The Shame of Franz Kafka – 15 July 2015

Kafka was painfully earnest, in all moods, but never as intensely as in defense of himself. Not his looks, his sense of masculinity, but the defense against his right to existence, and each time one of his stand-ins dies, he’s letting these personalities, so vividly abstracted allegories, become a way of accepting judgment of himself. Kafka wasn’t unsuccessful, not by modern terms. He held a series of jobs in law offices, but was as naturally talented as Schiller and Goethe, and more intensely naked. He exposes himself and allows, beckons the jeering of the crowd, as he does in his final story A Hunger Artist. It is the most kafkaesque thing Kafka ever created.

It is not his most popular story, but in it, a performer fasts for a record number of days, and this is much to the enjoyment of fans. A hunger artist went days without eating, showing their strength. A drop of water daily, not a bit of food, and his features become emaciated and rigid as stone, as a corpse, and it is his greatest thrill for those watching to be entertained by his self-mutilation and starvation. It is an allegory of his fans.

While he wrote this story, Kafka was unable to eat anything without great pain from what eventually killed him, laryngeal tuberculosis. He died 4 days after his hunger artist reveals the truth about his performance, his public performance of his acceptance of death and nothing and the long intensity of silence, he admits that had he only found something to eat, he would have been more admirable. He simply didn’t have an appetite, and was not to be admired. Indeed, he is replaced by an animal, a panther, that is voraciously hungry and full of rigor and vitality. The hunger artist died while a crowd cheered for his dumb replacement, the blood and devouring of flesh over simple, existing without need for approval or admiration, it is, in the face of death, saying, death cannot bring this much pain to me. Take me, you Coward of a god, take me if you dare. He said this to everyone, the judges, his father, though he deeply wanted his approval, or at least his sympathetic understanding. I have no father figure as degrading and imposing as Herman Kafka. No, mine was a Noble man. Herman, sharing a name with Kafka’s abusive father. My father Herman is in no sense the obvlious, insensitive father Franz had to endure, but there are specifics that are uncanny. Kafkaesque.

He is that rarely genuinely gifted writer of great drama amidst a period of utterfluff in Europe (with few exceptions) and he was worthy of recognition, every bit as much as Goethe’s tiresome, Romantic Sorrows of Young Werhter whose titular young Werther, a stand-in for Goethe, (Gerh-deh, is one way to say it) and Werther, (pronounced Ver-tah), a mary sue if you will. He devotes his life to a vain, arbitrary opportunist who hangs on while he devotes himself utterly and flatters the object of romantic obsession. When the relationship turns sour, he simply understood and Goethe, unlike Werther who killed himself over the woman who had spurned him, he grew up; he was accepted, his work was the first true international best-seller, praised by commoners and royalty, even Napoleon, bragging of how many times he read it. Had the conquerors after Napoleon (long dead by the time Kafka was writing) read the works of Kafka, the greatest Czech writer in history, perhaps their romantic notions of war and themselves as great powers and conquerors would have been deflated, showing them as tiresome, arbitrary statues incapable of understanding the suffering of another, seemingly meek man.

There is a nagging need in all writers, I think, to be a type of performer, to hear applause and to read praise, and it is that nagging need of validation that Kafka has for his fathers approval, or just to hear him say, “It’s okay you’re you, that is more common than you would think, and not just with fathers, with anyone worthy of your love, unlike Franz’s. One of the turning points of his life was a rather common one: one night the young Franz cried out for water. His father exploded. He pulled him from his bed in nothing but his night shirt and took him onto the patio and left him there all night in nothing but his night-shirt, alone, afraid, and freezing. After this, he wrote, “I was quite obedient.”

This episode works its way into his work, too, with remarkable emotional poignancy and depth. Over and over in his work are figures of arbitrary power, judges and trials, and the family who decided he should just go off and die in The Metamorphosis — after they see him as perhaps saw himself, a bug, akin to a bedbug, meek and powerless, but always obliging. He had this persistent fear that some great power, under which he was significant to the point of less than mattering, less than being of consequence, but arbitrarily existing in its sphere of influence and authority. Kafka always relented under these figures, in The Judgment when the narrator’s father is sickly, his son is praised and adored as a great caretaker. But upon his recovery, he realizes, he didn’t need his son after all. He commands him to commit suicide, and Kafka, ever obedient, duly obliges.

My relationship with my father has no such moment of arbitrary cruelty, but there is a moment that stands out. Well, a few, and these symbols creep into my fiction over and over. It is a type of reverse allegory, projecting your life in a distorted mirror to tell an essentially, emotionally true story as confession disguised as fiction. I have avoided the moment, as you would’ve seen from reading that last paragraph, because I’m trying to go through a series of moments, to see which one is comparable to that of Herman Kafka leaving Franz on the patio in his nightshirt. There are three candidates for this moment of arbitrary horror, but the following has been the most long lasting and traumatic.

When I was 13, my brother and I would sometimes sneak a cigarette from a pack lying around the house and hang out the back door and smoke during the night, my brother standing lookout while I leaned out of the back door blowing smoke into the wind. If our father got out of bed, my brother would tap twice on the kitchen door and I’d drop the cigarette in a cop of water (we’d been found out by a flickering ember from a tossed cigarette that by chance landed on a bag of trash), slide the door against the sock in place, lock it, and move as quickly back into the bedroom as possible. He just as good as caught us that night, as he was on the threshold of our bedroom (the kitchen and backporch just beyond), and claimed to smell smoke in the air. That night we decided we wouldn’t sneak and smoke out the back door anymore: we would cut a hole in the mesh of our bedroom windows so we’d be able to fling the cigarette and be back in bed before he, with his limp and emphysema, could make it to our room and catch us.

Two days later, after using a boxcutter to cut out the mesh just beyond the raised window – we’d found out it was more than just a mesh screen, as we had thought, as the air came rolling in when we opened the window, quietly as to not wake our sleeping father on the other side of the house. It went well. We both got to smoke in relative peace, finished, dropped it in a bottle of water, and then dumped the water and cigarette into the toilet, flushing it away. We left the window up, hoping the smell of smoke would be out by the time he got up the next morning. We fell asleep with the window up, and in the summer in the South it is often chilly in the morning, or at least cold enough that it wasn’t uncommon to see young boys and girls with jackets on in the morning and tank-tops and t-shirts by the end of the day. I was awake when my father passed the window the first time. I closed my eyes as he passed, doing that “pretend to sleep” face all children must learn, and waited on the sound of the percolator and his breakfast. Shortly after sitting down, he stood, I could hear the chair being slid back ever so slightly against the polished linoleum floor. The feet drew closer – he was at the window, I could sense his presence there in the room, and – strangely, I realized then what I should have the before: the tell-tale window was confessing our crimes for us, as we lay just a few feet away. The sound of his labored walking trailed off toward the living room, ah, I remember sighing with relief. He had gone back to bed. I was tired, and suddenly less anxious, and I closed my eyes to go to sleep. For real. My brother asleep beside me, I got comfortable and closed my eyes.

Just as I relaxed, the covers were pulled from me, and then my father got me by the leg and swinging a leather belt beat me over the back for a couple of minutes until my little brother woke up. He started whipping Kyle while he was still asleep, waking him up to a confusing ogre of a man beating him, and unaware of what crime could bring this about. What had he done, the younger Nobles with the cigarette at the window, to wake to the sound of leather cutting the air and only slowly recognizing the brutality of the blows as they fell upon him? He would develop insomnia and anxiety after that, as did I. It persists, the anxiety and the insomnia. I sometimes imagine closing my eyes and relaxing my guard only for, at that moment, a beast of a man to appear above me just to beat me for my crime.

It’s easy to say this is common, the disciplining of children, but this gave me this almost unconscious fear of allowing myself to be seen exhausted for the very reason that sleep is something I put off, for when I dream I wake to the blows of an elderly man, a good man by all accounts, beating two sleeping children with the strength natural to an army officer. My father was a Private first class and sent to boot camp at Ft. Jackson; he was not unique among army men for their trust in spanking, disciplining, or otherwise intentionally inflicting harm in children for their misdeeds. My father believed in this very passionately, often, but more rare than his father had beaten him. My mother’s father committed suicide on his patio near the bus-stop where my mom and her sister Virgnia (my aunt Jenny) got off the bus to walk the alley-way through the apartments to their trailer behind the mill, where they found him dead, still holding the gun but feebly. My mother has this terrible sort of face whenever she sees a schoolbus, and I think that when she does she remembers walking up those steps to find her father — what had been her father — with a gaping wound in his head and one half-opened eye, peering at her in death. To see a schoolbus and have that sort of Proustian memory of a father’s suicide must, at least, be considered somewhat Kafkaesque in its arbitrary horror.

I am not comparing myself to Kafka as a writer: I have no comparable talent, wit, imagination, or even the pride of Kafka, but I share his sense of unworthiness, shame, and lack of pride; his style of allegorical confessional is a great and cathartic way of excising personal demons (as I have tried to do here) and surviving judgments one might not otherwise survive. Kafka is a monument in world literature, but during his lifetime he struggled to sell his stories, publishing one collection of short stories before his death. The rest? He tore them apart because he was so displeased with them. Now, not all people deeply unsatisfied with their work are secret Kafkas, but statistically speaking, there may be a living Kafka now, so ashamed of his own material he’d never show the world. Perhaps he’s failed to have some books published, or he never really got on with his father. Perhaps forced to live a life of unsteady jobs utterly beneath him. Perhaps, but it is not me.

