have it, the sense that we’re in the presence of something deeply significant when literature has provided us with an intense experience, that sense is a matter of belief hence faith. And people have, you suggest, a similar sense, intuition?, when they’re in the midst of some deep going ritual related to their faith or related to their belief, their faith that is to say, in something beyond themselves. 

If I have that right, I, for one, discount any such significant relationship. My main reason is that being in the midst of such rituals comprises a, so to say, letting go of intellect and subordinating it to an emotional immersion, something shot through with faith from first to last. That exercise in faith doesn’t in the nature of things raise up reflection about it. 

That faith, like The Dude, abides. 

In reading great works, however, under the umbrella of our “suspension of disbelief” there are number of differentiations from ritual immersion. 

One is that in reading we’re not throwing the entirely of our beings into something in a way that suppresses our intellect.

Another is that in reading, something dialectical is going on, an evolving synthesis between what we’re imaginatively taking for granted and between our rational assessment of what we’re reading every step of the way. For it’s only that that allows us to emerge, as we invariably do, from what we’ve read with a critical assessment of it.

Still another is that that assessment involves a comparison between what we’ve read and what life is like, whereas immersive experience does not involve that comparison at all.

An iteration or supplement to that last point is, as I’ve suggested, that immersive involvement in rituals pointing and connecting adherents to the believed-in transcendent does not invite reflection on the experience, while the intense experience gotten from reading, a different order of intense experience btw, invariably invites such reflection: it’s institutionalized in a machinery that encompasses a spectrum ranging from book reviewing to the entirety of the academic discipline of literature. 

Of course, the most obvious difference is that the religious hold that that what they believe in is true. Literature readers know that what they’re reading isn’t. 

There are many such notable markers of difference but I’ll just mention one more: the faiths are qualitatively different. Religious faith underlies, pervades and informs the rituals that point and connect believers to the divine. The faith you speak of in the reading great literature is much thinner and immensely less significant. It’s our intuition, belief, in a word faith—stipulating to your characterization for argument’s sake—that because we’ve had an intense reaction to what we’ve read there must be something deep and significant “behind it”—your words.


You didn't know before you read Huck Finn that "surroundings impinge . . . decisively" on people?  But of course I know that is not what you said---somehow.  

Plato knew it.  In a late book of Republic he has a brilliant chapter on how certain kinds of societies (aristocratic, democratic, oligarchic) produce different kinds of people.  And that idea is one of the dominant ideas of our age, culture shapes people.  Reading Huck Finn you recognize that Huck is being shaped, you don't learn it and you respond emotionally to the particulars of his fate,  


Learn, recognize—you’re splitting semantic hairs and not understanding me.

What I learn from Huck Finn, among many, many other things, is something I didn’t know before, an example of how that boy could be deformed in those social circumstances and how he could be reformed being away from them and in another set of circumstances, namely on the raft with Jim, and then again deformed. What I learned in reading that, then thinking about it and coming to some judgments about it, I took with me to the world. And some bland, bare notion of how convention affects us, how our environments affects us, got brilliant depth and texture in filling in that bare notion. If that’s not learning something, being taught something, then I have to wonder what as a prof you were doing in front of a classrooms all those years. 

And another obvious thing: Huck Finn is a thing in the world—like a rock or a bird or a bacteria—and I learned about it, something I’d never known till I read it. And that surely is learning about the world. 

So, in sum, I leaned more and something new about the world in virtue of simply experiencing the book, and in doing that I learned all kinds of things, such as I have mentioned, that the book has to teach me. 

Not for nothing was I instructed and delighted.

Monday, September 23, 2019

A Dead End In An Analysis Of Postmodernism’s Dead End

First this:

Now me:

I was enthusiastically with Werner up to the end of his dismantling Foucault:

…”discursive formation,” which is defined as the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and possibly formalized systems…

My thought on reading this was that just as words stretched beyond their usual discrete meanings, say “racism,” become vacuous, so too do conceptions like “the total set of relations.”

