Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Disorganization Principle

It has come to my attention that the overwhelming majority of what I like to call those Big Bad Information Blogs [BBIB] are very "organized." There are tabs and links to previous posts and "hashtags" and dynamical interfaces which pile toolbar upon toolbar the further down the page you go.  Then there are those tiny blogs (this used to be one of them) that are simply "public" journals; a place where people write their thoughts and feelings about this or that, quite sporadically, most of them dying (the blogs, not the authors) after a few months' worth of posts.

I aim to avoid both extremes.  You will find BBIB content here; there will be some inter-linking and some intra-linking; I may even spruce the place up a bit at some point.  But you won't get BBIB style. The style remains that of the informal public journal, and not wholly unlike Medium (whose inventor, incidentally, also invented Blogger; cf. "Why We Built Medium").  I find this approach quite fitting because that is precisely how my mind works. Big thoughts run into little thoughts and back again; connections are made and conundrums simplified, but not without painstaking research. You won't find what you're looking for in one sitting, and you'll kick yourself when you realized you missed something at the last sitting.  To wit, to find what you're looking for, you're going to have to do a fair amount of "scrolling." And, let it be known, if you don't have to look deeply as well as widely, you can be sure that, whatever that world might be into which you venture, it is certainly not my own.

Besides, what good will I be, after I'm dead, to all those scholars -- with their sweater-vests and their iPhones -- if they have no tidying up and cataloging and annotating to do?  Should I, by my life's work, have to deprive them of theirs? Indeed, would the Husserl Archives be half so enticing if there wasn't all that clerk-work to do? new angles of thought or chronology to be plumbed? exciting and fresh material to be discovered, which happened to be hiding, under a bushel of dust, far at the back of one of those deep, venerable, ancient filing cabinets?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Modern Magick

It is an erroneous (but wildly popular) notion that "magic" was a superstition of the so-called Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, and that "technology" was the fruit of the Renaissance.  But the truth is that both magic (especially "alchemy") and technology were both Renaissance phenomena, and that both were trying to achieve the same goal, viz., the manipulation of Nature.  Obviously technology succeeded, and magic failed. But they were, as C. S. Lewis put it, "twins" from the beginning.

But suppose, if you will, that magic had won out.  What would the world look like?  My hunch is that the world would still look "medieval" or at least premodern. The Industrial Revolution would never have occurred; medicine, chemistry, physics, would all be unnecessary.  Everything one needed could be conjured by magic -- medicine, motion, production, construction, light and other electromagnetic phenomena. Architecture, I don't think, would look as it does today, because we should never have needed reinforced concrete; surely a "reinforcement spell" would be sufficient to buttress any edifice.  Our buildings might be labyrinthine, surpassing in wildness the most baroque of Gothic grandeur. Indeed, what need should we have of interstate highways if we could, by sheer will power, teleport, bi-locate, or even fly to our destination?

This is just a passing thought, or perhaps a premise for a story.  For instance, one could fictionalize an "alternative history" of the past 500 years if it had been magic, rather than technology, which became the instrument of our manipulation of matter.

Update 31 July 2014: So apparently someone already thought of this. There truly is "nothing new under the sun."  From the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

"But the purest example of 'Frazerian' sf is Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series (January 1964-April 1979 var mags, chiefly Analog), set in an alternate world where King Richard I founded a stable Plantagenet dynasty, Europe remained feudal and Catholic, and magic was developed in harmony with science. The heroes are a detective pair, Lord Darcy and Master Sean O'Lochlainn, resembling Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Master Sean is not a doctor, however, but a sorcerer, and he plays a much more significant role than Dr Watson ever did, compensating for the absence of forensic science by a series of carefully described magical tests for murder weapons, times of death, chemical analysis and so on. It is not too much to say that the stories are vehicles for the explanations of Master Sean rather than for the adventures of Lord Darcy. Garrett's distinctive contributions lie in the range of new 'laws' added to the old Frazerian ones (Relevance, Synecdoche, Congruency, etc.) and in the rigour with which these are stated and used."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