Kafka is one of humanity’s great cultural heroes, and the Kafkaesque not just a byword for weird; it is the great eye of alienation that one recoils from in all bouts of true, existential crisis, when one finds themselves in an emasculating, alienating, deeply paranoiac, deeply confusing, judgmental world, with eyes and verdicts and pointing fingers in every mirror and window; everywhere a judge waiting to render a verdict on whether or not you deserve to exist. You do; you don’t need your father’s approval (or mother’s, or your friends’) anymore than Kafka did. It is a great tragedy that in his brief life on this Earth very few realized his genius, his talent, and above all, his generosity: he gave the world some of the best stories in centuries, including short stories such as The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and The Hunger Artist and his novels The Trial, Amerika, and The Castle. He is a monument to anyone who ever felt slight in regards to a terrifyingly large and arbitrarily cruel world, for anyone every utterly embarrassed of their writing and deeply unforgiving of their own failures, imagined or not. For that we must be grateful of his many gifts and be sure to take the time to read his work.

“A book must be the ax for the frozen seas within us, ” – Franz Kafka, 3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924 (aged 40).

How to Create Conspiracy (Reason, Rhetoric, and the Art of Persuasion) 16 June 2016

The Language of Argumentative Reasoning &
Rhetoric and the Language of Persuasion 

In the proper use of rhetoric, an early idea or notion in a speech or argument must be resolved by the end. This can be done by returning to, and expanding upon, prior notions in an argument toward the end. This tidies up an argument in a satisfying way. It allows for a finality and closure, allowing the primary thrust of an argument to come full circle. That sense of completion and resolution is intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

When a notion remains unresolved the argument may seem unsatisfying or lacking to an audience or jury. Tying a later notion to an earlier idea allows for an audience to follow your reasoning, evaluate the chain that links each successive point, and decide for themselves if the logic behind thet conjecture is sound. Your job as an orator is to make sure that each successive link follows logically from each point to the next in a manner that is understandable and gradual. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion.

For Aristotle, there were three elements of rhetoric necessary for the practice of persuasion as it relates to argument. As Dr. John R. Edlund describes in his essay Ethos, Logos, Pathos: Three Ways to Persuade:

” Aristotle says that if we believe that a speaker has good sense, good moral character, and goodwill, we are inclined to believe what that speaker says. Today we might add that a speaker should also appear to have the appropriate expertise or authority to speak knowledgeably about the subject matter. Ethos is often the first thing we notice, so it creates the first impression that influences how we perceive the rest. Ethos is an important factor in advertising, both for commercial products and in politics.”

The first element is ethos and is important to consider first, as it must establish the image of credibility of the speaker or writer by creating and maintaining an ethical character; the second is pathos, the appeal to emotion and telling pathological characteristics in the specifics of individual notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, shame and pride; the third is logos, the use of the argument’s own language as the means of persuasion, logic. Only in the fulfillment of each element, Aristotle thought, could rhetoric be considered truly persuasive.

Pathos relies on the amplification feelings known to force someone into a position of choosing honor or shame, into making an amoral decision as opposed to an emotional response. This is important to understand in practicing persuasion, as it relates to creating conspiracy, as appealing to base fears and the sense of pride, by their understanding a unique truth that allows them to rest assured in their own deductive abilities — the best way to convince someone is to give them a way to convince themselves, rely on confirmation bias to run its course, and watch the newly converted. It isn’t always necessary, if the issue hinges on a more morally lax issue; to waste logic on a juror who has built in responses is unnecessary, as logos is not the language of the rhetorical capacity intended for the proud. In such instances, you are dealing with someone for whom proposed or traditional credible sources have failed to persuade them and in response, understandably betrayed, may resort to the persuasion outside of logos, and through ethos they can be more properly persuaded.  Connecting emotionally may help overcome a particularly weak argument, or work to the detriment of an otherwise logically sound narrative.

In the sciences, dispassion and emotional detachment are valued aspects of one’s approach to a proof, in chemistry or physics, for example. But in philosophy and psychology, it is important to show emotional awareness and sensitivity, to make sure someone’s pride is not on the line; to make sure that it does not dishonor or otherwise shame someone to accept a proof, and to err on the side of being humane whenever such questions arise. You will more easily reach someone with a smattering of humanity than with a mountain of intelligence and logic. To insult the intelligence of someone you wish to persuade will do you no favors, and only make a proof that much harder to accept.

On the acceptance of proofs

OF THE SCIENCES PRACTICED BY SCHOLARS AND HISTORIANS, physics is perhaps the most observation based and dependent on empirical data. Proofs in physics without observation data, without an experiment that might replicate the results, or proofs without a means by it may be tested, are considered worse than proofs that are demonstrably wrong. In classical physics, the models and theories were shaped by observation and the tedious collection of data over time. Johannes Kepler published his theory on ellipses in Harmony of the Spheres based on the observation data of another astronomer, the Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe. This would be the first accurate model of the solar system in human history.

In instances where data or observation is impossible, approaches are developed to take probabilities of all possible outcomes into consideration in equations. This is known as the path integral formulation of quantum physics. Classical physics can give definitive answers to questions such as,

If a particle starts at time tA at location A, will it reach location B at time tB? Depending on the particle’s initial velocity and the forces acting on it, the question can be answered. In quantum physics, it’s possible to give the probability that the particle will reach location B at tB. Because of the infinities inherent in probabilities, the sum over histories approach was born, or created rather, to produce valid mathematical proofs.

An invention of American physicist Richard Feynman, path integral is used to calculate quantum mechanical probabilities. To do this, first you consider all the probabilities for the particle traveling from point A to point B. Not just the straight line approach, but all approaches. From the possibility of a particle going through a lethargic stage and making desperate detours to its possibility of going to New York or Rome or Proxima Centauri before going to point B. This seems improbable, sure, but is it improbable that particles will take other paths from point A to point B, and not always straight lines? I don’t think so. After all, between the straight line and the round-about path through New York and Rome there are infinite possibilities. Further, that path may be descriptive but it does not give information about velocities. In short, for the first step, take into account all ways of traveling from A to B, however outlandish they may seem.

The second step is to associate a number with each of these possibilities (not quite the kind of number we’re used to from school, but we will not bother with the difference here). Finally, the numbers associated with all possibilities are added up – some parts of the sum canceling each other, others adding up. (Readers whom this makes think of waves are on the right track – it is an example of an interference phenomenon.) The resulting sum tells us the probability of detecting the particle that started out at A at the location B at the specified time. Physicists call such a sum over all possibilities a path integral or sum over histories.

Calculating such path integrals can be tricky, in particle physics, for example; there, theories are combination of quantum theory and special relativity. Path integrals are an important tool to calculate the probability of particles interacting in a given way. In order to do this, you have to use a time coordinate (t), assigning a time coordinate gives an extra factor (i) – the “imaginary unit”, an algebraic symbol that squares to minus one, i2=1. The resulting pair i·t is sometimes called imaginary time. After a path integral calculation, you reverse the substitution.

This might seem arbitrary and implausible but it has the added benefit of transforming a time coordinate with a special coordinate, which is how it works to give the right answers with Feynman’s approach. An exact proof was found by two mathematicians: Konrad Osterwalder from Switzerland and Robert Schrader from Germany. Their theorem showed that the properties of a quantum theory formulated in the space-time of general relativity can indeed be reconstructed exactly by using Feynman’s recipe on an imaginary-time axis of that same space-time.

Proofs in other areas of academia are not as precise or obvious. Problems in philosophy are never solved to everyone’s satisfaction. Questions on ethics and morality, of good and evil, and anything else in the realm of metaphysics – it is unlikely these questions will ever be satisfactorily defined or proven in a way that would be accepted in the same manner as the above mathematical proof. Whether there is a god or if there is good and evil, these questions have been around as long as questions have been asked.

It is through reason that arguments are settled. And only temporarily then, as they will be asked again. This will be dedicated to the methods of argumentative reasoning more than to advocating for one answer over another. Argumentative reasoning is split into four necessary elements: connection, correlation, conjecture, and conclusion. The connection stage is how you connect your two subjects, showing that the overall idea is based on the logical inferences drawn at each stage when presented with new information. The second step, correlation, is the demonstration of why two subjects are connected. The meaning behind events linking them together, how this reinforces the overarching point, and how it allows for you to present the conjecture that allows for your conclusion.

Conjecture is the part of your case where you argue the evidence. In legal terms, it is the defense’s final summation, or final argument, and it lets them present their inferences, based on the evidence, as part of a reasonable inference from that reference. There is more license in this area, as it is more the story of the evidence than a recapitulation of it. That’s a popular way of refreshing a jury of the main points without going into too much detail, condensing it and making it easier to be pigeonholed in someone’s memory. This is where you tell the story of your own discovery, of how you came to the conclusion you have, and why it precludes any other conclusion.

