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Great artists are so frequently assholes that I have learned to compartmentalize. Ok, so Lord Byron was loathsome in his relations with women; doesn't stop me from admiring his work unstintingly.

Whether such compartmentalization is difficult to maintain or distasteful - probably a bit of both - it's not a popular approach.  People prefer judgments.  There's a pleasing equanimity in being able to say, for example, that because Picasso hated women, Cubism amounted to a visual violence against women - cutting up the planes of their faces and bodies and rearranging them - and that our assessment of Picasso's achievement should be accordingly tempered.  In a world where bad produces bad, we find stability.

Such a world is not the one in which we find ourselves. 

As a result, many people require a certain amount of creative narrative to rationalize situations in which bad produces good.  Maurice Malingue is one such person.

Malingue was the editor of Paul Gaugin's letters to Mette Gad, his wife, and others.  Working in the middle of the last century, Malingue attempted to reconcile aspects of Gauguin's life that were in some tension: on the one hand, he was a genius painter; on the other hand, he was an asshole. 

The facts supporting Paul Gaugin's categorization as an "asshole" are as follows:  After fathering five children, he quit his job, lived apart from his family and contributed little to his family's support or upkeep.  He was openly unfaithful to his wife.  He did not return home either when his favorite daughter, Aline, or his favorite son, Clovis, died, both in their early twenties.  That Gauguin had syphilis, apparently of the variety that leads to madness, is something of a mitigating factor, though he seems to have contracted it after he set himself on the path of abandoning his family.

What Malingue made of these facts is laugh-out-loud funny to today's reader, who is at least 150 years too removed from the Romantics to be reflexively sympathetic to Gauguin's choices.  Malingue has no such scruples.  With a zeal unknown to generation acclimated to a divorce rate of roughly 50%, Malingue - in the Preface to Letters to his Wife and Friends - attacks Gauguin's wife, Mette Gad, and condemns her for expecting Gauguin to support his family:

[Gauguin's] letters constitute the most . . . overwhelming indictments in the trial of Mette Gauguin, who can now be charged with incomprehension of the artist, indifference towards the man, and with having as a wife failed the father of her five children.
. . . .
Mette, in contrast with wives of innumerable artists, found it difficult to contemplate poverty for herself and her children.
. . . .
It is probable that Mette, the daughter of an official, brought up with some degree of mental freedom but in the observance of somewhat rigid moral principles, never could understand how a father of five children could throw up a comfortable position without bothering what was to become of his family. 
Of Gauguin's abandonment of his children, Malingue remarks:

[Gauguin] is a father who suffered keenly in living apart from his children.  Obviously, he could have had them with him if he wanted to.  He renounced his paternal duties deliberately, because constrained to do so by the demands of his art.  The presence of his children would have imposed on him paternal obligations.
As for Gauguin's infidelity, Malingue takes a (dare I suggest typically French?) brazen line:

[Gauguin] plunged into casual amours at Pont-Aven, set up house in Paris with a Javanese, and in Tahiti bedevilled hussies invaded his bed every night.
These "bedevilled hussies" were 14 year-old girls who Gauguin took as his live-in companions.  (In Mario Vargas Llosa's telling - in This Way to Paradise - far from finding his bed "invaded" every night, the aging, broke and syphilitic Gauguin, whose legs were covered with sores, and who lacked money necessary to feed even himself, struggled to find girls willing to live with him.)

Of course, Malingue is full of shit.  Mette might not have been a creative woman, but she was in no way wrong (or even "rigid" in her morals) to expect financial support from her husband and the father of her many children.  Caring for five children might be inconvenient for Paul Gauguin, but the existence of children - not their presence or absence - imposes parental obligations; abandoning one's children geographically does not absolve a parent of responsibilities, however much one's time needs to be devoted to art.  As for adulterous husbands, at a minimum one can demand that they be discrete and steer clear of minors.

In fairness to Malingue, he lived in a different era, when he was not alone in being relatively receptive to justifying the bad acts of a genius, done in the name of his art.  All the same, Malingue's thinking - in any age - is slavish and lazy, the automatic "yes" of a dazzled fan.

Today, the trend is towards the opposite error, of dismissing Gauguin's mastery because he was an adulterous pedophile and a deadbeat dad.  But such reasoning would be equally slavish (to PC standards) and lazy.

