Tag Archives: physical reality

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.

The ‘true story’ paradox: Toward a defensible nonfiction

Many writers tell stories about real people and then claim these stories to be nonfiction, that is, “not false,” but this is a problem, because all stories are false (or are so distant from reality as to be false).

A nonfiction story is a sequence of descriptions (of things, people, etc.). These descriptions are the inferences and interpretations of the colors, sounds, touches, smells, etc., that we take in. As we can’t know the world except through our senses, these interpretations may be flawed, incomplete, or speculative.

As such, anything we say about the real world is at best inadequate and at worst, complete fiction. Any nonfiction story that does not acknowledge this is lying.

The problem lies in conflating the label of “nonfiction” with the idea of truth. Truth — the correspondence of any idea with reality — is not only unknowable; there is no “reality text” or “reality idea” against which to compare a human text or a human idea (that is, all ideas we could have, since we know only our own minds and none other). That which we label physical reality — real, touchable things and sensible energies (light and sound) — are not ideas and do not seem to need our labeling. For me, “real things” are those that I do not wish to strike against my head, as they cause me pain. Ideas may confuse me, but they do not make me bleed.

So a nonfiction text may avoid the true/false dichotomy (itself an idea, of course) altogether if nonfiction is defined narrowly as “the expressions of a particular mind speaking as itself” or perhaps “the expressions of a self” (as Kirsch points out).  The truth test isn’t necessary.

If we stopped wondering whether any claimed-nonfiction story was true or false, we could see it just as an idea, an abstraction, a possibility. We could cease the futile struggle of trying to find reality and we could avoid the delusion of thinking that we had found reality. We could understand that all histories, being stories, are not entitled to a claim to truth. We could see that math and all logic systems are merely ideas, as are all philosophical positions and as are all religious beliefs. We’d be left with our own particular experiences and, perhaps, we’d feel a freedom to interpret these experiences anew for ourselves rather than applying others’ concepts to them, but when we did want to borrow others’ ideas, we’d be aware of our borrowing.

Perhaps realizing that our ideas are not reality would allow us to more clearly see our experiences without filtering these through our own, or others’, previous concepts.

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This short piece was written after the much longer text below. If the tone above seems oracular, that may be a reaction to my feeling in the earlier piece that I was getting too particular, too bogged down, too chatty. The above is the gist of what I was intending to say below, and what I said below came to mind as I wrote in my journal this morning. I sensed that those ideas could be worth posting on ye olde blogge here. I’m posting the lower piece as perhaps a model in the exercise of writing, and perhaps as an antidote to the lordly-and-or-priestly-simplisitc tone above.

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This essay’s point about how humorists like David Sedaris and Sloane Crosley aren’t really writing essays but something else:

The self, then, has always been at the heart of the literary essay. But the new essay is exclusively about the self, with the world serving only as a foil and an accessory, as a mere staging ground for the projection of the self. Formally, one might describe the work of Sedaris, Crosley, Rothbart, and company as autobiographical comic narrative: short, chatty, funny stories about things that happened to me—weird things, or ordinary things that are made weird in the telling. What we now call an essayist used to be called a humorist. Sedaris’s books are sold as essays, but he is plainly trying to be Thurber, not Addison.

This is a particular kind of humor, rooted in the creation of a fictional alter ego who shares the author’s name. This device allows the essayist to claim the authenticity of non-fiction while indulging, with the reader’s tacit permission, in the invention and shaping of fiction.

Sedaris’s essays that I’ve read or heard (as he performed his writings on public radio before he began publishing) are well-crafted, entertaining pieces. By now, I expect that when I’m about to encounter a new Sedaris text, I can relax and prepare to laugh (not that I always laugh — some writings are just a bit peculiar, but I have confidence in a Sedaris piece that I do not in a David Rakoff piece or a Sloane Crosley piece. Somehow those other writers don’t quite feel as entertaining. There’s a fine line Sedaris walks between seeming endearing and empathetic — being Everyman while also displaying his peculiarities ( I recall a “Fresh Air” show a few years back where Sedaris told Terry Gross how he finds bugs to feed the spiders living in his house, and I wondered if Sedaris was putting on a persona in order to make himself seem intriguing (which wouldn’t be intriguing) or if he really were that weird (which would be intriguing, but he was telling this as an anecdote on national media, and I doubt he’d be as successful as he is if he were that socially self-unaware), and somehow Rakoff didn’t strike me as being quite as amusing, and Crosley seemed to not be aware that her story-character, her persona, was not always one I could identify with — particularly in the story in “Cake” where she seemed condescendingly critical of a friend’s wedding, and I sorta cringed to read the story, wondering what this real-life friend would think.