A conclusion is something that must proceed logically from the conjecture. It allows you to show the stages from the first step of connection and the final step. A conclusion is what everything else is in service to: all of the steps and foundational ideas within the connection and correlation, as surmised in the conjecture. This is your point, the main thrust, and the popular way of doing this in legal terms, again, is in the final summation, or final argument, as well as a way of preempting possible questions and unresolved issues that run contrary to your interpretation of the evidence.

Those are the four main steps in argumentative reasoning as it applies to constructing an academic argument. The point, for me, behind this paper is to demonstrate the methods of constructing and sustaining a conspiracy; the creation of a conspiracy theory follows each one of these four steps very deftly: first the connection, then the correlation, the conjecture, and finally the conclusion. Embedded in the conjecture should be a preemptive answer or deterrent to points important to the proof;

First, anticipate and prepare for detractions. An active deterrent built into the logic of the conjecture will have a longstanding effect on questions as it relates to proof, negating the best attempts at discrediting an argument. Attempts to preempt difficult questions as pertaining to your conclusion are vital points to build into the logic, especially in conspiracy. In case after case, you need to prepare for any and all attempts to pick apart the logic of your argument. ‘The Man’ is disseminating false information; a fundamental establishment as a source of truth is abolished, as that establishment may urge conclusions to the contrary of your own. ‘They’ don’t want the truth to get out. This makes an idea bullet-proof if successful, because it shuts down objections before they can be used and allows you to dictate the flow of the debate. It is of monumental importance in argumentative reasoning to discredit and preempt objections to your arguments. There is much to learn from this type of couched deterrent, one that is prominently built into the logic of conjecture.

In presenting an argument, the first point of business is to rehash and recapitulate the facts as you know a jury to know. Thereby getting them to side with you in the first series of agreements, because it means agreeing, first, with themselves. You need juror empathy, acknowledgement of credible sources, and a shared standard for the measure of truth as it relates to proof. In a legal case, this can be done as a general summation, outlining what you know the jury has seen, detail major points in the abstract – to reinforce important points, points that have empirical proofs, in measurement, for example, or any a demonstrable way.

It is through reason that arguments are settled. And only temporarily then, as they will be asked again. This will be dedicated to the methods of argumentative reasoning more than to advocating for one answer over another. Argumentative reasoning is split into four necessary elements: connection, correlation, conjecture, and conclusion. The connection stage is how you connect your two subjects, showing that the overall idea is based on the logical inferences drawn at each stage when presented with new information. The second step, correlation, is the demonstration of why two subjects are connected. The meaning behind events linking them together, how this reinforces the overarching point, and how it allows for you to present the conjecture that allows for your conclusion.

          Conjecture is the part of your case where you argue the evidence. In legal terms, it is the defense’s final summation, or final argument, and it lets them present their inferences, based on the evidence, as part of a reasonable inference from that reference. There is more license in this area, as it is more the story of the evidence than a recapitulation of it. That’s a popular way of refreshing a jury of the main points without going into too much detail, condensing it and making it easier to be pigeonholed in someone’s memory. This is where you tell the story of your own discovery, of how you came to the conclusion you have, and why it precludes any other conclusion.

          A conclusion is something that must proceed logically from the conjecture. It allows you to show the stages from the first step of connection and the final step. A conclusion is what everything else is in service to: all of the steps and foundational ideas within the connection and correlation, as surmised in the conjecture. This is your point, the main thrust, and the popular way of doing this in legal terms, again, is in the final summation, or final argument, as well as a way of preempting possible questions and unresolved issues that run contrary to your interpretation of the evidence.

          Those are the four main steps in argumentative reasoning as it applies to constructing an academic argument. The point, for me, behind this paper is to demonstrate the methods of constructing and sustaining a conspiracy; the creation of a conspiracy theory follows each one of these four steps very deftly: first the connection, then the correlation, the conjecture, and finally the conclusion. Embedded in the conjecture should be a preemptive answer or deterrent to points important to the proof;

          First, anticipate and prepare for detraction. An active deterrent built into the logic of the conjecture will have a longstanding effect on questions as it relates to proof, negating the best attempts at discrediting an argument. Attempts to preempt difficult questions as pertaining to your conclusion are vital points to build into the logic, especially in conspiracy. In case after case, you need to prepare for any and all attempts to pick apart the logic of your argument. ‘The Man’ is disseminating false information; a fundamental establishment as a source of truth is abolished, as that establishment may urge conclusions to the contrary of your own. ‘They’ don’t want the truth to get out. This makes an idea bullet-proof if successful, because it shuts down objections before they can be used and allows you to dictate the flow of the debate. It is of monumental importance in argumentative reasoning to discredit and preempt objections to your arguments. There is much to learn from this type of couched deterrent, one that is prominently built into the logic of conjecture.

In the language of legal argument 

In the Kennedy assassination, conspiracies began before the body was even back in Washington at Bethesda Medical Hospital. It is a violent, random act; the suggestion that chaos rules over the everyday lives of men and women is a bit much, and replacing chaos with something planned and precise gives us a type of comfort, a type of comfort we’d never have in knowing that anyone, including the most powerful and beloved people on Earth, can lose their lives so publicly and violently. It’s understandable [in the JFK case] to bend toward conspiracy, as most of the American population does. If someone, acting alone, can kill the president, does that not make one uneasy in their own lives, unassured by the safety traditional law enforcement provides? Of course it does. A conspiracy gives meaning where there is none, but where it is badly needed.

          Vincent Bugliosi is a famed lawyer and non-fiction author, best known for his public prosecution of Charles Manson – popularizing the Helter Skelter aspects of those killings – and his true crime novels, Outrage, about the acquittal of OJ Simpson, and Reclaiming History – about the conspiracies surrounding the JFK assassination. In one of his public appearances after the book’s release, he gave a speech at the 5th floor museum in Dallas. At the beginning, he put forth two statements that must be true in order to think intelligently about an issue:

          You must be aware of both sides of a story, first and foremost,

          And you must read, for yourself, any document that other documents purport to discredit.

          His next point was to ask, “How many of you have seen the Oliver Stone film JFK? A lot of hands go up.

          “Now, how many of you have read The Warren Commission?”

          Very few hands remain up.

          “Now, can you think intelligently about an issue without hearing both sides?”

          It’s a very precise demonstration of the built-in biases we all have towards official reports. The Warren Commission is couched in legal language, and can extremely long and exhaustive for the most attentive reader. Such a document is probably not suited for popular entertainment, even an abridged version would leave out too much that is necessary. The Oliver Stone film is exciting and dramatic, full of memorable images and quotes, and it follows the four steps of argumentative reasoning very closely. The first step is the connection and then correlation of events, with a correlation that suits the conjecture and ultimately the conclusion.

          The idea of couching rebuttals and anticipatory in the argument is important for the longevity of an idea. In the vernacular of conspiracy theory, you have surely noticed, there is always some element painted as inherently untrustworthy. Such as official, government reports in conspiracy and scientific instruments of measurement and observation in religion. The success of religion and the propagation of conspiracy are interchangeable, as both provide a human comfort, a comfort that inhuman instruments have traditionally been unable to confer.

          In religious writing, refuting possible objections before they arise is a common practice. It’s something that is conversely practiced in legal argument, the anticipation of objections and their preemptive refutation, and when done properly these anticipatory remarks can do damage to an opponent’s case before they have a chance to argue their interpretation of the evidence in conjecture.

          In reason, there must be reconciliation of irrationalities. In number theory, pi is considered an irrational number because ultimately it doesn’t roll over, instead spiraling on into forever. This has led to a lot of work in number theory, and the intention is to reconcile irrationality. The same is true in rhetoric, whereby the returning to an earlier idea toward the end of a phrase ties it together, rationalizing the statement and giving it a completeness. You see this in literature a lot, often in the form of recurring themes and symbols. Early in a text you may have unresolved elements intentionally left open by an author, which encourages participation on behalf of the reader, allowing them to reconcile open threads of thought ret to be resolved by the author.

 

Literary essay: Shakespeare – Choice & Fate, Fathers & Sons, 15 May 2016

9
On Shakespeare’s Drama,
Choice & Fate, Fathers & Sons

SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS ARE ALL INTRINSICALLY Shakespeare plays; yet with MacBeth, Shakespeare taps into a deeper madness, a madness rarely pulled off with lucidity in literary history. Shakespeare unravels MacBeth in much the same manner as he did with King Lear. Piece by piece the layers shed, layer after layer of human skin.

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At one point he was an honorable man, but is tempted by powers, and what justifies the need or want of power. This is a common reading, but I think the witches intend to be a sort of externalization, a way of seeking validation for the kind of the desires already there. As he rose to power, through each step, he deteriorated morally. The deterioration was such that another theme of internal / external heaven and hell becomes very apparent in the fact that he can’t even enjoy his kingship because of his internal struggle—in this he is much like King Henry IV, unable to enjoy the glory of his usurped throne.

