Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: aesthetics (page 1 of 4)

Kenneth Rexroth on Aristotle’s Poetics

Bashing on Aristotle has become a fond pastime since the Scientific Revolution, but the mere fact that he was wrong about many, many things isn’t enough to explain the repulsion he attracts, nor my own persistent lack of interest in him. Laura Riding, in Lives of Wives, portrayed a fictionalized Aristotle as prodigious and indefatigable, but also smug, opportunistic, and terminally pedestrian. She’s merely quoting Aristotle’s works here when she has him rebut Plato, but does so in a way to highlight some of his most unflattering traits:

‘Is this not to put philosophy in place of the laws,’ asked Aristotle, ‘and make philosophic justice a rival to legal justice? Should we not use philosophy to strengthen the laws rather than to compete with them?’

Laura Riding, Lives of Wives

His Poetics is one of the earliest works of literary criticism that have come down through the ages. It gets Oedipus Rex completely wrong, but nonetheless, Aristotle’s aesthetics held great sway well beyond the point that his physics did. None of that is Aristotle’s fault, but I think it’s a good indicator of how the appearance of systematic, elegant thought can trump the reality of sloppiness and fiat, not only in a work’s own time but for centuries thereafter.

Kenneth Rexroth’s passionate assessment of the Poetics may be roughshod, but it hits on something quite profound about Aristotle’s sensibility and its virtues and defects–that only someone so shallow in sensibility should cast such a wide-ranging net over the founding of logic and various sciences, for a keener mind would have fallen into the many hopeless conundrums that Aristotle rather blithely passed by and considered, if not settled, at least untroubling. It substantially lines up with Laura Riding’s assessment: he organized better than he analyzed.

Around each of the key words of Aristotle’s short definition of tragedy the most violent controversies have raged, and to this day no two translators or commentators agree on the meanings of all of them. If Greek tragedy is the etherialization of myth, Aristotle’s little essay–it is not really booklength–on tragedy is something like myth itself. It has functioned as a myth of criticism, the subject of innumerable etherializations….

There is no evidence in the Poetics that Aristotle possessed any sensitivity to the beauties of poetry as such. Although the Poetics is concerned almost exclusively with tragedy, Aristotle had less of what we call the tragic sense of life than almost any philosopher who ever lived, less even than Leibniz with his “best of all possible worlds.” Aristotle was an optimist. Leibniz’ judgment never entered his mind. The world he studied was simply given. It was not only the best, it was the only one possible. There was nothing in the human situation that could not be corrected by the right application of the right principles of ethics, politics, and economics. Even Plato, who banned the poets from the Republic, and in the Laws permitted only happy, patriotic plays to be performed by slaves, had a greater awareness of the meaning of tragedy–which is precisely why he banned it….

The Poetics is a textbook of the craft of fiction and as such it is far more applicable to the commercial fiction of modern magazines than to Greek tragedies. It has been called a recipe book for detective-story writers. Actually the fictions that come nearest to meeting Aristotle’s specifications are the standard Western stories of the pulp magazines. These are not to be despised. Ernst Haycox and Gordon Young raised the American Western story to a very high level. Year in, year out, Western movies are better than any other class of pictures. The great trouble with Haycox and Young is that they were rigorously Aristotelian and therefore ran down into monotonously repeated formulas. It is hard to think of any other kinds of fiction, either novels or dramas, which do exemplify the Poetics. The neoclassic theater of Corneille and Racine or Ben Jonson is governed by rules which are pseudo-Aristotelianism, the invention of Renaissance critics….

By katharsis Aristotle means the same thing that we mean when we say “cathartic.” His attitude toward the arts was not at all that they were the highest expression of mankind, but that they served as a kind of medicine to keep the ordinary man who lived in the world between the machines of meat– the slaves–and the philosophers who spent their time thinking about first principles; free from emotions, and hence motives, that would disrupt the social order. Like Freud after him, Aristotle’s esthetics are medical. What the Poetics says in the last analysis is, “Timid, sentimental, and emotionally unstable people will feel better, and be better behaved, after a good cry on the stone benches of the theater.” This is an esthetics identical with that of the child psychologists who are hired to apologize for lust and murder on television. There is never a hint in Aristotle that tragedy is true.

