Thursday, September 12, 2013

Ramble about a Book

I reread "Another Ambiguous Utopia" today, and it made me want to post something on my blog, but I'm not sure what.  I guess I'll post about something that I wanted to talk to my brother about, but he's not responding to me.

Lately, I've been reading a lot of responses to the situation in Syria and the concept of taking military action there in response to the use of chemical weapons.  It's fascinating and somewhat bizarre to see the contrast between the mainstream media (recently I. . . in a somewhat lengthy story, wound up with something approximating a free subscription to the International Herald-Tribune, which has meant reading a lot more newspaper writing than I had been reading for the past few years), where even those who argue against military strikes seem to see it as an at least moderately appealing option that needs to be persuasively dismissed, and my friends and family, who all just dismiss the idea out of hand and don't see it as even remotely appealing in any way.  But the debates themselves are also somewhat interesting to me, as were the debates about Iraq that these debates naturally remind me of, for a rather odd reason - they are about issues that are so central to my consciousness.

I'm not sure why "the responsibilities of the powerful" and "the ability of those with superior force to actually make any difference" are issues that were so significant in my adolescence, but they really, really were.  In retrospect, given that I was a teenager with the normal lack of power that being a teenager implies and no real ambitions to get any more power than I already had, it seems like yet another one of those odd things (like theodicy) that I didn't really have any good reason to obsess over.  But it was a moral issue that I just kept coming back to.  I wanted to talk to my brother about it because the imaginary game that he, our friend, and I played together wound up focusing on such issues to an odd degree - in a game that started out when I was eleven or twelve with the basic premise of, "A huge force of bad guys are destroying everything.  The good guys get attacked and fight back," it probably says something that at least one of his characters and one of my characters both had huge mental breakdowns about the morality of efforts to defeat the bad guys (who, in all honesty, were significantly more worrying and more of a threat than Syria or Iraq ever have been to the US).  Years and years later, after the Iraqi war, I came up with a plot for a short story (it probably would wind up a novella, if I ever wrote it, given what happens to things I write) taking two of my characters from our game and placing them in an entirely different context but forcing them to have another huge argument over the morality of using power; when I was reading the IHT last week I suddenly had odd visions of my two characters coming on a talk show to discuss their beliefs in relation to the Syria argument.  And it wasn't only those games, either - I also came up with a plot for a book where, I later decided during the Iraqi war, my kind-of-attractive-but-nonetheless-rather-villainous-villain was more or less George Bush (albeit with far more personal reason for his dedication to changing other societies' behavior by force, but nonetheless with no direct stake in the conflict he stirred up other than a desire to use overwhelming power to achieve aims he thought were moral).

Again, it strikes me as odd that this was such a moral preoccupation of mine during my adolescent years in the nineties, long before 2001 brought these issues to the forefront of societal discussion.  It wasn't really something that was all that personally relevant at all since I was neither in a position to be making decisions about that kind of thing nor had the desire to see myself in such a position.  Nor did I have the kind of power where my personally withholding my intervention was something that might potentially have moral implications (at least, no more so than any other person from a relatively affluent background).  When I think about where I came across this obsession and its personal importance to me, then, I kind of find myself thinking of Enchantress from the Stars.  This book by Sylvia Engdahl features, as Wikipedia tells us, "a peaceful, technologically advanced, space-faring civilization called the 'Federation,' which monitors worlds which are still 'maturing,' allowing them to grow without any sort of contact or intervention."  When the protagonist does have to intervene in order to save one civilization from another, she has to do it as gently as possible, making use of the beliefs of the locals rather than the overwhelming force her civilization presumably possesses.  I think this book, despite never quite being one of my favorites, just made a really deep impression on me as a child, both as an ideal and as a concept to argue against.  I definitely do get the sense that all of my later explorations of the concept of power and how to wield it as a teenager really did stem from both the ways in which I found Engdahl's Federation attractive and the ways in which I found it really morally troubling.  It might not have been the most emotionally gripping book (although it's also really, really cool narratively - it really is!), but it was one of the most thought-provoking books of my childhood.  I guess that the same issues also came up in Star Trek, but I never watched that as a child, so this was the one that really made an impression on me and introduced me to those ideas that still come up in serious contexts even today.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Arrogant Post, an Occasional Series

A quotation from a private essay from August, 2009 - relevant both to recent conversation with my mother and to my own thought patterns recently.  Sometimes I am very wise!

