Tag Archives: ideas

Perhaps God is a cat: Notes from my May brain

Leaf in rain run-off, gas station parking lot, Stillman Valley, Ill. 10 May.

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When you tell a joke, you make an argument to the audience, which has to agree to see the context/set-up from the your perspective. And when you tell a joke, you mean it, at least in that moment. You reveal that you’ve taken a position — say, if you tease someone for being short, you are revealing that you have an idea of what height people should be. You reveal your expectations, your criteria for judging others. 30 April.

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Ideas about the past — like those in a documentary I saw about London in the 1300s — are still just ideas. 2 May.

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Grass. 7 May 2017

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“I love it when people get embarrassed — unless it’s me,” said a senior student of mine, practically defining what it means to be embarrassed. 4 May.

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Dandelion. 3 May 2017.

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Looking at papers containing student arguments, I read a student’s statement that said our class definition of “real” is true. But then I thought that definitions aren’t true or false — they’re just definitions. 4 May.

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My wife uses our dog to model a necklace. 26 May.

Our dog, Sammy, models a second necklace. 26 May.

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It’s kinda weird that English professors just write about interpreting other texts. I know I’ve read some interesting interpretations, and yet, it seems odd that so much writing in our culture is not about real things or events but about other texts or artworks. Watching the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? recently, I’d noticed something I’d not noticed over several previous viewings (specifically, that at least four times, a character mentions that people are looking for “answers”). It strikes me as interesting, this repetition of this idea, but I don’t really know that observing this pattern is all that important — it doesn’t  fundamentally change my interpretation of the movie. It starts to feel like a game that the filmmakers are playing, if they did this intentionally, but to what end? I wonder what’s satisfying for me in playing this art-interpretation game. 10 and 12 May.

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Demolition of buildings at southeast corner of Rt. 38 and 1st Street, DeKalb, Ill. 23 May 2017.

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I’m 43. I could live another 43 years — or I could have a heart attack tomorrow. I feel both old and not-old (or I feel these alternately). Driving down my town’s 2nd Street today, I saw two young men crossing an empty lot and I thought about the generations coming up, how they too will grow old with us. And then I saw a very old man out front of a house, and I thought, that could be me one day — but it’s not me yet. 11 May.

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We ask questions of other people when we want some information from them. But a mind may also ask something about the physical world — “Why does this natural feature (like a cave, say) exist?” But the physical world doesn’t answer our inquiry. We humans have to figure it out ourselves. Our question is an abstraction that is satisfied only by another abstraction, the answer. 12 May

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View north toward intersection of Main and Walnut streets, Stillman Valley, Ill. 10 May 2017.

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Perhaps God is inscrutable because God is a cat (at least it’s a funny conceit: “And the Lord sayeth unto Jacob: ‘Rairr.'”). Perhaps God has a feline sensibility instead of a human one; if God’s as indifferent as cats are, that might explain the problem of evil. 16 May.

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As I was walking my dog this evening, I was shifting my mindset from focusing only on my life (my stresses, etc.) to remembering the dog also lives in the world — and he lives differently from how I live. He lives in a different mind. 19 May.

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Dirty wind obscures stop sign, NW of Rochelle, Ill. 17 May.

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ALL ideas are “according to” some person — all ideas, all facts, all stories come from a person (rather than existing spontaneously in nature, say). 23 May.

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I was too tired last night to read, which means thinking of elsewhere. I could only be here, and tired. 24 May.

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Waiting to graduate: My students Dylan P., Kayway P., Josh N., Taylor N., and Aly N. 27 May.

My creative writing students Alex M., Kenzie L., Owen M., and Ashley M. 27 May.

Several characters I’ve had as students this year. From left: Katelyn R., Zach P., Katelyn P., Matt P., Alexia P., Christian P., Kenzie P. 27 May.

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As students lined up for their high school graduation ceremony, one senior said to teacher as she walked past, “Thanks for pushing me through!” The teacher answered, “Thanks for passing!” 27 May.

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Two of my creative writing students, Luis M. and David E., with yours truly, after the graduation. 17 May.

Devyn D., Ali V., and me after the graduation ceremony. I’m not always good at using my face to convey normal human expressions. 27 May.

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The only way we know to root for the Rebels against the Empire in Star Wars is that the Empire uses worse methods — their means (such as Vader choking a subordinate) are excessively violent, and therefore illegitimate. Both sides have the same ends of wanting power, wanting to be in control — the main reason why we root for one over the other is the morality of the means. 28 May.