The Poetics could have been written substantially unchanged if Aristotle had never seen a Greek tragedy. The imaginary tragedy which could be deduced from the Poetics resembles the commercial fictions of our day for a very simple reason. It is a projection of the ordinary mind, the same then as now. It is the kind of play Aristotle himself would have written if he had possessed, not the genius of Sophocles, but the learned talents of an ordinary craftsman. It is the kind of play that a highly competent academic philosopher, biologist, physicist, or psychologist would write today.

Kenneth Rexroth, More Classics Revisited

Rexroth’s critique here, of the supposedly profound thinker revealed to be conventional and conservative, elevated only by the breadth and depth of his conservatism, is surprisingly representative of a fictional figure who is portrayed in similarly scathing terms: Arnheim in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.

Myles Burnyeat presents a more substantial variation on this general argument, focusing on Aristotle’s comparative embrace of accepted opinions (endoxa):

Aristotle is unique among ancient philosophers in his respect for people’s opinions: both the opinions of other philosophers and the opinions of the ordinary man. He does not defend a ‘common sense’ philosophy in the manner of G.E. Moore, but if something is believed by absolutely everyone, then, he holds, it must be true. Aristotle also does something that a 20th-century philosopher like Moore could never have dared. He establishes science on the basis of the opinions of ‘the majority’ and of ‘the wise’….

Aristotle’s official methodology implies that if the stock of available endoxa were significantly different, the conclusions of his dialectic would be different too. How then can he claim that his conclusions are true?…

Consider some of the conclusions for which Aristotle argues with the help of some of the opinions which were accepted and esteemed in his day. Slavery is just; the world is eternal and the same things have always existed in it; the atomic theory of matter is defective because it fails to explain the difference between dinner and breakfast. I have of course chosen examples which tell against Ross’s conviction that Aristotle ‘rarely writes what anyone would regard as obviously untrue’. But the point of choosing them is to raise the question whether reputable opinion can fulfil the heuristic and evidential role that Aristotelian philosophy assigns to it….

The fact that a proposition is believed by the majority or by experts is not for Aristotle just a sign that, if we asked them, they could cite evidence for the proposition. Their belief, as he treats it, is already some evidence in favour of what they believe; even if the opinion is not correct, it is likely to contain an element of truth which the dialectic can sift out and formulate clearly….

The appeal to ‘our’ beliefs, ‘our’ intuitions, ‘our’ way of speaking, is as common in philosophy today as it was earlier in the century, and Aristotle’s name is still frequently invoked to show that opinion of one sort or another is a reputable basis for philosophy to start from. The irony is that if Aristotle’s professed methodology was sound, there would be little to add to The Complete Works of Aristotle.

Myles Burnyeat, “Good Repute”

Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Aesthetics

Aesthetics as self-defeating enterprise: how theories of aesthetics make it their goal to exclude the aesthetic from consideration.

7. A characteristic thing about our language is that a large number of words used under these circumstances are adjectives -‘fine’, ‘lovely’, etc. But you see that this is by no means necessary. You saw that they were first used as interjections. Would it matter if instead of saying “This is lovely”, I just said “Ah!” and smiled, or just rubbed my stomach? As far as these primitive languages go, problems about what these words are about, what their real subject is, [which is called ‘beautiful’ or ‘good’.-R.] don’t come up at all.

8. It is remarkable that in real life, when aesthetic judgements are made, aesthetic adjectives such as ‘beautiful’, ‘fine’, etc., play hardly any role at all. Are aesthetic adjectives used in a musical criticism? You say: “Look at this transition”,Z or [Rhees] “The passage here is incoherent”. Or you say, in a poetical criticism, [Taylor]: “His use of images is precise”. The words you use are more akin to ‘right’ and ‘correct’ (as these words are used in ordinary speech) than to ‘beautiful’ and’lovely’.

23.    We talked of correctness. A good cutter won’t use  any words except words like ‘Too long’, ‘All right’.  When we talk of a Symphony of Beethoven we don’t talk of correctness. Entirely different things enter. One wouldn’t talk of appreciating the tremendous things in Art. In certain styles in Architecture a door is correct, and the thing is you appreciate it. But in the case of a Gothic Cathedral what we do is not at all to find it correct-it plays an entirely diferent role with us. The entire game is different. It is as different as to judge a human being and on the one hand to say ‘He behaves well’ and on the other hand ‘He made a great impression on me’.

