February 6, 2011

For the last three years I had been growing my hair out. By a week ago it was maybe a foot long, kept tied back in a ponytail. Then last Saturday I got a haircut.

Almost immediately, my head felt lighter, and I felt naked. But that went away soon. It took longer to adjust to seeing myself. For several days it was jarring to see myself in the mirror–who is that person with short hair? Ah, right, it’s me. Even when I got used to mirrors, though, my shadow confused me, I think because it was just as different as my reflection but having less detail and so with a less obvious explanation.

This has all gotten me thinking about how one visualizes oneself in one’s memory. One doesn’t see oneself from a third-person perspective in real life, but many memories, I have found, are in fact from a third-person perspective (just another indication that memory is extraordinarily unreliable), and the person appearing in the place of the main character, so to speak, doesn’t always look as one did when one was the age one was in the memory. Often one sees oneself in one’s current appearance, even if one’s physical appearance has changed radically.

For example, I know that, when I had long hair, my memories from back when I had short hair would show me having long hair, despite that being impossible. Or, when viewing a memory from recent years but in which I considered myself to have done something immature or childish, I would often (unconsciously) fill in the me with short hair, rather than the me that actually was at that point in time.

At this point I wonder two things. 1) How long will it take me to adjust my “default” self-image to be short-haired me, rather than long-haired? The instinct is to say “a long time,” but I suspect that somehow it won’t be that long–it takes the human brain a surprisingly short time to form new habits. 2) Once I have done so, will I now have three self-images, younger-short-hair, long-hair, and older-short-hair, and choose one for each memory based on some more complex criteria than simply “immature” and “mature”? Will it perhaps be “childish,” “adolescent,” and “adult”?


Portrait of the Reader as a Young Man

September 27, 2010

I recently finished reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for class. It’s an excellent book, though I don’t claim to understand what Joyce is trying to do. One thing I do find extremely amusing about the book, though: the reaction it elicits from people who read it.

Because the strange thing about the book is, it’s main character, Stephen Dedalus, is an artist type, and the book is mostly about his ideas about life, the universe, and everything. There’s a plot, but it’s driven almost entirely by the ideas Stephen has. He’s really the only character of importance. This means that your reaction to the book is dictated almost entirely by your reaction to the character of Stephen Dedalus. And, since Stephen is a brilliant, angsty, pretentious artist type, most people have the same reaction to him: disgust mingled with a prideful sympathy.

The disgust is easy to understand. Stephen is in many ways a terrible person. The prideful sympathy might need a little drawing out. What I mean is, most people recognize something of themselves in Stephen – the questions he is grappling with, after all, are questions everyone confronts at some point in their life, and Joyce describes Stephen’s searching in such honest terms that, whatever else we think of him, we have to believe he is really struggling with these questions.

But Joyce also presents Stephen as believing that he is alone in his struggles – he is an artist who cares more about his art than about other people and believes himself uniquely capable of forging the “conscience of his race” (whatever that means). He is convinced that no one else thinks about things the way he does. So when the reader recognizes party of himself in Stephen, he is made also to assent to this prideful part  of Stephen’s personality. Joyce brings the reader to believe himself to be, like Stephen Dedalus, unique.

But in that sentence the whole absurdity of the claim makes itself apparent. Because if every reader is like Stephen Dedalus, then the way Stephen thinks is clearly not particularly unique. And so the reader is forced to admit that he, too, is not actually unique; he is so normal, in fact, that a hundred years ago a book had already been written about the type of person he is.

And it is this self-recognition, when the reader realizes how prideful his sympathy with Stephen Dedalus is, that brings about the disgust that the reader feels towards him. Becaue the reader realizes that the main character ought not to be sympathetic, and also that the portrait drawn of the main character is as much of the reader as it is of the artist.