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Visiting a cemetery on 29 May, it came to my mind to say that I like cemeteries because “nobody’s trying too hard.” There’s a calming lack of ambition among the graveyard denizens.

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Maple in a cemetery, Byron, Ill. 13 May.

Ideas aren’t real: A classroom discussion

 

The paint doesn't know why it's peeling, nor does it seem to care.

The paint doesn’t know why it’s peeling, nor does it seem to care.

My students are trying to figure out what’s real.

I challenged my class of high school writers, as part of our study of argument, to define the word “real.” After a couple days of discussion, we came up with a tentative definition: something is real if it can be seen or touched or proved to be present.

So, physical material is real. If it’s something I wouldn’t want to hit against my head, it’s real. But ideas, which can’t been seen, are not real.

Someone said that the desk she was sitting at seemed real. I said, the materials are real, but the idea of that object being a “desk” is just an idea. My dog, which can’t understand language as we do, still goes around objects rather than through them, but he doesn’t know what an object is named or how it can be used.

One student asked, if I have an idea to make a desk, and then I make a desk, how did that thought become real? Two things, I said: 1. How ideas in the mind cross over to the body, nobody can yet explain, but 2., what she built was still not a “desk” — it’s a new arrangement of physical things.

Another student asked whether atoms were real. We defined atoms as particles that make up all objects. They are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. We discussed the parts of this definition, including that the size of an atom is to an orange as an orange is to planet Earth. (An idea contained in this video. See also this post.) But such an explanation requires us to use our imaginations, which is a turn away from the physical world itself. We also discussed what a proton is, and how it’s got “positive charge,” and how this charge is a “fundamental property,” which is another way of saying, scientists can’t yet explain how or where this charge arises. 

And so, atoms are not real things that can be seen or touched. Atoms, rather, are explanatory ideas, and ideas are not real. Atoms are part of a scientific story, an interpretation, of how the world works. Physical matter itself doesn’t need to understand itself. Things don’t think. Only people think, and what we think are ideas, and ideas are not physical things.

Now, it can be useful to have science ideas about the world. If we want to alter the physical world — say, to build a house from wood or undergo surgery to fix a disease — it’d be nice to have the most useful ideas possible about how the house-building or body-repairing should go. Where early doctors would prescribe bloodletting to cure a variety of illnesses, modern doctors don’t. We like modern medicine because its ideas seem more successful at getting cures.

But, of course, modern medicine isn’t perfect. Much remains to be explained, to be mentally modeled. I suggested that there could be fictional ideas (which we don’t care if they are realistic), like how Greek mythology says Zeus turned into a bull, and nonfictional ideas (which we’d like to be as realistic as possible), like scientific interpretations, that atoms have parts called protons, electrons, and neutrons. And the nonfiction ideas are never perfect, are never worthy of being called “The Truth,” because they must remain open to revision, as new ideas are learned. The story of science remains imperfect.

 

So, why do we care about science? Our ancestors got by without it. The fact that we’re here means our ancestors knew enough to survive in the world (get food, form shelter, make babies, raise ‘em). However, science ideas are now taught in school because it’s important for citizens now to know these so as to be able to “join society,” as one student said. And we’d like the people we trust to do physical things — like engineers and doctors — to agree amongst themselves as to the best ideas for doing things. I don’t want the person designing the bridges I drive on to choose a different idea for gravity than what’s commonly accepted (unless his ideas are shows, through argument and evidence, to be better, the way science is supposed to proceed). 

So even though what schools teach are just imperfect stories, mere ideas, and not reality itself [ I wonder what a school that didn’t teach ideas would look like], these imperfect ideas are what we have to tie each other together into a society. If each individual had his/her own ideas about what’s real, that might be chaotic, a student said.

So we take part in civil, communal society by sharing some ideas about the best ways to think about physical reality.  And yet, of course, we shouldn’t take these ideas too seriously. I think it’s useful to form an idea about ideas. I told students that the reason we’re talking about ideas and reality is that it can be useful for them to have a theory of knowledge, and to question how it is that ideas are accepted or revised. When one student said he’d question his other teachers about how things are known in those classes, I said he could, but to remember that when Socrates asked too many questions, he got killed. Sometimes, people who like to believe that their ideas are real don’t like to have their ideas questioned.

