Tag Archives: reality

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!

 

Perpetuating Reality: Time is not real

Two students in my Rhet. & Comp. class claimed on Friday that time does not exist. I’m writing this now, describing a memory as an idea, and if you’re reading this now, you’re constructing these words and sentences into your own abstract ideas.

One of my students said she’d like to discuss time’s reality for her assignment to craft a philosophical argument. So we start by defining time as that which flows along, carrying all existing things in its current (the current moment). Clocks don’t measure this time, because clocks just measure events — electric clocks measure AC cycles or quartz crystal movements; atomic clocks measure the behavior of certain atoms — and clocks do not measure time itself.

We talked about how objects degrade over time — metal left outside rusts, wood breaks down. But this “wearing down” of physical objects isn’t caused by time but by the action of other physical things on this objects — chemical reactions cause rusting, mechanical erosion causes scratches, etc.

Physical objects can only be affected by materials and energy — time, being neither of these, does not exist physically.

So perhaps time exists only in our ideas, our minds, our conscious understanding. We can look at an old building and see the rust on the door hinge and the softening brick and think that this house is old. But then, we can think anything.

But objects exist in a perpetual now — there is no past, no future, for an object. (And even this description threatens to fall into thinking of objects as having their own form of consciousness — it’s hard not to think this way.) A homeowner might look at a rusting hinge and think that it should be replaced, because the hinge no longer lives up to the homeowner’s expectation of what should be. But someone, like an artist or scientist, who just wants to see what is might just see the object in the present moment without regard to what it was or could be.

As an artist myself, I can enjoy looking at dilapidated barns, for example, and appreciate their falling-down-ness, whereas if I owned those barns, I’d see trouble and expense and a physical world that wasn’t matching my expectations. (I can recognize that feeling, though, when I have a certain class session that isn’t happening the way I’d like it to be happening.)

It’s such a part of my consciousness, of my way of understanding reality, to think of time as being an ongoing thread (or flowing river) connecting all my experiences throughout my life. I suspect that this is one of the features of the cultural software that was constructed as a framework for thinking as I grew up.

I developed the late 1970s/early 1980s version of this software, in which certain things — TV, microwaves, nuclear arms race — already existed, and in which certain values — divorce is normal, women have careers, and it’s OK for boys to cry — were normal. I suspect that the 1930s-era software my grandparents grew up with (during which time the metaphor would not have been “software,” of course — but player piano rolls? timing gears?) had different technology and different values and so they no doubt have trouble understanding things like the satellite television remote and the value of racial and ethnic diversity. No doubt I myself will find it difficult to understand change as my system-software ages. But this is also why it’s pointless for old people to say “In MY day, we didn’t do that” — as long as one is still alive, one might as well adapt.

So, yeah — there may be no time at all. It’s so easy for me to think of the past as these experiences I remember, and the future as things I will do, that it’s easy to overlook that the only time I’m really alive is right now (see also here). I’ve got 20 years of journals — but “years of” anything is an empty idea. What I should say is that I have notebooks and print-outs (and computer files, even) that are marked with dates from 20 years ago, but these notebooks, etc., still exist now, and when I read them, I’m reading them now. I’ve long tried to figure out how to understand the writer of these past writings, which writer’s handwriting looked like mine, and some of what the writer said sounded like something I’d say, but which I don’t remember saying it. Was it Younger-Me? But Younger-Me is not Now-Me, so then, is it a different person? Well, maybe it might as well be. My old writings are just ink on paper that exists in that form today. My memory of having written a certain page (or my not-having such a memory) doesn’t really matter. Without memory, there is no past, anyway.

And probably there is no “reality,” either, other than whatever “reality”-image we construct in our minds, our mental models of the world. Even terms like “reality” and “the world” are abstractions, and what really seems to exist — matter and energy, physical things — exist without the names of “matter” and “energy” or “atoms” or any science label. We can think about the physical world — that’s what science is, thoughts about the physical world — but we don’t really know what’s there. We perpetuate reality only by perpetuating the idea of reality.