And then Werner hammers the Foucault nail on its head so as to drive it into incoherence insofar as Foucault purports to give an ultimate account of how things are:

…To the extent that individuals and groups of people generate particular perspectives of the truth, Foucault was right. But the postmodern idea that there is “no underlying meaning” in the world apart from what people may produce is nonsense. That a certain perspective is exclusive and hinders access to other ideas is a comment on the limitations of the perspective, not on the degree to which truth can be known and shared…

The only real query I recall up to this point in the essay is: what does Werner mean by “the rhetorical approach to language” in teaching poetry? Does he mean something like the New Criticism or something like the techniques of rhetoric as “one of the three ancient arts of discourse” or something else? But that unclarity didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for what I was reading.

And his theme became well settled in my mind, that the particular shorn of the universal is ultimately and dangerously limiting, that there is underlying objective truth not bound by its particular circumstances, science and its method being the search for it.

But after Werner’s nice putting away of Foucault, his essay began eating too many calories and flab set in. To my mind, the flab has two distinct folds that hang over the lost leanness.

The first is, may I say, rhetorical. Which is to say, we get the basic idea. How many times and in how many different ways need it be repeated?

The second is substantive and an abiding unresolved tension marks it. In all the endless repetition of his theme, Werner with what he characterizes as universal ironically parallels his complaint about the particular shorn short of the universal. As the latter finally becomes meaningless, a wretched relativism, then too identifying a grand theme that can be the measure of all else itself becomes vacuous by deemphasizing the particular. For example:

…”My contention is that Darwinian evolutionary theory offers the truest basis with which to deal with the perils and opportunities of being human, as that awareness affects not only our work as teachers and scholars, but also our relationship with the nature which binds us to life on this decreasingly commodious sphere”…

Werner quotes Glen Love as to the above and says “his argument is my own.”

What can these airy words mean, however nice they sound? No one sensible will deny that our goal is to live safely, happily and securely in a safe, secure physical and human world. But with which specific conflicting approaches, conflicting policies, conflicting theories, theories, conflicting data, conflicting interests and so on do we go forward; by what criteria do we judge them; how do we even decide on those criteria? And so on.

These questions take us back to all the roiling that marks all of human life over time. Foucault saw a universality in particularity, was strongly telling in his analysis of power as determinant in human relations but ran into a brick wall in making particularity his universal and giving foundational premises to the Postmodernism against which Werner rightly inveighs. But, big but, Werner, as do others with like pleas, errs in asserting a universal without giving sufficient heed to the particular, such that in the way he frames his desideratum, he begs entirely the question of what is to be done.

In short, the universal and the particular are always in fraught and dynamic tension. Neither has meaning without the other.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Some Back And Forth On Justin Trudeau’s Brown/Black Face

First my email to a journalist:


I read your today’s column about this.

I have a different take wrapped in a tweet:

...3 images emerge, decades old: Trudeau in brown & black face.

He’s contrite, trims some: they all do.

The Canadian clerisy goes mad.

Spittle off frenzied tsk tsking streams down their wagging chins.

Calls for resignation abound.

Canadian moral puerility at its highest/lowest...

Then J:

Respectfully, your email misses the following important points. Firstly, Trudeau has made a career out of his anti-racist sentiments, only now to be shown up to be, if perhaps not exactly a racist, then someone who as an adult (he was 29 and a teacher when he decided to go all brownface) was remarkably tone deaf about racism-how can anyone seriously suggest (as he has) that he didn’t know when he dressed up in 2001 in brownface that doing so was something that a professed anti-racist like himself would never think of doing. Pure nonsense. Secondly, for the past few weeks, the Liberals generally and Trudeau particularly have weaponized against the Tories every controversial statement or act which any of them may have been responsible for in the past e.g. Scheer’s comments in 2005 that he was opposed to abortion which Trudeau and the Liberals went nuts about. It’s Trudeau’s hypocrisy which is enraging for an example of someone thusly enraged.

Then me back to J:

Thanks for your thoughtful, well expressed points.