24. ‘Correctly’, ‘charmingly’, ‘finely’ , etc. play an entirely diferent role. Cf. the famous address of Buffon-a terrific man -on style in writing; making ever so many distinctions which I only understand vaguely but which he didn’t mean vaguely-all kinds of nuances like ‘grand’, ‘charming’, ‘nice’.

25. The words we call expressions of aesthetic judgement play a very complicated role, but a very definite role, in what we call  a culture of a period. To describe their use or to describe what you mean by a cultured taste, you have to describe a culture. What we now call a cultured taste perhaps didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. An entirely different game is played in different ages.

26. What belongs to a language game is a whole culture. In describing musical taste you have to describe whether children give concerts, whether women do or whether men only give them, etc., etc.’ In aristocratic circles in Vienna people had [such and such] a taste, then it came into bourgeois circles and women joined choirs, etc. This is an example of tradition in music.

35. In order to get clear about aesthetic words you have to describe ways of living. We think we have to talk about aesthetic judgements like ‘This is beautiful’, but we find that if we have to talk about aesthetic judgements we don’t find these words at all, but a word used something like a gesture, accompanying a complicated activity.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures on Aesthetics (1938)

What Wittgenstein seems to elide, mostly, is the modern emphasis on deviancy, aka creativity. Application of positive aesthetic terms today requires a certain sense of originality or integrity in the work, some way in which a new work is not a recapitulation of extant instantiations of the positive aesthetic terms, but an elaboration on them or new development of them. This is not to say that these terms are qualitatively any different from “correct” and “nice” and “lovely,” or that there actually is a sense in which these “original” works are original in any substantive way, just that these terms make the sort of game that Wittgenstein is talking about considerably more neurotic.

[See also F.R. Leavis Remembers Wittgenstein for Wittgenstein interpreting William Empson’s poetry.]

Who Cares If You Read?

I posted that excerpt from the inflammatory (for sufficiently small values of inflammatory) intro to Steven Moore’s book only as a gag, since people like Steve Donoghue have said much more about it than I wish to. (However! In a rebuke to Moore, his elevation of the Velvet Underground as too-avant-for-Ashbery has just been answered by Moe Tucker’s endorsement of the Tea Party).

But then I happened to reread Milton Babbitt’s The Composer as Specialist. (At publication, it was retitled by the editor to the far more inflammatory and interesting “Who Cares If You Listen?” Supposedly he wasn’t in on it and complains that he is “far more likely to be known as the author of ‘Who Cares if You Listen?’ than as the composer of music to which you may or may not care to listen.”)

The war between elitists and populists among the creative classes has gone on for so many centuries that I really don’t think there’s any new argument to be made in the area. Since I’m fairly likely never to command a large audience, I could throw my lot in with the elitists and share in that warm fuzzy smugness that comes with belonging to the aesthetic elite of civilization (and offer it to my readers!)…but no, it’s too silly. But because music offers a purer and less semantically-laden form of art, the elitist arguments there are more raw and less able to fall back on fallacies like “making you a better person.” And Babbitt is upfront and sincere, to his credit.

Babbitt is/was one of those hyper-serialist composers who took Schoenberg’s system to a far greater extreme than Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern ever did. Iannis Xenakis, no traditionalist himself, complained that such music became incomprehensible:

The enormous complexity prevents the audience from following the intertwining of the lines and has as its macroscopic effect an irrational and fortuitous dispersion of sounds over the whole extent of the sonic spectrum.

And Babbitt said that for most audiences, that indeed was true. Here’s a string quartet:

Well, I like the textures, but it doesn’t quite hold together for me, which tends to be my experience with his music. But music often belies composers’ intentions, so let’s look at the words. There are two criteria by which Babbitt wants to elevate the new, hyper-serialized music.

Criteria 1. Complexity

This music employs a tonal vocabulary which is more “efficient” than that of the music of the past, or its derivatives. This is not necessarily a virtue in itself, but it does make possible a greatly increased number or pitch simultaneities, successions, and relationships. his increase in efficiency necessarily reduces the “redundancy” of the language, and as a result the intelligible communication of the work demands increased accuracy from the transmitter (the performer) and activity from the receiver (the listener). Incidentally, it is this circumstance, among many others, that has created the need for purely electronic media of “performance.” More importantly for us, it makes ever heavier demands upon the training of the listener’s perceptual capacities.

