Pointings-to become what…

I just had a review of a post from last year, perhaps well meant but ultimately worth as little as most introductions.  The best possible spirit I might have intended would have been to influence others to read a few titles they might otherwise miss out on.

But it really is and was more self-serving.  It’s the reason I’ve stopped using GoodReads — it was working too well.  I would fly through some work I hadn’t seen and inevitably compare how many others of my friends had read so much or so many pages or so well.  In the best of worlds I hoped for discussions to emerge, much as I hoped when starting my prior blog and this one.

It’s just that I’ve begun to realise that these exercises are truly exorcisms.  A good book provides new furrows for thoughts to follow along and test their footing, but much as with any path one soon finds oneself at the end of it with merely vague recollections of what marks led from there to here.  If I don’t write notes and use these notes productively, it merely becomes fodder for me to show off.

And what is easier than showing off one’s book collection? or name-dropping to reference some idea?  It is clothed in a chivalry of wanting to accost all with their due, but it serves to raise the name of the speaker as well ever so silently.  A list allowed me to feel most satisfied when reading had come to an end — but I would not follow the next step of weighing carefully what value the going was worth.

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And so the hubris exemplified by the maintaining of lists where interaction is desired — I hope to not be surrounded by like-minded people but rather to be surrounded by improving people: people for whom reading is less important than being read.  I do not blog or read or write to win the praise of inferiors, but to discover how my understandings can be better — and to unleash the worst of my writing which must surely flow out of the pipe before healthy water can flow through the same lines.

It is when I am most freed from my reading that I am a worthy reader — a thoughtful traveler with mind and feet active; that is the quality of my reading cannot be described quantitatively and is not merely a mental exercise, but rather is fostering the engagements necessary to push out all weak and loose readings so that worthy footholds may be found.  A writer is not free from words, but should have an end in mind better than his own.  For thoughts may yet travel where names will fail to leave a tread-mark.

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This is why I preserve writings — I may yet be warned lest my pointings indicate merely myself.

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the Dock

I was born no venturer, but now my feet are restless.  My view of home has both expanded its borders and shrunk — no more is a permanent locale my destination for I too am changing.  A taste in the air is telling, but the sea beckons strongest.

Each step into or out from the river sees us both affected.  Only I believe the river can’t see me.  My voice is carried off in the current and mingled with its own, even as the impressions of my feet too are swept.

Downstream and further downstream — and where do all these memories fly off to?  In what sea can they be found again and do they again rain upon the earth?

I ‘m weary and unready to ford here — for my cry of encore is lost in this sea unreachable.

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What separates past from present for a river?  Shall my words yet find me and approve?

But in the water I feel best the ripples of my strokes — it is apart from embarkation I lose this sense.  And I am again blinded, wondering by which river I am crushed — the visible or the non.

Mis-valuating

A year makes quite the difference.  Peripheral items become surprisingly possible (like uni teaching or nearly grasping Foucault [or his aims]) while expectations find themselves buried under a towering stack of other expectations (for example, progressing in Arabic or publishing).  The past is a sea — swelling and rolling away.  What was permanently distinct vanishes into the waves — one horizon is where I have been, the other where I shall be.

With this movement — for I quite believe the past is as much in motion as the present or future, or else we would n’t learn new things about the past (and forget more) — centering a meaning and pinning it down is not impossible, but requires effort.  I must at least intend clarity or I shall never pluck these Promethean sand-kernels from that which engulfs, tosses, and leads shore-ward.  Even as a goal is sought, this end being pursued is transforming.

And so the disappointments of non-writing, non-thinking, and non-reading mingle together with the best nothings.  If I wish to change I must choose well which are to be rightly discarded; and this I have not trained myself for.  Choosing her is preparing to reject all else — reorienting the orbits and then preparing for collisions.

These frustrations swirl about the good sand — overpowering the flavor of the waves often.  True, this corpus is not so easily tossed about — for its orbit is drawn more tightly.  Much debris is redirected elsewhere and the result better suits the traveler who would follow a similar path.  Tracking another in the ocean is not a straight-forward task, but parallels emerge — one splash will not catch all things.

Answering each ripple, or even each wave, would be an unending task — and does any answer the ocean?  Tiamat can fling aside such arrows — for they merely pierce the skin.  As fingers find their skill — so that they may filter all but the single sand-grain — so I would call to share my joy with others.  But who can understand what I have found but a fellow diver?  And what tongue can steal the meaning from these finger-tips…but surely some sign can be offered.

