Having Been, Being Then

February 14, 2011

I’ve been listening recently to Sufjan Stevens’ album Illinois (yeah late to the party I know). I particularly like the song “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!!” But I’m not here to talk about the music; once again, I want to think briefly about misheard lyrics.

In one repeated phrase, Sufjan talks about “having been, at last, forgot.” But my mind often substitutes for “having been” the similar phrase “being then.” The line would mean something very similar, given that substitution, but not exactly the same; there is a difference between having been forgot and and being then forgot. The former places the emphasis on the event of the forgetting; the latter on the state of being forgotten. I think both would be appropriate for a song about the end of the world and the Last Judgment, but I find it interesting that Sufjan chose the event rather than the state. I’m not sure what to make of that.


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”?

Theory: A Dialogue

January 18, 2011

(For my literary theory class last semester we wrote several short papers about different theoretical ideas. One of mine, co-written with another student, took the form of a dialogue between “1” and “2” about paraphrase. Given its subject matter, it seems right to not attempt to rewrite the ideas it contains in essay form, but to simply post the thing itself. It runs as follows:)

1: To begin, I would agree with the New Critic’s claim that a poem cannot be paraphrased; or, at the very least, that such a paraphrase would necessarily be woefully inadequate.

2: It is a plausible enough sounding claim, but what precisely do you mean by “inadequate”? If a poem is saying anything at all, any format will do for communicating whatever it says. Now there might be as much controversy as you like about the meaning of a particular poem. And maybe you won’t ever be able to paraphrase all the constantly changing, evolving critical debate out there. But as long as you have a view on what the poem says, or at least what it might say, then you have a paraphrase you can express with standard English sentences. Perhaps that paraphrase is boring or contrived or awkward, but it gets across everything you believe to be the poem. There’s nothing you can’t say about the poem that you can’t say about the poem.

1: Well that hardly covers it. What about the aesthetic impression a poem makes? That can’t be replicated in ordinary language—it’s an experience, not a propositional claim. If poems were just complicated propositions then their form would be little more than decoration. But it is not mere decoration—it’s of central importance to the experience of the poem, which cannot be replicated. It is this that makes paraphrases of poetry inadequate in a way normal paraphrases are not. Poems are not simply statements, they are aesthetic objects.

2: That I will grant—a poem is independent of the description of a poem, in the same way a flower is independent of the description of a flower. Perhaps my paraphrase does not have the same “ring” to it, or perhaps it’s harder to remember. Perhaps my description of a flower fails to evoke the same emotions the actual flower might. But that doesn’t make poems special—all objects are like that. The phenomenon of the thing differs from its description. Fine. But not important.

1: No, I don’t think that’s quite right. Poem’s are not quite like flowers. You see, a flower does not mean to communicate anything at all. Perhaps there is some sense in saying it has a certain rhetoric with regard to bees. But poems are not like that. They are intentional acts of communication. And I don’t think this is trivial, because language acts’ only meaning is intentional. Flowers exist regardless of how they rhetorically affect bees, but the word “flower” only exists as long as we allow it to mean something. And poems are made up of words. Moreover, I think poems are special acts of communication. They intend a “meaning” like any statement might; but unlike other verbal acts, a poem also intends itself.

2: What do you mean by “intends itself”? All this sounds very nice, but, if you see my point, you’ll know you have to tell me specifically what it is that only a poem can tell me. You’ll have to say what it is that you cannot paraphrase, and you’ll have to say it in a way that couldn’t itself serve as a paraphrase.

1: When one speaks, one intends something by one’s speech different from the speech itself. Speaking attempts to communicate linguistically, but the act of speech, at the most basic level only produces sound waves. The meaning behind those sound waves is intended, but not explicitly present—what would it mean for it to be? For it to be present, the speech would have to carry within itself the entire context of the conversation, indeed the entire English language. None of this is present in the speech itself, yet we can say that the speaker intends for us to find it there. Synecdochally, we can say that the speech intends it. We could, but perhaps should avoid, getting into whether speech is actually the sort of thing that can intend.

2: So explain what is different about what a poem intends.

1: Consider the sentence “In the room the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo.” In normal speech, this is a proposition about the location of certain women and their activities, and intends to communicate that information. Within “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” it is something quite different.

2: Is this due to the strange form of that line?

1: No. Not really.

2: Well, what do you attribute this special sense to? Look, the line you are talking about has an unusual form, but it can nonetheless be paraphrased.