Some students said it got them upset to think about these things, to ask these questions, to think of reality this way. I said I wasn’t trying to upset them, but that I like to think that ideas aren’t real because then it lets me think of new ideas. I also said, maybe it’s helpful to think that ideas aren’t real — real physical things themselves don’t give us ideas for how to change the things. Only ideas can direct us to change the physical things — change comes from the unreal.

A student asked if students’ grades merely tell how well they learn the unreal stories.  Yeah, I said. And I said that that’s why I like having discussions, so I can provoke students to ask these questions. Another student asked at the end of class yesterday: so schools brainwash us? And I said, well, kinda, but I’m having this discussion to help you unbrainwash yourself — unless that’s just a different kind of brainwash!

 

The memoirist’s Faustian bargain

An article about the books Karl Ove Knausgaard has written about his own life points out the difficulty of writing about one’s family members.

He also wanted to be truthful, and that meant including the real names and real lives of the people he loves. It’s a Faustian pact and Knausgaard, never anticipating sales like this, was naive about the repercussions, some of them irreparable.

This is why I don’t want to write about my family or my colleagues in any critical or “truthful” way: I don’t want to piss people off. As Richard Hugo wrote:

In real life try to be nice. It will save you a hell of a lot of trouble and give you more time to write.

I side with Hugo: I want to have good, trusting relationships and stable life-conditions so that I can continue to write. I can’t write when my life is in uproar.

I get that some people may want to use their life experiences as fodder for their art, or they may want to use their art to work through their life experiences. (Or as Tim Parks says here, some authors may intentionally write about others: “[D. H. ]Lawrence frequently and blatantly put people he knew in his novels and seemed to relish the fallout. Joyce was the same.“)

But to my mind, anyone who writes about other real people risks taking his own opinions as being more than just opinions. I have been guilty at times of thinking that my ways of seeing and judging things are correct, which then allows me to label others’ perceptions as incorrect. It seems part of maturity to acknowledge that, of course, my opinions and judgments about other people are no more true than their judgments of me are.

I don’t want to be judged by others (and neither did Sartre) — and even though I know others will judge me, I don’t necessarily want to know what they think. I suppose that a world in which we went around telling other people what we really thought of them (rather than telling “white lies” or just being silent) would be a much less pleasant world.  Some people brag that they don’t care what others think. When I hear this, I hope that they’re bluffing, because people who truly don’t care what others think are just asocial or assholes or asocial-assholes.

So I don’t want to write what can be perceived as accurate depictions of real people. I don’t want to write about how a person “really is,” as if such a thing were possible anyway. (And of course, the celebrity profile in certain popular magazines matters only if it seems to convey a “real” picture of a celebrity, but of course,  how is there anything real or natural about Esquire’s “2013 Sexiest Woman Alive” Scarlett Johansson sitting in a Manhattan bar and asking her interviewer, “What do you want me to write?” on a hotel pad of paper after she has “eagerly” taken the interviewer’s pen.)

So me, I write about ideas. I don’t want to write about reality. I mean, I do sometimes write down exact quotes of things I hear (which accuracy of quotation depends on my auditory acuity and processing) and I sometimes write things I see while I am writing in that place (for examples,  here and here). But I want to be as objective as possible here, reporting only things that can be directly sensed — I try not to characterize. Strictly speaking, I do characterize merely by choosing what to observe, what to pay attention to, and what to write down.

When we write about living people, we writers are, in some sense, trying to say something about how those we write about “really are.” (If we aren’t at least trying to be accurate, we’re simply lying about that person.) Yes, we readers can be skeptical and acknowledge that no description can be fully accurate, etc., and yet the written description may, if we lack contradictory or competing information, become the default understanding we have of a person.

I’m skeptical that any person can be usefully depicted or captured in words or ideas, and I’m not sure that any ideas can be said to capture or adequately convey any reality. But looking at the options and possibilities of ideas, all the different ways that we can experience and conceive real things, this interests me more than writing about real people. Maybe I’d advise writing about completely fictional people, or writing poems about things any person could experience, rather than trying to write about what a real person really did.

Update, July 2016: New York Times essay: When You Write a Memoir, Readers Think They Know You Better Than They Do

Indecipherable metaphorical palimpsest: Letting go of past ideas

I’ve been here, writing at the top of a blank screen, three or four times already. You, reader, wouldn’t know that.  (Even if many people read this post, we read it one mind at a time. Each mind’s on its own, reading-wise, right?)