How unfortunate that time must then draw all meaning back to the depths — and that we surface-dwellers would think a wave must be answered by a ripple.  Such are not the Atlantean laws — the world beneath the waves beckons (and shall be answered by no bird).

In Praise of Solitude: Stachelschweine in der Kälte

Perhaps you ‘ve heard of Schopenhauer’s cold porcupine/hedgehog dilemma.  Therein the poor creatures, analogous to we shivering masses — in need of what society has to offer, huddle together for warmth.  Of course, the pricks of proximity drive them again away from one another and so an equilibrium is reached where both cold and pricking are minimised.  My reading of Schopenhauer finds the negative qualities given central roles — we do not find a good in society as good is merely the absence of bad, happiness the absence of suffering.  And so, as the title Studies in Pessimism should warn the reader, goodness’ solidity is no match for the harshness of its more effective counterpart.

Having heard the parable before, I was surprised to find his intended point: not that it is best to find this equilibrium, but it is best to have an internal source of heat.  What interests is the non-hopeful idealism this elicits, in myself at least.  The goings-on of these pigs-with-spikes is of little immediate interest — it is to the pig of a different sort Schopenhauer beckons.

Ordinary people are sociable and complaisant just from the very opposite feeling;—to bear others’ company is easier for them than to bear their own…

…people are rendered sociable by their ability to endure solitude, that is to say, their own society.  

Our Relation to Ourselves

Here too he goes on to discuss people crowding together for warmth and to aver that this sociability which develops is not worth the condescension imposed on this singular person.  “It may be said that a man’s sociability stands very nearly in inverse ratio to his intellectual value.”

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Not so long ago, I would have agreed.  I still wish to uphold the value of a cultivated solitude (for in a noisy, inter-networked world maintaining the state necessary for concentration is no small feat), but it must also be helpful to some portion of the others.  It is not acceptable only to be a man apart, capable of self-produced warmth but not of diffusing such heat.  In such a state the good which might be attained is lost — bottled up inside the (perhaps) happy but incommunicable soul.  It is not enough that Socrates pursued the true path if the markers left behind cannot be followed.  Surely not all (likely most) society is worthy of our time, but the good must be communicated else no lasting progress be effected.

In sum, solitude is not merely a worthy pastime and a potential joy but its benefits are insufferable if they are to never be offered (in some adjusted socialisation) to others who shiver as well.

Being Read by Burnt Njal

On occasion, a book arrests me.  While a visit to a Shanghai foreign book store left my pack loaded with ‘the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire’ and ‘Madness and Civilization’, it was the unexpected catch which has called for attention first: the Icelandic history/tale ‘Njal’s saga’.

Simultaneously my wife and I took up Game of Thrones.  Aside from the map detail and theme song, the rest of our GoT experience has been horribly disappointing.  It simply has n’t stood up to the likes of the West Wing, or the Wire, or even the Newsroom.

Why has the first captured my imagination, along with its struggles, while George R.R. Martin’s creations disappoint so thoroughly?  The saga centers around family conflicts on the kingless island of Iceland.  Their elaborate system of laws, for which each man and his family must be the guarantor if a suit is to be successful, and at the same time must defend a sense of honor…which does n’t match with my modern concepts of chivalry [there’s been nothing of rescuing helpless maidens for instance, not that this is what I want]– it’s not a question of manners, but of whether these farmers are able to acquit themselves well without destabilizing the island’s relative peace.

I think I recognise a shame culture — even an isolated collectivism in the tale of Burnt Njal which is slowly becoming less foreign to me.  The characters have little by way of modern dialogue — opting instead to utter insult for insult or seeking a peace which serves the opinion of the other assemblants.  Njal’s skills at law seem to be related most to his willingness to do what is best for all Iceland, rather than appeasing himself, and to his ability to predict how another will prosecute their case.  He sees disaster coming, but will not bemoan it as a Sophocletian character — his part is to be played and he will take each step.

It seems to me that a shame culture requires one to know his standing with other key people — but there is nothing of ‘guilt’ to be spoken for (speaking in absurd generalities here).  Here I would be curious of others’ perspectives.

