Tag Archives: death

Links: TV stories replace novels, etc.

1. This post at The Dish about people having their need for stories fulfilled by watching TV rather than by reading books reminds me of a similar thing Kurt Vonnegut said about why short stories aren’t purchased by and read in magazines during the age of TV as they were before TV. (I can’t seem to find this particular quote online.)

2. But I did find these collections of wonderful KVJ quotes here and here.

3. Fiction as moral, and writing fiction as a process of inquiry. See also my recent posting on fiction-as-morality here.

4. Tolstoy on meaning and death, from a recent review excerpted here:

And by accepting existence as it was they accepted its cessation too.

5. Secular societies and spiritual experiences.

6. A sarcastic-but-excellent column about why guns don’t belong on any campus.

7. We study philosophy to have our own perspectives challenged. Some great bits in this interview with philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, starting with philosophy and kids:

How early do you think children can, or should, start learning about philosophy?

I started really early with my daughters. They said the most interesting things that if you’re trained in philosophy you realize are big philosophical statements. The wonderful thing about kids is that the normal way of thinking, the conceptual schemes we get locked up in, haven’t gelled yet with them. When my daughter was a toddler, I’d say “Danielle!” she would very assuredly, almost indignantly, say, “I’m not Danielle! I’m this!” I’d think, What is she trying to express? This is going to sound ridiculous, but she was trying to express what Immanuel Kant calls the transcendental ego. You’re not a thing in the world the way there are other things in the world, you’re the thing experiencing other things—putting it all together. This is what this toddler was trying to tell me. Or when my other daughter, six at the time, was talking with her hands and knocked over a glass of juice. She said, “Look at what my body did!” I said, “Oh, you didn’t do that?” And she said, “No! My body did that!” I thought, Oh! Cartesian dualism! She meant that she didn’t intend to do that, and she identified herself with her intentional self. It was fascinating to me.

And kids love to argue.

They could argue with me about anything. If it were a good argument I would take it seriously. See if you can change my mind. It teaches them to be self-critical, to look at their own opinions and see what the weak spots are. This is also important in getting them to defend their own positions, to take other people’s positions seriously, to be able to self-correct, to be tolerant, to be good citizens and not to be taken in by demagoguery. The other thing is to get them to think about moral views. Kids have a natural egotistical morality. Every kid by age three is saying, “That’s not fair!” Well, use that to get them to think about fairness. Yes, they feel a certain sense of entitlement, but what is special about them? What gives them such a strong sense of fairness? They’re natural philosophers. And they’re still so flexible.

There’s a peer pressure that sets in at a certain age. They so much want to be like everybody else. But what I’ve found is that if you instill this joy of thinking, the sheer intellectual fun, it will survive even the adolescent years and come back in fighting form. It’s empowering.

and on philosophical progress:

There is, among some scientists, a real anti-philosophical bias. The sense that philosophy will eventually disappear. But there’s a lot of philosophical progress, it’s just a progress that’s very hard to see. It’s very hard to see because we see with it. We incorporate philosophical progress into our own way of viewing the world. … It’s amazing how long it takes us, but we do make progress. And it’s usually philosophical arguments that first introduce the very outlandish idea that we need to extend rights. And it takes more, it takes a movement, and activism, and emotions, to affect real social change. It starts with an argument, but then it becomes obvious. The tracks of philosophy’s work are erased because it becomes intuitively obvious. The arguments against slavery, against cruel and unusual punishment, against unjust wars, against treating children cruelly—these all took arguments.


What was intuition two generations ago is no longer intuition; and it’s arguments that change it. We are very inertial creatures. We do not like to change our thinking, especially if it’s inconvenient for us. And certainly the people in power never want to wonder whether they should hold power. So it really takes hard, hard work to overcome that.

and on how to teach philosophy:

How do you think philosophy is best taught?

I get very upset when I’m giving a lecture and I’m not interrupted every few sentences by questions. My style is such that that happens very rarely. That’s my technique. I’m really trying to draw the students out, make them think for themselves. The more they challenge me, the more successful I feel as a teacher. It has to be very active. Plato used the metaphor that in teaching philosophy, there needs to be a fire in the teacher, and the sheer heat will help the fire grow in the student. It’s something that’s kindled because of the proximity to the heat.