And I put an idea out there — that I write my journals so I can get ideas out of my mind, so my thinking doesn’t burden others by me telling them all of my ideas — and that’s an idea I had earlier today, and it’s sorta inert. By inert, I mean, it’s … it’s sorta done already. I don’t want to deal in done-ideas; I wanna have new ideas.

I want to write what I don’t know about already (even that’s an old idea). I had an idea a few minutes (and at least one start-over) ago that I don’t have to know where I’m going as I write, that I could really just be as open as possible to new ideas and whatnot. And then that thought seemed worth holding onto, until I realized I was holding onto it and by do doing, I was not being open and fresh and ready to receive new ideas — sitting on the cusp of a new idea.

Metaphors are inept, but then, so are all words. Words are not ept.

But I’ve been critical of words before, too. It’s New Year’s Eve now and I don’t feel very much like looking back or looking forward — I will say this idea that comes to mind from when I thought it yesterday: that I’ll complete my 40th year of living this year, and I had a feeling yesterday, as a salesman at the electronic store explained Windows 8’s “charms” to me (not the program’s charm, but its actual usable features uncharmingly called “charms,” apparently), that I am …

See, it doesn’t matter what I thought, because it was just a thought and it was fleeting, and so I can let it fleet. Also, a charms criticism reference made in 2013 is probably dumb, and so I’ll probably take it out, and if I leave this line in, this text will be hard to read — that revisability aspect of writing can make it some indecipherable metaphorical palimpsest …

And I’m now spiraling into meta-writing and personal self-criticism. Moving on.

So, you know, or should I say, just so you know, I reminded myself today that I don’t really need to feel old as I approach 40. It’s a cliche to think that turning 40 matters.

Someone recently asked me why I write things down — this was at our local diner and I had a piece of paper out and was noting things I heard — for instance, an older lady actually, unironically, used “crick” instead of “creek,” a typical Midwesternism — I felt I was documenting some actual usage. I told my questioner that it’s interesting to pay attention to overhearing others and noting some things, because it makes me realize how much cliche people use (myself not excepted).

And we use cliches and familiar expressions because these things can facilitate communication of meaning. An older man at the diner last week said, “I can’t say enough good things about” a local hospital, where (I’m presuming) he was recently treated, and treated well. I imagine this man trying to say enough good things … standing at a street corner and uttering praises, maybe as someone utters prayers. But that’s me, and I have a tendency to be what some call a “smart-ass,” and I take words apart as if words meant nothing, as if communication were impossible, but of course I’m aware of language weirdness but I also write as if language could convey stuff.

Eh, what are ya gonna do? I’ve also thought lately that it was … I don’t remember what it was that I thought lately. At any rate, it’s past, no? And I’m trying to stay present. I’m carrying on this monologue, straight from my brain-parts to your brain parts. Oh, here is my idea from a day ago: that there can be sentences whose meanings can’t both be true — say, “This stapler is made of metal” and “This stapler is not made of metal” and these two statements don’t try to resolve their discrepancy — it’s only within a reader’s mind that these two statements would feel/seem discrepant, and then we may feel we need to discern which statement is real (and if we’re gonna get technical, which, why not?, we might examine the definitions of the nouns and verbs above — what does it mean to be “made of” something?).

And yeah … I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s damned freeing to not know. To not-know may mean to let go. Writing piles up in books or online, or wherever, and nobody really needs it, probably. Sartre’s dead, my dad’s dead, and I’ll be dead one day. But those too are just ideas — hell, Sartre’s just an idea.

And now I’m boring myself. I’m at 800-some words. I could edit this down to make that last sentence a lie. I could take out every other word as a sort of avant-garde experiment. I could just publish this post in the middle of this sentence. But I didn’t.

 

Reality’s ‘weiners’: Words point beyond words

From a notecard I wrote Weds., 27 Nove. 2013, after shopping at Woodman’s, a big grocery store in Rockford:

I was in the refrigerated food section, in an aisle with cheese to my right and O.J. to my left. I came up behind a cart where a boy was sitting in front and the gate was down and he was swinging his heels and kicking the gate below him. As I passed this cart, I saw a package labeled “weiners” in the cart behind the boy. These may have been in the yellow-red Oscar Meyer package, but what I remember seeing was “weiners.”

I thought how, of all the things I could have noticed — the other shoppers, the boy, the cheese, the O.J., I noticed “weiners” — I saw this, processed this visual as a word, read it, got the meaning, and what I got out of that moment was “weiners.”