So here, in place of the qualities of allusiveness, elusiveness, nonlinearity, and prolixity of difficult fiction, we have a single analogous criterion: density of information. Babbitt gives a couple other criteria, but they really aren’t so different from this one: those characteristics defining the work are as great in number as possible across the shortest possible time period. (A lossless compression of the music should compress as little as possible!) Stockhausen made a similar complaint when he listened to techno music, always bemoaning the fact that there was any sort of regularity or repetition in the music.

For all the bragging about the density of the information age, I think things are going in the opposite direction. People consume so much that there’s been an incentive to make things consumable as fast as possible. If you look at any of the would-be highbrow serials on television (with the exception of The Wire), they proceed far more slowly plotwise than your average 70s episode of The Rockford Files, which stuck a whole plot arc into a single hour. Ostensibly this is to give a richer background, but the more obvious reason is that there is that much more content to digest in general, and so no point in a greater density of information.

Xenakis’s point was simply that information would be absorbed at a more macroscopic level, which is one way of getting around the problem. Arguably Ferneyhough embraced this as well, though you can make the argument in the other direction to attack Babbitt: how many works with an information density on the order of Webern can a composer make that are going to be masterpieces? Webern only managed a few hours of music total. Babbitt has written far more, and if they’re going to be ranked, information density will not be the criterion for how they’re graded.

Is the density a prerequisite then? In the article, Babbitt simply seems to think that any piece below a certain level of information density just isn’t going to be interesting, and for him, no doubt that is true. But this reduces density to a qualifying factor. Is anything below the threshold just going to be dismissed?

Well no; Stockhausen found some interesting bits in the techno pieces too. But it places the elites in a position where they must discount their own antecedents. This is the problem of so many literary snobs today: they either have to trash Dickens, Cervantes, and Chaucer as being as unworthy of attention as the mass-marketed pablum of today (or else appeal to a dubious “people used to appreciate books more!”), or they have to say that these authors had qualities that were never appreciated by the mass of readers even then. Moore’s polemic hits the wall when he is forced into defending complexity, difficulty, and wordplay for its own sake, as though such qualities had intrinsic merit independent of the content of a work. But appealing to such objective qualities is the safest way to delineate one’s opinions from those of the hoi polloi.

Of course, in music, the complexity really is the content (there are no messy semantics here, for the most part), so Babbitt goes the first route and pretty much proclaims new music to be of a wholly different quality and merit than all previous musics; maybe not universally better, but unmistakably different. And so Beethoven is definitely not dense enough. But at this point, well, he has established a new genre of technical music and no longer has any claim to identify with “music” as it has been known throughout the history of the world, whether gamelan, raga, Gesualdo, or Telemann. And if he does not want to claim the inherited mantle of “music,” then should anyone deny him the right to proclaim worthiness in whatever undefined field of art he occupies?

The thing is, I suspect most composers and writers do want to claim the mantle of their supposed predecessors. They would rather be the next Dostoevsky than the next Robert Grenier.

Criteria 2. Expertise

Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else? It is only the translation of this boredom and puzzlement into resentment and denunciation that seems to me indefensible. After all, the public does have its own music, its ubiquitous music: music to eat by, to read by, to dance by, and to be impressed by. Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity? The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields.

Ah, the old art-as-science argument. The Social Text people trotted this one out during the Sokal Hoax in the 90s, saying that of course literary theory wasn’t comprehensible to non-experts, just as quantum physics wasn’t. Babbitt trained as a mathematician and so perhaps has better purchase on these arguments than the critical theorists, but even he hedges slightly:

I do not wish to appear to obscure the obvious differences between musical composition and scholarly research, although it can be contended that these differences are no more fundamental than the differences among the various fields of study. I do question whether these differences, by their nature, justify the denial to music’s development of assistance granted these other fields. Immediate “practical” applicability (which may be said to have its musical analogue in “immediate extensibility of a compositional technique”) is certainly not a necessary condition for the support of scientific research.

But nonetheless, if the funding is there, go for it! (And certainly coming from a science background, Babbitt saw how much grant money there was being thrown at math and science at that time.)

And so, I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.

There were a couple superficial reasons why the critical theorists couldn’t use the expertise argument to outflank their detractors. First, there was a shortage of autonomous results: a book of theory, even Of Grammatology, simply does not have the aesthetic standing that a piece of music or even poetrydoes. Patrons of the arts will support philosophy in a pinch (less so these days!), but they do prefer their arts to be lively, even if they are incomprehensible.