I agree with your second point in principle. And if a less emoting X had tempered their obvious rage—never, for example, missing an opportunity to take an irrelevant shot with loaded language: ”—and had made the hypocrisy the focus of their piece as qualified with the recognitions among others that:
hypocrisy is a key ingredient in the life blood of Canadian politics, especially in this cultural moment of pervasive outrage;

the lapse of two decades attenuates the force of such wrong doing as attributable to Trudeau, not to omit to mention the fact of his other two instances dating to when he was in high school;

for the last two decades, as you note, he’s been, at a minimum, at the very least rhetorically unremitting in inveighing against racism;

he’s contrite and labeled what he did as racist, without contextualizing it or explaining it away or rationalizing it;

all politicians worth their salt will craft and trim their apologies/admissions using carefully selected and discriminating language and that not to understand that is naive, airy and maybe self righteous;  

then X would have written an infinitely better piece that might have had force and stern firmness rather than their over the top rectitude that betrays their hatred of Trudeau. Every so often their inclination to outrage gets the better of their journalism.

On your first point, I’m entirely unpersuaded. More, I think you’re flat wrong. To think that a decades old photo of Trudeau wearing an ancient Middle East folk tale, Arabian Nights Aladin face, and some inane blackface stuff that he did when was in high school, high school for God’s sake, mark him as effectively a racist or a quasi or closeted or semi or virtual racist is, equally respectfully, bonkers and a terrible instance of presentism. It’s the imposition of the worst of our preachy, outraged, exquisitely politically correct and o so sensitive moment on dumb shit a callow guy did when he was 29, and has doesn’t done since, just the opposite as you note, on, that is to say, those decades old images. As I said, he himself in his mea culpa called what he did racist. (I disagree with that but I’ll take him at his word.) So I think enough’s enough. Politically of course it will continue to haunt him. So goes politics: “It’s a mug’s game,” the saying is. But the clerisy, our opinion makers, our learned commentators, the Canadian intellectual class, our non political elites, you’d think they’d have the sense not make a moral mountain out of what is a moral foothill. But no. They—NOT YOU—betray a singular Canadian tendency of thriving on any opportunity to take down those in power by means of stunning disproportionality between the delict and their reaction to it. It’s pathetic and it’s sickening.

Two things more:

I read that there’s a cultural tradition or a cultural vein in Quebec of insensitivity to blackface. i don’t know much about that. I don’t use as a ground for any argument. I just note it fwiw.

And an anecdote, also fwiw: I just came back from a stint in Longos and a brown skinned guy showed me to Nathan’s Pickles. I couldn’t restrain myself. I asked him if he, maybe 25, was bothered by Trudeau’s photos. He looked at me as if I was nuts and said, paraphrase, “Not at all,” Jagmeet Singh to the histrionic, hyperbolic contrary notwithstanding. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

An Essay Then My Note On Prose Poems

Then me:

Actually, I find his argument continually slipping back on itself. 

He starts by knocking the idea of prose poems. 

He does a good job of taking on what he excerpts from the anthology’s Introduction, albeit with some snobby snottiness :

...Beyond many city limits, one finds suburban sprawl, maybe a Boston Pizza...

And he does a good job of taking apart what’s bad about bad ones, and it’s bad ones, it seems, that make up the bulk of the anthology he’s reviewing.
But the first one of his short series of excerpted examples struck me as not bad, as working in its way, with possibilities as poetic.

...A text, resting on a table, having been turned to a page of illustrated finches years before. (The page was torn out years before.) And beside it, the tumbler of water. And beside themselves, the finches. And where the page was torn, an edge. An absence. A muted singing...

It’s at this point in his piece I thought there can be something in these prose poems—btw, a term, prose poem, to which I hadn’t ever given much thought—to which he’s giving insufficient credit and not a fair shake.

Then he cops to it being his own creation.

Then he talks about the example, The Rape Joke:

...It’s a moving, controlled performance, every word in its place, every paragraph paying off. Its precision and music—“more horrible and more habitable”—set it damningly apart from so many of its peers. It’s one of a few exceptions that prove the unruliness all around...

