How Wrong We Are

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I’ve been reading Will Storr’s The Science of Storytelling. Aspiring writers might want to read the book in full, but here’s some ideas I found interesting:

Stories are about change. In other words: something happens. The best stories gradually transform a reader’s understanding of what is happening, as the mystery slowly unfolds, even to the last page. Human brains have evolved to notice change, and so people are naturally curious when they encounter something new. Where change is happening, the brain is likely to pay attention.

It’s not just you against the world, but you against yourself. Each of us has a story, and the most interesting stories are about people. Each one of us is flawed, and it’s difficult to see your own flaws. Though the premise of a story may revolve around some external event – a murder that must be solved, a dragon that must be defeated – in the best stories these external circumstances force the hero to confront their own flaws and perhaps change themselves for the better.

To truly describe someone is to describe their flaws. So make your characters flawed and interesting!

“The lesson of story is that we have no idea how wrong we are.” By telling stories of flawed heroes, writers remind us that none of us are perfect. We’re all trapped inside our own skulls, and perhaps it will take a catastrophe to jolt you into a new way of thinking. Or if no calamity is forthcoming, pick up a good book and get outside your own head that way.

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Fools Reproach

William Blake’s infernal wisdom: that evil is the energy of the body and acts upon desire. Good bounds this energy, and wants to restrain desire.

That if your desire can be restrained, then it was a weak desire.

That desire, once restrained, becomes even weaker, a mere shadow of what you once felt. You end up in a state of absolute detachment. You don’t even desire what you think you desire. All you can do now is think about desire, since you are incapable of feeling it.

Blake is saying this from the point of view of the Devil, because both sides have to be heard.

Nothing else has worked so we’ve got to try this.

The infernal is very different from the satanic. The infernal recognises the necessity of evil as part of the universe contained within every individual. The satanic is the self-righteousness that, refusing to recognise that a universe is enclosed in every living creature, would impose the restraint of the Good uniformly on every soul.

Reason alone sits still, is “self-enclosed,” incapable of activity. Everything is already done. The perfection of God. In Blake’s vision Moses and Christ are rebels against Reason, standing for the energy of the body. For the individual’s right to their own vision, to find their own balance, to follow the winding path of their own desire towards the Good.

(I’ve been reading The Complete Poems of William Blake, edited by Alicia Ostriker.)

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Art and Life: Notes on some Conversations with Allen Ginsberg

It begins with the personal. “Life is full of strange experiences,” he says. Allen Ginsberg finds the extraordinary in the everyday.

“Each one has his inner nature that he has to satisfy,” says Louis Ginsberg, attempting to account for the differences between his own poetry and that of his son. He understands that it is a spiritual process. It begins with wonder at the particularities of a life, at the seemingly ordinary, and expands into something more.

As Allen Ginsberg masters his art, his vision changes. It broadens. “He had expanded his vision from personal to worldview,” writes Michael Schumacher.

While Ginsberg himself says: “It doesn’t matter in the long run … I write for God’s ear.”

The Beats were denied their literary status by the critics of the time, and were viewed as more of a cultural phenomenon than a literary one. They were called “Know Nothing Bohemians” by one critic. They’re writing about life, just chatting about themselves, and so what they produce can’t be called literature. Can it?

The Beats would spend time with all kinds of different people, including criminals. Not that they were more interested in criminals than anyone else. They said they were in search of souls, notes Al Aronowitz. Again, it’s art out of life. Criminals are as human as the rest of us. Our own bad deeds too – and so the Beats hide nothing, reveal the good and the bad in themselves as well as others.

(I’ve been reading First Thought: Conversations with Allen Ginsberg, edited by Michael Schumacher and published by University of Minnesota Press in 2017. Quotations are from the “Introduction” by the editor and “Portrait of a Beat” by Al Aronowitz.)

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Notes on Gregory Corso’s “Variations on a Generation”

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The Beat Generation was never supposed to become so big, says Gregory Corso, and that’s why it has such a stupid name. If they’d known they might have spent more time thinking about it. Perhaps not. It doesn’t make sense for it to be so big. Being “beat” is supposed to mean being an individual, the opposite of being square, which is when you’ve had to force yourself into an unnatural shape in order to fit into a slot ready made for you. All these people trying to be beat just don’t get it. So paradoxically it does make some kind of sense: an absurd name for an absurd movement.