On Reading Poems

I've been asked to give a "lesson" or "crash course" on reading poetry, and now that it's been brought to my attention, I think it might actually be one of those things that can't be taught!  But what I can do is offer a few protocols I happen to know of, some of which I follow, some of which I don't -- it all depends on the poem and why I'm reading it.
  • Think of the "speaker" of the poem as you would the "narrator" of a novel.  It's an error to read (or, some might argue, to write) poetry as though it comes straight from the poet's mind or heart or lips. This leads to my second point...
  • Let the poem stand on its own as a singular work of art, much as you would a modern painting. (Granted, when it comes to epic and/or narrative poetry, that's different.  My subject here is principally with lyric poetry.)  Who wrote it is a largely irrelevant and useless question when in the act of reading.
  • Just recently I thought that Quantum Theory can be a useful way of thinking about poems.  Think of the poem as a metaphor for an atom, and each line and word as a subatomic particle. Then consider that particles exhibit wavelike behavior and waves exhibit particlelike behavior, relative to what it is you happen to be looking for in a particular experiment. One could, e.g., say that the "meaning" of a poem is like an electron cloud of possible, even contradictory, observer/reader-relative  interpretations. Giving a particular interpretation or "reading" of a line is analogous to making a measurement in a lab. The upshot is that what the reader brings to the poem is going to have an effect on what the poem "means." Also, consider that how one interprets one line (or defines one word) will affect how other lines (or words) will be interpreted. I take the latter as a metaphor for quantum "entanglement," in which one of two electrons -- which had some kind of interaction in the past -- being acted upon in the present causes a change in the condition of the other electron, no matter how far apart they are currently (what Einstein famously called "spooky action at a distance"). Perhaps the strangest thing about "quantum strangeness" is its usefulness, metaphorically and analogically, for literary analysis. 
  • Phenomenology provides many useful conceptual tools.  Anyone who has familiarized themselves with the paradigms of identities in manifoldssides, aspects, and profiles; parts and wholes; and presence and absence in phenomenology ought to see how such types of analyses can aid in the comprehension of a poem.  In my experience, just about any philosophical system or "theorem" can offer a good interpretive apparatus for literature.  I once wrote an essay in which I appropriated Thomistic metaphysics to analyze John Donne's "The Good-Morrow"; I applied phenomenology to Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" and Lord Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" [which you can read HERE]; I even used Einstein's special theory of relativity to explicate Shakespeare's Sonnet 116.  In some cases I used the philosophy to explain the poetry; in many cases I used the poetry to explain the philosophy. But in either case the endeavor is mutually illuminating to one's understanding of both the poem and the philosophy.
For people (like me) who are great fans of Objectivity, a word.  You probably think, "All of what I and so-and-so and my professor thinks is well enough.  But I want to know what the author thought."  I have great sympathy with this view, as it is one I used to hold. But the fact is that -- especially if the author is dead -- you're never going to know.  Even living authors seem to have a hard time explaining the genesis of their works.  But never fear:  there is an objective origin and meaning to the artefact, even if one cannot discover it.  If there were no originary impetus for the artefact, how could the artefact have been brought into existence?  Students of either theology or phenomenology (or, indeed, quantum theory) should be well aware that the identity or objectivity of a thing is in a dimension different from that which we have access to. What we have access to are manifolds of said identity. These "manifolds" (i.e. manifestations) do not comprise a relativism; if it were all just relative, there would be no grounds, in the first place, to interpret the poem at all. It is precisely because we have access to these manifolds that we are certain that the identity positively, objectively exists:  it is by means of the manifolds that the identity presents itself to us and for us, even if we are not able to grasp the identity in its "entirety."

Returning to "method", I think the most useful thing I ever learned regarding this subject I learned from my "principal" literature professor: Find a line or two that you think 'X' about; let's call this your hypothesis. Then, use the rest of the poem as data which will either prove or disprove your hypothesis -- a sort of Thought Experiment.  For me personally, I've found that one or two lines will "stand out" more than others; and I'll ruminate on these words and lines in my mind for some time, thinking about their implications, parallels to other things I'm thinking about, how they relate to the rest of the poem, etc.  If I'm lucky, I'll have an epiphany; there will be some insight that just ties it all together.  It is this last part, in fact, that made me say in the beginning that I don't know if this can be taught; i.e., I don't know if everyone can get these "epiphanies" or moments of intuitive clarity.  And, there again, there are a lot of other ways to read, most of which I'm not aware of. All of this has just been what was off the top of my head when presented with the problem.

Finally, I think that, as a reader, when it comes to poetry, interpretation is not an absolute necessity -- one might even call it a "last resort."  I believe the best poetry baffles, bends the mind, and takes countless readings to even begin to become intelligible. Poems that have what I call "the nuts" are essentially works of paradox and fluidity; they make me want to meditate, not write an essay.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Useless Art

"The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless."

+ Oscar Wilde (Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Jung the Antichrist

I just finished an intriguing expository and critique of C. G. Jung by the eminent scientist-metaphysician Wolfgang Smith.  He doesn't say it straightforwardly, but implies vigorously that Jung is the Antichirst (or at least one of them).  He essentially shows how Jung set himself up as a messianic figure and how so many people -- even orthodoxly religious people, like Catholic priests, who ought to know better -- see the Swiss psychiatrist as the guru he claimed to be.

I think the one positive contribution which Jung made was his theory of personality. But even this was only preliminary sketches; e.g., he set up several of the categories of psychological "functions" which may be either introverted or extroverted, such as "introverted intuition" and "extroverted intuition," "introverted feeling" and "extroverted feeling." But the real credit in personality theory goes to Jung only as a pioneer, and the likes of Myers-Briggs and Keirsey as the true systematizers. Furthermore, personality theory goes back to the likes of Empedocles and Plato.  (For what I take to be a highly reliable presentation of personality theory, cf. the blog of A. J. Drenth, Personality Junkie.)

As for psychiatry, I think the point should be made that Freud and Jung have no scientific basis for their psychotherapies.  A lot of people balk at psychopharmacology, but the fact is that Prozac and Lexapro have claims to psychiatric legitimacy that Freud and Jung do not; the latter cannot prove their theories, and the former have proven their therapeutic value.  The one form of "talk" therapy, nonetheless, which can boast a remarkable scientific grounding is the Cognitive Therapy of Beck and Ellis.  Probably the optimal form of psychiatric care comes from a combination of psychopharmacology and cognitive therapy.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Concerning Magic

As a literary landscape, notions like "magic" and "witchcraft" and "occult" have a great use.  But these things considered as a realm of serious inquiry is quite horrifying.  What makes horror stories horrific is precisely the fact that, within the fictional realm of the story, these things are taken by the characters to be Real; the charm of the macabre can only exist for one who sees in it only fantasy or superstition.  I will read a tale about a witch with fascination:  I will not read a manual written by a witch.