Then he caps off the wiggliness of his argument with this:

...A more ruthless editor might’ve made a stark choice and printed the finest forty prose poems in the language. A top forty. A statement...

which, to my mind, makes it confusing as to what  his argument is precisely—the narrowest proposition his argument comes down to: 

a prose poem is strictly an oxymoron and a mere excuse to indulge faux poetic mediocrity; 


here are some of the big problems with the idea of prose poems; 


this is a lousy anthology that illustrates the oxymoronic;

this is a lousy anthology that illustrates the big problems with the idea of prose poems; 


there are excellent prose poems when deployed by caring, talented poets but all too many of such efforts are vacuous and flabby, examples of artistic slackness and mediocrity. 

In a nutshell then, closely read, his argument backs up on itself. His examples of well crafted prose poems working poetically aren’t exceptions proving the rule. They exemplify excellences achievable in the form. Guriel doesn’t give those possibilities a fair shake, except in spite of himself.

Two Curt Tweets On Hustlers, (The Movie)

Then my two tweets:

...Sorry, this piece when not breathless fluff is callow. How can anyone buy such inanity as “..whole country is a strip club (blah blah).” Inane too is the suggestion that what the 4 did is morally nuanced. Nope, it’s black & white wrong & immoral. Gushing over this film is jejune...


...That these women took control of their bodies is flat wrong. They traded intimacy for shimmering, transient blandishment then they devolved to straight crime. What needs to be seen more and isn’t much is the wretched, soul sucking  grim/iness of their lives even when coin flowed...

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Some Continuing Stuff On Consciousness And Free Will: See Post Immediately Below


My point comes down to this: either "consciousness", in the sense of the "we" or the "I", is a neural process or its isn't', and if it isn't,, what is it? An ectoplasmic process? A spirit? No, it's a neural process by simple elimination. But that implies that, unlike our intuitive sense of our selves, it is a process that has parts, even stages. In that way, it's certainly not surprising that some parts of the process occur before other parts, but that doesn't imply that the process as a whole is not "in control" as it were, of the organism's behavior, just as an engine, with its many parts and stages, is in control of the motion of the whole. In the case of our selves, where those selves are themselves engines of a sort, we can get confused by a difference in perspective -- what appears from an external perspective as a cause, usually appears from our internal perspective as a purpose. And just as, from a determinist point of view, every action has a cause, from our own point of view, every action has a purpose.. 


It’s a neural process, agreed. And it occurs in stages, agreed. What I’m trying to say is that in us consciousness, self consciousness really, is an integral, inherent and inseparable dimension of that process. We can isolate the components of the process, the stages—assuming we can scientifically understand them. But seems to me a dualism to raise that isolation into totally separable entities. An analogy could be style or form and content in literature. As DT, once said to me—he won’t remember this—form and content are but two different ways of talking about the same thing. And I think the example of raising your arm more slowly next time so as not to hit anything on its quick way up is of learned experience, an aspect of self consciousness, having a causal impact on future action, on the entirety of the process that has us ultimately raising our arm slowly the next time. If compatiblism in speaking of the physiological or neural as objective and the conscious or self consciousness as subjective aspects is like saying form and content make for a compatiblism in understanding a literary work, then I agree with that idea. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

Some Stuff On Consciousness And Free Will


Did you see this?


I did see a reference to that, but as usual I think it's misguided however the experiments work out. The subtitle to the Atlantic article refers to the question of whether "we" control our own actions. The real question to ask is what exactly you think constitutes the "we" -- if, for example, it's actually a neural mechanism that includes the so-called "readiness potential", then regardless of any gap, "we" would still be the controllers of our actions. 


I’m getting wobbly on this again. So let me rush in with all the angels hanging back. Among what I gleaned from the article is that it may not be the case that neural activity precedes our own consciousness of our actions and our perception of deciding. Consciousness arises physiologically. So if I think to myself that I will raise my arm to prove a point I’ve just encountered, and then I raise it, why isn’t my thought to myself as much a physiological reality even as it’s immaterial or intangible as my subsequent action of my raising my arm? Why isn’t that thought just as me as as my action in raising it? Neural activity drives my thought but why doesn’t my consciousness inhere in that activity. Why need it be split out and parcelled out as a compatible realm we call subjective? If I raise my arm too quickly and smack against something but then want to raise it again, why, based on my previous experience of hitting it, isn’t my decision to raise it more slowly inherent in what I—“what constitutes the ‘we’”—am, decide and do? Why isn’t my consciousness a process that objectively makes choices and inheres objectively in who I am and what I decide? 