We live in a world in which good can come from bad.  In which - Malingue is almost certainly right - Gauguin could desperately miss his children, and yet do nothing to be with them or help them.  In which Gauguin's actions can be wrong and sick, and still the general public is much the better for them.

The accurate narrative is the critical and rigorous one, the one that describes the world in its ambiguity, and that captures and conjures what beauty there is in such a world as ours.  It's not an easy narrative to tell or to absorb, not a narrative that likely to gain popular currency.  And yet it's the narrative in Gauguin's painting; it's the reason, in fact, that Gauguin is great.

(Image of Paul Gauguin's Self-portrait with the Yellow Christ from the National Gallery of Australia website)

Maya and Alexis in America

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"Ce qu'on va lire n'est pas un voyage."  I haven't read Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, but I've been hearing about it ad nauseam since 1995 (the text seems irrepressibly ubiquitous in legal academia - not to mention in the pages of The New York Review of Books), and the book's first sentence - "What you're about to read isn't a travel memoir" - strikes me as perfect for this blog post.

I have just completed a four-month tour of the U.S., my first extended stay in the country since 2004.  Granted, my road trip was significantly different than the one Tocqueville took with his buddy, Gustave de Beaumont, in 1831.  I was not, for example, conducting a study of the American prison system, and so I didn't visit Sing Sing; I encountered no near-death experience while aboard a steamboat on the Ohio River; and I didn't chat with the President of the United States.  (Lest any reader of this post conclude, based on the foregoing, that my trip lacked excitement, I hasten to add that - unlike Tocqueville and Beaumont - I didn't take a vow of chastity during my trip.)

On the other hand, my trip may - in a small, personal, anecdotal and highly idiosyncratic way - cast some interesting light on Tocqueville's observations.  As Alan Ryan summarizes in his (yes, New York Review of Books) review of Leo Damrosch's book, Tocqueville's Discovery of America, Tocqueville subscribed to John Stuart Mill's assertion that

in the United States there was "none but a middle class." . . . Damrosch takes him to task for [this conclusion].  Did he not see, wonders Damrosch, that there were great disparities of income and wealth in America?

He did, but they were less striking than those he knew in France, and for him the ethos of "equality of condition" trumped inequalities of income and wealth, as it does for Americans today.  About 80 percent of Americans today call themselves "middle class," whereas 57 percent of British respondents call themselves "working class," although the distribution of income and wealth in Britain and the United States is very similar, as are rates of social mobility.

What was this egalitarian ethos?  It was the universal belief that with luck and hard work, anyone could become rich . . . the measure of success was money . . . . No doubt reality fell far short of this idealized picture, but people are affected by their idea of reality more than by reality itself.
When I moved to China in 2004, I (and everyone I knew) subscribed to this ethos to some greater or lesser degree.  Yes, I knew the platitude about people on their deathbeds never saying they wished they'd spent more time at the office, but everyone who recited that mantra to me earned at least six figures.  (Homeless people, I gather, might very well express a deathbed regret that they hadn't enjoyed the cash reserves necessary to enable them to have neglected the non-monetary rewards in life.)  

My going off to China elicited much concern from my cohort of friends and associates.  One former colleague, meeting me to say good-bye, told me to "pull myself together."  More than one person expressed reservations about my fiscal - to say nothing of my mental - health.  I was going off track - off road, literally - and by the standards of the egalitarian ethos I was taking risks of staggering, if not outright foolish, dimension.

I can't say that my risk-taking was unreservedly rewarding.  Since 2004, I have worked extremely hard, but I haven't gotten rich.  To the contrary.  Whether that outcome is the result of bad luck or an inherent flaw in the egalitarian ethos, I cannot say.  But a little more than three years ago, I experienced extreme anxiety about the fact of my non-affluence.  The measure of success was still - even for me - money.  At that time, I didn't want to return to the U.S., but I felt that (even if I had wanted to) I couldn't.  I wasn't rich; I was a failure.

Shortly thereafter, the economy tanked.  Friends of mine agonized over losing 50% of their net worth.  Possibly coincidentally, I perceived a difference in the way my friends in the States responded to me.  Skepticism and bewilderment no longer predominated in their responses to my life choices.  Curiosity began to mingle with admiration.  I began to be told that I was living what others dreamed about.  What I experienced as inconvenience, danger and uncertainty looked, to my States-bound friends, enviable.