And if there’s no time-river, and no time-thread, then there’s no place for events or experiences to be saved, and so there’s no such thing as “truth” that any statement or story could correspond to. So in a criminal court, the verdict of any trial is the constructed story that the jury finds most realistic.

And if there’s no time-river, no time-thread, then there’s no time in which one could jump (it’s so easy to think of time-as-distance this way), and so there can be no time travel. Time might be how we explain change, or we extrapolate from perceiving change (which perception requires memory), but time itself doesn’t need to exist. (Though, of course, some abstract explanations for how matter-and-energy work invoke the idea of time, such as space-time).

It’s so hard for a conscious, abstracting mind to escape abstraction. Abstracting is its habit, its process; abstracting is what the mind does. It’s exhausting, sometimes. Yet, I live in a world of abstractions — following rules and curricula, teaching theories and ideas — those are what keep the physical roof over my head and the physical food coming to my body. But no ideas are real in the same way that anything I can touch is real.  That may be why I so desperately enjoy, at certain moments, letting go of thinking and lying down flat on my back and just not-abstracting (which can’t be directed by thinking but can seem to be allowed to happen) — some people might call this mediation, but I often just fall asleep. This not-thinking allows me to just be now and not think about anything else.

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

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 Old Man and ‘The Old Man and the Sea’: All stories are bullshit

The book mentioned in the title bugs me. I should probably just let it go, but for some reason it sticks in my head that I ought to write about this, and I’m paying attention to that “ought.”

So, it’s been a while since I read “The Old Man and the Sea” and I don’t really want to read it again. As far as I remember, it’s about, well, an old man and the sea. And he catches a fish, but the sharks eat it, and he returns to his life. And if I were to really do a criticism of this book, I’d have to reread it, but an in-depth criticism isn’t what I want to do, anyway. I’m not sure what I want to do, but I think I want to talk about fiction. (This is the vein of thought that seems the most compelling, anyway.)

So, yeah — the idea came to mind the other day that when we write about a work of fiction, we’re writing nonfiction. For my writing students, I define nonfiction as any writing done when the writer is writing as him/herself (when the narrator is the author), and when the writer is not lying. That’s about as good a definition as I can get.

The common cultural definition of nonfiction, at least when one looks at a typical bookstore, is that nonfiction books are the biographies, memoirs, histories, and how-to books. I guess I’d prefer to call these genres “Informational” books, and by “nonfiction,” I want to focus on a process rather than a product. When I have my creative writers do nonfiction, we start out by going out to a central hallway in our school, sitting down, recording the time, date, and location, and writing down whatever we observe and think while we’re there. Real-time writing. And the texts produced thereby may not be fancy literary stuff, but they are real — they are a record of what came to their minds at that time and place (though of course what gets onto the paper may not be exactly what went through their minds). The students have made texts, have put experiences into words, where words and ideas did not exist before.

So what does this have to do with Hemingway? I don’t know yet. Maybe something will come to me as I write — something usually does. Maybe I mean to contrast the bullshit of fiction to the humble honesty of nonfiction. But that, too, is just another distinction, an easy analysis of minor value.

But it seems weird that we can have nonfiction analyses of fictional works. Maybe this shows the commonality of (and the arbitrary distinction between) fiction and nonfiction — both are just labels on ideas. Works of fiction and nonfiction are both just made of words and ideas, which words and ideas are animated (figuratively) only by human consciousness (that is, if humans disappeared, our books and symbols become just objects and ink stains — though even applying those labels would require a conscious mind).

I don’t want to say Hemingway was doing anything better or worse than any other fiction writer, in any of his books. But why does fiction seem to bother me so? Here is my own bias; I don’t read much fiction these days. I don’t choose to get absorbed into a story. As a kid, I read a lot of fiction, but not so much since my early 20s. I feel a little guilty about this when talking to those who appreciate fiction, but not guilty enough to read it.