1: How would you paraphrase this line?

2: Well, I suppose I might rather say that the poem itself can be paraphrased. The sentence can be paraphrased insofar as it is part of the poem.

1: But the line cannot be paraphrased?

2: Merely because of its brevity and isolation from context.

1: Well, this is sort of what I’m trying to get at: that poetic context makes things mean differently; and that we cannot get beyond poetic context without changing meaning.

2: I’m not sure I agree with that. To say that a line cannot be paraphrased because it is within a poem is akin to saying that a word cannot be paraphrased because it is within a sentence. Certainly the individual word cannot be paraphrased, but the sentence as a whole can be. Context must always be considered when paraphrasing; the non-poetic version of the “Michelangelo” utterance can vary drastically in meaning because of context. If it followed the question, “what sort of art do women prefer?”, it would mean something different from if it followed, “where are those women, again?” But this does not render the phrase impossible to paraphrase, any more than all language cannot be paraphrased—and it would be absurd to say that no language can be paraphrased, for then the word “paraphrase” would become useless. So clearly paraphrase depends on context, for all paraphrase. My point is this: Poetry provides an unusual, but arbitrarily defined kind of context; it has no special properties that are in principle unique to poetry. Poetic context is not unique. It functions in the same was as the context of normal speech, except in that the context of normal speech is immediately obvious to the speakers while the context of poetry is not always so clear.

1: Yes but you’re ignoring aesthetics. Perhaps I take back what I said about the form of poetry. Perhaps it is the crucial difference. The sentence in question has aesthetically interesting properties, and it is because we find that poem in a poetic context that we pay attention to them. The rhyme between “come and go” and “Michelangelo” doesn’t mean anything, propositionally, but within the poem it is significant.

2: So it looks like we’re relegating the supposed uniqueness of poetry to its rhetorical value, i.e. how well it sounds?

1: That is certainly part of what distinguishes poetry from other speech.

2: But can’t anything have aesthetic value? A good speech will use the same tropes of repetition, evocative imagery, and allusions that you want to call specifically poetic. So I grant, again, that poetry can’t be paraphrased fully, qua rhetoric. But note two things: First, the word “paraphrase” does not really demand replication of rhetorical effect in the first place, and, Second, it is in any case sometimes still possible to reproduce the aesthetic effect in the paraphrase.

1: Still, poetic speech doesn’t intend to be taken rhetorically—at least the words “poetic” and “rhetorical” are not to be understood equivocally. Rhetoric seeks to persuade. Poetry may be persuasive, but poetry qua poetry entails nothing of the sort. Thus I feel legitimate in maintaining that a poem is “about” its own aesthetics in a way the speech is not.

2: I don’t follow. Are you saying poems that poems are meant to be pretty? Lots of things are pretty. What is the difference between a poem being about its aesthetics and a poem having aesthetic value?

1: A poem is not just aesthetically pleasing, but of aesthetic interest—we take rational interest in the poem’s aesthetic facts. We can hear “In the room the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo” and simply find it pleasant, but we can also try to make sense of what that rhyme does as it is situated in the poem. This is what most literary criticism written about poetry attempts to do. So, what differentiates the context of poetry from the context of normal speech is that the context of poetry draws our conscious attention to the aesthetic facts of the poem.

2: If aesthetic facts are the type of thing in which we can take rational interest, then they are the type of thing which can be paraphrased. If poems are about their aesthetics, then a summary of the poem insofar as it is as a poem, rather than insofar as it makes statements, would be a description of its use of tropes and figures, and a summary of the poem as a whole would be a combination of the two. So the poem can be paraphrased by summarizing its use of aesthetics/rhetoric as well as its propositional claims.

1: Even if that is the case—that we can paraphrase poems that way—there is no sense in which it would be an adequate account of the poem. Reading a good poem has an effect on the emotional state of the reader in a way that a description of that same poem would not. That effect, for its part, alters the way in which all aspects of the poem affect the reader. A cold, dead summary could not communicate this emotional experience that we all know to be inextricable from our encounter with a poem—inextricable from the poem in a way that it is not inextricable from normal speech.

2: To an extent, I will grant this. Yes, the way in which a poem affects my emotions differs from the way in which a description would, however elegant or correct that description may be. This having been said, it is not the purpose of a paraphrase to mimic the emotional ups and downs of a poem, but rather to be like a description, however inadequate a description it will be. Secondly, we should note that all descriptions are by nature inadequate, not merely those of poems. My description of a flower is exactly like my description of a poem, in that it would be incapable of mimicking the emotional effect of a flower in an exact way. The fact that the paraphrase of a poem is limited in its descriptiveness does not make poems “special” in any way.