Although Macbeth deteriorates slowly and becomes more and more vicious, his soliloquies, such as the one before murdering Duncan, invoke a sense of pity and awe in the audience simply because of how much he suffers. The great take-away for me is simple: Even monsters suffer. There is great ambition for social heights in MacBeth, but to gain it his morality is more and more cast aside.

MacBeth was once a highly respectable general in Scotland. He even witnesses to some degree the deterioration of his character as he notices his own choice for the social climb over moral goodness. He was respected by the soldiers and even King Duncan while in Scotland; however, this externalization of his greed and desire, the witches, will tempt him with the Throne of Glamis and Cawdor—and propose it will be Banquo, his good friend, soon to be a father of a dynasty of kings, and not he.

MacBeth’s ambition is the heroic flaw, a common theme in theatre,

“My thought, whose murder is yet fantastical, shakes my single state,” he reflects, regarding the prophecy. At first he rejects the idea of murder, shuddering as the witches mention what is to be his fate; he says, “If chance will have me king, chance may crown me, without my stir.”

Again the three witches, an internal peer pressure of sorts, make concentrated his murderous intentions, which he had yet to express. Again it is ambition goaded by temptation that drive him further when Duncan announces his intentions to make Malcom heir to the throne.

MacBeth says,

“That is a step on which I must fall upon, or else o’erleap, for in my way it lies. Stars hide your fires; let not sleep my black desires: the eye that winks at the hand, yet that be which the eye fears, when it is done to see.”

In the end his ambition gets the better of him and his moral deterioration is complete; in the role of a desperate murderer, he doesn’t wish for the light to shine upon what he has done—it is too evil to be seen, and far too much for him to see, to be confronted with the evidence of your crime so graphically, as Claudius was in Hamlet.

The inner conflict that acts inside Macbeth from evil and moral virtue carries on through the entirety of the play and the struggle against the prophecies and temptations become weaker and weaker. The self-fulfilling prophecy is another popular trope in theatre. He reasons after multiple aversions to kill Duncan, showing his complicit choice at each stage, aware of the risks, and then, because of what it took to get there, is unable to enjoy his rule. His slow fall covers a noble man falling from the favor of fortune, through temptation and gradual capitulation to desire, until he is a base creature, in complete service to his indulgences.

Methought I heard a voice cry

“Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep,”

the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,

The death of each day’s life,

sore labour’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds,

great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

Of many the recurring themes in Macbeth, sleep is focused on intensively. Macbeth thought that sleep made life worth living and thought that by killing the king in his sleep, that he had murdered sleep itself. This, of the many points in Macbeth, is probably the most provocative and widely discussed. He thought it to be soothing, “like a bath after a long day’s work.” In the passage, which is common to modern English’s “Sleep on it” – Macbeth is frustrated and distraught and sees no end to his troubles. Though he has a lot of troubles, he relates this with. “A ravell’d sleeve” – this is the metaphor he uses for having a tangled mesh, or string – or skein – of thread and yarn. Not unlike the tangled yard of the Weird Sisters (something else Shakespeare inherited from Holinshed’s Chronicles.

Before Macbeth murders king Duncan, Banquo says, “A heavy summons lies like lead upon me, and yet I would not sleep: merciful powers.” Something, though as of yet he doesn’t reveal it, is keeping him from sleep. Banquo shows beforehand that he is suspecting that Macbeth may have ulterior motives when Macbeth bids him a “Good repose” – which is the same thing as a good night’s sleep.

In one of the most popular of all the scenes in Macbeth, Macbeth hallucinates seeing a bloody dagger suspended in the air pointing towards King Duncan’s chamber; he thinks it’s appropriate to have the hallucination at that time of night and says, “Now o’er the one half-world, nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse that curtain’d sleep.”

Sleep, as he says, was curtained because many of the noblemen and personages high in the social hierarchy used four post beds and hung up curtains to keep out cold air. Macbeth believed the air of night could see through the curtains and through sleep itself.

“There’s one did laugh in’s sleep, and one cried murder,” – After King Duncan is murdered, he tells his wife this as he leaves the chamber and believed that the people, even though all were asleep, could see the blood on his hands.

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Tragedy is of two popular forms now in the West. Modern tragedy and Greek tragedy. Greek tragedy is tied to the ideas of fate and the gods, and sometimes regular people too. A hero defies the gods, often due to fatal flaws which is the reason behind their eventual downfall; and English playwriting, in its early years, follows this tradition. In Shakespeare’s plays, tragedy is also identified as a story that ends unhappily due to the flaws of the protagonist, the tragic hero.

Romeo and Juliet – a broadstrokes tragedy – In Shakespeare’s other tragedies, such as Macbeth and Hamlet, although those characters are fated to die, this type of tragedy is different. Romeo and Juliet is a domestic type of tragedy, a tragedy of fate, despite the fact that other characters influence the result of the final tragedy; however only a few people are affected. In most of his work, the microcosm (Hamlet) along with the macrocosm (The fiefdom of Denmark) are affected equally, making the tragedy in microcosm and macrocosm, personal and universal.

Shakespeare tries to break down the rivalry and feud between two families; the Capulets and Montagues Many tragedies are been presented in the play including that of Paris, Mercutio, Tybalt, and Romeo, Juliet, and Lady Montague. These figures all lead to each other, each building up and abetting the next death or tragedy, which could have been caused by rivaling senses of authority, codes of honor, masculinity, rebellion, ambition, and – again, fate.

From the very beginning of the play, fate is constantly referenced, starting with the prologue,

“A pair of star crossed lovers take their life.”

This is Shakespeare working on a different type of tragedy, a tragedy in the face of time and destiny. Romeo and Juliet were meant to die, in that sense, because it was their destiny.  Therefore this is what fate had planned for their lives. So the audience recognizes even further that the tragic death of Romeo and Juliet was something which was definitely happening, something inherent and inevitable. Shakespeare’s job in convincing the audience this was due to fate was easy. As the audience at that point of time would have believed in fate.

Shakespeare tried to showcase the idea that to fulfill destiny and prophecy, you have to believe in destiny. Like prophecies, inasmuch as they are ultimately self-fulfilling, Romeo was shown to believe, saying, “I fear too early for my mind misgives, some consequences yet hanging in the stars shall bitterly begin this fearful date.”

Romeo knew—to that degree of belief, it transcends idea and becomes a physical reality—that his actions were not under his control;

“…He that hath steerage over my course, direct my sail.”

By believing that one’s actions are out of one’s control, one avoids responsibility and, for Romeo to believe this, he tried to defy what was already a self-imposed idea, to go against the tide that swept him to his end was to go against a tide he put in motion.

Fate was used by a number of playwrights, and Shakespeare used it well as a dramatic device, showing what fruit there is in believing one’s life out of one’s hands. Shakespeare was central to the progress of the play and its outcome; an example could be Romeo’s banishment and Paris’s engagement to Juliet. Both a modern and an Elizabethan audience would, despite the knowledge of the plays outcome, be interested in the play, and keep watching, and in a way Shakespeare uses the audience’s knowledge as a dramatic device.

Despite his own ambition, Shakespeare has a madness for condemning it; like MacBeth, Friar Lawrence could be an example of an ambitious person, believing that by marrying the lovers the feud would stop, alleging that the only reason he is marrying the two is to bring an end to the rivalry. Despite how well intentioned this action is, The Friars decision to marry Romeo and Juliet indicates his naiveté more than anything. The Friar is ultimately responsible for the ending. To persuade Juliet to fake her death, he attempts to reverse nature—to heal the wounds of the feud—but only succeeds in making everything worse.

The Friar was a man who did not believe in fate. As such, his decision-making leads to chaos. The unpredictable direction of events help to keep the audience attentive. Shakespeare used these techniques to build tension and make scenes more dramatic.

Youth’s Romantic Rebellion.

Romeo and Juliet both rebel against their families, as most young men and women do. They enhance and exacerbate the rivalry between them by marring one another, rather than taming it. The play presents numerous examples of youthful rebellion. Juliet disobeys her father by refusing to marry Paris, something unheard of in a society where fathers are the ultimate source of patriarchal authority, and authority in all things, moral and spiritual. As both rebel against their parents through their continued association, Juliet not only disobeys her parents, she encourages Romeo to do the same, saying,

“…deny thy father and refuse thy name.”

Things did not end well. For anyone, really.

Cont.

Shakespeare could turn out plays like Romeo and Juliet in his sleep. In Hamlet and perhaps more so in MacBeth, however, he pushes himself higher and higher. In Hamlet by bringing the drama closer to the personal and neglecting archetypal tragedy; Hamlet, the character, is proof of this, as his mental anguish is the subject of the entire play. Perhaps it was due to the death of his own son Hamnet, that Shakespeare’s interest would become deconstructing the relationships between fathers and sons.

After his son was carried away by the plague, we have the character Hamlet, a consonant shy of having the same name of his deceased son, looking into a mirror, contemplating suicide. ‘To be or not to be,’ is just a fancy way of asking, ‘Should I kill myself or what?’ That’s the question. It’s the same question Camus pursued in his philosophy of the absurd, in works such as The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus; and Camus stated,

‘There is one principle issue in philosophy, and that is suicide.’