I’m posting this because — well, I’m not sure. I’m posting this now maybe because I want a post that has “Weiners” in the title — or maybe I want to post something since I’ve been trying to write this post for over an hour now and I feel like I’m spinning my wheels — I’ve had some ideas but I feel like these wouldn’t do much for anybody but me.

I earlier wanted to claim that this moment described above was valuable because it was real — and because my mind somehow made me aware at the time of that present moment (“moment” implies that boundaries had been drawn around a specific duration or experience, and maybe my mind did that, too, at about the same time as it observed and read “weiners”). I was aware of myself having awareness — I was conscious of my conscious perception of “weiners.”

But now, in describing this experience, I’m relating an abstraction. I’m claiming that I really did have the experience described above, but of course, I could have made it up. It could be fiction. Either way, as fiction or nonfiction, the description above is a product of my mental experience, my inner voice that picks the words.

Lately, I’ve been wondering why I tend to value nonfiction more than fiction. Perhaps it’s because I read a lot of fiction as a young person, and I grew up with relatives that were good storytellers, but as I got into my later 20s, I started to question the value of the stories I’d been told. I started to sense that Jack Kerouac’s adventures may not have been as fun to experience as they were to read, and that my family’s stories may have unfairly characterized certain family members.

And from my memory: in the fall of my freshman year of college, I went on an after-dark hike on a trail through the woods, and my friends and I were talking about reading Tolkien, and I remember feeling excited to find other Tolkien fans, and somehow I had a feeling that night of the dark woods being linked with the glory of Bilbo’s adventures, and I remember later that same year that I wanted to write a story that could capture and convey, or recreate, that sense of specialness, an idea mixed with an experience (as if, perhaps, I was interpreting the experience as I was having it). And this is a story I now hold and am using here to explain and/or justify an attitude I’ve taken.

Maybe I don’t like fiction in that I feel nonfiction is fascinating enough — that I don’t need superheroes or fantastic plots in order to find things interesting. Just looking at a real thing — say, my cell phone that is on the desk before me — is pretty interesting. I mean, it is, and it isn’t. It’s not some great action movie, and yet, this is true, whereas everything in a Spiderman movie is not.

Real life is fascinating in its “there-ness” (I’m not sure if this is what Heidegger meant by “Dasein” — probably not — but it comes to mind that I should point it out). And even as I write here and now, I’m using conventions like “I” and “is” and “now” and “there” that are words — quite abstract words — referring to things (and “things” is abstract as hell too) that are obvious in one’s experience but hard to prove or convey. “I” is the word that I use as the source of words that I write — it’s the name for whatever is doing the experiencing that seems private to me (and here we go with the linguistic run-around, how we can define words only in terms of other words, and we can’t break across that idea/reality divide, so that everything that I think about reality is itself an idea, not reality.

“My phone is there in front of me”: “phone” is a label, sure, referring to some physical object; “My” and “me” again refer to this idea of “me-ness” (And Heidegger, in creating or redefining “Dasein,” is just again pointing out the frustrations of using language — defining his way out, which is not a solution.); “in” and “of” show relations; but “is” and “there” both seem to refer to, to make claims  of, reality — but reality (whatever “reality” the idea actually refers to) doesn’t make or need claims. The phone is there — duh. I can see and feel that it’s there without even forming that statement (unless Descartes’s evil genius is deceiving me — but I have no reason to doubt the proper function of my senses. I’ll take what seems real AS real).

And yet, there is some kind of unique value to claims made about real things. For instance, a claim about my phone made now will one day become a historical record, in a way that an old fiction cannot. Historians use, for instance, probate documents to tell us about the lives of past people such as Shakespeare. But then, statements about past people and things are merely ideas and not reality any longer.

So I can’t defend nonfiction texts as necessarily being any more real than a fiction text. We educated Westerners are trained to think of nonfiction texts as having evidentiary, and thus, argumentative, value that fictions don’t have, but then most of what we call education is training students to process abstractions in the same way teachers do.

But perhaps I value nonfiction — or, let’s say, writing about reality, writing about what’s really in front of me, and/or what thoughts really come to mind — as a way of simply coming to pay more open-minded attention to what is before me, near me. The language fails to reach outside of the realm language — language has no purchase on, cannot grip, physical things — but using language is a sign that I’m still alive (as Descartes said, roughly), and somehow consciousness seems the greatest mystery. Being alive is fascinating — and that to try to convey this through language fails utterly, of course, pointing me away from words, back toward living.

