The Stone House

I’m a fan of RPGs, and tomorrow I’ll be running a game of Call of Cthulhu over the internet for some friends. Below is the introduction for the scenario I’ve just made. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft might recognise the reference to “strange days.” And what do you think the stone house might be?

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In recent months you’ve been hearing a lot of stories about the “strange days.” Eyes have been fixed on the countryside outside the old city, and experts have been trying to work out what happened all those decades ago, back in the ‘80s. And those experts have talked to reporters, and those reporters have written stories, and now the public seems obsessed with the tales of what happened in rural Massachusetts all those years ago.

Perhaps it’s because of the unnatural mystery in the air that you’ve all been having strange recurring dreams: each night a horrible picture in your mind becomes clearer and clearer, even as the vision becomes darker and darker. You see the thing in a strange subterranean light: the dream has given you inhuman eyes. You see the ancient stones of a house that could never have been built by human hands: massive stones of bizarre texture, strangely coloured, and of impossible dimensions. And much of the building is missing: you see its vast open jagged doorway like a mouth, threatening in its weird contortion and dark emptiness.

Weeks and weeks of the same dream, slightly altered, and you get a glimpse beyond the mad stone house to a building beyond that: this house itself stands in a bigger house. You realise now what you have seen in your vision: an ancient house standing as an exhibit in the University Museum.

This is madness, but you have an impulse you cannot escape: to visit the museum and see the exhibit for yourself. Perhaps by discovering something about it, seeing how closely it matches the object in your dream, you can put your mind at rest and be able to find a night of dreamless sleep once again.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Building

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“We have no need for genius – genius is dead. We have need for strong hands …”

How to start writing? Take a building block and set it down. It is Paris, 1930 perhaps, and a day in the life of Henry Miller is moving along.

A place to work is all that is required. It’s more important than a place to sleep: “One can sleep almost anywhere,” says Miller. But it’s impossible to work at writing without a place to do it. He doesn’t mention “routine” but I think this is part of it: you need a place to return to day by day, where you know it can happen. Where even if it doesn’t happen, you know tomorrow might be better.

There are always things to complain about: the noise around and about, the smells of cooking (from food that you are not permitted to eat) and the growling of your belly … The point is to transfigure these annoyances into art, to make what is small and miserable into something joyful.

“Do anything, but let it produce joy!” is the artists’ mantra. When you’re writing in poor conditions, it can seem far from a joyful activity. Transfiguration can be a painful process. And yet the largest part of Miller’s soul is singing its joy as he works at the typewriter.

(I’ve been reading Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Tree Spirits in The Golden Bough

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In spring, early summer, or midsummer the villagers would go out into the woods to cut down a tree. They’d bring it back to the village and set it up there (“amid general rejoicings”); or, in other villages, they would cut up the tree and distribute the branches among the households. James Frazer tells us that the purpose of these rituals was to bring the spirit that dwelt in the tree into the village so that its blessing could be shared among the villagers.

Over time, the purpose of customs is forgotten: the tree is left up in the village square through autumn and winter so that it can be danced around again next year and the year after that. The spirit of the living tree is long departed by the time the tree is used again, and no new spirit is brought in that spring or summertime. No magic is being performed here: only the bare custom remains. A general sense that the change of season is something to be celebrated, and so there should be drink and dancing.

Or in some places, rather than being forgotten altogether, the custom is found to have been only altered over time. In places where the same tree is used year after year, or where the tree is replaced only every few years, an effort is made at least to decorate the tree with the vegetation that has appeared in the woods since spring. No new tree spirit has been brought in, but the general spirit of spring and summer is evoked, and the people know the purpose of the ritual: to bring in the blessings of spring and summertime.

What’s lost over time is the immanent quality of the belief that underlies the custom: even where the meaning is not forgotten altogether, the spirit of the season is no longer an individual spirit that dwells in a particular tree, but is instead a universal spirit of spring or summertime, transcendent to any particular instance of growth and blossoming, representing a general conception of the spring and summer seasons.

In this example we can see how, as people become less literal in their beliefs, less convinced that spirits are individual beings that inhabit individual tangible things, they abandon the immanent contact with spirits, and come to settle for an acquaintance with only a general conception of things.

