David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: memory (page 3 of 8)

Borges: The House of Asterion

Of Mirrors and the Labyrinth, quoted by Art of Memory, made me remember that crucial Borges story that is not as well-known as some, “The House of Asterion.” It is one of Borges’s more explicit invocations of Kafka, and specifically of Kafka’s parables. I’ll just quote the whole thing, seeing as it’s very short:

And the queen gave birth to a child who was called Asterion. (Apollodorus Bibliotecha III, I)

I know they accuse me of arrogance, and perhaps misanthropy, and perhaps of madness. Such accusations (for which I shall exact punishment in due time) are derisory. It is true that I never leave my house, but it is also true that its doors (whose numbers are infinite) (footnote: The original says fourteen, but there is ample reason to infer that, as used by Asterion, this numeral stands for infinite.) are open day and night to men and to animals as well. Anyone may enter. He will find here no female pomp nor gallant court formality, but he will find quiet and solitude. And he will also find a house like no other on the face of this earth. (There are those who declare there is a similar one in Egypt, but they lie.) Even my detractors admit there is not one single piece of furniture in the house. Another ridiculous falsehood has it that I, Asterion, am a prisoner. Shall I repeat that there are no locked doors, shall I add that there are no locks? Besides, one afternoon I did step into the street; If I returned before night, I did so because of the fear that the faces of the common people inspired in me, faces as discolored and flat as the palm of one’s hand. the sun had already set ,but the helpless crying of a child and the rude supplications of the faithful told me I had been recognized. The people prayed, fled, prostrated themselves; some climbed onto the stylobate of the temple of the axes, others gathered stones. One of them, I believe, hid himself beneath the sea. Not for nothing was my mother a queen; I cannot be confused with the populace, though my modesty might so desire. The fact is that that I am unique. I am not interested in what one man may transmit to other men; like the philosopher I think that nothing is communicable by the art of writing. Bothersome and trivial details have no place in my spirit, which is prepared for all that is vast and grand; I have never retained the difference between one letter and another. A certain generous impatience has not permitted that I learn to read. Sometimes I deplore this, for the nights and days are long.

Of course, I am not without distractions. Like the ram about to charge, I run through the stone galleries until I fall dizzy to the floor. I crouch in the shadow of a pool or around a corner and pretend I am being followed. There are roofs from which I let myself fall until I am bloody. At any time I can pretend to be asleep, with my eyes closed and my breathing heavy. (Sometimes I really sleep, sometimes the color of day has changed when I open my eyes.) But of all the games, I prefer the one about the other Asterion. I pretend that he comes to visit me and that I show him my house. With great obeisance I say to him “Now we shall return to the first intersection” or “Now we shall come out into another courtyard” Or “I knew you would like the drain” or “Now you will see a pool that was filled with sand” or “You will soon see how the cellar branches out”. Sometimes I make a mistake and the two of us laugh heartily.

Not only have I imagined these games, I have also meditated on the house. All parts of the house are repeated many times, any place is another place. There is no one pool, courtyard, drinking trough, manger; the mangers, drinking troughs, courtyards pools are fourteen (infinite) in number. The house is the same size as the world; or rather it is the world. However, by dint of exhausting the courtyards with pools and dusty gray stone galleries I have reached the street and seen the temple of the Axes and the sea. I did not understand this until a night vision revealed to me that the seas and temples are also fourteen (infinite) in number. Everything is repeated many times, fourteen times, but two things in the world seem to be repeated only once: above, the intricate sun; below Asterion. Perhaps I have created the stars and the sun and this enormous house, but I no longer remember.

Every nine years nine men enter the house so that I may deliver them from evil. I hear their steps or their voices in the depths of the stone galleries and I run joyfully to find them. The ceremony lasts a few minutes. They fall one after another without my having to bloody my hands. They remain where they fell and their bodies help distinguish one gallery from another. I do not know who they are, but I know that one of them prophesied, at the moment of his death, that some day my redeemer would come. Since then my loneliness does not pain me, because I know my redeemer lives and he will finally rise above the dust. If my ear could capture all the sounds of the world, I should hear his steps. I hope he will take me to a place with fewer galleries fewer doors. What will my redeemer be like? I ask myself. Will he be a bull or a man? will he perhaps be a bull with the face of a man? or will he be like me?

The morning sun reverberated from the bronze sword. There was no longer even a vestige of blood. “Would you believe it, Ariadne?” said Theseus “The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.”