Shakespeare’s own anguish and regret seeps into his characters, who, even when seemingly on top of the world – as Shakespeare had been himself, showing up to a coronation decked out in red velvet – find ways to bemoan the everyday life of the depressive:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

The way to dusty death

Out! Out, brief candle!

Life is but a walking shadow,

A poor player that struts and frets

His hour upon the stage

And is heard no more.

It is a tale told by an idiot,

Full of sound and fury –

Signifying nothing.

Shakespeare’s characters are all saddled by one form of loss or another in this period, and they deal with grief in different ways. His later work is a dissection of grief. Hamlet’s deliberation on his life, Macbeth’s lethargy and disdain for the noise and futility of the mundane, day to day, what is real and lasting, and what is ephemeral, just a passing storm, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Shakespeare’s guilt over his son’s passing seeps into his greatest play, King Lear, as the King mistreats his one honest daughter while at the same time giving lavishly to his other daughters, who are sycophantic and gratifying, incurring his good favor by building up his self-esteem, so when it’s time to parcel out the kingdom, Cordelia doesn’t get as much as those other assholes.

It’s hard to pin Shakespeare down and say with definitiveness what he believed, or wherewith he is speaking in his own voice, as himself. He used the past as a prism through which to enlarge the issues of the present, such as the problems with the monarchy and the many religious schisms of his age. But in his later works, the character of Hamlet is in keeping with more reflective, pensive melancholy – about the loss of his father – and his ghost is who tips him on to what Claudius has done; MacBeth might be a reflection of Shakespeare’s own transformation. From the highest of the playwrights in England to a grieving father; he had money and fame at a time when it meant less than it should have.

At the time King Lear was written, Shakespeare was English playwriting. Kip Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Kyd, his detractors and contemporaries did well, but fell out of favor, gradually. Kip Marlowe has retained a popularity that the former did not, but even his doesn’t rival that of Shakespeare, the Bard, inventor of words like puke and queasy. That’s a legacy.

When one considers the popularity of Hamlet’s conversation with the mirror and his thoughts of suicide, it’s easy to see one’s self before that same mirror thinking the same thing: what have I to lose by losing everything? Will it mitigate my loss? Will destruction save me from the torments of my conscience? These are natural questions to ask, to wonder if there is providence, and to wonder if we can actually defy fate on any meaningful level. If there be providence in this world, must this be the greatest lack of mercy? This denial of consolation the grave offers us all? No grace, no word of condolences from that undiscovered country. To ask these questions during a time of religious upheaval were questions in need of asking. It is no consolation that the dead stay silent, and grace is a spectre over our noblest endeavors.

The dead may silent, sure, but they may find their voice again; if the proper necromancer restored these spirits to our world, to live out their days in one folio or painting or another, this preserves the voice of voices we can’t hear and is unless by a proper necromancer restored to live forever in the folio or painting of a fine dramatist or artist. This is among the finer qualities of art—the preservation of what we are as individuals struggling with self-definition. Shakespeare was one of the first writers to give the English a hint at what that definition could be.

A Critique of Criticism, 12 May 2016

A look at the varying methods of literary criticism

In popular criticism, a critic may give a paragraph or so his attention as an initial reaction, to get the reader to see his perspective and set the tone, jot down something in the night to summarize it all, and post a review online sometime the next day. That’s the extent of the responsibility: check off some minor beats you expected to find along the story, correlate them with something you may have seen somewhere else, write derivative in your 6×9 yellow pad and underline it.

          In order to be objective, a critic will look at it from other points of view, get some contrary statements to cover the populist angle, and, noting how bad the dialogue was, how the action was tame and the ending uninspired. And the film/novel gets a score out of 5 or 4, or a thumbs up or two, and that’s it.

This was not always the approach to critiquing literature or art. Literary criticism, then, would be indistinguishable from what we today call literary analysis. It is the intentional probing of a manuscript, beckoning, Speak to me, ye words! And when they don’t, it’s not uncommon to feel left out of the joke. Many students have finished a copy of The Great Gatsby or The Fountainhead and thought, did I just not get it?

Lots of students feel that way about certain books they’ve been told are important for so long that, when they finally finish the story, there’s just something not there that you thought would be, something to justify the reputation of the novel. Literary criticism was born out of this idea, this idea to understand how stories were best told and structured, and how to explain popular curriculum books in a way that would best resonate with individual readers.

Literary criticism as literary analysis/exegesis made it to the popular conscience around the height of Athenian culture, where each year a tragedy contest would be held, accepting works from some of the biggest names in theatre history – Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes – who brought about a certain need in the public sphere to understand their entertainment, as a way to more wholly enjoy the performance, by identifying with the hero or heroine.

Tragedies submitted by Sophocles and Aeschylus would be judged against each other, with the critics weighing the pros and cons of such works as Antigone (the greatest of Sophocles’ plays) and The Libation Bearers, masterwork of the poet Aeschylus. This is the opposite of the original intention of critics; as they were more likely to be expounding upon the virtues of Epicurus or Aristotle, bringing their ideas to wider audience by condensing them and packaging them as beauty.

Though the popular appeal of condensed, Cliff Notes version of the Gospels, it worked in a much different way: instead of simplifying the idea, they simplified the presentation of ideas quite complex, especially for a young child, and through paintings on vases, the frescoes, and even the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, communicated the ideas behind the faith, ideas of mercy, forgiveness, and salvation.

This was a type of criticism, where a critic is used in the sense of someone who was there to appreciate art and communicate its most important ideas to a broader audience.

We have many in the theologian tradition to thank for modern textual and literary criticism; and the works of Martin Luther and Thomas Hobbes are a valuable contribution to the academic community. These include Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. While each of those books detailed by Nabokov don’t tell traditional stories of their own, or the stories they told themselves, they nevertheless draw our attention to some of the more sublime moments in literature and art, something a sometimes impatient mind may miss. These works are valuable for popularizing the notion that the studiousness of academia can be a worthwhile pursuit. To somehow prune new insights from the texts of Seneca and Chuang Tzu is a magic of its own.

The critics of the other type began as spectators in the Roman playhouses, noting the flaws of the heroes, often missing the point, while condemning Epicurus for his supposed debauchery in his philosophical exploration of human happiness.

This search for patterns, and for meaning, in thematic or philosophical language, the language used throughout the text serves to reinforce an important bit of subtext, or act as the harbinger of something to come. In music this is called a leit-motif, a pattern that repeats in different places to emphasis different, but similar structures and characters. As there must be experts, there must be experts to certify experts as experts, and so grew the community of theatre critics towards the end of the 19th century. In popular culture it leaned more toward the thumbs up/thumbs down or 3 out of 4 stars type reviews. These reviews are reminiscent of our schooldays of recapitulation, a tenuous rundown of the events, followed by comparing and contrasting positive and negative aspects of a film or novel. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this approach, and for those who use this method of criticism, I’m not here to critique.

The critique of studiousness often leaves out the critique built into the experience, and it is often more natural to let the cards fall as they might, as long as you’re right; or even let it unravel. The lesson is that you are criticizing something as it is against the standard of what it would be if somehow made perfect. To Epicurus, this was a recipe for sadness. Instead, the critique of romanticism puts the pieces of a story together by attempting to put the romantic hero back together.

The sentimental critic doesn’t necessarily look to judge the quality of a work, but more or less put it into a context that allows students and other academics to look at an old work in a new way, a way that allows us to connect the struggles of the characters with those of the modern world, like us, and use the lessons learned to improve our performance in our own world, towards prestige or financial success.

The question of quality commercial commentary is predicated upon the wisdom of a select few being sufficient to guide a great many to what makes the work under analysis transform into a malleable, transmutable metal in hands of a great metallurgist. The classical approach to literature and storytelling instruction has been through the demonstration of good literature by our teachers and professors throughout our life; we have been trained, through so many courses, to look for meaning, and to connect one idea to another, and hope to not be worse than wrong – which is to simply be uninteresting.

Many social and literary critics remain outside of the world of publishing, neglecting personal projects, such as fiction or non-fiction, as the academic discipline of analysis and comparative philology, which teaches you how recognize the structure of languages and their development and morphology, puts you in a perpetual comparative mood, even when looking at the organic, biological development of stories, how they’re put together, and how important themes are stressed again and again. The point behind literary criticism is not to tear a work to pieces, not for destruction, but for putting it back together.

When I was studying as a linguist, we often read books in their original language, then a prominent translation, and finally we’d go in for finals honors to try a more fitting translation of a given work, Tolstoy more often than not. When you work within the medium of teaching English composition, you begin to see a machinery at work, one that you can’t believe you’ve never see before.  As you begin to recognize the obvious cynicism behind the construction of what was supposed to be spontaneous, you can take solace in the fact that all stories, conscious or not, set out to reach you on an emotional level, to try to teach you something in the best of times, and to admonish and condemn in the worst. But once you see the skeleton and the scaffold, you know how a narrative is likely to unfold, looking at it as another in a series, as Sherlock Holmes said,

“If you know how the past 1,000 crimes were committed, it stands to reason you wouldn’t have a pretty good idea of what happened on the occasion of the 1,001st.”