And it matters what one writes about other real people. My brother’s book contained an anecdote about me that was not only “frank and humorous” (as the review at the link says) but also, well, false. The anecdote is that, while camping with my brothers and my uncle, I took our flimsy folding saw into my tent at night so as to defend myself from a bear attack. Amusing, sure, but I have no recollection of that (and nor did my brother, it turned out; he got the story from my uncle). If I took the saw to bed, which I may have, it would have been for the purpose of keeping it dry and/or in a known location. I had no delusions of fighting off bears, but it’s amusing to think that a person would. Clearly, I have a smaller complaint than do many other real people (here’s just one) who’ve been the subjects of works claimed to be nonfiction, but it wasn’t fun to see myself portrayed as a doofus in the seemingly long-lasting medium of print. And because my brother claimed to be writing based on his memories, I felt there was no good way to challenge the story, especially since I hadn’t even remembered this event — and I wouldn’t remember it if it seemed like a non-event to me at the time.  (And of course, in my defense, and for my own publishing purpose, I’m guilty here of writing about my brother.)

To write nonfiction stories, anecdotes, or memoirs is to fictionalize. Stories do not exist objectively in the world and so they must be created by a person’s mind, and even if that mind is not intending to lie, that mind can only tell what sense data it took in (which must be incomplete — our brains are constantly choosing which “inputs” to attend to and which to discard) and that mind can only tell what it interpreted that sense-data to mean. A story can only come from a perspective, but every perspective is limited to the point of being untrustworthy. Where one person sees a threatening man, someone standing to that person’s side might see only a villain on a movie poster, and unless these discrepancies are ironed out while there’s recourse to rechecking the evidence, both interpretations exist and both may be no more true than “that’s what I remember,” which is both inadequate and unassailable.

Sedaris’s stories are unassailable. He tells stories about himself and other real people (he’s pretty hard on his father, for instance, in “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” which  Wikipedia article contains a reference to these troubles, how Sedaris called off a movie of the stories “after a conversation with his sister aroused concerns as to how his family might be portrayed on screen”) while these other people aren’t around to defend themselves. But the stories are entertaining. Sedaris’s essays are well-crafted so as to be entertaining, so as to make them easily digestible for the audience.

An article by Nathan Heller in the 25 Feb. New Yorker (mostly behind paywall) contains this distinction:

“Artists are pulled these days between two warring camps. On one side lie what might be called the Experientialists: those who believe that the point of art is to have the audience undergo a particular experience in time — and that the audience’s responsibility is to submit as fully as possible. (Think of Antonioni, who kept his cameras open to the unexpected.) On the other are the Arrangers: people who think that the role of art is to order, burnish, perform, and engage desire. (Think of Hitchcock.) Experientialism honors the artist’s sensibility: ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ may be dilated and slow, but it’s only by giving in to the author’s method that we can experience its genius. Arranging, by contrast, defers to the audience: what makes ‘The Great Gatsby’ better than any of a hundred novels with comparable cultural freight is that it’s economically written and smartly plotted, seducing us without special conditions. Diehard Experientialists accuse Arrangers of pandering with ‘easy art’ and cliche. Arrangers mock Experientialists for self-indulgence, tedious abtruseness, and bad faith. (The lousy Experientialist claims that his disjointed, boring novel is supposed to be that way.) The ablest artists are those who inhabit a middle landscape, mastering the art of special attention while meeting the challenges of effortless appeal.”

Clearly, if one’s goal is to make money by appealing to a wide audience, one would make one’s art as effortless as possible, and one would stick to familiar forms. But these familiar forms can sometimes become part of the fabrication that an artist wants to expose.