Filling in a form: Traditional stories don’t match real life

An idea I’m working through: that there is a form (not some universally existing Platonic form, but a pattern, an outline, a blank structure — even a Mad-Lib sheet, to be crude) for traditional stories, and that stories that “work” fit this form, and those that “don’t work” are those stories that try but fail to fit into this form. Of course, there are lots of fictions that don’t try to fit into this form at all, and I’m for now calling these “nontraditional stories.”

In a way, this isn’t news — I remember hearing, probably as a high school student, that there’s a certain structure to story: characters, plot, setting, rising action, climax, denouement, etc. And I know there are certain story structures that are acknowledged as formulas — certain romance fiction, three-act movies, etc. I think I accepted this idea as a shorthand, jargon-y way to talk about novels in lit classes, but I also think I resisted the idea that all stories had to have these features, or they were failures. (It has taken me a while to realize that stories don’t have to all be traditional.)

But I’m now teaching a lit class, after having taught creative writing classes for several years, and we’re reading “Of Mice and Men,” and it’s such a short, tightly written book that I’m feeling like the seams are showing — I feel like all I’m seeing here is form, is how Steinbeck put this story together in an efficient,  maybe too efficient, way. I’m looking at this story as a nearly iconic example of the fiction form — by which I mean, this story also feels mannered, empty, cold. It feels like I’m supposed to admire the architecture of the writing here. All hail Steinbeck, master of form. He’s got distinct (not complex, but distinct) characters here, bouncing off each other in a tight proximity — as if he put bees in a jar and shook the jar just to see how pissed off the bees would get. And so a woman gets killed and a mentally disabled man gets “put down” in a fashion that parallels how an old dog is “put down.” Great. Thanks, Steinbeck. Sure, his story is plausible, and I’m not saying he tells the story clinically — there’s pathos and drama there, and sadness, and etc. But it still feels so … artificed, so set-up, so much like the author is like God, pitting these characters against each other.

All this is to say that perhaps Steinbeck was a master craftsman at filling in the form, the Mad-Lib of story, and yet, this seems to bug me all the more. Because what I’m realizing is how artificial the story form is compared to how I have experienced being alive (and now I’m older than Steinbeck was when he published “Of Mice and Men” — not that Steinbeck’s wrong, but that I might be equally right).

I remember taking fiction-writing classes in college and finding it difficult to come up with reasonable conflicts, especially in my stories that grew out of my real-life experiences (an approach I wouldn’t now recommend to a young writer, but at the time I was obsessed with how Kerouac had turned his nonfiction experiences into fiction). Now, today, as I become aware of the traditional-story form, I’m thinking, shoot, I was going about it all wrong. Why didn’t I pick characters and conflicts from the start? Why try to be realistic and still fit into traditional form? (Here, I’m thinking of trad-form not only as what we encounter in formal fiction, but also this may include many of the daily anecdotes we tell each other. When I meet someone who seems to tell stories that have no point, or that don’t directly get to the point, I suppose I’m expecting that person’s anecdotes to conform more clearly to story form.)

But maybe if I only told stories where there were clear goals for each character, and clear obstacles/opponents, and conflicts, and these conflicts were external — well, I’d be writing action movies or other genre fiction. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with genre fiction, or traditional stories. I don’t mean to throw those out and not use them at all. But I’m starting to see their limits. And I’m starting to see that I’m much more personally interested in both reading and writing stories that don’t follow the traditional story form.

Here, I’m defining traditional story form as that narrative whose outcome/resolution can be causally explained in terms of characters and situations. In “Of Mice,” we can see why George killed Lennie, and why, even though this may have been a sad or tragic outcome, it also “makes sense” in the story logic — that is, readers likely find this ending satisfying. Also, traditional-form narratives have a purpose — a “point,” as in, what’s the point of this story? What’s the theme — and the narrative sets expectations (through mood/tone, symbolism, foreshadowing, etc.) to serve/reveal that purpose. “Of Mice and Men” has a serious tone throughout, and killing and death and Lennie’s problems are mentioned many times. We readers are surprised, but are not unprepared, when Lennie kills Curley’s wife and then when George kills Lennie.