The comparison may not seem readily obvious, but when you consider that all literature and art are, essentially, mysteries, all of them, even Jane Eyre. The mystery of art is not how the story ends or how a finished painting looks, but what the mystery there is in the shared imagination of mutual completion and appreciation. The mystery of literature is not how the unlikely hero manages to save the world in the end, but what such stories unintentionally reveal about their creators, like a real life Picture of Dorian Gray.

Though the mysteries of art are endless, the most striking is the almost instinctive human capacity to communicate through expression, through words and poetry, for sensual art and language.

It doesn’t manner what form of criticism you pick, it’s easy to point out the shortcomings of a truly disappointing story, but it is equally important to appreciate with the same fervor a relativity minor work by a relatively unknown author, an author who gets everything right. It’s hard to pinpoint anything in particular that makes Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther so charming. And being a part of Goethe’s early romanticism, it’s hard to look at it critically, to peel back the onions so to speak, and finds Goethe’s own great disappointment with romanticism.

While in the modern romantic age, it’s not too difficult to find yourself agonizing over the decisions made by writers, opting for the romantic. And though it is easy to spot the unremarkable in film and television, a lot of young students grow up thinking they failed somehow, when they didn’t fully understand an assigned book.

The horror of this realization is that, while many people can recognize the obvious problems in a bad film or TV series, far less know when a book is bad or good; a book requires a lot more dedication and belief in the author.

In the final analysis, art and literature remain interesting and sacred because of the natural sort of voodoo they offer up to us; the mystery of our own needs and feelings, and our need to have resolution and closure; to try to get to know these characters in fiction and grow up with them is to risk as much as having any friend, and they share so much of our imagination that they become another voice in us, participating in our inner lives. We can see glimmers of ourselves in the oldest stories of gods and monsters.

More importantly, presenting a reader with a character not much different from them, and make them relatable so it allows us to identify with the character, activating our mirror neurons as we see ourselves in them, our failures and struggles are also tied to them.

Why Art Matters, 10 May 2016

This brief essay is a response to a question I get a lot, most often from young men and women just starting college, but a question I feel is worth dedicating some time to: 

Why does art matter?

Think for a moment about the world around you. Your immediate surroundings. A chair, a monitor, a bookshelf, desk and a settee. But because of artists, like those who line our bookshelves, each dusty volume is a portal into the world of the author. And their unique magic takes us back to their time and lets us look at the world through their perspective, through their eyes, the portal being that of the entering of another mind. As the character’s enter John Malkovich’s head in Being John Malkovich 
I want you to think for a moment about the world around you. The immediate world; the world of bookshelves and desks and an old fireplace, and an old stolen Hotei Buddha by the grating. And on the manlepiece, a hundred or more books, each in some branch of philosophy more dull than the last, lot’s of ‘ologys’ – phenomenology, ontology, gynecology.

Think for a moment: how much of what you know to be true about the world is largely in part to dedicated to historians and their information hoping to communicate the complex ideas of history through the formal language of bookkeeping. But the preservation of a culture through numbers will never give the humanity to the past necessary for us to empathize. The preservation of culture and the communication of ideas are noble goals, and both should be encouraged. But there is a different side to art — therapeutic, fulfilling, and has the effect of refining us.

The preservation of a culture is one of the most noble, if unintentional aspects of art; forever framing a quaint scene, say a flower underneath a thunderstorm alone in a field of long dead flowers; something that might otherwise be unnoticed by someone in too much of a hurry to appreciate the, celebrating in the simple, day to day occurrences which, when stripped of routine, spring back to life with a unique, infectious youthful abandon. Think also, how little the world would know of the world if not for the preservation of ancient documents, the Bayeux Tapestry, the holy books of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. All of these messages were thoroughly communicated through art long before the art of the spoken-word sermon became popular in post-Reformation society, beginning, perhaps, in the Dutch Republic, where artists such as Rembrandt and

Think for a moment how little we  know about the beliefs and histories of foreign cultures without the spread of art, through the Celebration of the Dionysia to the works of Sophacles, Euripides, and Aeschylus Without artists, we’d have little knowledge about the rest of the world and the cultures of which it is comprised. The world our own eyes would never (or could never) find in our own lives. It gives us new perspective, and not only that – but new eyes, the eyes of the artist, with which we view the totality of the world and vastness of impulses and feelings that comprise what academics and philosophers call the human condition.

We get firsthand accounts of experiences otherwise out of range of our daily lives. We may now look at a sky in 19th century Amsterdam with the same tumultuous passion as Vincent van Gogh, seeing it pulse and breathe and come alive with natural magic.

starry_night_over_the_rhone

We can live vicariously through following of great heroes of legend and myth. We can experience the mystical and transcendental in the reading of Buddhist Sutras and looking at the art, learn from the preserved cultural wisdom in The Dhammapada and other Eastern Philosophers, such as Laozi, Confucius, Chuang Tsu, and new perspectives and experiences give rise to new understanding, and understanding, with time, becomes wisdom.

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Very little in our life can provide the same emotional consolation and intellectual stimulation provided by art. We can experience the far off vistas of ancient Arabia through the Arabian Nights, and follow the adventures of the great hero Sinbad. We can learn about the political climate of ancient Greece through the writing of Plato and Aristotle, which gives us a healthy historical breadth of view in our consideration of the modern world. We can use Proust’s eyes to look at the political and emotional upheavals in France in the early 20th century through his great work In Search of Lost Time. We can look at the intellectual climate of late 19th century Russia through the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Turgenev.

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We can also cast off the shackles of realism by taking ourselves off to worlds of absolute fantasy, such as in the works of Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. We can still bring back valuable lessons from works of high fantasy, lessons just as valid in our own world and daily lives, the kind of lessons we absorb as children when we might otherwise be unaware of their intentional instruction. We learn best when we’re unaware someone is intended to instruct us, as we are naturally hesitant to cooperate with someone we know to be attempting to teach us.

The_Olivetan_Master_Monks_Singin_the_Office

Art is valuable in traditional religion in the West as well. Our view of the Christian faith is highly reliant on works of art, the artwork of the Renaissance for example, which served to communicate complex ideas in a way that might not be readily obvious. During the Protestant Reformation in England, the great religious paintings were being whitewashed, dismissed as vulgar and profane.

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The argument offered by the Protestants was that all a Christian needed was the Word, the Gospel Truth in black and white. And yet for the millions who couldn’t read, in Catholic Rome for example, the mysteries of the Gospel and some of the more complex ideas about mercy and consolation were just as effectively communicated through the paintings of Caravaggio and architecture of Bernini as they were through the printed King James Bible. There is consolation and catharsis in art, with each painting and novel being unique guides toward our moral and intellectual education.

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Art serves us in many capacities, but perhaps most importantly is its capacity to allow us to use new and interesting ways to examine the human condition in all its forms, through all of time, and through science fiction into the future. It lets us become more complete people by understanding the nature of other peoples and their traditions more completely. An artist’s education is never over, as one always seeks to attain ever greater glimpses of larger truths only apparent when looked at from afar.

Outside of its moral and intellectual capacity, art also serves as a means of preservation. We may have lost crucial information about history, as well as our biological and cultural heritage, if not for the intense work of preservation artists work to deliver to posterity. It is the basis of what the French author Gustave Flaubert called a sentimental education.

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It refines us by demonstrating our own coarseness, it scandalizes us in a way that teaches us about our own ethical and moral compass, and it lets us begin to appreciate the most noble of philosophical goals: to know who we are and what made us that way. Art and philosophy go a long way towards answering the former question, and gives us the tools necessary for answering the latter.

From The November Letters: Academia, philosophy, and subjectivity

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Philosophy & academia

Despite my education or what my writing may suggest, I am not a philosopher. I have more in common with the prolific serial writers of Astounding Fiction! than I do with a traditional philosophers like Immanuel Kant or Rene Descartes. I feel that I must point this out, as there is, I think, a difference between a philosopher and a scholar, and a modern academic.

A philosopher is someone who, historically, works outside of science, traditionally – though science has been extended to include topics more at home in metaphysics – and treats subjects that are, in their time, unanswerable through measurement or devices that could give them data. In the absence of empirical evidence to suggest one thing or another, the realm of philosophy approaches such problems from varying schools of thought and disciplines.

In the west, Classical philosophy goes back to Plato in the his accounts of the trial of Socrates’ in The Apology, The Republic, a historical treatise, and later Aristotle would become the most prolific, if most problematic, contributor to academia. We have Aristotle to thank for the prevalent assumption that there are 5 senses (Taste, touch, hearing, vision, smell) is common sense, or thought of as such, when sense is rarely common and what is sensible is rarely common. Most people have a sense of time, a sense of balance, and a recently discovered genetic trait that endows us with the awareness of knowing when we’re being watched. A sense of shame, some of us. Pride, paranoia, power, seeing dead people (who don’t know they’re dead).