Nonetheless, when I told a Zimbabwean friend that I would be spending months visiting family and friends in the States, he warned me that I'd feel alienated.  Time apart feeds the imagination; as much as others had made a palimpsest of my life, overlaying it with their own fantasies, I was doing the same to them: my expectations of feeling "at home" were sure to be disappointed, he warned.

We were both wrong.  I didn't feel like I belonged, and I didn't feel alienated.  I felt like an extremely welcome guest - supported, but an outsider; a peripheral character whose status on (and reports from) the periphery was (were) both respected and valued.  I was, quite honestly, not expecting this kind of reception.  Lectures about the need for financial stability in uncertain times; well-intentioned exhortations about moving back to the States; references (in varying degrees of stridency) about my biological time clock; these potentials I anticipated.  Congratulatory back-slapping, not so much.

Reading Ryan's review, I couldn't resist wondering if my experience in any way signaled an evolution in the egalitarian ethos Tocqueville described (or, possibly, through his description contributed to creating).  Tocqueville himself had expressed disillusionment about the underbelly of this ethos, as Ryan recounts:

[Towards the end of Tocqueville's life, h]is doubts about American moneymaking and his fear that commerce drove real politics out of everyone's mind had intensified, as had his contempt for the loudmouthed ignorance of both the American public and many American politicians.
Are Americans beginning to embrace a more nuanced egalitarian ethos, one that is less tolerant of income and wealth disparities?  Are they beginning to lose patience with the political ineptness, corruption and ignorance bred by a system that over-values commerce? My experience is too individual to serve as the basis for general answers to these big questions, but I got the distinct impression that Americans are happy to see someone else - a representative of sorts (or, to use more folkloric terminology that crops up in the work of the excellent poet Thomas Lynch, a sin eater) - attempt to fashion a life consistent with this less commerce-driven, more substantively-egalitarian version of Tocqueville's egalitarian ethos.  Changing their own lives may be no more appealing than it was seven years ago, but demonstrating support for someone else doing it seems like it's no longer as threatening.

If people's ideas of reality affect them more than reality itself, perhaps this shift does reflect an evolution in Americans' thinking about reality, regardless of the facts on the ground.  Or perhaps less noble forces are at work: the guy who'd told me to "pull myself together" in 2004 had simply no memory, in 2011, of ever having made the comment or, indeed, have met me to say good-bye at all.

(Image of Alexis de Tocqueville from Seton Hall University; image of Maya Alexandri taken by Alice Forney) 

Whither the women of the 1%?

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Dale_Peck.jpgIn the course of a New York Times book review of the two recently-released translations of the work of the late Austrian author Thomas Bernhard, novelist, critic and literary infant terrible Dale Peck drew a distinction between novelistic traditions.  The first, representing 99% (in his estimate) of Western novels, finds its roots in ancient Greek forms of storytelling and, in its journey through Rome, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Victorian Era, has evolved to chart the vicissitudes of "an increasingly representative cast of characters and behaviors." 

The second tradition
wends its way through various misfits, misanthropes and criminals constitutionally incapable of resigning themselves to the social contract: Cervantes's Don Quixote, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Dostoyevsky's underground man, Knut Hamsun's self-starving doppelgänger in "Hunger."  In lieu of ­offering a rational critique of the world they inhabit, the antiheroes of the second tradition simply hate or reject it, just as their creators, far from seeing literature as a tool for cultural or even individual salvation, write only to give voice to a sense of alienation from oneself, one's peers and one's place in history.
The phrase "constitutionally incapable of resigning themselves to the social contract" delighted me - not least because of how deeply I identify with it - but also raised an immediate question: why were women authors absent from this disaffected 1%?  (I don't think the issue lies in Peck's list of examples; aside from Peck's very public philogyny, I can't think of a woman author who should have been included.)

The absence is noteworthy.  Women, after all, have very good reasons to reject the social contract.  Succinctly: we've been on the shit end of the deal - of every social deal - in Western history and maintain our sorry status in current times.  There's never been a Golden Age for women, a time during which it was good to be female.  We perennially do more to get less, find ourselves without outlets or mentors for our talents, and alone in our grief; and that's the fate of lucky women - the unlucky ones are the subjects of unremitting abuse, exploitation, degradation and violence.