I’m not saying that the set-up dictates the ending, necessarily, but as the story goes along, perhaps it narrows the range of likely (reasonable, satisfying) outcomes. Maybe Lennie didn’t have to die, but he wasn’t gonna marry Curley’s wife and head for Niagara Falls, either.

And had Lennie died from any cause not connected with the other characters’ intentions, it wouldn’t have been as satisfying, either.  Had Lennie been bitten by a rattlesnake as after he killed Curley’s wife, that wouldn’t be a satisfying conclusion, because that would seem too random, would be a cause that wasn’t provided for earlier in the story.

But this is the limitation of story — we expect there to be reasons. We are satisfied when there are human reasons and causes for things — that is, when the good are rewarded and the bad (or in Lennie’s case, the hapless and dangerous) are punished.

But of course, things happen all the time in real life that have no cause in human behavior. Tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes regularly kill people. Young, healthy people get brain aneurysms and die. My dad was killed when he was a passenger in a truck hit by a much bigger truck. What bugged me when this happened, a few years ago now, is that there was no story there. There was a scientific explanation for why his body ceased living, of course, but there was nothing he did, no intentional move or even mistake he made, that led to his death. (And whenever I’ve heard people say, in situations like these, something like “no one can know God’s plan,” it’s always felt like complete bullshit.) And further, this death was no satisfying ending for any overall narrative of my dad’s life; my dad had some problems he was working through, and then he got killed, and — huh.

So we can study traditional stories as the — what’s a good metaphor here — magician’s device that they may be, so long as we’re clear that traditional stories have not much to do with how one may experience real life. And yes, there will still be lots of popular books and movies and nonfiction narratives that will try to fit into the traditional story form. And I can teach my students how these work, and maybe that will spoil some of their surprise in encountering these stories, but education shouldn’t just teach kids to fill in these forms, but to also take these forms apart, see how they work, and understand that they are forms.

But I think what has become clearer for me today is that not all stories are failing stories if they don’t fit the traditional model. And maybe I prefer those stories that don’t try to fit the mold, that don’t try to end clearly and cleanly — those seem to have more legitimacy to me, at this stage in my life, in my intellectual development. Perhaps some people like the idea that life can be tidy, some people who prefer to know exactly how everything comes out.

Far be it from me to end this post tidily.

P.S. (Here I lose the tidy ending): I suspect, after recently talking to some family members who appreciate fiction more than I do, that at least some people who read genre fiction do so in order to get absorbed, get their attention absorbed, into the story. My wife reads historical romances, she says, so as to forget about the stresses of the workday at her law office. I get that. I also read to relax, but I tend to read news articles online or New Yorker profiles, (‘cuz that’s how I roll.) Whether we’re reading genre fiction or news articles, my wife and I are both reading things that we don’t have to think too hard about. The forms of each are familiar to us, and because these forms are familiar, we don’t have to think too much about them. We can mostly accept whatever the words are telling us.

But perhaps the forms mean different things to us individually: I get annoyed at fiction that feels fake, and my wife doesn’t want the stress of having to read about problems in the world. Maybe we have our preferences of form because we agree at a fundamental level with the assumptions and conventions of each form. I’d rather read mediocre writing about the real world because, well, it’s about the real world, and maybe my wife feels the opposite.

P.P.S.: A few minutes after posting this, I’m thinking that one could read this whole frustration with fiction as some misplaced grief I still feel over my dad’s sudden death. Could be, maybe, but I don’t think so — I was frustrated with fiction for several years before he died. But, I do recall being especially frustrated with the idea of story, and how my dad didn’t get to finish his, after his death.

P.P.P.S.: And to clarify, I don’t mean to say that all traditional-story writers have it easy. But I do want to say that I think that I’m more interested, as a writer, of realizing the limits of old forms and of trying out new forms, than I am in completing the task of trying to fill in the trad-story form.