On Running

August 16, 2010

There is a jogging trail at the end of the street my parent’s house is on (whether it’s still “my” house is an interesting question I don’t intend to address for a few years yet), and I often walk it and sometimes run it. Both are, as many people have observed over the years, excellent ways of refreshing the mind and interacting with nature, especially for people like me who spend too much time indoors reading.

What I’ve noticed recently is that these are the only two forms of “exercise” that I can really bring myself to do. Everything else strikes me as moderately distasteful, and if I bring myself to begin, say, doing push-ups, I quickly lose interest and stop.

I have a theory as to why this is. Most other forms of physical exercise are aesthetically displeasing because they are essentially aimless. When lifting weights, there is no incentive to continue, because there is nothing to achieve beyond some arbitrary numerical goal. When running, one must either get to the end of the trail, stop running and walk the rest of the way, or turn around. The latter two are clear declarations of failure, and so aesthetically unpleasant, while I find nothing particularly wrong with stopping lifting weights at 20 repetitions rather than 30. Significantly, I only enjoy running when it is “in nature” — running on a treadmill is no better than arbitrarily lifting weights a set number of times.

It seems, then, that I would find more productive physical activity, i.e. some sort of manual labor, more satisfying. Perhaps building a brick wall. That’s something I might be able to enjoy; it’s almost like building LEGOs at life size.

Style Detection

July 14, 2010

I came across a link recently to, a site that claims to statistically analyze your writing style and tell you what famous writer your writing style resembles. I tried it out by plugging a few posts from this blog into it.

I didn’t get exactly consistent results. My most recent post, the one about Cormac McCarthy, reported “H.P. Lovecraft.” The one about AIs reported”Isaac Asimov.” The one about Andrew Bird, the one about Robert Lowell, and the one about Wallace Stevens all gave “David Foster Wallace.” Four of my unpublished short stories gave me “Neil Gaiman,” “Margaret Mitchell,” “Kurt Vonnegut,” and “Arthur Conan Doyle.”

This all makes a certain sense; something on existential horror is by Lovecraft, something about AIs by Asimov, a story with an analytic main character is by Doyle. But this is a correlation in subject matter, not style. Which defeats the entire point of the site. I don’t write like these people, I just write about the same things. That’s far from equivalent.

Nevertheless, the repeated result of “David Foster Wallace” intrigues me. I think I know what it means — I write long, sometimes overly long, sentences with precise grammar but still casual in appearance. That’s a primarily feature of the styles of both Wallace and Lovecraft. Indeed, my style here does tend to be, long complex sentences that try to flow easily into each other. My fiction writing is considerably different though. I wonder if it wouldn’t flow easier if I wrote it like I write these posts. It probably would; it would probably be worse though.

I also wondered about what author this post would claim to resemble. The site gave “Dan Brown.” Which I find, I suppose, somewhat insulting. Ah well.

Lowell, Bishop, and Confessional Poetry

June 4, 2010

I was going to make posts about each of the rest of the books of poetry we read in my 20thc.  poetry class (Gwendolyn Brooks’ A Street in Bronzeville, Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead, Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III, Jorie Graham’s Erosion, and Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things), but then my computer started freaking out and I spent most of my free time the last week trying to figure out what was wrong with it. The class is over now, and I don’t want to go back and talk about each book individually, but I do want to briefly compare two of them.

Both Lowell and Bishop have been called “confessional poets.” This means, roughly, that their poetry includes details from their personal life and sometimes has a “tell-all” feeing to it that can make it kind of awkward to read. I’m fairly skeptical about the idea of confessional poetry, but neither Lowell nor Bishop can be entirely characterized as confessional, and I find something worthwhile in both of them.

But strangely, though on the surface Lowell is the more confessional of the two, I prefer him to Bishop. I’ve been thinking about it, and I now have a theory as to why that is. Lowell at his worst makes references to events in his life we have no way of knowing about and no reason to care about, and expects us to find that meaningful in and of itself. But at his best, he ties in personal experience to broader philosophical, ethical, and political questions. Bishop, on the other hand, doesn’t give us as much irrelevant detail from her life, but nevertheless, every poem she writes is about herself, and the reader is supposed to accept her as an everyman.