But Aristotle’s practicality and rigidity was necessary for the split between moral absolutists and later moral relativists. There was another popular field of study for Greek philosophers, however, and the wisdom of Archimedes’ On Sphere Building, and the propositions of Euclid, which includes the working model for geometry as we know it. There were more materialists like Democritus and Eratosthenes, pragmatic application philosophers; Rene Descartes, for example, invented a system of coordinates (Cartesian coordinates) that are still used in city planning. These are natural philosophers, academics whose insights into one field bring about the creation of others. Such as Michael Faraday, an uneducated visionary and Charles Darwin, a pigeon breeder and naturalist whose studies ab the HMS Beagle, would lead him to publish On the Origin of Species, in 1859, introducing the world to evolution through natural selection,

Isaac Newton, professor of mathematics and Cambridge, creates calculus (which he called fluxions, and it has been contested that contemporary mathematician Leibniz – himself a philosopher – may have publications predating Newton’s publication of Principia Mathematica. The foundation of his laws of motion, F=ma, the outline of the theory of gravitation – many of these proposals would not be corrected until Einstein’s general theory of relativity redefined gravitation and extended it to include the behavior of time.

1 What is a philosopher?

A philosopher in science is someone who, let’s use the ancient Greek mathematician Eratosthenes as an example, applies one skill set to solve a problem in another field. Such as the circumference of the Earth, which Eratosthenes measured by calculating the time it took shadows to move from one spot to another, and finally how long it took to go from overhead a designation shadow-caster (an obelisk) and return to be right overhead again. By using math and calculation, the size of the Earth was correctly (within reasonable approximation) derived by the observation of shadows and sticks.

Another example of this is the solving of the riddle behind the make-up and consistency of Saturn’s rings by preeminently gifted mathematician and father of electromagnetism, James Clerk Maxwell. His publications on the electromagnetic spectrum were the final word on the behavior of light in the 19th century, and would not be severely called into question until the development of quantum mechanics, which itself was resolved by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, whose publication The Strange Theory of Light and Matter is the final word – for now. These are practical philosophers. A practical philosopher is someone who is presented with a problem that is novel and uses their intuition and training to come up with new ways to solve problems, such as the volume of a curve – which Newton’s system could accurately calculate. These philosophers are the driving force behind the development of new technology and work in fields of application, where a hypothesis, such as one in chemistry about the combination of two elements, can be proposed in the morning and, by measurement, proved correct or incorrect by lunch.

Poetics and practical philosophy

The other philosophy is the philosophy Aristotle called Poetics. Poetics is the philosophy of the armchair, philosophy that evaluates moral or metaphysical issues not subject to measurement, such as the nature of good & evil – though science has looked into the inheritance of certain characteristics common to the amygdala of criminals convicted of murder: a smaller and less attune antennae that doesn’t pick up on limits imposed by fear and rationality, but the nature of evil and how it may be dealt with is not something a natural philosopher can propose an equation to test. The poetic philosopher is more of a teacher of different disciplines and a student of classicists and the subjects of interest in their work: Socrates’ skepticism, for example, is an assault on the assumption of academia’s inherent rightness by association – with institution, school, or clan.

It is a serious question and a pressing one: what lends credibility to one person’s ideas and beliefs and what leads to the dismissal of a person’s evaluation of facts? I guess we all like to think, that somewhere in our stomach, or in somebody’s stomach, there is a right answer, dammit. If the competing ideas are those of two people, people of equal standing and repute, how is the conflict resolved?

Subjectivity in empiricism

Well, consider the following conflict and how revealing it is: you wake up in the middle of the night, let’s say it’s in November – as it is now – and you’re cold. You decide to get out of bed to turn up the thermostat in the living room. But when you get there, you find a friend or loved one at the dials. They’re burning up, sweat beading off their forehead; it’s too hot and they can’t get to sleep, so they’ve decided to turn on the air condition. The thermometer reads the same for both observers: 60 degrees.

There are different ways to approach this problem. Do you let your friend get some relief from the air condition for a while, make yourself some cocoa and get another blanket, or do you insist that it is cold, refuse to turn the heat down, and hold out for an expert’s opinion? The temperature is 600 degrees. Both sides agree. And yet, the problem remains.

Now enlarge the issue, put it in the hands of the public, and leave it up for the news to relate this to the public, the court of public opinion, with one media outlet playing prosecution and the other defense: one source sides with the cold woman, insisting that warmth is important and going to sleep cold can lead to cough and a runny nose. The competitor surveys an anonymous group of an undisclosed number of survey participants and claim that 84% of all news stories involving percentages are pulled from their collective assholes to push a story, and 76% of News A readers believe it is more dangerous to be too hot than to be too cold, because dehydration can lead to hallucinations and delusions, even stroke and death. The reports take shape and independent outlets take sides. Newspapers and websites run special editorials on the importance of warmth and cool air, as opinion pieces on why being hot is good for burning calories and Dr. Oz endorses freezing as an excellent way of strengthening your immune system. The token religion authority piece calls into question the measurement and suggests that it’s flawed.

So, when each source of information exists solely to reinforce one point of view or the other, when both are objectively true to each independent evaluator, but also when both are subjectively incorrect in their describing of the weather as applicable to what is felt by someone else. The point isn’t to convince someone that cold is really hot or hot is cold. How do you decide what is in need of being decided, if anything? You start with humanizing the individuals, stressing individual pressures and stresses unique to them, their fear and desire – all very real, all very unrelated to getting objective truth on something that is, by its very nature, inexplicable of dual definitions, or consensus definition. You give them faults, you tear their character apart, and you do it without facts – but with questions: the best way to manufacture news is to use a declarative sentence and add a question mark, disguising the subtle lie with the trappings of inquiry:

Allegations heating up! Could drug withdrawals be to blame for Cold Woman’s inexplicable coldness?

Could meth use explain explicable midnight suffering?

Blam! They’re no longer people experiencing normal human emotions; they’re talking points to be pulled from the shelf from time to time to make a point, only to be put away. Not only have they lost human dimension, but makes them abstract pieces in a question that has become about something else. Whether the thermometer is accurate, what led to one person being hot or the other being cold, and all this noise becomes a convoluted, incestuous echo chamber, and what is invariably lost in the details are the people most affected by it. One person is hot. One person is cold. And they’re waiting on a population of disaffected, disillusioned apostates of academia to settle the point of it all. To those not hot nor cold, the best thing to do is decide what will benefit them the most, in earning their professional opinion. Now imagine this conflict is something more serious, something involving, say, hydrogen bombs, and instead of two people waiting on the Parakeet Jury’s verdict, and there are millions – to be told whether it is hot or cold, a sensation they cannot feel, one way or the other, and, if they could, would not be solved by consensus.

The reason for this, and yes, dammit, there is one, is to establish that this line of thinking, of unresolved / ultimate subjectivity, in which a response can’t be simultaneously correct, is meant to establish a concept in fiction, and is best described as the lack of resolution in defining based on subjectivity and alternative perspectives, which extends to the largest elements of a story to the smallest, and could be called the unresolved discontinuity – a resolved clause without a resolved thread from competing beliefs that can be boiled down to multiple perspectives of debating whether 60 degrees is hot or cold.

The presumption of expertise

Experts are similarly arbitrary, despite the hypnotism of pomp and gravitas, and are commonly those of repute and influence, demonstrating understanding and the recognition of practical application in a given field: someone who has demonstrated their understanding and survived the pressure of peer-review, the sorting hat for new writers that separates the fuckin’ wheat from the chaff, I’ll tell you that shit right now. So, after the peer review process, once they have the esteem of a university or publication, how do we accept such an argument without skepticism, if all ideas are made great only by their bearing the brunt of the most vicious application of Occam’s Razor. We look to the foundation of what makes a structure reasonable by degree, putting the structure into a tangible format you can see how the skepticism of legitimate expertise drives an industry of opinion professionals.

The presumption of expertise often comes with the backing of a prestigious organization or academic community. For each expert’s idea or philosophy, the wise response to something that requires reason and evidence is the rigorous application of skepticism, as the questioning of the obviously false is the beginning of a life-long self-education, which gives the newly minted scholar keys to the pragmatic process of tearing down the proposed theory from the bottom up, starting at the assumptions that underlie the actual postulation. To test the strength of an idea, you test its foundation, the principles behind the methodology used to arrive with such a hypothesis, as was the case with Darwin, for example, and later Watson and Crick, all with theories with the evidence presumed to be discoverable in nature (which have been).

          Skepticism is the crucible through which all ideas and theories are submitted to, and earlier attempts at a natural explanation for the diversity of animals on Earth had been shredded to piece by the dispassionate teeth of doubt an inquiry. And anyone confident enough in their proposal to submit to skepticism and inquiry participates on the perpetual renewal of knowledge in academia. If an idea doesn’t seem like it works, scrutinize it to the greatest extent necessary, and try not to impose or otherwise import an unrelated understanding and apply it to a novel problem. Don’t let the presumption of title or prestige ever shortcut your natural inclination to evaluate passionately, nor let someone shortcircuit your critical faculties by attempts to annul attempted criticisms, such as an idea’s built in defenses against claims against it.