Second, there was no theoretical method to which they could appeal, the main direction of critical theory being to dismantle method. Babbitt (and his forebears) have no such issues. They produce music that can be and occasionally is performed, and Babbitt was only one of many who produced extensive theoretical background depicting the exact mechanisms by which works were composed. Even Xenakis produced a book about stochastic music. So ironically, the scientific argument holds together better here than it does in literature.

The problem is the reverse of before. It now makes the expertise a prerequisite for enjoying the music. Or at least, there’s something very puzzling that an appeal to expertise might be needed for something that could be appreciated viscerally and without a background in close listening and musical theory. I suppose I can pick up a physics paper or the Principia and marvel at their visual elegance and the mysterious arrangement of symbols, but that’s a bit difference than enjoying the “moments” of a Stockhausen or Webern piece in a plebeian way, at least to my mind. But such enjoyment is now bastardized, if not wholly illegitimate. And this is not a criterion by which any artist, even an ardent serialist, wishes to live by.

Everything Else

So why use these two criteria of complexity and expertise? Ultimately, I think it’s just a highly developed quantitative argument attempting to marshal seemingly objective measures in the service of judging art, or at least one type of art. I have to admit to giving some grudging respect to Babbitt’s callow words here because he is more objective than every literary or art critic from Longinus onward who thought that ever-so-vague statements of aesthetic guidelines would be sufficient to help everyone decide which art was good from thereon out.

Complexity and listener expertise (comprehension, that is): if these become the metrics by which music is judged, then we really can judge what new piece of music is “interesting” and back it up with evidence. True, the connection of these metrics to enjoyment remain speculative, but hasn’t every aesthetician also insisted that there were more objective measures than a simple statement of like and dislike? At least here we have them. It bothers me far less than the territorial ramblings of aesthetic polemicists struggling to articulate why they are the first to have discovered the actual path to the soul of humanity.

Iannis Xenakis

It closes in just a couple days, but I loved the Xenakis Exhibit at the Drawing Center. Being able to look at the scores and plans while listening to the relevant pieces (on complimentary iPod!) was revelatory for me, particularly the extended coverage of Xenakis’s seminal Metastasis. (A nice little primer on the early stuff. I was also unaware of his absolute opposition to chance operations, improvisation, or performer choice.)


Study for Metastasis

This and others showed the hyperboloid curves that Xenakis used to generate the series of glissandi for a string ensemble, each instrument scored individually. Here’s the result:


Metastasis

At least for me, it vindicated how effectively Xenakis’s work does portray the graphic forms sonically, rather than sinking into impenetrable abstraction as Stockhausen’s far denser work frequently does. Xenakis really did have a rather atatvistic, populist conception of music (aided in popularity, no doubt, by the psychedelic era, which led to people like AMM getting major label recording contracts) that shows up in his own writing, where on several occasions he insists that his techniques are in the service of generating music that is intuitively graspable. The program included this quote from his early essay “The Crisis of Serial Music,” where he doesn’t sound so far from many of the more conservative critics of serialism (even daring to mention “the audience”!).

Linear polyphony destroys itself by its very complexity; what one hears is in reality nothing but a mass of notes in various registers. The enormous complexity prevents the audience from following the intertwining of the lines and has as its macroscopic effect an irrational and fortuitous dispersion of sounds over the whole extent of the sonic spectrum. There is consequently a contradiction between the polyphonic linear system and the heard result, which is the surface or mass. This contradiction inherent in polyphony will disappear when the independence of sounds is total. In fact, when linear combinations and their polyphonic superpositions no longer operate, what will count will be the statistical mean of isolated states and of transformations of sonic components at a given moment. The macroscopic effect can then be controlled by the mean of the movements of elements which we select. The result is the introduction of the notion of probability, which implies, in this particular case, combinatory calculus. Here, in a few words, in the possible escape route from the “linear category” in musical thought…. 

To paraphrase: forget individual manipulation of notes and tone rows, and focus on macroscopic presentation of dynamics, effects, densities, timbres, etc.

It would be empty speech if Xenakis’s work, or at least the best of it, didn’t succeed so viscerally in realizing his aesthetics (and listening to some of his followers reveals how easily things can go wrong–sorry spectralists!). I think his grasp of timbre and texture far outweighed many of his contemporaries (though granted, many weren’t interested in such things anyway), putting him closest to Messiaen and Varese, who both supported him.