Ah and one more aspect — the communal.  Despite having some Old Testament reading background, multiplied genealogies for an era for which I am unfamiliar are unhelpful.  I would hear more of the character’s inner deliberations and hesitations, and less of whose line he comes from.  But these names, which are largely awesome [snake-in-eye being a favorite] reflect both what others think of him [Thorkel Bully, for instance] and who he is — who he is is not an individual spot of land, but a question of who stands with him and what fathers of renown he can boast.  These are largely alien concepts for me, but they are not the worse because I do not understand them deeply.  They are a culture far from my own, and for this I can attempt to learn from them [though I do not mean to perpetuate their violence or reinstate a fully patriarchal society].

And in this I am read by the saga, and less the saga is read by me.

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GoT, meanwhile, fails to develop a satisfying storyline.  I can’t see why anyone wants to rule the iron throne or why so many characters are left undeveloped.  It is far more soap opera rolled into mystery than saga — there is no great journey of an Odysseus or great injustice of an Oedipus or even the case of a wise and well-respected Njal.  Some of the brutality and sensuality could be excused as part of the tale if there were truly a going — but in this adventure it seems that there is only carnage and jockeying for position, and all prepared to entertain.  But is entertainment merely following along with glee as undeveloped shadowy character after undeveloped shadowy character is cut off from the land of the living?  Could n’t there be a closer look at the machinations which go into a real war — or a consideration of some common persons — or a noble and well-educated non-caucasian character?  How can this be called story?

What is to be read in me is whether I would finish a story simply to say I have finished it — and what is the value then? to know who sits atop the throne — this is why I deplore mystery novels.  They are almost inevitably unworthy of a second reading.  A saga, meanwhile, is worth revisiting as it tells me of a flawed way of dealing with your neighbors — is not my individualism itself a violence to community?  How does guilt relate to, or block out, shame?

One leaves me to question myself, while the other leads me to count the minutes until at last the credits roll.  Which should I prefer?

dis-peptic

There are two reasons to write. Both greatly influence the qualities, as they determine the goals, of the products.

The first is personal gain — I wanted to limit this to money, but have to admit authorship requires enough pride to devote yourself to a task for an extended period. Mostly I have wanted to be an author (read: to have authored/to enjoy the fruits of writing), and therefore an expert. Within this range, of course, is a determination to achieve social status/fame, or to improve cash-flow.

The aim then is to give the audience enough of what it demands to receive whichever combination of status, power, and financial securities is desired.

The second I’m inclined to offer as ‘nausea’. Something needs to be said, and it can no longer be kept down. Whatever the results precisely, here the author can hold back no longer.

Noise – Noxia – Nausea

Engulfed.  A sea of noise drowns out all competitors and so plunges thoughts below the surface.  Be carried by the current or struggle against it at your peril.

My wife won’t stand for commercials.  They grate on her classically trained ears.  I feel my best chance of returning to the ‘sunlit lands’ above the waves is to ignore them.

We each have cultivated sensitivities which require focus, and focus must be protected.  As Schopenhauer relates, a diamond divided into shards loses all value.  So too with thought or the serenity which accompanies its careful manifestations.

The city is no friend of the sound-sensitive, or smell- or sight-sensitive for that matter, but we are on the subject of sound.  For Schopenhauer, it was the heedless and unceasing cracking of whips — a sound which paralyses the brain.  Its current counterpart would be the car-horn: counterintuitively it demands another go when the sound screams halt.  And so it has not the desired effect, resulting in a chorus of replying honks.  Or, an incomprehensible blaring of directions must be shouted at us until the warning it is meant to deliver is blocked out with all other such noisea.

As a teacher I have well marked that my best chance of regaining control of the classroom is not to shout over the students, but to grow quieter and firmly signal my intent to speak.  A nudge effects more than a shove, unless we are living in a world of shoves.

Nausea

But thought, if it is to be fruitful and worthy of discourse, must be checked and re-checked.  New pathways must be explored and old ones unearthed.  Most cultural output is too ready to speak and shows it has not listened.  It cannot listen for it is merely shouting over the din and so becoming part of this oceanic violence.

Getting our attention for a fraction of a moment is considered just cause for violating our peace.  My thought and your thought is not worth protecting when profit is to be made.  It is everyone’s job to entertain us long enough to be marketed to.

But books are little better.  Publishers, academic or otherwise, are less interested in the value of their product and its usefulness to the audience than in making a profit despite technological challenges.

That which is most helpful often is whispered, not shouted, and for the listener ear and ground must draw closer.  But so long as profit is to be made from noise it must remain the primary occupation of thinkers to escape long enough to produce something.