Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: December 2009 (page 2 of 3)

Musil on Writing and Ideas

13 August 1910. Before I went to sleep, one or two other things occurred to me about my way of working (in the novellas). What matters to me is the passionate energy of the idea. In cases where I am not able to work out some special idea, the work immediately begins to bore me; this is true for almost every single paragraph. Now why is it that this thinking, which after all is not aiming at any kind of scientific validity but only a certain individual truth, cannot move at a quicker pace? I found that in the reflective element of art there is a dissipative momentum–here I only have to think of the reflections that I have sometimes written down in parallel with my drafts. The idea immediately moves onward in all directions, the notions go on growing outward on all sides, the result is a disorganized, amorphous complex. In the case of exact thinking, however, the idea is tied up, delineated, articulated, by means of the goal of the work, the way it is limited to what can be proven, the separation into probable and certain, etc., in short, by means of the methodological demands that stem from the object of investigation. In art, this process of selection is missing. Its place is taken by the selection of the images, the style, the mood of the whole.

I was annoyed because it is often the case with me that the rhetorical precedes the reflective. I am forced to continue the inventive process after the style of images that are already there and this is often not possible without some amputation of the core of what one would like to say. I am only able at first to develop the thought-material for a piece of work to a point that is relatively close by, then it dissolves in my hands. Then the moment arrives when the work in hand is receiving the final polish, the style has reached maturity, etc. It is only now that, both gripped and constrained by what is now in a finished state, I am able to “think” on further.

There are two opposing forces that one has to set in balance–the dissipating, formless one from the realm of the idea and the restrictive, somewhat empty and formal one relating to the rhetorical invention.

Tying this together to achieve the greatest degree of intellectual compression, this final stepping beyond the work in accordance with the needs of the intellectual who abjures everything that is mere words, this intellectual activity comes only after these two stages. Here the effect of the understanding is astringent, but here it is directed toward the unity of form and content that is already present whereas, whenever it is merely a question of thinking out the content, it dissipates. (Even in cases where one already has the basic idea around which everything is to be grouped, as long as the capacity for creating images is missing it will not work; if one restricts oneself in the extensive mode one goes to far in the intensive mode and one becomes amorphous.)

Diaries, p. 117

Note, contra Kant, ideas are formless content, rhetoric and language are form. I.e., if categories could be expressed we’re already expressing more than categories. This seems to be a German hermeneutic motif, the unspeakable but absolute idea beneath the text; Gadamer uses it too. Or to put it another way:

Jede Philosophie, die unsere Möglichkeiten des Zugangs zur Wirklichkeit von der Sprache abhängig macht – nicht nur vom Sprachbesitz überhaupt, sondern vom dem einer bestimmten, faktisch gewordenen Sprache, diese also als das Gesamtsystem aller Differenzierungen und Sichtweisen in der Erfahrung definiert, macht das Unsagbare auch im Sinne des noch nicht Gesagten heimatlos. Zugleich macht sie den Verdacht auf einen unüberwindbaren Relativismus der Alltagssprachen, der Nationalsprachen oder auch der wissenschaftlichen Sprachen unausweichlich. Nichts ist uns gegeben, was uns nicht durch Sprache vorgegeben wäre. Ist das befriedigend? Oder müssen wir nicht auch davon sprechen, daß die Sprache der Erweiterung unserer Erfahrung als der Einengung des Unsagbaren nachzukommen hat? Davon sprechen, daß sie umgebildet werden muß in bezug auf Leistungen, die im Sprachbestand noch nicht faktisch vorgegeben waren?

Blumenberg, Theory of an Unconceptuality, posth. 2008

(Thanks Antonia. And congratulations.)

John Williams: Butcher’s Crossing

Butcher’s Crossing is the most flawed, the most peculiar, and the most exuberant of Williams’ three mature novels (he disowned a first novel, which I have not read). Unlike the near-perfect tenors of the academic novel Stoner and Augustus, Butcher’s Crossing sees some significant shifts in tone over the course of the book. All three novels are Bildungsromans, but here Williams also attempts to tell the story of the decline of the American West as well. That is why, unlike the other two novels, it is not titled after the main character but the frontier town which provides the settings for the bookends of the novel.

Will Andrews is a Harvard student who, inspired by Emerson, drops out to find himself in the great West. After arriving in Butcher’s Crossing, he funds a hunting expedition to a distant valley in Colorado where a great herd of buffalo still remain, most of the other herds having already been hunted down and killed for hides. He is naive and for a time it seems he could be easily scammed, but the leader of the expedition, Miller, is serious, and after Andrews has a slight dalliance with a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, they set out with two other grizzled men.