From A.R. Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist

The Mind of a Mnemonist is about an otherwise ordinary man, S., with an extreme eidetic memory, able to remember completely random strings of numbers and characters for years on end. Though he sometimes omits items in the sequences, he never misremembers or falsely adds one, as he seems to have intuitively developed a memory palace technique based on overwhelming synaesthetic associations. If he misses an item, it’s because it was quite literally overlooked in the visual framework. Here he is explaining how he “overlooked” some words in a list while repeating them:

I put the image of the pencil near a fence .. . the one
down the street, you know. But what happened was
that the image fused with that of the fence and I walked
right on past without noticing it. The same thing happened with the word egg. I had put it up against a
white wall and it blended in with the background. How
could I possibly spot a white egg up against a white
wall? Now take the word blimp. That’s something gray,
so it blended in with the gray of the pavement . . .
Banner, of course, means the Red Banner. But, you
know, the building which houses the Moscow City
Soviet of Workers’ Deputies is also red, and since I’d
put the banner close to one of the walls of the building
I just walked on without seeing it.. . Then there’s the
word putamen. I don’t know what this means, but it’s
such a dark word that I couldn’t see it . . . and, be-
sides, the street lamp was quite a distance away . . .

The cost of his prodigious memory is a verbal literalism that incapacitates his ability to appreciate nuance, abstraction, or multiple meanings. Each word only had one concrete, visual meaning summoned up by his mind immediately upon seeing it. Here he is tripping over some lines from Pasternak:

[It] Smiled at a bird-cherry tree, sobbed, drenched
The lacquer of cabs, the tremor of trees . . .*
  Boris Pasternak

He smiled at a bird-cherry tree. This called up an image
of a young man. Then I realized this was taking place
on the Metinskaya in Rezhitsa .. . He smiled at it. But
right after that there’s the word sobbed. That is, tears
have appeared and are wetting it . . . it means the
lines have to do with grief .. . I remembered how some
woman went to the crematorium and sat there for hours
looking at a portrait. . . That expression the lacquer of
cabs—it’s the lady of the manor driving by in her car-
riage from the mill at Yuzhatov. I look on. What is
she doing? She’s looking out of the carriage, trying to
see what’s wrong there. Why is “he” sad? . . . Then
there’s the expression the tremor of trees [word order
reversed in the Russian]. I can see the tremor and then
the trees, but when the words are reversed like this, I
see a tree and have to make it sway back and forth
to understand the phrase itself. This means a lot of
work for me.

[* The verbs are all in the past tense, masculine singular, but
they apply to rain; it is the spring rain Pasternak ascribes
human emotions to. S. interpreted the content and endings
of the verbs as the action of a masculine subject, whereas the
subject was masculine in a purely grammatical sense. [Tr.]]

So to make space for all of the visual associations that are forced upon him with every word, character, and number, S. lost some other kind of internal mental representation, something that allows for abstraction, metaphor, analogy, and indeterminacy. S. was forever unable to grasp the concept of “infinity”:

. . . Infinity—that means what has always been. But
what came before this? What is to follow? No, it’s impossible to see this . . .

In order for me to grasp the meaning of a thing, I
have to see it. . . Take the word nothing. I read it and
thought it must be very profound. I thought it would
be better to call nothing something . . . for I see this
nothing and it is something . . . If I’m to understand
any meaning that is fairly deep, I have to get an image
of it right away. So I turned to my wife and asked
her what nothing meant. But it was so clear to her
that she simply said: “Nothing means there is nothing.”
I understood it differently. I saw this nothing and felt
she must be wrong. The logic we use, for example. It’s
been worked out on the basis of years of experience.
I can see how it has developed, and what it means to
me is that one has to rely on his own sensations of
things. If nothing can appear to a person, that means
it is something. That’s where the trouble comes in . . .

It’s his sensations, and his inability to evade recollection of them in association with any sort of discourse, that disconnect him from many modes of speaking. Though he was able to be social, I imagine he was in some ways cut off from other people, because he could only ever think that they were talking about one thing in particular with each word or phrase, and if words were to be used in different ways, he would be immediately estranged from such a use. By relying on his own sensations, his language is more private than that of other people. Abstraction is more social than sensation.

[Another Russian note: It’s now thought that famous synaesthete Alexander Scriabin was in fact not synaesthetic, as real synaesthetics such as Messiaen do not have synaesthetic associations that map so neatly onto the western scale.]

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