          The application of practical philosophy is observation, deduction, commonality or abundance of supporting themes, prediction and the ability to explain, before their discovery, how such discoveries will be measured – such as the completion of the Periodic Table before all of the elements that are now firmly nestled into it were even found (or, as in some instances, artificially created), and intermediate forms between species of animal – such as the closest living relative to the blue whale – have been proposed and subsequently found.

Scholarship and philosophy

A scholar, of literature or history, can be as rhetorically gifted and thoughtful as a philosopher, and just as instructive; but, more than anything, an academic is the messenger, the intermediate between an artist or a subject of study and the student. A natural philosopher in the literary tradition looks at common elements of human nature as represented in fiction (or nonfiction) and acts as an intermediate, much in the same way, a voice of some authority turning the commentary into a peripheral, an adjunct to communal learning in popular culture. It is not right by consensus, as truth is not measured by popular appeal but, ultimately, by historical favor: the community of opinion will, as the event gets closer and closer to falling over the edge of living memory, at its least vibrant and potent in our mind, , at least in the public arena, is the judgment of history.

Popular literary criticism and interpretation

And history has given us unique and, well, perplexing interpretations of the art and culture that has shaped human civilization. The thing about history, you see, consensus is hard to come by; as much for modern political issues as it has been forever, because humans have the stubborn capacity of trusting in the benevolence of those of learning who may stand to profit by misleading them.

What kind of influence a persuasive philosopher may have over the discovery, that’s only half the battle: the connection between relevance and meaning in a work of fiction is as dependent upon the reader as the writer, as that is what makes literary criticism the non-exact science it is. As individuals we decide what a work of art means. As a culture we develop an interpretation and the rest of the details emerge gradually.

There are very clever and astute people out there; people who understand subtlety, subtext, and thematic elements. You know the type, stuffy and pretentious academics who sniff their own socks when no one’s looking. Ahem. In my studies of writers and writing, I’ve noticed one thing that writers hate more than anything—with the possible exception of outright plagiarism—and that is popular,  enduring misinterpretation.

Pareidolia is a phenomena defined by the failure of a person’s natural capacity for pattern recognition. Pareidolia is a type of apophenia—as we begin to see patterns and meaning in randomness; perhaps project would be a better way to describe how we can find a face on Mars—this is how pareidolia happens: constellations, the imagined forms we use to connect the stars and form from those connections recognizable human shapes and patterns. Every constellation we see is apophenia. It’s fun to come up with theories and meaning to enrich our favorite stories and usually no one gets hurt. Let me give you an innocent example, an example which appeals to the mid-90’s child we all are. Ahem.

It is a popular theory among the gamers of my generation that The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is about the five stages of grief. It could be an example of pareidolia, yet it’s understandable. It’s an interesting look at the storytelling techniques of a uniquely modern medium. It’s harmless and has no social ramifications. But sometimes, when a full moon is out, misinterpretation can lead to terrible, terrible things indeed.

Submitted for your approval, exhibit A: The popular Beatles song Helter Skelter upon release had no definitive or band confirmed meaning and therefore what it meant was largely dependent on what we brought to it as listeners; the final verdict being the decision made by the beholder, by the interpreter. That’s one of the greater qualities of music; as it is, more-so than many forms of art, an intentionally subjective consideration. For people who are not cult leaders on LSD who think they’re Jesus, like Charles Manson, it doesn’t prophesize a coming race war. Yet that interpretation culminated in the Tate-LaBianca murders in California, August of ’69.

Exhibit B: The Catcher in the Rye is a famous coming of age novel by J.D. Salinger. The tale, told in the first person, is recounted by an angry, unreliable narrator named Holden Caulfield. He goes to bars, talks to hookers, and rants about posers. For reasons unknown, there have been many murders and crimes related to The Catcher in the Rye—so much so that the bewilderment surrounding this bizarre phenomena has its own Wikipedia page—the true measure of cultural significance.

In fact—this should be noted—Mark Chapman, John Lennon’s murderer, was arrested with The Catcher in the Rye in his hands. He claimed the text of the book would serve the law in determining his reasons for the crime. John Lennon, who performed Helter Skelter, which, because of misinterpretation, led to the Tate-LaBianca murders, was murdered by Mark Chapman, himself operating under a misinterpretation of a work of art.

Objectivity in practice

Objective meaning in literature too is rare and this leads to less objectively true interpretations. Most of the time the interpretation is based on coincidence and correlation. A good example is reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as an allegory for World War II. But, it could be argued that the various races in the Lord of the Rings are intended to represent the different religions of the world? The masked men with the Arab chic were Arabic, the Dwarves were Hebrew, and Tolkien imported perceived characteristics (racism) to give their people a desire for hoarding gold (racism), and yet they are the stand-in for Judaism. The men could be said to be those who turned away from God, or Illuvatar, agnostics and atheists; but, where pray are the Christians? Well, the Hobbits are obviously linked to paganism, living off the land, being in love with all the things that grow, and their paganism is tinged with passive pacificism, being (for the most part) content to not meddle in the affairs of men, and elves – the wise, the immortal, and most beautiful race? They could be Tolkien’s stand-in for Christianity. Gandalf and Frodo and Bilbo get to go to the Elvish heaven with them, in the end, leaving Sam’s pagan ass at home, having to deal with Rosie.

Now, that might seem ridiculous. And it’s understandable: a parallel can be drawn between the one ring and the one race. What we see depends on the eyes we have and what our knowledge allows us to see. If this was the work of armchair philosophers it wouldn’t have the same lasting, negative effect as sometimes the very people upon whom we rely to instruct us in proper interpretation and textual criticism fail us and generations to follow, cultivating a culture of misunderstanding.

I was in high school when I first read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. To me it seemed to be the definitive manifesto for the right to freedom of speech and expression. It is interesting to note that the book was first serialized in Playboy magazine. Suck it, censors! A then spry, youthful 196 year old Hugh Hefner managed to secure the serial rights to Fahrenheit 451 during an important period in American culture, a period in which real censorship was on its last leg, made of steel and ivory though it was. Books now considered classics, such as Ulysses had been put to trial for obscenity, as did Naked Lunch. The importance can be compared to the making of Casablanca during the actual Second World War. The book burning in Fahrenheit 451 is as iconic to English speaking readers as is the thought-police and Big Brother from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s not even subtle.

It’s obviously about censorship. Right right? Right, right!

What’s it going to be then, eh? 

In Bradbury’s cooky, imagined future, America has outlawed books and freedom of the press; free thought and intellectualism were treated the way in which Pol Pot treated it in Cambodia. Censorship is a political mob-process and it’s treated like business as usual. The people are partially to blame for this; for their blasé reaction to the suppression of basic human rights and dignity and they, through this process, forget what it is to be free. They forget what it is to be human.

Fahrenheit 451 seemed so obvious when I first read it, obvious to the point of insult, I thought, to the reader’s intelligence. Even my English teacher Mrs. [Willnotbesued] believed in and espoused this traditional interpretation; an obvious allegory, a philosophy intended to presage the day to day realities in a world where the individual is defeated by state sponsored censorship. The title is even a reference to book burning! That’s classic censorship! Right? Right?! F@#%!

As Sherlock Holmes said in The Boscombe Valley Mystery:

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”

So I had it wrong, as did my teacher, and, because of her, the entire class. I would later learn that nearly everyone, except the author, had it wrong. That particular interpretation is incorrect and implicitly incorrect. And when he attempted to set the record straight while lecturing at UCLA, Ray Bradbury was told by students that he was mistaken; the author’s interpretation of his own material was wrong. (This is not impossible.) So what did the author do that fateful day at UCLA? He was proper pissed and walked out. So what did Ray Bradbury think his book was about? Television. Television and the ancient evil from whence it came (Cathode ray tubes, it would seem.)

In reality Bradbury was more concerned with literature having to compete with television for primacy in the war for the imagination of the world. I guess that makes Fahrenheit 451 less Nineteen Eighty-Four and more Video Killed the Radio Star. You see, Ray believed that television would somehow lead to the shortening of the attention span. He thought that complex social and economic issues would be compressed for time and later used by powerful conglomerations to spin the truth to their benefit through mass manipulation and … oh, wait.

But none of that is as absurd as the trial of the German philosopher and noted mustachio Friedrich Nietzsche, who’s book Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra, ‘zarathustra’ being the German for the Persian Zoroaster) was initially published in separate installments, individual installments, over the course of a couple of years, between 1883-85 and was only published in a single volume in 1887.

At the time of his death, the fourth part remained unpublished. In the first run, forty copies were printed, not counting copies set aside by the author for friends and family.  And since then the most common version is the portable collection – with a fourth segment, the now annotated Intermezzo, which was unfinished, was published; and had a limited commercial run and went out of print.

Nietzsche died before he could finish the Intermezzo and rearrangement for a singular work, and his sister thought, if only if there were Nazi overtones in the book. And it was so.

Despite the application of allegory and its ambiguities, it is my hope, and the hope of every writer, save for perhaps James Joyce, to be understood. But to make it more interesting for the reader, there is ambiguity, subtlety, and authors rely on their readers to join them, to be their partners in creation. As the American abstract artist Mark Rothko once said in reference to his art:

A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky, and unfeeling act, to send it out into the world.

Rothko, 1956, committing Art.