So the ground for an archetypal post-western has been laid, and the themes follow those that would be used (and overused) by Cormac McCarthy, Once Upon a Time in the West, and, of course, Stan Ridgway and Wall of Voodoo:

harshly awakened by the sound of six rounds of light caliber rifle fire followed minutes later by the booming of nine rounds from a heavier rifle, but you can’t close off the wilderness. he heard the snick of a rifle bolt and found himself staring down the muzzle of a weapon held by a drunken liquor store owner. “there’s a conflict,” he said. “there’s a conflict between land and people…the people have to go. they’ve come all the way out here to make mining claims, to do automobile body work, to gamble, to take pictures, to not have to do laundry, to own a mini-bike, to have their own cb radios and air conditioning, good plumbing for sure, and to sell time/life books and to work in a deli, to have some chili every morning and maybe…maybe to own their own gas stations again and to take drugs and have some crazy sex, but above all, above all to have a fair shake, to get a piece of the rock and a slice of the pie and to spit out the window of your car and not have the wind blow it back in your face.”

“Call of the West”

And that does somewhat mimic the arc in the book. Things get immediately dire as they have trouble finding water, and less than a third of the way into the book, things do seem to be shaping up for a sheer hellishness. But they find the water and the valley, and soon enough they are hunting (i.e., massacring in large numbers) buffalo. There is a sustained, 40-page description of the early days of the hunt that may be the most focused setpiece Williams ever wrote, and the turning point in Andrews’ character.

It came to him that he had turned away from the buffalo not because of a womanish nausea at blood and stench and spilling gut; it came to him that he had sickened and turned away because of his shock at seeing the buffalo, a few moments before proud and noble and full of the dignity of life, now stark and helpless, a length of inert meat, divested of itself, or his notion of its self, swinging grotesquely, mockingly, before him. It was not itself; or it was not that self that he had imagined it to be. That self was murdered; and in that murder he had felt the destruction of something within him, and he had not been able to face it. So he had turned away.

Such introspection is comparatively rare in the novel. Extensive and careful description is more common, but when it comes like it does here, it is strikingly abstract and visceral simultaneously. I don’t know if the effect is quite successful (thought it beats Cormac any day), but it’s certainly unusual. Williams resists any broad judgments of character. If Andrews is losing his humanity, then “humanity” is not an absolute value. He is freed from this sort of condescension towards the whore that he felt earlier in Butcher’s Crossing:

He saw her as a poor, ignorant victim of her time and place, betrayed by certain artificialities of conduct, thrust from a great mechanical world upon this bare plateau of existence that fronted the wilderness. He thought of Schneider, who had caught her arm and spoken coarsely to her; and he imagined vaguely the humiliations she had schooled herself to endure. A revulsion against the world rose up within him, and he could taste it in his throat.

Much, much later, after returning to Butcher’s Crossing, Andrews thinks back to this very moment and excoriates his younger self for his callow snobbery.

But returning to the plot: after the first day, things become blurry. They continue killing and skinning thousands of buffalo, and Miller, the expert guide and hunter, really wants to kill them all, even if it means leaving hundreds of skins to bring back to following spring. Unfortunately, it starts to snow, and they are stranded in the valley between the mountains all winter long.

As with the scenes where they nearly die of thirst, this would seem to be another potential hell, an existential misery. But Williams pulls back from this desolate Bresson scenario to aim more at The Wages of Fear, and six months of surely excruciating boredom pass fairly quickly without any Shining-like incidents. (In terms of page count, they pass more quickly than that first day of hunting.) I do think that this points to a fundamental stoicism in Williams’ work: for Augustus, Stoner, and Andrews, the hell comes from without, not from within. Events, not ennui, shape character.

Spring comes and they head back, and the book shifts again. Butcher’s Crossing has been transformed and ravaged by the end of the buffalo hide market, and Andrews’ growth is overshadowed by Miller’s desperate attempts to cope with the extinction of his chosen life from which he draws his pride. But the threads unravel; Williams can’t quite make Miller’s collapse mesh with Andrews’ development because Andrews does not learn anything new from it. Rather, Andrews finally does sleep with Francine, the whore from earlier, in a scene where Williams’ writing falls into the floridness described by Pynchon in critiquing his own first published story:

You’ll notice that toward the end of the story, some kind of sexual encounter appears to take place, though you’d never know it from the text. The language suddenly gets too fancy to read. Maybe this wasn’t only my own adolescent nervousness about sex…Even the American soft-core pornography available in those days went to absurdly symbolic lengths to avoid describing sex.

Thomas Pynchon, Introduction to Slow Learner

And in general, Williams’ writing is a little too lush and artful in Butcher’s Crossing, lacking the architectural precision of the later two novels. He is still a wonderful writer, but one is more conscious of him making an effort.