“Beat” is not only out of date today: it always was out of date. As soon as this senseless word was spoken it was already the end. But the Beats went on writing anyway. They were never ones to think very much about poetry and literary tradition, says Corso. They were only interested in talking about themselves, and the poetry and novels came out of that. And as more and more people recognised themselves in this body of work, “beat” became about the world, and not just about those few who spoke up. We were all beat. And yet “all beat,” doesn’t make sense, since “beat” can’t mean anything collective, since anything collective means square.

It was always absurd, always nonsense. Something indefinable – and that’s the way it was supposed to be. Let history worry about definitions, while the Beats just went on creating art. It’s the work itself, and not any grand and lasting significance behind the work, that persists today for our enjoyment.

(I’ve been reading The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters and published by Penguin Books in 1992.)

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The Imperfection of Henry Miller

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Henry Miller has made a vow not to alter a line of what he writes because perfection is no longer his object. He wants to get to know his own mind, with all its faults and weaknesses, and share with his readers what he finds.

It’s not just that he finds the contents of his own mind to be so interesting. What’s interesting is the fact of imperfection itself – imperfection being something that human beings all share, and which troubles most of us. We feel we need to be better than we are, even the best that we can be, but perfection seems to be unattainable. It is possible to spend a whole lifetime searching for this perfect version of yourself, never really beginning in life because you feel, in your imperfect state, to be less than yourself, and therefore unworthy to take part.

By giving us as full a picture of himself as he can, with all his imperfections on show – physical, moral, spiritual – Miller is offering his readers an impetus to liberate themselves from their stifling compulsion to be perfect. Or to put it another way: he’s suggesting that you might want to seek out a new sense of “perfection.”

For example, if you’re interested in being a writer, you might compare the perfection of Turgenev with that of Dostoevsky. Or compare both of those with the perfection of Van Gogh, found in his letters. The latter is a “triumph of the individual over art.” Imperfect by conventional literary standards, but the (im)perfect author uses the medium to achieve something beyond the literary: something spiritual and real rather than merely artistic.

In their quest for perfection, a writer might be tempted to leave out whatever is messy and uncomfortable, whatever doesn’t fit with a pre-established literary ideal. The way things should be is decided beforehand – literary conventions and traditions to be followed and developed – saving the author the trouble of looking very hard at the way things are in their own heart, in their own life as it is lived. Only the best authors look deeply and bring out all the delicious imperfections of life. There are “elements in the air,” invisible, which shape us and motivate us and are difficult if not impossible to accurately describe. Some amount of failure is inevitable, and the writer might come across as clumsy and inept in places, as they try to express what has never been expressed before.

Miller is not talking about realism here. That is to say, he’s talking about realism of a specific kind, and not the focus on empirical detail and “reality” that has become the focus of many modern authors, before Miller’s time and since then. Everything reduced to what is seen or heard, sometimes tasted or smelled, faithfulness to the observable facts. Miller is interested in faithfulness of a different kind: “faith” in its more conventional sense, meaning faith to the heart or spirit. He wants to describe what is in the human soul.

What motivates Henry Miller? He seems to get fired up by calamity, by “disaster” and “frustration.” Rather than being put out by misfortune, he enjoys it. For Miller, it’s never about creating the right material conditions – let alone the perfect ones – required to flourish. It’s about looking within and getting to know the imperfections you find there so that you can live with them.

When he was first in Paris he was so miserable he was like “a ghost at a banquet.” External forces could have crushed him, just like they can crush any of us. Henry Miller is emphatically not advocating the American Dream, or the view that you can “just do it” if you want it enough. You have to be ready to fail, and even accept that this is the most likely outcome. If you’re going to have even the smallest chance to really succeed as an individual, you’re going to have to hit rock bottom first.

This is why so many so-called “successes” are so boring: it came to them too easily. They are outwardly and materially successful, but the spiritual journey was never completed. And it’s not surprising, given the world we live in: we do not look after our poor, those who have not made it yet. We do not give people breathing room to dream, and those who go off the track are threatened with sickness and starvation. Get a job, pay your way. The culture in which we live denies the central importance in every life of the “long dark night of the soul.” And so those who are successful are those who rush for the prize immediately. The most direct, simple, and trivial solutions to immediate problems are favoured in the world as we currently find it, leaving no room for anything new and truly transformative.