Maybe what bugs me is the storytelling machinery, the rules and conventions. I may just have read and watched too many stories, so that for most stories, I can anticipate what’s coming, and that bores me. I’d love to see an action movie where the hero doesn’t win, or maybe the story is told from a character who dies early on. Those aren’t as “emotionally satisfying” as the classic tale of victory and redemption (whatever that is), but I don’t find story-by-numbers very satisfying anyway.

And perhaps I don’t want to characterize — to judge simplistically — my life or the lives of my friends and family. I don’t want to see these real people as simple successes, or as simple failures. My dad died suddenly, with many aspects of his life unsettled — he didn’t get a character “arc,” and he didn’t get to complete his life’s story in a satisfying way. I prefer seeing people and lives as complex, as beyond simple description, and so fiction doesn’t often present a worldview I find useful.

But maybe my issue with fiction is a bit more basic and philosophical — I think it bugs me to have to pay attention to story at all. Stories are interpretations of what happens. Stories skip the boring parts — stories lie to us about how much of our lives should be boring. After reading Kerouac’s “On the Road,” I wanted to have my own road adventures, but I didn’t pick up a hitchhiker I saw one day — it just seemed dumb to do that. And for as much fun as he made hitchhiking seem to be, Kerouac wrote in “Big Sur” (if memory holds, and it might not) that he wouldn’t have hitchhiked at all if he could’ve afforded to take the train. So there.

I was looking today at some comic strips I had saved from a couple years ago — one was a “Peanuts” strip where I cut out the dialog balloons, and one was a “Hagar the Horrible” in which I replaced their modern English speech with Old English lines from “Beowulf.” Looking at these today, I enjoyed the ones where there was no dialogue (or where I couldn’t understand it). I was glad that my attention didn’t have to be bothered with some stupid joke. I loved the idea that there didn’t have to be an idea that I was supposed to get. Nothing had to be communicated — I could just appreciate the drawings instead of merely glancing over those to pay attention to the dialogue.

And maybe that’s what bugs me about fiction. At least nonfiction can admit it doesn’t know what’s going on. (Nonfiction that pretends to have all the answers, like histories and memoirs, also might fit my criticisms of fiction.) Maybe I really like art that doesn’t try to mean anything, that doesn’t try to teach me anything. F. Scott Fitzgerald was just 29 when he wrote “The Great Gatsby” — what the hell did he have to say, in some grand thematic way, about wealth or society? (And why should we readers look at the character Gatsby as some failure, some cautionary tale? Surely a real person who had lived a life like Gatsby wouldn’t have called himself a failure.)

Maybe I’d like “The Old Man and The Sea” better if nothing happened. If it truly WAS just the old man and the sea, and we didn’t have to bring fish and sharks into it.

I mean, I live my life without knowing what things mean most of the time. Maybe later, days or years later, I’ll have an insight into what someone meant by doing or saying X, or whatever, but even those insights I know might be superseded.  I don’t have symbols in my life whose meanings are anything but the meanings I myself have assigned them. No meaning is necessarily attached to any particular object. When I think about how I didn’t enjoy my experiences in 7th grade basketball, I don’t need to draw any bigger theme from that. And frankly, I’m talking about stuff that happened years ago, things that I remember perhaps only because they were so unpleasant.

My journal is nonfiction, and I write down everyday some of the things that happened the day before, and what I’m thinking about that morning, and I also like about blogging that I can write and publish today — nothing I’m saying needs to have any kind of permanence. Maybe that sense of telling a permanent truth is what bugs me the most about fiction. Maybe I’d like fiction more if every story was told from multiple viewpoints so that it was never clear what had actually happened — indeed, so it became clear that nobody knew what actually happened (what “Rashomon,” and that “Magnum P.I.” that stole the “Rashomon” multiple-narrators technique, did).

And since any and every story, fiction or nonfiction, is just an idea, a fabrication — not a lie, but a construction from interpreted experiences — maybe story itself just isn’t enough to hold my attention. Maybe I want reality, or at least an acknowledgment of it.