1: That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all. If we allow paraphrases to be descriptions, however inadequate, then of course we can paraphrase a poem; grant that, and we can paraphrase anything, and made the word “paraphrase” meaningless. But you have completely ignored the way in which paraphrases of poems are radically inferior to paraphrases of non-poetic speech. Leaving flowers to the side, your description of a speech is not exactly like your description of a poem. What would be lacking from that of the speech would be incidental to the propositional purpose of that speech, but what would be lacking from that of the poem—its aesthetics—would be of the utmost importance.

2: You continually attempt to separate poems from normal speech by saying their aesthetics are of special importance, but it is unclear what exactly you mean by that. You shift between saying that they are aesthetically pleasing and that they are aesthetically interesting. But the first of these applies to all aesthetic objects, and the second poses no significant obstacle to paraphrase. Insofar as poems are like flowers, they can be described; insofar as poems are like speeches, they can be paraphrased. I am not denying that poems are like both of these—that poems are not reducible to normal speech—but just because a poem is like both of these things does not mean it is a third kind of thing distinct from both. I remain unconvinced that poems differ from normal speech in some deeper fundamental way that makes them impossible to paraphrase.

To be continued…

Book Review: Pierre: or, The Ambiguities

March 22, 2010

Today I finished reading Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (which I think is a great title, incidentally) for my class on Herman Melville. Now, Pierre, published 1852, was the first novel Melville wrote after Moby-Dick, published 1851. It was also his first book not set on the ocean, but rather on land. And it was a complete failure, resulting in harsh criticism and financial disaster. Melville wrote only one more traditional novel, Israel Potter, and then moved on to short stories, a “masque,” poetry, and the novella Billy Budd.

Given all of this, I did not go into Pierre was particularly high expectations. But, while (unsurprisingly) Pierre does not rival Moby-Dick – nothing can rival Moby-Dick – it is a truly fantastic book. Now, do not mistake me – it has serious flaws, including over-the-top writing, unbelievable characters, and ambiguous morality. Really, almost everything the critics complained about when it came out was present (Dr. Cowan read us some of the contemporary reviews in class, and they were quite accurate).

But they also completely missed the point. Pierre is a brilliant examination of the nature of the self,  subjectivity, love and the other; ethics, ethical pride, and the Titanic man; the artist, artistic isolation, and artistic genius; and God and the problem of evil. It both builds directly on Melville’s own treatment of these themes in Moby-Dick and moves in an entirely new direction due to the movement from land to sea and the absence of a first-person narrator.

Here, for example, is a great excerpt from a chapter discussing the face of a Transcendentalist philosopher who is majestic but “non-benevolent”:

Did I not say before that that face was something separate, and apart; a face by itself? Now, any thing which is thus a thing by itself never responds to any other thing. If to affirm, be to expand one’s isolated self; and if to deny, be to contract one’s isolated self; then to respond is a suspension of all isolation.

Is this not the phenomenological definition of “love” that Jean-Luc Marion talks about in his Prolegomena to Charity? And Melville wrote this in 1852.

Something else I find striking is how similar Pierre is in many ways to some of the novels of Dostoevsky. I suppose this ought not to be surprising; I knew a year ago that Moby-Dick and Crime and Punishment had many interesting parallels, and I’ve mentioned before how a key facet of the philosophies of both Melville and Dostoevsky is that, in Melville’s words, “it’s a mutual, joint-stock world,” or, as Dostoevsky would say, “each is responsible for all.” But I didn’t expect such a similarity in action and tone, as well as of philosophical thought:

  • Like that of Crime and Punishment, Pierre‘s central character attempts to be Titanic, a over-man, by transcending society and paradoxically becoming completely moral by transgressing conventional morality;
  • Like The Idiot, Pierre is a drawing-room novel revolving around an idealistic young man who attempts to marry in order to “save” a girl, rather than truly out of love;
  • Like Demons, it is partially a parody of the extremes of philosophic thought when devoid of love (Transcendentalists in Melville, nihilists in Dostoevsky) and the moral hollowness of the society that allows/forces these figures to emerge;
  • Like The Brothers Karamazov, it involves conflict over the memory of a father figure and the nature of guilt;
  • Finally, like any good Dostoevsky novel, Pierre ends with an act of extreme violence that is apparently the only way, in a book like this, to bring about the terrifying denouement.