So why doesn't literature by women reflect these inarguable facts?  Why aren't women writing characters that "hate or reject" the world?  Why aren't women authors writing "to give voice to a sense of alienation from oneself, one's peers and one's place in history"?

These are "big" questions, and a blog post is structurally incapable of admitting comprehensive (or even potentially worthy) answers.  Nonetheless, just as I struggle against other structurally-imposed constraints in my life, I'll attempt an inadequate (and possibly unworthy) answer here, one based on women's historic connection with the existence of the novel.

As Walter Ong explains in his masterwork, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, up through the nineteenth century, rhetoric-heavy academic training shaped literary style in the West, except in the case of female authors, who received no such training:

In medieval times and after, the education of girls was often intensive . . . , but this education was not acquired in academic institutions, which taught rhetoric and all other subjects in Latin.  When they began to enter schools in some numbers during the seventeenth century, girls entered not the main-line Latin schools but the newer vernacular schools. . . . Women writers were no doubt influenced by works that they had read emanating from the Latin-based, academic, rhetorical tradition, but they themselves normally expressed themselves in a different, far less oratorical voice, which had a great deal to do with the rise of the novel.
(pp. 111-12.)  And which no doubt had a great deal to do with the low esteem with which novels have been held since time immemorial - see, for example, this declamation by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey:

Although [novelists'] productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. . . . [T]here seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances that have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.
(p. 22.)  Novels, in short, are a woman's medium.  Don Quixote notwithstanding (and Don Quixote to my mind is at least as much an example of a transitional epic poem as it is of an early novel), novels were largely invented, refined and patronized by women.  The prevalence of male novelists in the list of "greats" is just another yawn-inducing example of the achievement possible for a gender unsaddled by the lion's share of procreative and domestic work, a gender that moreover (and because of the foregoing advantage) has historically enjoyed the privilege of making the fucking list in the first place.

Which is to say, a novel (as contrasted with, say, a blog post) isn't a terribly logical medium for a woman's expression of hatred, rejection and alienation: it may be the Western cultural medium from which women are least alienated.  For a woman (or, at least, this woman), novels aren't either "a tool for cultural or even individual salvation," or a forum for voicing alienation: they are her metaphoric home, the place where she can experience unmolested enjoyment of her intellect and emotions.  A novel isn't about therapy or "salvation," but rather the mere necessities of existence: whether reading or writing one, in the confines of a novel, a woman finds a space in which she has penned the terms of the social contract. 

By the same token, fouling a woman's nest with vituperative hatred, rejection, mockery and self-pitying howls of alienation is exactly the kind of asshole behavior to be expected from a sensitive male genius writer.

(Image of Dale Peck from New York magazine)

The apple in visual art's Garden of Eden

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Viewing the permanent collection at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection today, I was struck by the explanatory note accompanying Paul Klee's painting, "Zaubergarten (Magic Garden)" (pictured left).  In this painting, the note claimed (I'm paraphrasing), Klee wanted to shed all his preconceived methodologies and techniques and paint like an unlearned child.

Klee's desire sounded familiar.  Having just seen the Gaugin show at the Tate Modern, I read two novels based on Gaugin's life: Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence, and Mario Vargas Llosa's This Way to Paradise.  Both novels emphasize Gaugin's desire to paint like a "primitive."

Although to our ears - disinfected, as they've been, by political correctness - painting "like a primitive" sounds dangerously like racist twaddle (premised, as the desire seems to be, on the romantic and inaccurate assumption that primitives are pure, uncivilized, uncorrupted, natural, sexual, etc.), I believe the impulse exhibited by Gaugin, Klee and other modernists is legitimate, non-racist and non-romantic, even if the semantics are now dated.  Here's why:

Humans have been making non-realistic visual art - figurative, but with elements of abstraction, two-dimensionality, fantasy, etc. - for vastly longer than they've been making realistic art.  Despite the horrified reactions of art connoisseurs to the onset of abstraction in the late 19th century (and the continuing bafflement of the public to 20th and 21st century art), the realism of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic ages (and not the subsequent reintroduction of elements of abstraction) was the aberration.