As far as I understand what you're saying, I think I agree with it. 

My point comes down to this: either "consciousness", in the sense of the "we" or the "I", is a neural process or its isn't', and if it isn't,, what is it? An ectoplasmic process? A spirit? No, it's a neural process by simple elimination. But that implies that, unlike our intuitive sense of our selves, it is a process that has parts, even stages. In that way, it's certainly not surprising that some parts of the process occur before other parts, but that doesn't imply that the process as a whole is not "in control" as it were, of the organism's behavior, just as an engine, with its many parts and stages, is in control of the motion of the whole. In the case of our selves, where those selves are themselves engines of a sort, we can get confused by a difference in perspective -- what appears from an external perspective as a cause, usually appears from our internal perspective as a purpose. And just as, from a determinist point of view, every action has a cause, from our own point of view, every action has a purpose.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

On Renoir But Mostly On “The Male Gaze” As A Form Of Power

Then me:

…Of course, those familiar with John Berger’s seminal 1972 text Ways of Seeingwill know that the male gaze is not simply a way that men wield power over women, but that women use the gaze themselves as a way to gain power over men. If you haven’t read the book, a visit to any bar on a Saturday night will tell you much the same thing. What Schjeldahl has failed to appreciate is that the male gaze is not exclusively about power, but about the fantasy of having such power. The male gaze is the yearning of men to see the world as they wish to see it…

What’s all this about the “male gaze”? I’ve visited plenty of bars on Saturday nights, Friday nights, on most nights of the week really. I’ve looked at women a lot. On occasion they’ve looked back at me. I try not to gaze at them; that’s not polite and it’s kind of crude. But I’m sure my looks such as they are come within the definition of the male gaze. It’s the women I find attractive at who I look at. Do I in my looking want to wield power over them? I think not. I’m doing what comes naturally: I’m checking out what looks good to me. And women in bars do the same thing. (By the way, this mutual looking goes on everywhere, all the time. I only mention bars because Simon invites me to go there.)

Sure, by definition this looking has a big sexual aspect. But that’s how it goes in the world. We move toward what attracts us. That’s the meaning of attraction. And if the attraction leads to other things, then there’s no limit on the varieties or depths of that, from a one nighter to an asexual friendship to a relationship to even a partner for life, with infinite gradations among all of them. This is the world going round.

So where’s wielding of power inherent in the looking? For some jerks that may be what it’s about but wielding power doesn’t inhere in the looking. The sexual part of the looking, the sexual attraction to physicality, to bodies, is one of the great and near-to-indispensable pleasures of life. But where in this necessarily is the assertion of, the longing for, power?

What I know about visual art wouldn’t fill a thimble but if Renoir “painted with his prick,” used his art “to express his love of women’s bodies,” then more power to him. Women’s bodies in their way are as worthy a subject for painting as any other. We ought reject prescription in art. Who gifted wouldn’t want their art to express, represent, recreate, reflect and illuminate what they love? 

Who cares what some priggish ponce, here, Peter Schjeldahl—who dat?—caught up in our moment’s suppressive, feminist Puritanism, moralizes against? 

And while I appreciate what animates Simon’s fulsome defence of Renoir, does it really need all this attenuated and abstracted theorizing about the male gaze and the wielding of power?

I think not: feet firmly on the ground, earthy common sense will do the job quite nicely, I argue.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Such A Brief Note On Elmore Leonard’s Out Of Sight And Its Movie Version

I just finished reading Out Of Sight. I liked it a lot, one of Leonard’s better books, and I like the movie too. But I like the book better for as good as the movie is. In the book, Foley gets off no hooks. He didn’t have to rob banks: that’s his choice. So he’s going back to the grey bar hotel. All at Karen’s doing. In the movie, he’s too romanticized. George Clooney plays him for one thing and the movie loses the difference between Foley’s and Karen’s ages. But the big thing is she’s letting him off the hook. She pairs him up with Samuel Jackson, a nine time escapee, who’s nowhere in the book. And they’ll get away again. The book doesn’t relent on Foley being imprisoned by the life he’s chosen.