Butcher’s Crossing is a novel of discrete sections, and the ways they do and don’t fit together outline the refinements that Williams would make to his fictive approach. (Reading early work after later work, as I did with Thomas Bernhard’s “Walking”, sometimes helps to illuminate the best parts of the early work more vividly.) Williams abandoned the larger societal picture after this novel to focus on a single character and his milieu, and I suspect he found fault with the dual-pronged nature of Butcher’s Crossing as well. But he also abandoned the idea of the setpiece. It’s understandable, but based on that hunting section, he could have been a master at it. (He also learned how to write female characters; the women of Stoner are far more convincing than the one-dimensional Francine.)

But what of the greater themes of the book? I still think that Williams is pretty cagey about making statements and that the book requires that the author and the reader do not judge Miller and his kind too harshly. The West drives him and others to nihilism (explicitly voiced by a hide trader late in the book), but is this a fundamental truth, a consequence of their ravaging of the land, or just the aftermath of the extinction of their way of life? I do not see a definite answer. We do know that Andrews is changed, even if we don’t know quite what he becomes, and that is the heart of the book.

R. Sikoryak’s Masterpiece Comics

I’ve been reading Sikoryak’s parodies in one form or another since I was a teenager and saw “Good Ol’ Gregor Brown” (Charlie Brown does Kafka) in RAW. Finally they’ve been collected into a book. Here are two (they’re all pretty clever):

These high/low mixes don’t always travel well. How many people have any idea why Mr. Rochester speaks the way that he does in SCTV’s version of Jane Eyre? (“Whatever you do, Jane, don’t go up to the attic. I wouldn’t want you to get…murdered!”)

Three Versions of Conservatism

Reductionistic Framework Alert!

Since “conservatism” has had such bizarre associations in the United States for a long time now, I thought I’d give brief accounts of the three breeds that I most often think of in connection with the classical sense of conservative (that is, the sense that still has something to do with the meaning of the word).

1. Classic Conservatives

These types are drawn from the political literature of the last few centuries.

a. Elitist Conservative

Firm believer in the natural superiority of a small elite. Worries about the danger of the unwashed masses having too much power, surely leading to chaos and mob rule. Thinks they already have too much power. Dismissive of egalitarian doublespeak such as “rights” and “liberty.” Seeks to vest power in the hands of the enlightened, the cultured, and (of course) the rich. Almost certainly belongs to one of these groups.

Religion: None, but thinks everyone else should go to church.

Worst Fear: Jacobins.

Mascot: Alexander Hamilton. Leo Strauss.

Representative Artist: D.H. Lawrence.

 

b. Sentimental Conservative

Loves their country. Loves their country more than other countries. Sheds a tear for the flag. Embraces the beautiful traditions that make his society what it is. Insists on civility, manners, and respect for one’s betters. Thinks they contribute to the benevolence and stability of the culture. Hates to see the traditional order of things upset by multiculturalism, class mobility, etc. Uses “fireman” instead of “firefighter.” Trusts in the benevolent hand of the upper classes to take care of the lower classes. May use the phrase “white man’s burden” unironically.

Religion: The state’s.

Worst Fear: Minorities and immigrants.

Mascot: Edmund Burke.

Representative Artist: Norman Rockwell.

 

c. Cynical Conservative

Ridicules those who think society can be improved. Believes in the fundamental rottenness of humanity. Jeers at futile attempts to improve our lot. Thinks we’re lucky we have what we do. Wildly inegalitarian. Thinks stereotypes are funny because they’re true. Sees liberals as priggish, humorless idealists chasing rainbows. Certain that things will get worse.

Religion: Are you kidding?

Worst Fear: Political correctness.

Mascot: Thomas Malthus.

Representative Artist: Henry de Montherlant.

 

2. Degenerate Conservatives

Each of the three accounts above can degenerate into a less appealing form under the right circumstances. (E.g., today.) Respectively:

a. Natural-Order Conservative

Enthusiastically embraces the status quo. Believes that things are the way God (or Nature) made them: it’s not only useless to try to change them, it’s wrong and distasteful. Thinks people naturally float to wherever in the great chain of being they belong. Admires the Great Men of history. Looks forward to the slow disappearance of society’s inferiors as Social Darwinism takes hold. Failing that, enjoys the labor provided by these inferiors, especially its surplus value.

Religion: Calvinism.

Worst Fear: Not being one of the elect.

Mascot: William Graham Sumner.

Representative Artist: Thomas Carlyle.

 

b. Paranoid Conservative

Turns to law and order to save them from any and all persecutors. Believes the thin blue line needs to be as thick as possible. Fears the great unwashed, lower-class resentment, and teenagers. Looks to religion, law, and any other socially repressive organization to prevent disaster. Jumps to endorse war with other countries, but worries we aren’t at war with the right countries. Never, ever joins the armed forces. Trusts government, usually.

Religion: Any of the Good ones.

Worst Fear: Too many to mention.

Mascot: Roger Ailes.

Representative Artist: Artists are degenerates, but if you must: H.P. Lovecraft.