(I’ve been reading “Relics of Tree-Worship in Modern Europe” in James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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See What I’m Saying

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First sentence of William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys: “The camera is the eye of a cruising vulture flying over an area of scrub, rubble and unfinished buildings on the outskirts of Mexico City.”

Burroughs thinks in pictures and his books contain a lot of references to film and its techniques.

Starting with “The camera …” Burroughs is diving right in and telling the story as it’s natural for him to tell it, immediately telling what’s in his mind as he visualises it. It’s unconventional. It was written in the late 1960s and even today it is unconventional to cut straight to the visuals in this way.

There’s a lot of “…” in Burroughs’s work. These ellipses tell us how Burroughs’s mind works. A lot of us – I won’t say all of us – think in fragments, the thoughts not really running together but appearing in stops and starts. The continuity of thought is something constructed later, a way of rationalising past experience. We apply logic after the fact. If you want to capture what is happening in the moment, sometimes it’s better to just put down the series of unconnected images as you experienced them, before you tried to make sense of them.

In other words: the camera doesn’t lie. Show what the eye, the camera, sees. Let the reader do the work of processing what they’ve been shown, just like they do in real life with their own experiences.

The camera in the story is not metaphorical: at the end of this first section it’s hit by a bullet and cracks, and falls over so we see the rest of the action at an angle. Burroughs shows the story for what it is: unreal, a fiction. But we knew that anyway. What difference does it make to the story, this revelation at the end?

Burroughs tells the story in the way that suits him best. We might call this his “voice”: immediate, fragmentary, and so on. The reference to the camera might seem puzzling, intruding on the story and even a bit silly. But this device was what gave the story’s author the freedom to tell the story as he chose. He writes as he thinks, putting down as simply as he can the movie running through his head.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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How to Begin (Notes on the Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology)

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It’s no use starting with the assumption that thought and being are identical. For one thing, no one will know what you’re talking about.

Hegel started by looking at the philosophical thinking of his day and showing how it was wrong. This was the task of the Phenomenology of Spirit: to reveal the assumptions of modern philosophy and show how they are mistaken.

We’re only going to get to the identity of thought and being at the end, once we’ve exhausted all other possibilities. By the time we’ve done all that, it’ll be clear what “identity of thought and being” means.

Hegel thinks it is impossible to state some truths simply and positively. You need to take the long, negative route: showing step by step what the reality is not, so that what it is can finally appear in sharp focus, fully understood.

Some of us who’ve read the Science of Logic can make the mistake of thinking that beginning is a simple thing. We’ve forgotten the circuitous routes we took to get here. “Just begin!” But you need to know exactly how to begin. And you need to know what exactly you’re doing when you begin in this way, and why it is important. This is only possible once you have tried and tested the other ways, and seen why they fail.

If you simply do something without knowing why you do it, then it might seem just as well to do something else, should the opportunity arise. There is a persistent temptation to deviate from the path. The Phenomenology is about showing us what lies at the end of all those other paths, so that the simple thought of being finally becomes the obvious and correct way to begin philosophy.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Hegel’s Democratic Spirit

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The Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit is a good place to begin with Hegel. The key question he’s asking in these pages is: What is philosophy? And his answer tells us a lot about what kind of philosopher he was.

He begins in a typically Hegelian way: by making a seemingly absurd and contradictory claim. He opens his Preface by telling us that prefaces to philosophical works are a waste of time, because philosophy is a subject that can’t be explained in an overview, and philosophical truth can only be “expounded” by closely setting out the method so that, through it, a definite result is reached and the necessity of the result is understood. He contrasts philosophy with anatomy, to explain what a special sort of “science” philosophy is: anatomy, understood as “the knowledge of the parts of the body regarded as inanimate,” is a mere “aggregate of information” that can be learned by rote, whereas philosophy requires the reader to follow the text closely, following and approving for themselves the steps of the method, in order to discover the conclusions for themselves.