Of course, their styles are quite different – Melville is more given to description and internal thoughts (multiple chapters involve various characters’ faces and Pierre’s internal reactions to them) while Dostoevsky uses pages and pages of conversation/monologue to delineate character. But, for two authors who could not possibly have read each other or even known about each other, these seem to me fascinating similarities. Perhaps they are a start towards an understanding of the modern Christian existentialist novel (existentialist here used broadly, meaning focused on the self, not the world or society). What other authors, I wonder, are as concerned with these questions as Melville and Dostoevsky? I ought to find them and read them.

Venice, Florence, Assisi

November 17, 2008

I just took a class trip to Venice, Florence, and Assisi.

Overall, I liked Florence the best – but, I think, that was at least somewhat because I went into it disposed to like Florence the best, knowing that Dante Alighieri (the greatest poet-philosopher to ever live) and Michelangelo (one of the greatest sculptors and painters to ever live) both came from there. I was also disposed not to really like Venice, because the very idea of Venice irritates me (don’t frickin’ build a city on a frackin’ sandbar unless you’re damn sure you can make sure it won’t sink on you! The city deserves what’s coming to it, I’d say) – and it didn’t help that I’d been to Stockholm, the “Venice of the North”, the previous week, and enjoyed that much more than Venice itself (I was constantly comparing the two). Assisi I knew little about going in, other than it was the home of Saint Francis.

But I’ll try to just look at the cities themselves, minus my preconceptions. First of all, Venice. Well, when we were there it was raining the entire time. I love the rain, but, in Venice when it rains all the streets flood (as in, 3-6 inches of water in some places and they have to put up elevated walkways – it’s called acqua alta)
and it’s really unpleasant to walk around, which is all there is to do in Venice except go into expensive museums that I’m not interested in (I hate most museums – perhaps a post on this later). Venice is basically a huge tourist trap, after all – a bunch of souvenir shops and expensive restaurants. It’s definitely not a city I would want to hang out in for a long period of time. It is beautiful though – the whole built-on-water aspect may be idiotic, but it does make for some picturesque views. So, Venice is pretty to look at, but not that much fun to actually be in, I’d say. At least when raining.

Florence is strange for a number of reasons. FIrst of all, it has museums I actually like. The Accademia, for example, which houses Michelangelo’s David, is actually not bad as museums go, although small. It also has some cool churches, though I didn’t get to go into as many as I wanted. The Baptistery, for example, has some cool mosaics on the ceiling. But Florence is also kind of a slum, the entire city through; except for the area right near the river, it’s really run-down, kind of poor-looking actually, and there’s graffiti everywhere (though that’s true of most of Italy, really). I enjoyed walking around in it nonetheless (it’s actually more flavorful than walking around in generic middle-class neighborhoods), but it could have been better. It’s also rather irritating that you have to pay to get into most of the churches (apparently Florence doesn’t get enough voluntary donations to its churches so it needs to charge for them).

Assisi was probably objectively the best place we went. It reminded me of Delphi in Greece, actually – both are mountain/hill small towns that are pilgrimage sites, Assisi for St. Francis and Delphi for the Oracle. So Assisi had the natural beauty going for it, and the architecture of the entire city was quite medieval (old bricks and stone-paved roads). And it was very peaceful – the city itself was quiet, and when we hiked up to a nearby hermitage it was completely silent. Very relaxing. Assisi is a tourist town, sort of, but not in the same way as Venice – people don’t usually come to Assisi unless they’re interested in the spiritual aspect, so it’s a more sincere kind of tourism, I think. And Assisi has some cool medieval churches. Overall, then, I think Assisi was the best.

So, objectively speaking, Assisi > Venice > Florence. But personally, I have to say, Florence > Assisi > Venice. At least in terms of how much I enjoyed the cities, that’s definitely the order they’re in.

Sports and “Sports”

August 23, 2008

I’ve been watching some of the Olympics this week (despite the fact that I think the USA probably should have boycotted them), and thinking about the nature of the competitions.

One thing I’ve noticed – and I’m not saying this is a particularly startling insight on my part – is that the sports can, for the most part, be divided into two categories. There’s the ones where you win by earning points, or runs, or whatever, through your own actions, and there’s the ones where you win by convincing judges to give you points. Examples of the former would be, say, baseball or soccer or tennis or the 100 meter dash or something like that; examples of the latter would be stuff like gymnastics, diving, synchronized swimming.