If instead you try something different, and if you eventually, after years or even decades, come out the other side, if you have suffered through your long dark night, as Henry Miller had by the time he materialised leaving his ectoplasm behind, it won’t be anything physical that will have changed. It will be something spiritual, something almost unsayable. This is the very thing that Miller wants to say, that he spent his whole life trying to say right. To describe the nature of that change that makes a human soul into the soul of an artist.

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

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A Life for Wandering Through

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Paris in the 1930s was a place where you could simply be an artist. It didn’t matter if you produced any significant work or not. For example, Henry Miller tells us that an acquaintance of his, called Sylvester, will never be a writer “though his name blaze in 50,000 candle-power red lights.” Success doesn’t make you a writer.

What makes an artist is the quality of the madness and fire within. It goes without saying that this isn’t some objective criterion. Miller is telling us what he sees, what he likes, what he doesn’t – what it was he found in Paris, in those rare artists who fired him up and inspired him to go on instead of giving up.

More than anything, it was the city itself that lit a new fire in him. Brassaï describes the “very air” of Paris as “saturated” with art and literature. This compared to New York which, like everywhere else in America, was sterile when it came to art. Where you would have to conform to an established type and become a “man of letters” or give up on any dream of being a writer. Where there was no soil in which new artistic forms could grow. Miller didn’t know how to create the plots and characters required to make conventional novels … And so back home in New York he could only see in himself his failure to shape up, the impossibility of a misfit like him ever becoming a writer.

The desire to succeed in becoming a writer – this burned in him and haunted him. “Becoming” here is very important. It’s not about finishing a book you can be proud of, though that would be a good start. It’s about transforming yourself into a new kind of being, one for whom writing becomes something possible and even natural. Who can write about anything, be it “a smokestack or a button,” and create a new kind of music. This is what it means to be an artist: to be able to open your mouth and sing.

It’s easy to get lost in dreams when you’re thinking in this way, with your eye on the promised result, on the vision of yourself, seen in the mirror while you sit at the typewriter, as the prolific artist. In his “Work Schedule” of 1932-1933, Miller reminds himself: “Forget about the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.” You have to proceed step by step and focus on the matter of the moment. Write a book, and then another, and only long after you’ve done this a few times will you find you have become what you set out to be.

“Patience, for Time’s nature is treacherous …”* It’s counter-intuitive, but the trick is to slow down because time is running out. If you try to rush you will get lost in other people’s dreams, and live a whole life without ever having had a dream of your own. “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.”

If you can do this, then however bad things get you might find you can one day say like him: “I have only physical, biological problems.” Your soul will remain intact, and that’s no small thing.

Brassaï tells us a story of Miller’s experience of Paris as a process of cleansing his soul by wandering the streets, hungry and desperate. But underneath the very real suffering he underwent – and not everyone survives an ordeal such as this, homeless and hungry, let’s not forget – he knew exactly his purpose, and his heart was light. “What was life for if not for wandering through?” We might say Miller had discovered the meaning of life, and now he had a reason to write, a reason to survive so that he could one day communicate this idea to others.

(* “Patience, for Time’s nature is treacherous, / And at the end companions part.” – from Malcolm C. Lyons’ translation of The Arabian Nights.)

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The Editor and the Escritoire

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A less extraordinary mind would have been incapable of worrying so much about an old desk and would never have made the discovery.

Victor Eremita, fictitious editor of Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, tells the story of how he came across the manuscript.

He is in love with an escritoire he has seen in the window of a second-hand dealer’s shop. The item is old and well-used, and he can’t explain why he’s so drawn to it, except to say: isn’t desire a strange and tangled thing? Who can really explain their own preferences?

Every day he walks past the dealer’s and catches a glimpse of his beloved writing table in the window. Sometimes he makes long detours to make sure he gets his daily look at it.

The love affair deepens into something more. He wants to possess the desk. Strange, because he can think of no use for it. He just wants to have it.

Going into the shop on the pretext of other business, Victor makes a casual and very low offer for the desk. If the dealer had accepted, he explains to us, then the escritoire would have come to him almost by chance, an unlikely and fortuitous occurrence to acquire such a thing for next to nothing. He would not only have had a clear conscience – at least he didn’t pay an extravagant sum for such a useless item – but he would have been confirmed in his long-held view that the best life is governed by chance. (A guest asks about the shabby old desk taking pride of place in the apartment, and Victor gives a casual wave of the hand. “Oh, that old thing …”)

Anyway, the dealer refused the offer. Now Victor has got to decide what he wants to do. If he hesitates until someone else buys the desk then it’s all over. He might find it again, even convince the new owner to part with it, but the feeling he has for it right now would, by then, be gone. This is where Victor differs from a lesser, more objective and “mediocre” mind: he gives himself this “either/or.” Either he takes the desk soon, or the moment will be gone forever. Mediocrity always looks for the “both/and”. The objective, reasonable mind would say: well, if it is sold I can always find it again. The objective set of circumstances would be the same: I would have the desk that I love. But the objective mind fails to recognise that that love is itself an “inwardness,” something subjective, and the feeling would be different once the situation had changed. It wouldn’t be the same love. The romance would be gone, we might say.