Later in the Preface he explains what happens when you mistakenly believe philosophy to be like anatomy, a collection of facts to be memorised, a means to a definite end: you end up with “dogmatism.” When there is a clear fact of the matter, it is an easy thing to give a straightforward answer – the examples he gives are “When was Caesar born?” and “How many feet were there in a stadium?” A dogmatic philosopher is one who thinks that the answers to philosophical questions are as straightforward as matters of general knowledge, and who will give responses to philosophical questions that are immediate and simplistic, and will be unwilling and unable to show any kind of working. Truth is a simple matter, for a dogmatist: the important things can be immediately seen to be true or false.

For Hegel, philosophy is not about facts, but about the process of knowing itself. This is why philosophy must be a journey, begun by reader and writer together. By working through the subject matter yourself, you gain an insight into your own thought processes. By comparing your own thoughts to those set out by the writer, you get a sense of what is universal in your thinking, and what is not. You learn to think for yourself, but more deeply than you could ever have done without the guidance of the philosophical tradition, which you find condensed here in the book you’re reading.

I suggested at the start that What is philosophy? is the question of Hegel’s Preface. The answer Hegel gives is, on the negative side: that philosophy is not a mere collection of facts; it is not merely a method; and it is not merely a result that can be read and memorised without doing any of the difficult work. On the positive side: that it is the science of knowledge, understood as something that a human individual must partake in themselves in order to take anything of value away from it.

And we can see, from Hegel’s answer to the question, what kind of philosopher he was: an egalitarian and democratic thinker who believed that real philosophical truth can only be discovered for the individual by the individual, and must never be unquestioningly accepted from any authority that would dogmatically assert their own system of philosophical truths.

(I’ve been reading A.V. Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The “Preface” makes up the first 72 sections of the book.)

(Image is from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Notes on Ursula Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed”

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Stepping off a train onto a crowded platform. Anxious glances of the passers-by. Shevek wonders at this anxiety: is it a function of the capitalist economy here? The fact that each of these people must make enough money to live? And the fact that, no matter how much money they make, they will always be expected to make more? Worry and guilt on these faces. He’s seeing these people in work mode: on their way to work, at work, on the clock. But he’s seen it elsewhere too: it seems to invade every aspect of the lives of these people. They measure themselves in terms of money and their ability to make it.

He’s alone here now, at the centre of the city, having escaped those who guarded him and kept him isolated at the University. He feels a little afraid: he is surrounded by people who are mutually distrustful, who cannot rely on others for aid, and who cannot be relied upon to provide it. The glances of the commuters are hostile and fearful.

“In escaping his guides and guards he had not considered what it might be like to be on one’s own in a society where men did not trust one another, where the basic moral assumption was not mutual aid, but mutual aggression. He was a little frightened.”

Not just Shevek: everyone on this planet is alone and afraid. If you can’t trust anyone, you are alone. That’s how life appears amidst the busyness of the city streets: he is far away from any sign of the familial warmth and comradeship that exists in the private lives of these people. Just the anxious faces rushing past each other, wary.

He is himself caught up in their anxiety. A paradox: in feeling isolated and afraid in a crowd he is truly of a mind with them, sharing with them the experience of what it is to live and work in a city on this planet. Solidarity in the lack of solidarity: in the mutual hostility and fear.

The hurrying he sees all about him is infectious too: he feels like he should be going somewhere, doing something. Someone brushes past him, another jostles him and offers a brisk apology. He’s moving at the wrong speed, he’s blocking the flow. He corrects himself and speeds up. He looks purposeful as he walks the streets, though he has no clear idea where he is going.

He finds himself in an art gallery, and hopes it will offer him some respite. But he notices all he art-works here have price tags on them. This one is selling for the same amount as would feed a family for two years. “Yes, well, you see, sir, that happens to be a work of art,” says the man in the shop. This makes no sense to Shevek. To him a work of art is something made out of necessity. “Why was that made?” he asks. He already knows the answer. It was made to make money.

A necessity in this society: to make money. In the anxiety of the passers-by, in the irritability of the shop assistant, in the work of art with a price tag, Shevek sees the same thing: a people with needs disconnected from life. Money was supposed to be something to help things along: an incentive to motivate people to get the important work done. But money itself has become the all-important thing, at the expense of the peace of mind, mutual assistance, and creativity that truly ground and constitute the life of a human being.

(The Dispossessed is a novel by Ursula Le Guin. Shevek goes on his journey into the alien city in chapter 7 of the book.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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