Surveillance is interesting but beside the point

While listening to a recent “Fresh Air” broadcast about the history of government surveillance, which mentioned some of the numerous attempts to gather digital information in ostensibly trying to prevent another terrorist attack, I thought about this post at The Atlantic that points out that in the interval of 1999 to 2010,

terrorists killed roughly 3,000 people in the United States. And in that interval,

  • roughly 360,000 were killed by guns (actually, the figure the CDC gives is 364,483 — in other words, by rounding, I just elided more gun deaths than there were total terrorism deaths).

  • roughly 150,000 were killed in drunk-driving accidents.

So, the surveillance programs are focused on a threat that is responsible for far fewer deaths than the rather mundane, always-with-us problems of gun violence and drunk-driving.

But I suspect that all the government and private-contractor employees — presumably, smart, ambitious people — are involved in intelligence work because, well, it’s intellectually engaging, technologically challenging work. Analysts get to look at evidence and try to find killers before they strike again — it’s a mystery show! It’s interesting, perhaps in a way that fighting these boring-but-deadly problems isn’t, but it seems a situation reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch:

“More apparatus please, nurse … the E.E.G, the B.P. monitor, and the A.V.V.” “And get the machine that goes ‘ping.'” “And get the most expensive machine in case the administrator comes.”

Nonfic: A talk before dying: final conversations

candle-darkHere’s an article in The New York Times about saying goodbye to people who are dying.  Sometimes we are aware that the conversation we’re having now might be our last, but of course, people die unexpectedly — the last talk I had with my dad before his death in a car crash was not the last I thought I’d have with him. Afterwords, I thought about that last conversation and wondered if it were significant in any way except in its retroactive finality. I was soon to be married and I asked my dad if he had any advice about being married. I was conscious of this question feeling sorta forced, sorta self-aware-attempting-to-be-profound-in-a-regular-life-moment. (There’s gotta be an agglutinized German word for this.) Dad had nothing brilliant to say at the moment, nor did he try, nor did I expect him to, in a way. He was not a self-reflective person, and his only marriage, to my mom, revealed that relationships were not his area of expertise. (He reportedly once said that he just wasn’t a good candidate for marriage.)

Digression: There are a lot of skills, it has occurred to me, that one has to be competent with in order to be a successful modern adult. These abilities include: 1) the skills to do a job well enough, and the “soft skills” not to get fired from this job; 2) a capacity to maintain relationships with one’s spouse, family, friends, children, etc., each of which relationships have unique demands; 3) a facility in managing one’s money and one’s household; 4) a reasonable judgment about issues medical, psychological, mechanical, and legal, such that one knows when to seek expert help; 5) a sense of one’s identity and a philosophical sense of asking the important questions and prioritizing one’s values and attempting to understand what will make the living of life itself enjoyable and rewarding; 6) an ability to ask and answer the question, “Is it me or is it them?” in the many social situations in which one daily finds oneself (to give one of many possible examples: when I smell something foul, is it because I have trapped dog crap between my shoe treads, or is this smell somebody else’s fault — and if it is their fault, how does one mention this? And how can you be sure that one’s own olfactory sense is acting objectively? And if you figure it’s someone else’s funk, how does one tell that to the other?). This list of competencies  could go on, of course, but I think of this when I meet adults who seem to lack these skills. It can be hard to be an adult. I’m just lucky that I find myself so terrifically competent at being an adult and humble enough not to brag about it.

Back to the death-talk:  There is a question about whether the last conversation we have with a person who later dies should be considered any kind of special or privileged thing. My dad died suddenly, without us having a conversation we knew to be final, but I did have a final conversation (or so I suspected at the time) with my friend and former supervisor Charlie. I think I may have wanted a “special moment” there, but then I realized that was a B.S. way of thinking during the time I was with him. We were together in his hospital room long enough for me to get over thinking about the experience as I was having it, and we just talked. What the hell else could we do, really? We talked about his condition, then about books he was reading, ideas he had for writing projects, the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols, etc. He said he would be less lucid as the day went on as he increasingly felt the effect of the morphine drip. The last thing I remember from that conversation was his other family members coming in and they started talking about getting Charlie a computer — practical stuff. But that conversation doesn’t really rank that highly in my memories of the most important moments in our friendship.