The post-Renaissance artist desiring to make abstract art, however, faced a problem that didn't arise for his pre-Renaissance counterpart: literacy.  As Walter J. Ong describes in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, the consciousness of people in primary oral societies is considerably different than that of people in literate societies (see especially pp. 31-77). 

In particular, "the shift from oral to written speech is essentially a shift from sound to visual space."  (p. 117).  While people in primary oral societies experience language as sound, alphabets and print have the tendency "to reduce all sensation and indeed all human experience to visual analogues."  (p. 76.)  Sound, of course, is invisible and dissipates rapidly; words, in Ong's analysis, are "events."  Writing, on the other hand, is visible and "immobile"; words become "things . . . for assimilation by vision."  (p. 91.)

What writing, print and literacy mean for the post-Renaissance artist is that the visual arena is now invaded by the word.  The instinct to seek a primitive state in order to paint is the impulse to return to primary orality, to a consciousness in which language is relegated to sound, and in which the visual sphere is uncoupled from linguistic communication. 

The impulse goads the artist into a near impossible task.  As is explained in Maryanne Wolf's, Proust and the Squid (discussed in this New Yorker article) and Stanislas Dehaene's, Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention (reviewed in the New York Times piece) both primary orality and literacy are encoded at the neurological level in the brain.  I'm no neuroscientist, but I'm guessing that to move from one system to another requires rearranging neural circuitry.  (Ong laments that "we can never forget enough of our familiar present [literacy] to reconstitute in our minds any past [of primary orality] in its full integrity" (p. 15).)

On a more personal level, in writing my last novel, The Celebration Husband, I attempted to portray characters from primary oral societies.  To do so, I needed to achieve an understanding of their thinking patterns, logic, motivations, emotional processes, etc.  Despite extensive research and imaginative effort, I am not confident that I got it right.  Although I believe that the attempt to gain understanding of primary oral consciousness is critical (even in failure), I doubt that a medium of literacy can ever bring to life fully a person from a primary oral society (with the possible exception of poetry).  Visual artists might have a better chance.  In any event, I feel in a small way that through my work on The Celebration Husband I can relate to the quests of Klee, Gaugin and other modernists to reconstruct a primary oral consciousness (even if they didn't understand their mission in those terms).

Significantly, conceptual artists represent an abandonment of this effort of the modernists.  Conceptual artists accept a visual field occupied by the word, and they put the word (and its corollary, ideas) to work in the service of art. 

The effect is necessarily less visually arresting.  After all, we literates already experience a visual sphere cluttered with words; conceptual art may invite us to think differently about those words, but it does not present us with a visual arena in which words are absent, as they are in the art work of a person from a primary oral society (or a child).

Ong describes writing as "a particularly pre-emptive and imperialist activity that tends to assimilate other things to itself."  (p. 12.)  In Klee, Gaugin and other modernists, we may have witnessed the last resistance of visual artists to this imperialism.  And though subsequent generations may not have picked up their fight, these rebel artists produced a legacy on par with that of the Renaissance.  We have yet to see post-modernist artists do the same.

(Image of Paul Klee's Zaubergarten from the Guggenheim website)

Words fail

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The New York Review of Books is a superb publication.  I therefore cannot describe the way it has glossed over Walter J. Ong as anything but shocking. 

Ong posits that changes in human society and development is explained by the differences in human consciousness in oral and literate cultures.  Current neuroscientific work is finding support of Ong's theory.

Ong may turn out to be the great and definitive thinker of the second half of the twentieth century, the person who laid the foundation for our understanding of our own consciousness in a technologized (and technologizing) world.  And yet The New York Review of Books contains merely two reviews of his substantial body of writing, the most recent dating from 1968.

The 1968 review, of Ong's The Presence of the Word, is by Frank Kermode, a writer I admire; yet Kermode doesn't strike me in this review as being at his best.  (His gratuitous rudeness - "If one calls the style of [Ong's essays] highly typographic, it is only a way of saying that they have no style at all" - seems out of place, as well as out of character.)

The crux of Kermode's critique is that Ong's study of the impact of the transition from orality to literacy on humans and their societies sets forth a defective theory of history.  In Kermode's analysis, Ong's theory fails for two reasons: (1) the evidence supporting the Ong's theory equally supports other theories, and (2) Ong organizes his evidence to promote a Catholic agenda.