And now I realize I’ve written hundreds of words explaining why words fail to describe particular things, and I’ve ended up by detailing a hearty abstraction about why words fail to describe particular things. Distinctions fall apart, too.

I am writing this; I’m alive, and writing what I see and hear and think, these remind me I’m alive — something I don’t really need to be reminded of at all.

POSTSCRIPT, a day later: A couple following-up thoughts.

1. Maybe what seemed so odd about seeing the word “weiners” on the food packaging isn’t just that that particular word (of all the things I could be looking at) stood out to me, but also that once I had seen it, that word fully occupied my mind. I hadn’t been thinking of weiners at all, but once I saw that word, that word was in my mind, and I considered how I could call that noisy boy a weiner. The word occupied — or even, became — my mind, my crystalized thought (see here for another reference to thought crystals).

2. The post above seemed to end with me saying that the priority is to know you’re alive. Today, I’m not sure I’d defend that idea. I might instead say that simply being alive is the priority.

3. On the drive home from work tonight, I thought that the mentions above about “there-ness” could also be explained this way: that sometimes (and not always), I see something is near me, and I’m struck by that thing being there. Not surprised, exactly, but struck — like tonight, a particular leafless tree’s shape drew my attention, and I was struck by that tree being there. It wasn’t a weird or strange tree; it was just that tree. It was there. It seems dumb to use such simple words, but as the post above says, sometimes those are the deepest words, the hardest to understand.

Or last Wednesday, before I went to the grocery described above, I was eating at a fast-food restaurant and facing the low-angled southern light, and I noticed a glint of light, a perfect little speck of sunlight, coming to me from the slug of ketchup in a paper cup. It was striking — not that it was so beautiful (in the usual sense of aesthetic beauty), but that it was there, that I had noticed it, and maybe that the world is so intricate that there can be glints on ketchup.

Another time, I might not have noticed it. I see things all the time and treat them merely instrumentally, particularly when I have a task or goal as an overriding thought. At these times, I may see objects as things to step or drive around, and I may look to use a certain object to achieve an end (for instance, I may grab my keys to unlock a door) — and I may not be actually paying attention to these objects. I probably identify the car, person, or key at some basic level and I respond to each as is proper for me to accomplish my task.

But when my mind is not so task-occupied, or particularly when I am in a place I don’t often find myself, I may pay more attention to things that are (somehow I feel the need to write “are there,” but both “are” and “there” mean “exist”). And when I’m, say, visiting a friend whom I haven’t seen in a long time, his person, his presence, may not feel real at first [and “presence” itself is a whole weird thing, since it’s not directly sensible] — this is what people say, too, when something startling, like an accident, happens.  But eventually we accept these new things as real.

This question of whether something is real — whether my mind is really seeing what I think I’m seeing — plays a particular role in my obsessive checking of things: Is my stove off? I can touch the burners, and they feel cool, and I don’t see any flames, and the knobs point to “Off” — yet I tell myself to be careful, to not leave home until I’m sure the stove is off. Or when checking for traffic: if I see a car coming toward my left or right, OK. It’s when I don’t see a car that I feel I have to check multiply and to clear my head, make sure I’m really paying attention, etc.

P.P.S.: After writing the previous paragraphs, I read a link on The Dish tonight about research suggesting that brain stimulation can change a  viewer’s mindset “from a habitual mode of identifying objects to adopt an aesthetic perspective.”

The Iliad, consciousness, reality: How I get tired this evening

I’m tired tonight, so I’m not sure how coherent this post will be, but I’ve been waiting for a chance to post some things, so here goes:

I’m reading selections from Homer’s Iliad (in a recent translation, though the translator’s name escapes me just now) and as we’re reading, I’m finding lots of weird and wonderful things that I point out to my students, and things I’d also love to talk to other adults about. For instance, there are moments in this serious work about war and grief that seem to me to be just plain funny, as when Hector says he will fight Achilles and kill him, or he will die an honorable death — and then when they meet, Hector turns and runs around the city of Troy, three whole laps.

It occurs to me that discussing artworks is one of the few things in life where many people can share the same experience and then discuss it. We can all read or watch the same book or movie, and then compare our experiences of reading or viewing. In much the rest of our lives, we have experiences separately (for example, even if two friends are each parents, they are parenting distinct children, in different houses, etc.), and while we can discuss our separate experiences, we cannot directly compare our experiences, the way we can when we experience artworks.