Now, is it just me, or is there something seriously wrong with the latter type of “sport”? I’m not sure they even deserve to be called “sports”. Sports are supposed to be tests of the athletic skill of the competitors. The competitors in gymnastics, diving, etc, are athletes, certainly, but it seems to me that these so-called sports are not testing their athletic skill – they’re testing their ability to convince the judges to give them points. This leaves the ultimate responsibility for determining the winner in the hands of the judges, not the hands of the competitors.

Which means that ideology-related bias (I could easily see a judge from the US not giving high marks to a gymnast from China because those two countries are seen as adversaries), home-field advantage (it seems to just be acknowledged fact at these Olympic games that the Chinese have an advantage in judged “sports” because the roar of the crowd is louder for their athletes, making them seem more impressive), and pure whim play much too large a role.

And don’t try to tell me that the way the judges determine the scores is in some way scientific and they are just applying a set of simple rules to what they see. Even if that is in theory the case, it is clearly not the case in real life – a sport where one judge can give a 10.0 and another an 8.5 to the same dive, for example, cannot be based on objective observation of what happened.

Still, you do have sports that are kind of on the border – I don’t know much about boxing, and so am not sure if it falls into the sports or “sports” category, and while it seems like wrestling is objective, there are apparently judged involved to determine when exactly to award a point. And even with sports like baseball or football or soccer, you have umpires or referees who have an influence on the game even though they are on neither team.

But I don’t think this is the same thing. With calling balls and strikes in baseball, for example, the umpire does have to make the call, but he is saying that an event happened a certain way. He is making a call about facts. With judged sports, they are not making calls about facts, they are translating their opinions into a pseudo-scientific scoring system. They are not saying “this dive was worth 8.5 points and anyone who disagrees with me is in error”, they are saying, “oh, let’s see, he did X, Y and Z well but messed up on W a bit… let’s give him an 8.5, that sounds about right”. And different judges can come to different conclusions, and give different point values, and this is seen as acceptable, even perhaps a good thing.

Good thing, bad thing, I don’t care – but it does make it, in my opinion, not a sport.

It would be interested to see what would happen to the Olympics if all of these “sports” were taken out, though. Most people probably wouldn’t watch if the Olympics consisted only of track and field and swimming and soccer and stuff like that. But it would be more of a contest of pure athletic skill. It would also probably result in the US beating China in the Olympic medal count; right now the US has more medals total, but the Chinese more golds, but I suspect this is largely a result of the Chinese winning in the judged “sports” (IIRC they swept men’s gymnastics, and diving too, and did really well in the women’s of both those sports too) – if you take those out, the US probably wins by a hefty margin. I don’t know, though; the US probably has a lot of medals in those sports too, after all.

More on Reason

March 29, 2008

I’ve talked about this before (twice). That was a year and a half ago. I hadn’t progressed any further on the subject until a few weeks ago, before Spring Break.

Where I last left off, my conclusion was that, while we have to make assumptions in order to come to any conclusions (i.e. we need axioms, no matter what), it’s only natural to take the validity of reason and logic as an axiom. After all, if we don’t, green pineapple rain. And that still convinces me.

But now, it seems me that the right question is not, “why not green pineapple rain?” – in other words, why shouldn’t we be irrational? Because the answer to that is, “faith”. Even if we can’t prove that logic is valid, we should accept it on faith. And this is at least one component, I think, of faith in the Christian God.

The right question is, “how not green pineapple rain?”. What I mean by this is – if it is a possibility that the world is irrational, what would it even mean for us to assume that it is rational? What does it mean for God to exist if there is such a thing as existence only when you assume that things make sense? I see this as breaking down into two cases:

  • If reason is a human construct, then God/rationality/everything depends on humanity, not vice versa. In my opinion, that’s obviously false, whether you believe in God or not (hopefully you believe in logic). It’s essentially solipsism.
  • If reason is not a human construct, then it must have some sort of being – though we (or at least I) can’t say a thing about what sort. But what does it mean for reason to be somehow real if someone can just deny its existence and then, for that person, it does not exist?

I can accept having to put my faith in something. But I don’t like the idea that my faith in it is the only thing that makes it real, because I think that denies reality itself. I’m not sure I’m expressing this coherently, but basically – it makes it so that both possibilities, reason and unreason, are equally unreal, and I just choose which illusion I want to live with. Whatever “illusion” and “live” mean. Green pineapple rain. :/

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