Sedaris’s stories do not include caveats or doubts that would at least bring in the possibility of an unknowable reality — Sedaris relates reality in his stories. Well, not quite: there is a sense, as Kirsch writes, in Sedaris’s work of an irony that calls “the whole story into question.” But in a sense, this is OK because, I suggest, Sedaris’s essays are never essays (particularly if essays are defined as “attempts” (per the French etymology) in which doubt plays a primary role) — instead, they are scripts for his performances. As a performer, Sedaris is directly in front of an audience, which can boo or leave and so must be entertained. He is able to charge significant prices ($40 to $65 for a ticket in Salina, Kansas) for his public performances — these are not just readings. In giving a performance, there’s not a lot of room to invite philosophical debate — people wanna laugh, and if Sedaris were improvising onstage, or merely telling off-the-cuff anecdotes, people may not be amused. It’s better to go with your best — prepared — stuff in that case.

In contrast, David Foster Wallace’s reportorial essays are not pared down for performance but are stuffed with self-conscious attempts to explain and overexplain — thus, the footnotes. Wallace seems aware, obsessively so, of the problem of writing nonfiction about reality. Yet, he still (as here) does characterize — turn real people into descriptions that might as well be fictional for all the reality about a person that they could possibly capture.

His digressions, while they may reveal the associative nature of his thinking, may also give a sense that he is actually trying to paint a picture of reality through sheer thoroughness.

What I want to suggest is a method of nonfiction that does not attempt to tell stories. (Even when newspapers tell stories, they try to avoid the problem of perspective by simply retelling, by quoting, the stories of those who were there — thus, news gets abstract — and unassailable — by not even trying to discover reality but by mainly retelling others’ stories. Reporters defend themselves by saying “I can only report what sources tell me,” which info could be fact-checked against other sources, but that’s just a matter of comparing stories to stories. I suppose it would be possible to report what one actually sees, but then one is limited by one’s own perspective and interpretation.

[And at this point, I was going to write the ideas that went into the shorter piece at the top.]

Nonfic: Potpourri of ideas

So, a few weeks ago, I started making notes of ideas and topics I could write about here in this blog. At first, this seemed helpful, in that I wouldn’t be at a loss when I wanted to write, but now this list feels like a burden, things getting in the way of me being able to write about new ideas. Writing about ideas I’ve already had often starts to feel pedantic (and being a pedant is my day job); I want to be surprised and learn as I write — with the thought that if the writer is entertained, the reader may be also. Last night I found this idea from months ago, in a sketchbook: that once I started to recognize what I was drawing, I would move on. That’s a little too severe perhaps, but not a bad place to start today’s round-up of ideas I’ve been eager to get off my list. And if the writing takes me beyond these ideas into new territory, all the better.

Here’s a note that’s been sitting next to my computer screen for a couple weeks. Like many of these other ideas, this one seems interesting enough that I could go quite in-depth, but I’m not feeling the desire to do that now. So here goes: Verbs are abstractions. So are nouns, of course, but nouns are at least labels: dish rag, doggy, Denver. These sounds and symbols are arbitrary, but not necessarily meaningful. (Although I’ve also been thinking about the Ferlinghetti line — “Words are living fossils.” Words are ancient relics — English words, so many of which no longer are spelled as they sound, seems to carry their histories, their etymologies, around with them. “Knight,” instead of being clarified to “nite” (or even long-I “nit,” if there were an English accent mark for long-I sound), displays its Old English origin better than a coat of arms.)

Back to verbs. So, if we speakers of English agree to call a thing with tines and a handle a “fork,” (and yes, this idea of fork is a mental pattern than a physical reality — since we can use a real fork for many uses, as my students have brainstormed, what we call a “fork” is that which matches our idea of what a fork is), that may be arbitrary, but it’s not making nearly as big an interpretive claim as is describing an action as “walking,” as in “Mom walked to town.” “Mom” and “town” are things that can be pointed to, even if their definition isn’t always as clear as we’d like. But “to walk” involves whole lists of motion — legs moving, bending, arms swinging, balance maintained, at a certain gait and pace (not to mention the specific motions of each muscle, tendon, ligament, bone, etc.) — and there are so many other verbs that distinguish “walking” from “running,” “strolling,” “perambulating,” “jogging,” “hiking,” etc. Sure, English is great for its wide vocabulary, but there is a lot of interpretive packaging going on in even a simple sentence describing action.