Hermetic isolation, an invocation of Purgatory as conceived by Dante, and to labyrinths before and after, to the invented worlds of Tlon and the murderous architecture of “Death and the Compass.”

Private Language

Suddenly I snap my fingers several times and laugh. What the hell was this! Ha! I imagined I had found a new word. I sit up in bed and say, It’s not found in the language, I have invented it—Kuboå. It does have letters like a word—sweet Jesus, man, you have invented a word . . . Kuboå . . . of enormous grammatical importance.

The word stood out sharply against the darkness in front of me.

I sit with open eyes, amazed at my discovery and laughing for joy. Then I start whispering: they might be spying on me and I intended to keep my invention a secret. I had crossed over into the pure madness of hunger. I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot. I debate with myself in silence. With the oddest jumps in my line of thought, I try to ascertain the meaning of my new word. It didn’t have to mean either God or amusement park, and who had said it should mean cattle show? I clench my fist angrily and repeat once more, Who said that it shall mean cattle show? All things considered, it wasn’t even necessary that it should mean padlock or sunrise. It wasn’t difficult to make sense of such a word. I would wait and see. Meanwhile I would sleep on it.

…I had made up my mind what the word shouldn’t mean, but had taken no decision on what it should mean. That is a minor question! I said aloud to myself, clutching my arm and repeating that it was a minor question. The word had been found, thank God, and that was the main thing…No, the word was really suited to mean something spiritual, a feeling, a state of mind–couldn’t I understand that? And I try to jog my memory to come up with something spiritual. Then it seems to me that someone is speaking, sticking his nose into my chat, and I answer angrily, What was that? Oh my, you’ll get the prize for biggest idiot! Knitting yarn? Go to hell! Why should I be under an obligation to let it mean knitting yarn when I was particularly opposed to its meaning knitting yarn? I had invented the word myself, and I was perfectly within my rights in having it mean anything whatsoever, for that matter. As far as I knew, I hadn’t yet expressed an opinion….

Knut Hamsun, Hunger (tr. Lyngstad)

Who is the interlocutor who interrupts him and prompts him with definitions? Is it part of him spying on himself? Would definition expose him to attack by these spies? He is not hesitant to define the word; he is defiant in not defining it.

Grondin on Gadamer

“Working out appropriate projections, anticipatory in nature, to be confirmed ‘by the things’ themselves, is the constant task of understanding” (Gadamer). This quotation does not fit the typical picture of Gadamer. His hermeneutic position is usually taken to be something for which there seems to be plentiful evidence: namely, that given the prejudice structure of understanding, there can never be any “confirmation by the things themselves.” But it is easy to show that his hermeneutics is quite misunderstood when taken thus. Even if Gadamer’s utterances are not always perfectly consistent, his “rehabilitation” of prejudices still warns us to be critically “aware of one’s own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings.” On the other hand, Gadamer does not fall into the positivist extreme of calling for a negation of the prejudice structure of understanding in order to let the thing speak for itself without being obfuscated by subjectivity. A reflexively critical understanding of the kind contended for will be concerned “not merely to form anticipatory ideas, but to make them conscious, so as to monitor them and thus acquire right understanding from the things themselves.” This is what Gadamer finds in Heidegger: the mean between the positivist dissolution of the self and Nietzsche’s universal perspectivism. The question is only how one is to come by the “appropriate” fore-projections that permit the “thing itself” to speak.

Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics

This has the ring of truth for me, and it embodies one of the central Gadamerian concepts of why a “method” is needed at all, or more accurately, how it comes into existence. Pace deconstructionism, Gadamer seeks to portray the process of how truth criteria evolve over time, not to postpone forever the idea that we could ever have them, but to indicate the persistence of changing standards of truth, verification, correctness, and understanding. The two extremes that Gadamer rejects are, first, the analytic (verificationist) pretense towards objectivity, and, second, the purely subjectivist account by which meaning and criteria fail to make any sense on their own terms, dismissing the first as impossible and the second as useless. The speaking of the “thing itself” is not some timeless universal innate to the text, but the arrival at a convention of truth under the current socio-historical horizon that can be seen as being as “accurate” as possible. The “method” for doing so is the process of questioning prejudice and, more simply, being aware of it. This “working out” involves strictures given to us by the text itself, not just our own prejudices. The understanding we obtain this way, for Gadamer, is as good as it gets. The reason the thing itself then speaks is that we have achieved the purest interaction with it possible under the inevitable influence of remaining subjective prejudices, partially cognitivized. Then, under the most successful application of this “method,” what we can glean from the text is what the text says to us. I take this to be the ontology of Gadamer’s hermeneutics.

