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The readiness is all

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Seven months ago, I saw the (British) National Theatre's production of Hamlet in London, and it was brilliant.  The director, Nicholas Hynter, dropped the royal house of Denmark into the security apparatus of modern governments.  In addition to imbuing the play with the excitement and suspense of a political thriller, this present-day setting made the power dynamics of the play come violently alive.   

In keeping with the modernity of the production, Peter Holland - writing in the program's playbill - offered an interpretation of Hamlet's dilemma that seems tailored to today's psycho-analyzed, cosmopolitan, post-deconstructionist, alienated audience:

[Hamlet] approaches a paralysis of will that is the consequence of an impasse reached by his thinking: the more he is able to grasp his awareness of how he knows anything the less it seems possible to know anything at all.  The process of knowing makes all truth only relative . . . . Confronted with the enormity of that crisis of truth, the only response is to "Let be," to accept the impossibilities of being human and the limits of knowing and to wait patiently for whatever comes.
The quote to which Holland refers comes at the end of the play, when Horatio is exhorting Hamlet to listen to himself and decline to fight Laertes: "If your mind dislike any thing, obey it."  Hamlet responds by dismissing his feeling of foreboding, saying - in essence - we're all going to die and we don't know when, so what does it matter if it's soon?  "The readiness is all . . . Let be."

I don't know if Shakespeare ever ran a marathon.  I doubt it.

Nor do I have any insight as to whether Peter Holland ever ran a marathon, but he has a goatee, so I think it's unlikely.

Nonetheless, both men seem intimately familiar with the modern marathoner's mindset.  After months of single-minded physical labor, abstinence from late nights, booze and any semblance of vice, the marathoner surrenders to reality: the preparation is all you can do; after that, as my brother says, "anything can happen in a marathon."

In fact, the "anything" that happened to my brother during last Sunday's marathon in Prague, was a pretty damned impressive "anything."  He ran 3:15:57, which is not the kind of fate one can complain about.  Had my brother gone off to fight Laertes, the play would have had a different ending.

Not so with me.  My legs all but shattered, and I staggered across the finish line 5 hours, 9 minutes, and 54 seconds after I started.  I never ran slower in my life.  Indeed, during training, I ran 22 and 23 miles in roughly four hours; but the race was nothing like training: blisters on my toes, leg muscle cramps, and an extended stretch of walking were all present during the race and noticeably absent during training.  Had I been tapped to duel with Laertes, death would have arrived on the playwright's schedule.

While I've had enough exposure to truly rotten fates to refrain from describing mine as one about which I can complain, my situation is nonetheless dispiriting - all the more so because, from the outset, I saw running the marathon as a metaphor for how I live my life, a microcosm that reveals the whole.  I became attracted to this idea last year, when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and discovered that the key to reaching the peak was going slow and surrendering to the limitations imposed by the environment.  I blogged about the inspiration I drew from my mountain experience to persevere in my writing.

Unfortunately, the take-away here is less upbeat.  Months of planning and work, tireless effort, deprivation of socializing and fun, dieting, forswearing alcohol, money spent on clothes, shoes and supplements - not to mention all the acupuncturists, physiotherapists, chiropractors and masseuses who toiled to get my legs race-ready - resulted in a completely disastrous performance.  Enthusiasm, willpower, investment of resources: all easily come to nothing.

I thought I'd already learned this truism the hard way.  Six years of work, discipline and sacrifice to write novels have yielded (a) four novels on the shelf, as of yet unpublished and unread, and (b) a state of near bankruptcy.  Rejection is the only constant, and my life is so unstable that I've come to feel for rejection a wry and perverted gratitude: it's the only thing I can rely on. 

It also make me want to vomit.  Not just vomit, but curl up in a ball on the curb and stay there.  When your rock is rejection, maybe you're better off under the stone.

Of course, I'm not the first to feel this way.  I refer to the aforementioned "paralysis of will that is the consequence of an impasse reached" when "the more [I am] able to grasp [an] awareness of how [I] know[] anything the less it seems possible to know anything at all.  The process of knowing makes all truth only relative" - although I add, no less painful for being relative.  "[T]he only response is to 'Let be,' to accept the impossibilities of being human and the limits of knowing and to wait patiently for whatever comes."

While I'm constitutionally constrained from waiting patiently - the best I can muster is waiting in a state of thinly-veiled neurosis and sincerely-felt misery - I take the larger point.  "The readiness is all" because it's all we can control.  The loss of control reduces us to paralysis - metaphorically, literally or, if we're really unlucky, both.  Though being without control is an aspect of reality, living in that reality without being sabotaged by it requires a mental discipline of preferring, and prioritizing, what you can control.

That's our choice: lopsided or frozen.

And here, at last, is the metaphor I'll draw: even a lopsided runner (like myself, suffering from a biomechanical breakdown in her right leg) can finish a marathon.

(Images of Maya Alexandri and Talmon Alexandri running the Prague marathon on 8 May 2011 compiled by Maya Alexandri)

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.
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(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 Human consciousness category.

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