Neither objection seems terribly cogent.  Humans and their history are incredibly complicated, and the ambiguity of evidence supporting theories of human history is commonplace: we should neither be surprised, nor dismissive, when evidence can support multiple theories.  

Moreover, The Presence of the Word (which I have not read) collects adaptations of talks Ong gave as part of the Terry Lectures, the purpose of which is "that the Christian spirit may be natured [sic] in the fullest light of the world's knowledge."  That Ong's talks in this context have a theological agenda is therefore no surprise.

Ong's most important well-known (and probably most important) work, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, cannot be tarred with this brush.  The book lays bare Ong's passion for understanding based on truth.  The accusation of subordinating his scholarship to a missionary agenda is offensive - and unsupported: Kermode's claim that [get exact quote] "Ong values orality because it is holy" fades in the face of Ong's numerous assertions in Orality and Literacy that

without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials . . . . Literacy is absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself.
(p. 14-15.)  Whether Ong fundamentally revised his theories since The Presence of the Word, or whether Kermode simply misconstrues Ong, I cannot say; but that The New York Review hasn't reviewed Orality and Literacy (or any of Ong's prodigious output since 1968) is a lapse.

In our current globalized, post-colonial environment, we reject notions of historical change that rely on racial (and increasingly, religious) superiority.  The reason for that rejection is not ideology: we believe it's true.  Ong - like Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel - offers us a theory of human social development that is race (and religion) neutral - literacy (not race or religion) is the provocateur.  (For Jared Diamond, geography is the culprit.)  No publication purporting to offer an analysis of our times can fail to engage Ong in some capacity.  To ignore Ong is to court irrelevancy.

(Image of Fr. Walter J. Ong from the St. Louis University Walter J. Ong Archives website)

The line from literacy-enabled logic to immortality

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For the first time, I am reading two books together to experience the way they illuminate and duel with one another.  The two books are Walter J. Ong's, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word and René Descarte's Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences.  The result of this experiment in parallel reading is interesting: the experience is like setting my brain on fire. 

One aspect of Ong's book that reliably throws sparks is his overview of characteristics of people from primary oral cultures - that is, societies that don't write or know of writing.  Ong explains:

[A]n oral culture simply does not deal in such items as . . . formally logical reasoning processes [or] . . . articulated self-analysis . . . which derive not simply from thought itself but from text-formed thought.
(p. 55.)  In respect of articulated self-analysis, Ong elaborates:

[I]lliterates [have] difficulty in articulate self-analysis.  Self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking [typical to people from primary oral societies]. . . . Externals [e.g., amount of land farmed, success of crops planted] command attention [in lieu of internal qualities]. . . . Self-evaluation [gets] modulated into group evaluation ("we") and then handled in terms of expected reactions from others [e.g., no one would respect our group if we were otherwise] . . . . Judgment bears in on the individual from outside, not from within.
(p. 54-55.)  Reading this passage, I immediately thought of Descartes, whose self-analysis as it pertains to the quality of his mind after it emerged from his education is one of the earliest important examples (second, possibly, to Montaigne) of the expansion of human capacities enabled by literacy.  Here is Descartes describing his change in thinking about his education:

I was brought up from childhood on letters, and, because I had been led to believe that by this means one could acquire clear and positive knowledge of everything useful in life, I was extremely anxious to learn them.  But, as soon as I had completed this whole course of study, at the end of which it is usual to be received into the ranks of the learned, I completely changed my opinion.  For I was assailed by so many doubts and errors that the only profit I appeared to have drawn from trying to become educated, was progressively to have discovered my ignorance. 
(p. 29.)  In this short passage, Descartes illustrates the opposite of the characteristics Ong earmarks.  Internals (ignorance vs. knowledgeability) matter.  The self-evaluation is not modulated into a group assessment; on the contrary, Descartes distinguishes himself from the group and societal expectations: whereas "it is usual to be received into the ranks of the learned," Descartes doesn't think he belongs there.  Judgment doesn't bear in on Descartes from the outside (society would consider him "learned"), but from inside (he has discovered his own ignorance).