The best way to illuminate the contrast is to look at their different uses of location. Lowell will mention place-names and allow the names themselves to carry weight. He’ll set a poem in Washington DC, or Maine, or Boston, or Rome, and in doing so make the poem be about  a wider historical issue. The poems “For the Union Dead” and “July in Washington” are clearly about the idea of America; the poem “The Neo-Classical Urn” is a response to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and is about nature v. artifice; “Beyond the Alps” is set in Rome and is about Catholicism.

But Bishop, though her book is called Geography III, doesn’t set poems in places we all know. She has a poem about the objects sitting on her desk; she has a poem about sitting in a dentist’s waiting-room; most indicatively, she has a poem with the complex setting of “on a bus going from Canada to Maine at night when all the passengers are falling asleep and then they stop because there’s a moose in the road.” She doesn’t give us a setting that makes the poem immediately have meaning beyond just the anecdote; she gives a setting with no meaning of its own, and thus the anecdote itself is the only source of meaning.

I think Bishop does this mostly because she’s actually less interested in what’s in the places she writes about than in how people interact with them. She’s interested in the idea of liminality, but not in what it is that one shares a border with. Lowell, on the other hand, is greatly interested in place, in time, in history, in the world.

So why do I prefer Lowell? It’s not because I think Bishop’s too abstract. I love abstraction. It’s because neither of them is abstract – both write primarily about themselves – and if you’re not going to be abstract I think it’s better to talk about things everyone can talk about than to talk about things only you know about because only you have experienced them.

Book Review: Prolegomena to Charity

March 4, 2010

I was recently talking with a friend of mine (a philosophy major) about the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. Apparently he has been called the first post-modern Catholic theologian. I was intrigued, and so went to the library and checked out his Prolegomena to Charity, a collection of seven essays approaching love from a phenomenological perspective.

The book is a strange mix of philosophy, psychology, and theology – a result, I think, of Marion’s phenomenological bent – and occasionally delves into esoterica that I don’t have enough background to understand. But for the most part, it is reasonably comprehensible. He tends not to make formal arguments, but rather to sketch an outline of a particular phenomenon and then examine its implications. Thus when I disagreed that the experience described was one common to humanity, his analysis of it was uncompelling, but when I recognized truth in his portrayal, I found his elucidation of it intriguing and often quite insightful. Since I agreed far more often than I disagreed, I learned a great deal from the book; in fact, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the questions it addresses. It has seven sections, each of which can stand on its own, though they also work together as a whole. Here are my attempts to summarize each section, hampered by my inexperience in reading phenomenological philosophy and the fact that I already returned the book to the library:

  1. Evil in Person: Marion argues that “evil” is the logic of revenge, and Satan the voice that prompts us to seek vengeance for wrongs done to us. If we even accept the idea of revenge as normative, evil acts as a counterfeit bill we have been given in payment; it doesn’t matter whether we seek revenge or absorb the insult, we lose either way.
  2. The Freedom to be Free: Marion says that we cannot prove our own freedom, but it is in fact this uncertainty that allows us to be free; we become free by choosing to be free despite our inability to know we are acting freely.
  3. Evidence and Bedazzlement: Examining the purpose of apologetics, Marion argues that the goal is not to provide a line of reasoning that leads inexorably to Christianity – for such a line would be a chain, dragging its victim into belief and denying him free will and thus personhood. Rather, apologetics should elucidate the choice that Christianity proposes, a division that boils down to an acceptance or rejection of love.
  4. The Intentionality of Love: In the longest and most involved chapter, Marion proposes a definition of love as the willing of the other’s existence. When looking at the other and trying to love her (Marion consistently uses the feminine “her” to refer to the other, and the chapter throughout describes love in romantic terms, though he means it to apply to all forms of Christian love), an unseen mirror descends between us, and I begin to love my own reflection rather than the other for her own sake. To escape this, I must allow the “I” to become “me,” to be an object perceived by her subjectivity, while simultaneously perceiving her; this situation is impossible, but the attempt, symbolized by two lovers’ gazing into each others’ eyes, results in two subjects trying to perceive each others’ subjectivity and in the process creating, where their visions cross, an experience, love, which only they can perceive. At least that’s a vague approximation of what he describes. There’s also a lot of complicated phenomenological language I don’t quite understand.
  5. The Crucial Crisis: There is a crisis (a crossroads) in our lives, Marion says, because we do not know where the crisis is, do not know what our choice is between. Christ solves this by refusing to judge, and forcing us to judge him; in doing so, we judge ourselves, and make our choice in the moment of death. Or something like that. This chapter confused me, and served primarily to reinforce Marion’s love of paradox and the importance of free will and choosing to choose.
  6. The Gift of a Presence: In the most explicitly Christian and biblical of the sections, Marion provides an exegesis of Christ’s Ascension. Christ removed himself to heaven in the act of blessing us; the creation of distance between Christ and us is thus itself the blessing, as it allows us to enter alongside Christ into the Trinitarian circle of love.
  7. What Love Knows: Marion examines the objection that when we love, we cannot know the object of our love, and responds that in fact love offers a form of knowledge, a grasp of the haecceitas of the other. Through love, we grant the other her being and allow ourselves to become a “me” to her “I”; in doing so, we know her. This article seemed, to me at least, in many ways a recapitulation of chapter 4 in particular, though with some new insights.

All of these are really quite worth reading. But what struck me while reading was how literary Marion’s imagination is – he philosophizes in terms of metaphors, with his “counterfeit bill,” “unseen mirror,” and “crossing gazes.” I get the feeling that what he is doing could be better accomplished in literature – and, in fact, much of it I have already seen in what I’ve been reading recently – Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Hopkins, Melville, even Shakespeare – all considerably older than Jean-Luc Marion or even phenomenology proper.

I’m not sure what to make of this. My inclination is to say that what Marion is doing is trying to translate literary truths into philosophical language – a perhaps not worthless attempt, but one I think necessarily subordinate to the literature itself. It is less philosophy than literary criticism – it elucidates the truth found in literature, but should be read as a supplement to literature, rather than a replacement for it.

But don’t take that as a reason not to read the book. It’s really great stuff, well worth the time spent trying to understand it. Honestly, I don’t understand why Marion isn’t discussed more often.

The Fringe

February 25, 2010

I’ve taken an interest recently in what might be called pseudo-science. What I find fascinating about them isn’t the theories they propound, though (those are usually just kind of absurd), but their use of language. It often seems like they have to invent their own language in order to communicate their non-orthodox ideas.

For example, look at the advertisement here (link goes to language log, a blog well worth reading). Half of those words don’t actually mean anything to 99% of the population.

Or the quotation from here (link goes to strange maps, another good blog); “zetetic” is a real word, but no one ever uses it, so to give themselves an air of scientific precision these people have adopted it.

Then there’s things like this, which does not invent its own words but makes quite unique use of certain phrases; “educated stupid” is a great phrase, for example. Actually, that page sounds almost like poetry – doing dramatic readings of it is really fun.

Finally, check out this guy’s Wikipedia page. His whole schtick revolves around his own personal language which he says is meant to achieve “the stopping-claims of the theft, cheating, fraud, slavery and war.” Uh, yeah.

What are we to make of all of this? It seems like all of these people have invented their own language with which to talk to themselves and their few followers, and in doing so they have lost the ability to communicate with the outside world. Effectively, they speak a different language – and thus cannot be convinced by arguments against their position propounded in English.

This has obvious implications for philosophic thought in general, I think; trying to give precise definitions to words is useful, but if the definitions given or the words used become too separated from every-day speech, they can become a crutch, a means of retaining a believe in one’s own correctness by making argument against one’s position impossible.

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