POSTSCRIPT (the next night after writing the above): I’d like to summarize the insight of the previous post as every narrator is an unreliable narrator.

The narrator of “The Iliad,” which we’re reading in another class I teach, omnisciently depicts what happens to both Hector and Achilles when they are apart, and of course, this too is bullshit. That story is from no particular person’s or character’s perspective, and so that story must be from an impossible, unreal perspective — it must be a fabrication.

Of course, someone may say that fabrication is the essence and beauty of fiction. I get that, and at times I’ve been seduced into believing that life could be as simple and profound as stories set in Troy, in Middle Earth, or in Whoville have presented it. And yet, I’ve felt misled, betrayed, by these stories. It hasn’t felt helpful to me to be presented with ideas of perfect worlds, as if life really could be that simple and powerful and meaningful and etc. For a long time, I wanted my life to seem as thrilling and meaningful as it seemed in some fictions. It took me years to wake up from that idea and learn to accept my life as I found it, in its unedited reality. Attempting to get to that reality has always seemed less depressing than believing in a world that cannot be. Maybe there’s something passive (passively accepting these fictional worlds?) about reading, too, that I had to grow out of — and of course, maybe reading fiction and then growing out of it was a developmental stage that I had to go through. Whether I had to or not, I did read fiction and now I don’t, in general. The fiction that I do read now tends to be short fiction that presents new perspectives, new forms, and new ideas — fiction that seems to be more interested in discovering than in fabricating. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far of  Lydia Davis, Donald Barthelme, and David Markson.

So I’ve created a post that followed a feeling to the discovery of an idea, a theory, and now in trying to explain why I like this theory, I’ve come back to a feeling. Perhaps people’s ideas are justified by feelings more often than we like to admit — but, not being omniscient, I don’t know about the mental habits of other people. I’m talking here just about myself, at least, as well as I understand (at this point in time) my mind and how it operates.

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.

A mental tourist: Visiting others’ minds through their texts

2013_07_31_mh (6)_cropA text by Mark Edmundson explains well an idea I’ve heard before, that English majors read

not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?

English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought.

Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of reading, similar to Edmundson’s description, as sharing in the mind, the mental activity, of the writer.

But I’ve been thinking of this sharing in a slightly different way — that a person  reading a text is like a computer running software that simulates something (like flight) or maybe a person reading a text is like a player piano recreating music from paper.

And while this analogy is as imperfect and arbitrary as any, considering it has given me some other ideas. For one, thinking of a text as a program for a human mind to run makes it clear that the text is representing the writer’s mind-activity (the voice that the writer thinks in) rather than representing whatever the text is about. For example, when I read a biography of Lincoln, I’m recreating in my mind the thoughts that the biographer’s mind had about Lincoln, rather than recreating Lincoln himself. [And against Edmundson, I’d argue that it’s not just literary texts that do this — but that any text — nonfiction, instruction manuals, etc. — is the product of a writerly consciousness and so conveys that consciousness as it conceives those words.]

And so, we don’t have to ask whether a text accurately represents reality — as if such a thing were possible or even desirable. I don’t really know what’s happening physically when I see a rainbow, but I can use words to describe what I’m seeing and thinking, how I’m interpreting what I see, and that human interpretation is something others can share by recreating my ideas from my words. [Yes, I know scientists have an explanation of light refracting and whatnot, but that doesn’t suffice to explain my mind’s experience. Also, the science explanation, too, is just another, different kind of interpretation-by-human text.]

A photo of a rainbow can show, in a limited (two-dimensional) way, another person what the photographer could see from his/her perspective. A person who wasn’t present can view the photo image and construct one’s own interpretation from that visual data. A text cannot quite capture or convey sensory reality that way. To look at a page of text is to see ink-shapes on paper (or screen). To read the word “rainbow” is not to see colors in an arc in the sky, but one can interpret the word (using one’s own prior experiences) and imagine the visuals. And of course, through our senses, we live in a world in which there are sights, smells, touches, sounds, tastes, and we use these senses simultaneously — smelling, tasting, and seeing a raspberry, say.