 

c. Fatalist Conservative

The most boring of the conservatives, liable to talk your ear off with their endless theories of history and the inevitable future of this or that society. Probably has a dim view of humanity, but this is overshadowed by crankish ideas about what humanity must be at each stage of history. Dismisses activism as attempts to fight indisputable truths. Predicts a grim future because the past was so grim and history repeats.

Religion: Their own.

Worst Fear: Other competing theories of history.

Mascot: Oswald Spengler. Arnold J. Toynbee.

Representative Artist: Artists are mere products of history.

 

Update: Non-conservatives

People say I seem to have left out certain types. Hence this appendix.

Libertarian: I assure you that the Ancien Regime really didn’t give a fig for “individual rights,” much less natural ones. Things don’t seem to have changed that much, leaving real libertarians as eccentrics whose unifying trait is that they never hold any actual power. Some of them are exploited as useful idiots, such as the good people of the Cato Institute, who were thrown to the wind by the Republicans once the Cato folks ceased to agree with them). Didn’t see that coming. See The Libertarian FAQ for further details.

Neocon: Haphazardly invading and occupying small but troublesome countries in order to spread freedom or what have you is not very conservative, and quite expensive to boot. Excusable during the cold war, but not anymore.

Objectivist/Capitalist Utopian: Elitist, yes, but the funny thing about most Objectivists is that they think the world is a meritocracy and the people at the top deserve to be there, so if they work hard enough they’ll get there too, if only the government and bureaucracy didn’t stand in their way. Suckers.

RIP David Pears

I only just recently found out that Wittgenstein scholar David Pears has died. I was lucky enough to have Pears as my professor for my first class on Wittgenstein, and I don’t think I could have had a better introduction. (I also enjoyed his stories about going to school with the Beyond the Fringe crowd.) He demythologized Wittgenstein and treated him in an methodical and non-mystical way, something that’s been lost among many contemporary Wittgenstein scholars.

Pears wasn’t at all pompous or polemical and he even admitted that he believed his analysis of Wittgenstein’s later work in the second part of The False Prison was somewhat off the mark. I still think the first part of The False Prison is one of the best surveys of the Tractatus available (which he also translated), covering the book thematically rather than as some sort of weird prose poem to be deciphered line by line. His treatment of logical atomism in particular is excellent.

I like the second part as well, off-base or not, because Pears is a lot less polemical than even his contemporaries. (I respect P.M.S. Hacker’s work, but there’s no question he is less likely to consider competing views than Pears was. I thought that Pears’s rebuttal to Kripke’s interpretation of Wittgenstein was far more polite and considerate than it needed to be.) Pears’s analyses of the private language argument and rule-following get terribly intricate, but even if his conclusions are uncertain, he is great at bringing forth the complexity that many people (including professors) miss in later Wittgenstein: e.g., the precise nature of criteria for rule-following. When I am trying to explain to someone that no, Wittgenstein is Not That Simple, I point to Pears’s work as a good explanation of why.

Here’s a characteristic passage on the private language argument from one summary he wrote of Wittgenstein:

Suppose that a word for a sensation-type had no links with anything in the physical world and, therefore, no criteria that would allow me to teach anyone else its meaning. Even so, I might think that, when ‘I applied it to one of my own sensations, I would know that I was using it correctly But, according to Wittgenstein, that would be an illusion, because in such an isolated situation I would have no way of distinguishing between knowing that my use of the word was correct and merely thinking that I knew that it was correct., Notice that he did not say that my claim would be wrong: his point is more radical – there would be no right or wrong in this case. (Wittgenstein, 1953, § 258).

The common objection to this criticism is that it simply fails to allow for the ability to recognise recurring types of things. This, it is said, is a purely intellectual ability on which we all rely in the physical world. So what is there to stop a single person relying on it in the inner world of his mind? Perhaps Carnap was right when he chose ‘remembered similarity’ as the foundation of his Logical Structure of the World (1967).

Here Wittgenstein’s second move is needed. If the ability to recognise types really were purely intellectual, it might be used in the way in which Carnap and others have used it, and it might be possible to dismiss Wittgenstein’s objection by saying, ‘We have to stop somewhere and we have to treat something as fundamental – so why not our ability to recognise sensation types?’ But against this Wittgenstein argues that what looks like a purely intellectual ability is really based on natural sequences of predicament, behaviour and achievement in the physical world. Pain may seem to be a “clear example of a sensation-type which is independently recognisable, but the word is really only a substitute for the cry which is a natural expression of the sensation” (1953, ~~ 244-6). Or, to take another example, our ability to recognise locations in our visual fields is connected with the success of our movements in physical space. Our discriminations in the inner world of the mind are, and must be, answerable to the exigencies of the physical world.

The first volume of The False Prison also happens to have my pick for the most apt cover of a philosophy book ever:

I wish there were more professors like him.

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