The meaning only seems to come after the experience. It seems like B.S. to try to live in the thought of what the current moment will mean in the larger story of one’s life. After the deaths of some of people whose deaths surprised me, or reminded me how suddenly life can end, I have felt the impulse to end each new conversation with some sense of closure, of not leaving things unsaid. This action is perhaps driven by fear, and when I realize the fear-motive, I try to let it go and accept transience and all that.

But, as the Times’ article quotes Roger Ebert as saying, “Words fail me.” Much as I love words, they cannot subsume or contain reality. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address makes this point — “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here” — though, of course, the paradox is that Lincoln’s words were so beautiful that they helped keep alive the story of what the soldiers did there.

But lately words have seemed to me more valuable as components of an experience (building-blocks of a thought, of a conversation, of a writing-experience or of a reading-experience) than as containers of meaning (words are less like bowls that hold the jelly of meaning, and more like sieves that let meaning drain away — this metaphor also suggests another aspect of meaning: also like jelly, it can’t just sit around without becoming worthless. Meaning must be refreshed — like how jelly must be made anew each year?).

It may not matter precisely what we say as much as that we say what we say (and perhaps how we say it). Labeling and describing the world does not change the world (though, of course, language users — including even my dog, when he responds to my commands — can rearrange the world based on instructions and ideas delivered through words). Much as I love using words, and much as my daily experience would be quite different without words — words are the jelly through which I swim (and how would we mix metaphors without words?) — I guess I don’t believe words can be Truth. I don’t believe there can be any Meaning of Life that can be put into words (without sounding banal). I guess I don’t believe that words and ideas could somehow exist outside of human consciousnesses. We live whether we talk or not. Silence is (or can be) golden. I wouldn’t want to be silent all the time, but I sometimes do need to take breaks from words — reading, writing, speaking, and/or hearing them — and just go outside and walk and see trees and hug my dog and stuff.

And so I’ve once again gone on for over a thousand words in a blog post that started off small (but what doesn’t?). Some of the ideas and digressions above were things that had passed through my mind and struck me as as ideas that could be their own separate blog posts, but I’m amused today to see how these minor ideas got stitched together, like a quilt (maybe one of jelly?). This stitching was only partly intended — a lot of it just kinda came together. Perhaps the sum is more than the parts, and while the parts were ideas that came to me over years, today’s blog post is a unique stitching-together. This post is an expression that resulted from my reading and my writing this morning. I have sat here for a while now and I’ve been breathing and metabolizing and my liver has been responding to my body’s chemical signals — all of these things going on, (I presume, since I’m still alive at this moment to write this), while my conscious mind did this word-expressing.

My brother told me recently that some of these blog posts are difficult to read. That stung a little, as all criticism-from-family tends to, but then I thought, yeah, I’m just putting words into symbols here in a text document. This is a writing experience I have enjoyed having. Perhaps this text is not easy for a reader, and I don’t intend to be difficult, but I have chosen to post this text without extensive re-organizing and slimming-down. If my purpose were efficient communication, this post would look different. But I have nothing here that I particularly need to communicate. I felt a need to get certain ideas out, to set them into the world (as symbols), and I felt a need to, well, just write. This text isn’t intended merely to convey meaning (by carrying the meaning-jelly in the sieves as fast as I can? or by freezing the jelly?), but this text is intended only to exist, and if reading it conveys a sense of a mind, a distinct-but-relatable consciousness, that’s all I want, I guess.

Links: Wither diaries?

The New York Times Room for Debate feature discusses the role/value of diaries in the age of social media. I don’t personally use the word “diary,” for some reason, though my journals contain diary-stuff sometimes. Through there, I also enjoyed this link to a Morgan library diary exhibit overview.

Other links, via The Dish: death, memory, and writers as not-regular-people.