I experience subjectively — that is, even if you are standing next to me, you do not know what I experience. At best, I can communicate through words what I experience, but of course, that’s not direct experience. You can get my symbolic interpretation/representation of my experience, but you do not see through my eyes, or sense my mind.

So, when we experience, we are sensing (seeing, touching, etc.) and we are processing/interpreting what we sense. Much of what we experience, we forget. We may remember certain sights and smells, etc., but what links those senses to meaning is the stories we form from our experiences. For me, at least, much of what I know about my past is in the form of stories — that is, abstracted experiences, ideas of connected interpretations that often describe not the experience that was had but the world itself. These stories tend to compress time and ignore the moment-by-moment nature of our lived experience.

These stories may help us to structure and remember our experiences, but these stories may also be complete bullshit. Our memories are often faulty, but even if they are not, our stories edit out moments from continuous time. It’s so easy to look back at our own lives and think that all we were thinking about was the experience at hand — but I don’t seem to experience my waking moments that way; I’m often doing one thing now but also aware of what I should do, or would like to do, next.

I realize it’s sorta futile to discuss, in words and ideas, the limitations of words and ideas, and how words and ideas are always at best a kind of (what physical metaphor to use here?) layer, a kind of overlay, on top of physical reality.

Another of my classes is discussing the definition of “real,” and so far we have “something that exists or is proven to exist” and so far we’ve spend many minutes discussing what a “thing” is and what we’ve come up with is that a thing is a boundary we imagine around a piece of matter so that we can talk about the physical realm one piece at a time. We notice that a certain piece of matter, a fork, can be separated from another, a table. To simply be able to see pieces of matter as separate is an abstraction — and of course even words like “matter” and “physical realm” are abstractions.

No words exist outside human consciousness (or so it seems — it’s quite a generalization to make there). Or, perhaps some animals — like apes who use sign-language — can think symbolically. But the point remains — a fork can never declare itself to be a fork.

But to see how arbitrary the label of fork is, is also to see how hard it is to keep talking about the physical realm without the help of differentiating labels. We revert to “object” and “thing” and “this thing” and “that thing.”

So maybe we can’t escape words, but we can, through the ongoing process of thinking, become aware how loosely our ideas about the world are connected to the world itself (even such a loose term as “the world” starts to feel like bullshit and the word wilts, somehow — “wilting” is a pretty good metaphor).

And I asked my students how we can talk about things we don’t have labels for, and they suggested we talk about relative terms, and that we make comparisons — a platypus has a beak like a duck’s, but a body like a beaver’s, for example. So our ideas connect one to another, from these we can build whole systems of ideas, and yet, …

And yet, it seems to me lately that whole systems of ideas — Hegel’s metaphysics, histories of World War II, mathematics — start to seem deflated, as if they were held up by hot air that, once it escapes, leaves the idea-systems flat on the ground, unimpressive, step-on-able.

Taking a bit of a leap here, but it makes sense in my head to do this (and what are all writings, all texts, if not signs that there was a consciousness that produced them?), to say that fiction works and nonfiction works have in common that they are both ideas. Sure, nonfiction purports to be about the real world, but if the “real world” is itself an idea, a construct … and further, there are no facts in nature — there is no tree or rock on which facts are discovered. Facts are made by people, in the form of words, ideas, symbols, and these are what we are comparing nonfiction or fiction to.

But we have a notion of what the real world looks like. As my class has read The Iliad, I’ve become aware of how careful the story is to make most of the human-god interactions believably subjective, so that the story could be read in two different ways: as a fantasy-tale featuring personified gods who intervene directly in human activities, or as a realistic tale of human-only activities (and where the gods speak to only one person at a time, or in the guise of a human, so that the gods could be said to be the product of a particular person’s subjective experience).

That The Iliad can be approached in two ways, or as two distinct stories, seems very subtle, very wise, and it suggests that we can approach any text and decide whether it’s fiction or not based on what the text contains. I mean, if there is no truth “out there” — and where, exactly, would that be if there were? — but all ideas are products of human minds, then what exactly are we asking for in a distinction between fiction and nonfiction (or in any distinction, really — guilty/not guilty, here/there, up/down, etc.)

I’m not quite sure what I’m getting at, which to me is the beauty of the writing process — if I knew what I was saying, I wouldn’t need to say it. Sometimes I have ideas, and they seem cool, and I start to think I should write them up — but then I think that maybe they are just so much inert deflated ideas (as described above). But then I think, eh, what I write is just the byproduct of my mind’s ongoing function, and perhaps somebody else will have some of their own ideas provoked by something here.

