David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: October 2008

From Nabokov’s “Inspiration”

Here he selects a couple American stories that he adores and picks a particular passage filled with sine qua non inspiration:

Examples are the stained-glass windows of knowledge. From a small number of A-plus stories I have chosen half-a-dozen particular favorites of mine. T list their titles below and parenthesize briefly the passage– or one of the passages– in which genuine afflation appears to be present, no matter how trivial the inspired detail may look to a dull criticule.

John Cheever’s “The Country Husband” (“Jupiter [a black retriever] crashed through the tomato vines with the remains of a felt hat in his mouth.” The story is really a miniature novel beautifully traced, so that the impression of there being a little too many things happening in it is completely redeemed by the satisfying coherence of its thematic interlacings.)

John Updike’s “The Happiest I’ve Been” (“The important thing, rather than the subject, was the conversation itself, the quick agreements, the slow nods, the weave of different memories; it was like one of these Panama baskets shaped underwater around a worthless stone.” I like so many of Updike’s stories that it was difficult to choose one for demonstration and even more difficult to settle upon its most inspired bit.)

J. D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (“Stopping only to sink a foot in a soggy, collapsed castle . . .” This is a great story, too famous and fragile to be measured here by a casual conchometrist.)

Herbert Gold’s “Death in Miami Beach” (“Finally we die, opposable thumbs and all.” Or to do even better justice to this admirable piece; “Barbados turtles as large as children . . . crucified like thieves . . . the tough leather of their skin does not disguise their present helplessness and pain.”)

John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” (“What is the story’s point? Ambrose is ill. He perspires in the dark passages; candied apples-on-a-stick, delicious-looking, disappointing to eat. Funhouses need men’s and ladies’ rooms at interval.” I had some trouble in pinning down what I needed amidst the lovely swift speckled imagery.)

Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” (“. . . and the fatal merciless passionate ocean.” Although there are several other divine vibrations in this story that so miraculously blends an old cinema film with a personal past, the quoted phrase wins its citation for power and impeccable rhythm.)

I have a copy of Gold’s The Man Who Was Not With It lying around unread. I first picked it up after seeing a very mythic photo of Felt’s Lawrence in the early 80s reading it. The book seems to have had multiple great covers, all with the title in huge, imposing type.

Still, the choices seem almost archaic today, or all reminiscent of a time in American short fiction that only has devolved remnants remaining.

A Bit on Kant’s Schematism

It should be noted how Kant’s proposal for connecting the
sensible and the conceptual, though superficially straightforward, is at another level extremely
perplexing. Is a transcendental schema a thought about time, or is it time as thought in a certain
way? Our ways of referring to transcendental schemata inevitably assimilate them, it would
seem, to one side or the other of the concept/intuition divide. Moreover, it appears necessary to
do exactly this, if we are to answer the question of what they are, or say anything contentful
about them. The cost of the assimilation, however, in either direction, is to make them
apparently unfit for their designated mediating role: if they are either concepts with a special
relation to intuition, or intuitions as formed conceptually, then they seem to presuppose the very
possibility of connecting the sensible and the conceptual which transcendental schematism is
invoked to explain.

Kant may declare that transcendental schemata are irreducibly sensible-and-intellectual, and
that this is how the question of their identity should be answered. If so, Kant’s original division of
our representations into intuitions and concepts is not exhaustive, for there is a third class,
about which we can say very little, other than that it is dependent on and somehow derivative
from the others. We can specify it in terms of the transcendental role to which the problem of
relating concepts and intuitions gives rise, but the manner of its derivation, and the nature of
schemata, we cannot specify. Note, it is not just that we can say relatively less about schemata
than we can about intuitions and concepts, and that we cannot identify their ultimate source; we
are equally ignorant of the grounds of our faculties of sensibility and understanding.
Transcendental schemata remain in a special sense hard to grasp, because they are required to
combine in themselves two kinds of property, or representational functions, the seeming
immiscibility of which is precisely what made us introduce them in the first place. That this is
nevertheless Kant’s own view of the matter is, plausibly, what is suggested by his statement that
schematism is ‘an art concealed in the depths of the human soul, whose real modes of activity
nature is hardly likely ever to allow us to discover’ (A141/B180-1).

Sebastian Gardner

I’ve been accused of obsession with the schematism, but the intuition-concept gap is for me the core problem that Kant runs into, and I have never been able to find an adequate solution in Kant for it. Here’s Paul Guyer’s unsatisfactory explanation:

Thus, in the case of
the categories our concepts are not “homogeneous” with our objects, and
some intermediary has to be found in order to make them so.
But this is
not the case with our other concepts, which are inherently homo-
geneous with their objects. A pure mathematical concept like circle is
homogeneous with our experience, because it describes its object in terms
of properties that can be directly presented in experience – that something
is a curved, closed line every point of which is equidistant from its center
is the kind of thing we can observe because the pure form of all our outer
intuition is spatial. And an empirical concept like plate or dog is already
homogeneous with its object because it includes predicates that correspond immediately to observable properties of objects, whether those
properties are pure, like the circularity of a plate, or empirical, like its non-
porousness or like the furriness or noisiness of a typical dog.

If you’re willing to accept that Platonic concepts like “plate” and “dog” have exact referents in the real world, then fine. But Kant doesn’t (since he thinks the application of all concepts is normative and prescriptive and subjective) and his whole project is to figure out a way to salvage conceptual mental content out of a non-conceptual world.

Anyway, I mention this because I was just thinking about how much of modern philosophy grows out of exactly this particular problem. Kant wasn’t the first to come up with it, but I think it’s his formulation of it and failed solution to it that echoes in Russell (who tries to pull the same trick solution), Heidegger (who tries to punt the problem away), and many others.

And ultimately there’s something a little pleasing in Kant’s ceding of this problem to “art,” which is a rare concession on his part.

Divine Captives

Summoned up by seeing Martha Argerich play recently:

In that way Vinteuil’s phrase, like some theme, say, in Tristan, which represents to us also a certain emotional accretion, had espoused our mortal state, had endued a vesture of humanity that was particularly affecting. Its destiny was linked to the future, to the reality of the human soul, of which it was one of the most special and distinctive ornaments. Perhaps it is not-being that is the true state, and all our dream of life is inexistent; but, if so, we feel that these phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream, must be nothing either. We shall perish, but we have as hostages these divine captives who will follow and share our fate. And death in their company is somehow less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less probable.


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