A written tradition is not a fragment of a past world, but has already raised itself beyond this into the sphere of the meaning that it expresses. The ideality of the word is what raises everything linguistic beyond the finitude and transience that characterize other remnants of past existence. It is not this document, as a piece of the past, that is the bearer of tradition but the continuity of memory. Through it tradition becomes part of our own world, and thus what it communicates can be stated immediately. Where we have a written tradition, we are not just told a particular thing; a past humanity itself becomes present to us in its general relation to the world….

Thus written texts present the real hermeneutical task. Writing is self-alienation. Overcoming it, reading the text, is thus the highest task of understanding.

Gadamer, Truth and Method (392)

Jerry Fodor on Galen Strawson on Consciousness

Seven points me to Jerry Fodor’s assessment of Strawson’s plainly named Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?. Some very hasty thoughts on the following:

There are three philosophical principles to which Strawson’s allegiance is unshakeable. The first is that the existence of consciousness (specifically, of conscious experience) is undeniable; that we are conscious is precisely what we know best. (To be sure, we can’t prove that we are conscious; but that is hardly surprising since there is no more secure premise from which such a proof could proceed.) Strawson’s second principle is a kind of monism: everything that there is is the same sort of stuff as such familiar things as tables, chairs and the bodies of animals. This, however, leaves a lot of options open since Strawson thinks that nothing much is known about that kind of stuff ‘as it is in itself’; at best science tells us only about its relational properties. What is foreclosed by Strawson’s monism is primarily the sort of ‘substance dualism’ that is frequently (but, he thinks, wrongly) attributed to Descartes.

The third of Strawson’s leading theses is a good deal more tendentious than the first two; namely, that emergence isn’t possible. ‘For any feature Y of anything that is correctly considered to be emergent from X, there must be something about X and X alone in virtue of which Y emerges, and which is sufficient for Y.’ But Strawson holds that there isn’t anything about matter in virtue of which conscious experience could arise from it; or that if there is, we have literally no idea what it could be. In particular, we can’t imagine any way of arranging small bits of unconscious stuff that would result in the consciousness of the larger bits of stuff of which they are the constituents. It’s not like liquids (Strawson’s favourite example of bona fide emergence) where we can see, more or less, how constituent molecules that aren’t liquid might be assembled to make larger things that are. How on earth, Strawson wonders, could anything of that sort explain the emergence of consciousness from matter? If it does, that’s a miracle; and Strawson doesn’t hold with those.

The emergence problem, as well as most the suggested answers, is not a new one, and I’ve found any of its proposed solutions to be exceedingly thorny. The French materialists of the 1800s ran in circles around this issue: some went full-force into vitalism (i.e., the assignment of some mysterious “life principle” to all matter) and declared any and all matter to be capable of judgment, while others tried to negotiate compromises of assigning some sort of proto-consciousness to matter. Diderot’s solution was one of the more sophisticated, but also someone question-begging: he called all matter to be “passively” conscious, made “active” through some kind of transformation. Is this emergence or not? The problem does not appear to admit half-measures; either the raw stuff of consciousness is there, or it’s not.

This separates the problem of consciousness from the lame “half an eye” attack on evolution, which is easily answerable by saying that half-eyes existed and were evolutionarily adaptive. It’s precisely the seeming holistic nature of consciousness that makes it maddeningly intractable. But I think this is the premise that needs to be attacked, because it makes the problem seem more unsolvable than it is.

Consider the problem another way. When I’m under anesthesia, it appears (to the best of my recollection) that “my” consciousness disappears. Maybe my body or parts of it are still “conscious” in a way, but whatever constitutes consciousness in this state is wildly different from what constitutes it when I am awake, in sheer virtue of it seeming not to be “mine.” There’s always the hypothetical possibility, of course, that my memory was turned off during that time and yet I still endured all that screaming pain consciously. (The very real experience of some people who are paralyzed but not rendered unconscious and insensate by anesthesia has always struck terror in my heart.) But it seems reasonable to say that I was truly not conscious during that time.