One of the earlier discussions my class of sophomores had before we started The Iliad was about where the world began, where everything came from. I gave the case from science, that there was a Big Bang from which all matter and energy and life descend, and we also discussed the Bible’s Creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, in which God creates the world. But science can’t know what came before the Big Bang (because how could there ever be evidence before there could have been evidence?), and Judaism and Christianity can’t explain how God came to exist, and so both the religion and science accounts are just stories, are sets of ideas. Yes, the science account has more physical evidence to explain the physical realm, and religion can go beyond what has evidence, but both science, in its generalizations called facts and theories, and religion, in its formal structure of creeds and theology, have little to say to inform my personal, particular, subjective experiences.

After all, my mind contains ideas from many external sources, but whatever it is that gives rise to my mind, to my thoughts, my words, my experiences — whatever it is that is me feels like its beyond explanation, beyond theory, beyond labeling. I am complete in every moment, in every thought, continuously the same through the years I’ve been alive but I experience my consciousness discontinuously, leaping from crystallized thought to the next crystallized thought, each thought whole-born. I exist only and wholly now. And now. And now again. (And even talking about “now” or “the present moment” feels inadequately abstract.)

But in my thinking, I’m attracted to discovering the limits of ideas, the boundaries of what can be known. I’m not sure why this feels more important and interesting to me than other sorts of thinking. This, too, is part of the mystery of where ideas come from. (See here for related post.)

And now, I really am getting tired, and I’m feeling that in my attempt to distance myself from abstraction, I’ve gotten quite abstract. Ah, well. Such is a mind and its chatter. The ideas come and go but the thinking goes on.  Living is more than merely figuring stuff out abstractly, of course. Living is also falling asleep in my comfy bed.

So this post may not satisfy — but writing it felt good.

Notes from last Friday

My mind lets go at sleep time. One’s ugly opinions vanish. We’re sweet as just bodies sleeping.

Me-deprived. What I give the world is just ideas. These are not a big deal. And many different people can provide physical services. Make ideas–let the computer make the copies (via the blog serving multiple readers). My writings [can be widely shared, can be experienced after I’m gone], but not my presence.

My intensity [as a writer, as a person]–I’m not easy-going. You may not want me around all the time. Even my wife says I’m too intense for her at times. Like Lewis Black–I like his comedy but wouldn’t want to be around it all the time. We don’t even want to be around ourselves all the time?

I don’t even want to read all my own thoughts–I’d rather think new ones. And maybe sharing my work isn’t just that big a deal. You like it or don’t, you maybe like it now and not later. It just doesn’t have to be that complex a decision–a relief!

Don’t get distracted by my own beliefs/stereotypes/theories.

Go deeper into your work, not wider to think other jobs have meaning.

The beauty of a world where nothing transcends, where nothing lasts. Just throw work out there, move on.

I could publish my emails, my journals, but nah–no need to. Keep writing anew!

There’s no need for nostalgia or myths when we keep moving forward.

Many ideas in recent days have felt like they had the power of revelation.

Instead of being given a topic to analyze, finding “topics” is my point, as if the seeking were way more important than any finding. The seeking is the openness.

These thoughts come through-out the day over recent days, like mini-bursts of revelation. I note them, want to save them and get them out of my brain, but once the ideas are written down, I don’t feel like elaborating. I don’t really feel like writing this now. Partly I think these are some neat ideas, ideas that feel important, feel like a valid part of what I am learning, yet I don’t know how to write these for others to read. Then I think that I don’t need to. Then I also think that maybe I’m getting a bit obsessive/pushy about the whole thing–ha! But then, eh. It probably doesn’t need to be written down. As I said today, the writings may not matter. The world may be beautifully non-transcendent, beautifully impermanent. Maybe it doesn’t need to be commented on as if it were special.

And I really seem to love the idea [ha–I forgot! I was just gonna repeat an idea from earlier and then I got distracted by TV!] oh, yes–the idea that I need to follow the new ideas, the openness, not get distracted by analyzing stories, etc. etc. Don’t blog about pop culture and philosophy, etc. — like my close reading of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”–don’t bother. Focus on own ideas, own openness.

I’m making a new form. I mean, of course I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t have to follow other forms. I’m cut loose from those.