Moving on: Comparisons are always arbitrary. Comparing one thing to another is never necessary, is always arbitrary. If I compare myself to my peers who are more successful (by whatever definition thereof) or less successful than myself, there doesn’t really seem to be much value in that. But to even compare two, say, forks from the same silverware set is to take two things that are particular, that, while similar in abstractions such as design-shape, mass, etc., each have their own component atoms (some of which could be, for example, radioactive in one fork and not in another). And even atoms, too, are particular — each one occupies a unique location in space and time — which prompts a thought that even grouping things together — joining two particular things together in a plural noun — going conceptually from this fork and that fork to these forks is to overlook particular qualities of each thing.

This is getting abstract, I know, but this is a tendency of thinking that can lead us to abstract bullsh!t such as the Common Core, which assumes that all students are so alike that they must all be able to attain the same academic skills. Of course, every curriculum (or policy) set up by every institution does this. And the danger here is that abstractions are always perfect because they are never real. A perfect circle can be easily defined in abstraction but never created in physical reality. And of course, this distinction of “abstraction” from “physical” is itself an abstract concept. Thinking separates us from physical reality.

And this thinking is so mysterious. I was thinking (there it is, again) yesterday as I wrote my journal about how the words I write seem to come from some inner voice — it often feels as if I’m transcribing from some voice in my head. (This is what it feels like, though not exactly, of course — it’s still metaphorical. ) Perhaps some brain-region that processes aural info is involved in me being able to convert thoughts into written symbols — maybe that would even show up on an fMRI scan. But I have no sense of where the words come from before that — and I doubt a scan would indicate that. Sure, ideas may be linked to our emotions, so that I may feel a certain way, or I may feel that a certain idea is worth saying (while other ideas aren’t). I’m not a brain researcher, and I don’t really want to be, because what research would show would be external, and what interests me more is the experience of being a living person who can seem to alter my physical world — I can write all these word-symbols onto paper — yet, this process of where the ideas come from remains mysterious. As a writing teacher, I just skip over this most essential part; the closest I can get is to say, “write whatever words come to mind,” and that works for a lot of students but it doesn’t seem to happen for some students, who then get labeled as having a “learning disability.” They’re different, but we don’t really know why. But we don’t know why the rest of us do what we do either.

This mystery doesn’t lead me to despair; it fascinates me. It reminds me how little we really know about our own closest experiences. This last few days, I was a little more tired than usual, and my mind seemed to keep supplying me certain performed lines from a song (to be particular, the “Starships” remake by the Pitch Perfect cast), even when I didn’t want to be thinking about that. The ideas felt “sticky,” as we obsessives sometimes call them. I couldn’t get rid of them by willing that — I could only accept what was coming to my mind and, through accepting, let other ideas replace the repetitive ones. I took this stickiness as a sign of my tiredness, as this doesn’t often happen — though other ideas though my day sometimes seem urgent, important beyond reason — “did I shut my car’s lights off?,” for example. Other obsessives have their own triggers, of course — the classic handwashing (as in The Aviator) impulse isn’t an urgency I get.

But this is the beautiful — and sometimes, scary — thing about my mind, maybe all minds. I sit back and experience it. Even the creative endeavors — writing, photographing, sketching — I do are mostly a matter of letting things happen, rather than trying control what my mind does. Actually, controlling my mind, focusing my attention, is what I have to do for work (particularly when grading essays), and so letting my mind go and watching what it does, this is play, is leisure, and I do it even while I’m driving to work, say. And somehow the mind seems to watch itself. I think a lot of things, even as I take mostly-unstimulating rural roads to work, but only some ideas seem to interest my mind enough so that I think, I should write that idea down.

Even “idea” or “thought” seems too abstract, and too limited a concept here, but so it goes.