If Victor had had a more objective mind then the story would have ended here. He walks by the shop for a few more weeks or months until eventually the desk is gone. He goes in to enquire and finds it has been sold. Perhaps I’ll find it again one day, he thinks. And eventually it is forgotten.

But Victor is a man of passion, and therefore greatly troubled by the thought that he will lose the escritoire. He wants it, he needs it, and he cannot betray his desire for it. He goes in and makes a larger offer this time, and comes away with the desk. He finds a place for it in his home, and now he walks by it in his own apartment, just as he used to walk by it in the street. He winks and smiles at it in a state of great elation. And slowly he begins the new joyful pastime available to him: exploring the writing table’s many drawers and recesses. He’s as happy as can be. And then everything changes.

He was about to spend a week in the country, gets all packed and goes to sleep. Wakes up late, to the urgent sound of the postilion’s horn. A rush to get out the door, he just needs some money from one of the escritoire’s drawers. But now the drawer won’t open. Maddened by tiredness, infuriated by his having overslept and the sound of the horn outside, he reaches for a hatchet. The blow he strikes does nothing to open the drawer, but something else happens: a secret compartment, hitherto unnoticed, pops open. Forgetting the money and the blaring horn for the moment, he looks inside. And reaching in, he finds a stack of papers. The manuscript for Either/Or.

The postilion’s horn reasserts itself, he hastily packs the papers and, leaving the money behind – he can always get more – dashes out to the coach. He’ll read the manuscript in the country and discover that it’s an interesting work, worthy of publication.

If Kierkegaard had had a less extraordinary mind, he would never have told such a strange story. He’d have become a Hegelian, presenting his ideas in a cold and systematic way. But just as Victor must fall in love with a desk in order to make the literary discovery of a lifetime, so Kierkegaard must take a circuitous route if he’s going to present the truth to his readers. A literary, rather than a philosophical one. “The target or enemy was philosophy. That in itself dictates that the weapons with which he was committed to prosecuting his campaign were literary rather than philosophical.” We’re being invited to enjoy this book and put dry philosophical concerns to one side for just a moment, and perhaps we’ll find our way back to the deeper questions, now cast in a new light, as if by chance.

(I’ve been reading Either/Or by Søren Kierkegaard, translated with an introduction and notes by Alastair Hannay.)

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Hegel, Reason, and the Unhappy Consciousness

As the sun sets in Canto II of Dante’s Inferno, the pilgrim, Dante himself, explains that he is not worthy to undertake the journey, through Hell and Purgatory, to Heaven. I lack the strength and skill, he says. The poet Virgil, Dante’s guide, listens patiently before he replies: you are merely afraid. He goes on to give a rousing speech, inspired by a message he himself received from Heaven, which fills Dante’s heart with courage. Now the pilgrim can go on.

This canto illustrates the plight of the “unhappy consciousness,” which Hegel describes in his Phenomenology of Spirit. The unhappy consciousness sees nothing in itself but sin and weakness. Everything worth living for – everything essential to itself – can be found only in a distant, and ultimately unreachable, beyond. The unhappy consciousness is the medieval Christian mind that can only get a glimpse of God through penance and absolution; a mind that is elevated to sublime joy in those moments of reconciliation with the divine, when its heart is filled with courage again by the intervention of the priest and his rites; a soul that crashes down to despair again when it reflects on its own sin, on the fresh sins for which it has not yet been absolved, and sees once again a great chasm between itself and God.

In the final canto of Dante’s Paradise, we find St Bernard praying, on behalf of the pilgrim, that the Virgin Mary might allow the poet a glimpse of God. Dante looks up and sees before him the perfection of the universe. Before describing his vision, the poet prays that he might be able to relate even “just one spark” of the vision of light that he saw – now he has been returned to Earth from Heaven the vision has faded somewhat. This notion of a vision granted from above which fades when contact with the divine diminishes; the prayers to an outside power to aid him in creation – these are symptoms of the unhappy consciousness of the medieval mind.