Two points follow. The first is to say that Strawson’s definition of consciousness must apply to me while I am under the knife and anesthetized (or, for that matter, when I am dead). This destigmatizes the word “consciousness” from what we associate as human experience. The second is to ask whether consciousness is necessarily experiential. Consciousness obviously is a prerequisite for experience, but without the brain and nervous system, we have to ask what’s left of consciousness: either a destigmatized notion of “experience,” or no experience at all. In this sense, Strawson’s argument is a complement to David Chalmers’s panpsychism, which famously maintained that thermostats can be conscious because they function analogously to connectionist networks. Strawson’s argument is wholly different, but the crux of the dilemma is the same.

All I can say is that having removed the domesticated notions of “experience” and “consciousness,” the anti-emergence claim should no longer seem horribly nonintuitive. Unfortunately, though, I think the converse applies as well: there no longer seems to be an intuitive argument for the anti-emergence claim. And thus the problem transforms itself into the functionalist vs. Searlian arguments of years ago–is consciousness everywhere, or just in some sorts of matter?–but in a form I happen to consider more compelling and universal, since it no longer argues from cognitive capacities and knowledge, but from raw experience.

[There remains the problem of “mineness,” which I’ll try to get to at some later date.]

Sviatoslav Richter: Musical Strict Constructionist

It is at once ridiculous and absolutely fitting that Richter was an originalist (i.e., a believer in the original intent of the composer) in his views on music:

Following an absolutely frightful concert that I gave at the Fetes
Musicales de Touraine, when I played eight of Liszt’s Transcendental
Studies, and a recital in Japan, where I took fright even before launching
into Beethoven’s Op. 106 Sonata, I made up my mind never again to play
without a score.

It any case, what’s the point of cluttering up your brain when there are far
better things to do? It’s bad for your health, and it also smacks of vanity.
True, it’s not as easy to retain the same degree of freedom with a score
open in front of you – it doesn’t work straight away and requires a lot of
practice – but now that I’ve got used to it, I find that it has lots of
advantages. In the first place, I’ve never made any distinction between
chamber music and music written for a solo performer. But one always plays
chamber music with a score; why should one have to perform without one as a
soloist? In the second place, it’s easy enough to memorize a Haydn sonata,
but I prefer to play twenty while reading the music, rather than limiting
myself to two performed from memory. As for contemporary music, there are
only a few exceptional artists who are able to memorize a piece by Webern,
or Hindemith’s Ludus tonalis, but it’s a waste of time and effort. It’s not
*practical*. Moreover, even if the element of danger and risk aren’t totally
foreign to music, you feel more secure and can concentrate better if you’ve
got the score in front of you. Finally, and above all, it’s more honest to
play like this: you’ve got how it has to be in front of you and you play
exactly what’s written. The interpreter is a mirror, and performing music
doesn’t mean contaminating the piece with your own personality, it consists
in performing *all* the music, nothing more and nothing less. Who could ever
remember *all* the performance markings indicated by the composer? Failing
that, performers start to ‘interpret’, and it’s that that I’m against.

By freeing the brain of the useless task of memorizing the music, you can
also stop inflicting the same endlessly repeated programmes on audiences –
and on yourself.

(from Bruno Monsaingeon, Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations, tr. Stewart Spencer)

This also makes him a Romantic Hermeneut (diagram c/o this link):

Except without those messy contexts:

The interpreter is really an executant, carrying out the composer’s
intentions to the letter. He doesn’t add anything that isn’t already in the
work. If he’s talented, he allows us to glimpse the truth of the work that
is in itself a thing of genius and that is reflected in him. He shouldn’t
dominate the music, but should dissolve into it. I don’t think that my way
of playing has ever changed. Or if it has, I didn’t notice, Perhaps I simply
started to play with greater freedom as I threw off the shackles of
existence and rejected the superfluous and all that distracts us from the
essential. It is by shutting myself away that I’ve found freedom.

I might have had doubts about the extent to which I managed to play what I
intended, but from the beginning I was always certain that, for each work,
it was in this way, and no other, that it had to be played. Why? It’s very
simple: because I looked closely at the score. That’s all that’s required to
reflect what it contains.

Kurt Sanderling once said of me: “Not only can he play well, he can also
read music.” That wasn’t such a bad way of putting it.

This is, of course, insane, but who am I to question the ethos given the results? Likewise with Sun Ra and Anthony Braxton, two of the more articulate eccentric musical wonders of the age.

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