We can’t do that in text. We’re down to one linear direction (sequence in time) in text, one sense at a time. And yet, there’s something about this that may match how our minds process the world — yes, our minds can take in senses simultaneously, but we don’t seem to be able to talk about our senses except one at a time. And this way that our conscious, abstracting minds think is, I’m suggesting, pretty close to how we say or write our experiences, and then this linearly described experience is what we can hear or read and share.

So, no, reading a description of someone in a cafe in Venice isn’t quite like being there; and yet, reading what someone else thinks about being there (being a mental tourist?) can be, perhaps, more of a travel-experience than being a physical tourist might be. I can drag my body to other places on the Earth, but still, it’s just me seeing these new-to-me places with my familiar-to-me mind. Wherever I go, there I am. But reading can really allow me to get outside my own mind.

And at times when I’ve been reading too much, or taking in too much other media (which “mediates” the world for me — which processes the world through others’ minds before it gets to me), I’ve felt like I haven’t had enough time to be, or to think as, myself. I often drive with my radio off for this reason. So I don’t mean to say that it’s always a good thing to let others’ ideas and experiences into our heads, but it’s not always a bad thing, either. For instance, sometimes I’ll read when I feel tired or stressed — reading lets me escape my own worries, my own familiar mindset, for a while.

So we may not be experiencing what Venice the place is, but we’re experiencing what the writer experiences in Venice, and this can be tedious if, say, the writer tells us only about the reputation and myths of Venice. So much of journalistic-type writing seems to invoke the expectations and stereotypical ideas we may have of a place — Venice: Canals! Glorious history! Art! — as a way of inducing readers to relate, but of course, no one actually experiences the myths or generalities about a place. We instead experience particularities, and the longer we live in a place, the harder it may feel to form genuine generalities about the place. I’ve lived in Ogle County, Illinois, most of my life, and it’d be harder for me to describe this place than it is a new place — of course, I have a shallow view of the new place, but I don’t know enough to feel bad about my shallow view.

I can remind myself that wherever one lives, it becomes home, with all its comforts and confines. But this also reminds me of the importance of the particular voice of the writer. And in my own writing, I often don’t want to convey just what I know. Though I may start from something I have already experienced or want to assert, I also try to, as I write, have a new idea — I want to write texts that are not static but show a sense of growth, of exploration, of trying new ideas and being open to new ideas. (For instance, I didn’t know when I started this post that it would become what I am writing now — I don’t want to know the future; I wanna have new ideas.) When I write, I want to have that open-minded, exploratory, even questioning experience (which is one way of defining creative writing?), and perhaps it is that experience that I want to share with readers. I don’t wish to adopt a tone or posture of lecturing in my writings, partly because that’s dull for me to write, and I think it’s also dull for others to read.

Now, I know that when I’m having open-mind writing time, I’m not perhaps very careful with the editing, and certainly the structure is more biological (branching out, recursive, etc.) than rhetorically familiar — which nonstandard writing can be a harder program for a reader to decode and run/follow. For another example, stream of consciousness texts may be attempting to represent a mind’s workings, and yet, stream of consciousness texts can be so hard to read that the reader never gets around to having the experience the writer intends.

That’s an argument for stylistic simplicity, I guess. But I also like the idea of spontaneous writing — giving the reader the sense of the writer’s raw mental-voice. If a writer’s voice is too heavily edited, or tries too hard to stay within the accepted forms, reading the text becomes more like visiting a chain store than going to an unexpected place.

P.S.: Another corollary would be that if one doesn’t like the mental-program one is running (that is, the text one is reading), then one can just stop running the program, stop reading. And perhaps that feeling is why some books drive us away — we just don’t feel like spending time in that person’s mind.