“Reason” is the next stage of consciousness, directly following the discussion of the “Unhappy Consciousness” in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Reason finds in the notion of absolution the key it requires to go on: in absolution we saw the reconciliation of the individual with their own essence. Whereas the unhappy consciousness feels gratitude for this reconciliation – since it was bestowed by the grace of God – reason takes its absolution for granted. This is because “reason,” in the sense Hegel means it here, is self-consciousness aware of itself as self-consciousness: in other words, it sees itself as both the conscious subject and as the sole object of its consciousness. The world that consciousness, as reason, sees is only its own self: “reason,” for Hegel, means “idealism.” The “God” of the unhappy consciousness was only ever self-consciousness itself and so reason – at least for now – has no use for a concept of a transcendent God in a distant Heaven.

(I’ve been reading: Dante’s Inferno, translated by J.G. Nichols; Dante’s Paradise, translated by Mark Musa; and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit translated by A.V. Miller.)

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The “Specific Shape” of Stories (Notes on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit §§678-679)

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For Hegel, the limitation of religion is that it relies on “picture-thinking.” A religion is based around the interpretation of a number of stories, images, and rituals designed to show the human spirit the truth about itself and its place in the world. Whether or not you believe the story of the Resurrection to be literally true, it is likely that the story will resonate in some way as it touches on the themes of suffering, death, re-birth, and hope.

But stories are created through a process of condensation and simplification, while reality is broad, free, and complex. The metaphor will never be large enough to encompass the reality. Having a “specific shape,” the picture of spirit in the story lacks the freedom of spirit itself.

The only thing that has the freedom of the human spirit is the human spirit itself, which is to say: “absolute spirit,” or spirit that is wholly and absolutely spirit. But to talk of such a thing is to talk in abstractions. The religious mind says: abstraction is useless, and the closest the human mind can get to the mystery of spiritual existence is to tell the stories, interpret them, and live by their lessons.

The stories are interpreted, as are the images and rituals. And these interpretations are themselves stories, simplifications of the reality of spirit, specific shapes designed to capture something of absolute spirit which, being absolute, has no shape.

Religion deals with the “beyond” because its goal is self-consciousness, and self-consciousness seems to be something beyond the mere consciousness of “spirit in its world.” Consciousness, through its endless interpretation and story-telling, pictures the world to itself but this continuous stream of pictures never amounts to the full realisation of self-consciousness that religion is striving for. Religion’s method – story-telling and picture-thinking – is never adequate to religion’s goal, which is a true awareness of the self that is perceiving and interpreting. Religion is “sublated” – cancelled to give way to something higher – because it fails, on its own terms, to achieve its own aims. Religion gives way to philosophy.

And yet the human spirit still craves stories and, in the Hegelian view of the world, religion will always have a place in any human society. But in the modern age it should never claim the highest place. Though it might sound ironic, Hegel believes that a real understanding of God lies beyond the scope of religion.

(I’ve been reading A.V. Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.)

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Conscience and the Perfection of Religion (Notes on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit §§677-678)

Conscience holds the moral truth within itself. Instead of waiting for the day of judgement, conscience judges its own actions in the here and now. But conscience is fooling itself. The universal law that the moral self-consciousness holds within itself, and that determines what is right and wrong, is closed up within self-consciousness, and “superseded” by what conscience has already decided is right and wrong. The universal is suffocated, and does not have the form of “free otherness” that you find, for example, in nature. Conscience would not know how to respond to a sudden change in external circumstances, and so it remains closed off from the outside world, following its own little rules in its own little world.

Religion is “spirit that is conscious of itself as spirit”. As we’ve seen, to be conscious of oneself as spirit always involves looking out into a beyond, to find the universal which constitutes the essence of the human soul and which cannot be found in the here and now. It leads to thoughts of death and the afterlife in which the journey of the soul will be completed.

In order for “the perfection of religion” to come about, it’s necessary (says Hegel) for spirit, conscious of itself as spirit, to exist “in its own world.” Clarity must be found in the here and now. Moral self-consciousness knew this, but wound up at a dead end: the universal that it held close to itself was no longer free and so no longer true. What the conscience of morality lacked was transcendence, which is essential to religion.

The puzzle that Hegel is setting out for himself is: how can transcendence be found immediately in the here and now?

(I’ve been reading A.V. Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.)

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