Formal logic, as much as self-analysis, is foreign to the consciousnesses of people in primary oral cultures.  According to Ong,

[I]lliterate subjects seemed not to operate with formal deductive procedures at all - which is not the same as to say that they could not think or that their thinking was not governed by logic, but only that they would not fit their thinking into pure logical forms, which they seem to have found uninteresting.
. . .
A highly intelligent person from an oral . . . culture might be expected normally to react to [questions that require abstract thinking to answer, like syllogisms] . . . not by answering the seemingly mindless question itself but by trying to assess the total puzzling context . . . Is it a game?  Of course it is a game, but the oral person is unfamiliar with the rules.  The people who ask such questions have been living in a barrage of such questions from infancy and are not aware that they are using special rules.
(p. 52.)

Descartes, of course, was familiar with formal logic.  He was also critical of it:

[R]egarding logic, its syllogisms and most of its other precepts serve more to explain to others what one already knows, or even . . . to speak without judgement [sic] of those things one does not know, than to learn anything new.
(p. 40.)  Of course, Descartes' criticism is focused on the output of formal logic, not on the fact of its methodology.  Descartes is in favor of such methodology: he has developed one himself that he hopes will replace the logical methodology of the ancients.  Descartes goes on to eliminate all his received opinions in order to replace them with ones that were true, and not merely true, but

to include in my judgements [sic] nothing more than what presented itself so clearly and so distinctly to my mind that I might have no occasion to place it in doubt.
(p. 41.)  But I went in a different direction.

My brain is not as airlessly sealed off from outside influences as Decartes, which no doubt explains why I wandered off track.  These other influences include the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, where research curator Jan Stubbe Østergaard recently showed me around the museum's impressive collection of Greek and Roman statues.

In discussing Roman copies of Greek statutes,
Østergaard revealed that the Romans copied only the heads.  The Greeks didn't sculpt body-less heads; they believed that a head was not enough to reveal the man.  The Romans, on the other hand, prioritized the head (and the ideas within it) over the body (and the viscera it encases).

I began to wonder if the prioritization of heads and ideas might parallel the literacy-related changes in consciousness between the Romans and Greeks.  The Greeks, after all, transitioned from orality (in the time of Homer, 750 BC) to literacy (in the time of Plato 350 BC).  The Romans were literate.

And then, because I've also been reading Jorge Luis Borges, I began to wonder about the connection between literacy, prioritizing ideas and immortality.  Ong mentions a fascinating aspect of primary oral societies:

[They] live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance.
(p. 46.)  The written word, of course, makes sloughing off memories more difficult. 

The potential for the eternal preservation of memory takes humans a step closer to immortality: our bodies may fade, but our ideas can live forever.  No wonder prioritizing ideas over viscera seems appealing.

Indeed, in Jorge Luis Borges' short story, "The Immortal," the race of immortals make this same choice.  (If it were me, and my body could endure eternally, I wouldn't be prioritizing thought over bodily pleasures - quite the opposite; nonetheless, in Borges' world, immortals aren't hedonists.) 
The immortals were

immune to pity. . . . [A] man fell into the deepest of . . . pits; he could not be hurt, could not die, and yet he burned with thirst; seventy years passed before he was thrown a rope.  Nor was he much interested in his own fate.  His body was a submissive domestic animal; all the charity it required each month was a few hours' sleep, a little water, and a scrap of meat.  But let no one imagine that we were mere ascetics.  There is no more complex pleasure than thought, and it was to thought that we delivered ourselves over.
(p. 14-15.)  Taken to its logical extreme, delivering oneself to ideas extricates oneself from one's humanness.  We cannot be separated from our bodies, however tempting the notion may be.  And immortality fundamentally severs a human from her body.

Only after I followed my thoughts in the manner described above did I understand this passage from "The Immortal":

In Rome, I spoke with philosophers who felt that to draw out the span of a man's life was to draw out the agony of his dying and multiply the number of his deaths.
(p. 5.)  Contrast Borges' insight with Ong's description of the paradox inherent in "writing['s] . . . close association with death":

The paradox lies in the fact that the deadness of the text, its removal from the living human lifeworld, its rigid visual fixity, assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a potentially infinite number of living readers.
(p. 81.)

Immortality is for the books. 

(Image of Father Walter J. Ong, S.J. from Wikipedia; image of René Descartes from The Telegraph)
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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Non-fiction category.

Memoir is the previous category.

Notes to Self is the next category.



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