"More than things you think about, preferences are what you feel. Thus, they often arise organically out of lived experience, the basic choices one makes, and the semiconscious patterns of one's thought rather than agonized, stressful directed thinking."

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Linked Links

Thomas Mann

Jenna Moran
Jenna Moran Addendum
Jenna Moran Part 3
Jenna Moran - Another Take

Something about judgement being founded on the presence of the very emotions that get in the way of the ideal that lies behind the judgement.  Judgement as self-defeating paradox.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boring Meeting Poetry

I have much boring meeting poetry, but I kind of like this one.  It is not meant to be depressing, though people will read it that way anyway, won't they?

Many have said - all surfaces are veils.
Thus, one need only grip the skin firmly
Between finger and thumb and lift to peel
Away the thin overlay in order to see
The heart of all things pulsing in darkness
And silence, and yet I must ask what
Lies beneath the surface of all things,
If we must posit a universal essence,
If not nothing, sometimes named death,
But more universal, as what has never been
Born cannot die, but it is what is not,
Whether faded or merely postulated,
That is the only thing that holds up
What is.  Hence all things hasten to ruin;
Within the flowering plant in bloom
Beats the pulse of sere brown leaves
Rotting in the soil whence it sprung.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Walter Pater - Conclusion to _ The Renaissance_

The thing that fascinates me about the Conclusion to The Renaissance is that it seems like the sort of thing that shouldn't be any good - the text that led to the foundation of a widely criticized faddish movement among youths well over a century ago.  And yet. . .

"To regard all things and principles of things as inconstant modes or fashions has more and more become the tendency of modern thought. Let us begin with that which is without --our physical life. Fix upon it in one of its more exquisite intervals, the moment, for instance, of delicious recoil from the flood of water in summer heat. What is the whole physical life in that moment but a combination of natural elements to which science gives their names? But those elements, phosphorus and lime and delicate fibres, are present not in the human body alone: we detect them in places most remote from it. Our physical life is a perpetual motion of them -the passage of the blood, the waste and repairing of the brain under every ray of light and sound-- processes which science reduces to simpler and more elementary forces. Like the elements of which we are composed, the action of these forces extends beyond us: it rusts iron and ripens corn. Far out on every side of us those elements are broadcast, driven in many currents; and birth and gesture and death and the springing of violets from the grave are but a few out of ten thousand resultant combinations. That clear, perpetual outline of face and limb is but an image of ours, under which we group them-- a design in a web, the actual threads of which pass out beyond it. This at least of flame-like our life has, that it is but the concurrence, renewed from moment to moment, of forces parting sooner or later on their ways.

"Or if we begin with the inward world of thought and feeling, the whirlpool is still more rapid, the flame more eager and devouring. There it is no longer the gradual darkening of the eye, the gradual fading of colour from the wall --movements of the shore-side, where the water flows down indeed, though in apparent rest-- but the race of the midstream, a drift of momentary acts of sight and passion and thought. At first sight experience seems to bury us under a flood of external objects, pressing upon us with a sharp and importunate reality, calling us out of ourselves in a thousand forms of action. But when reflexion begins to play upon these objects they are dissipated under its influence; the cohesive force seems suspended like some trick of magic; each object is loosed into a group of impressions --colour, odour, texture-- in the mind of the observer. And if we continue to dwell in thought on this world, not of objects in the solidity with which language invests them, but of impressions, unstable, flickering, inconsistent, which burn and are extinguished with our consciousness of them, it contracts still further: the whole scope of observation is dwarfed into the narrow chamber of the individual mind. Experience, already reduced to a group of impressions, is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without. Every one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world. Analysis goes a step further still, and assures us that those impressions of the individual mind to which, for each one of us, experience dwindles down, are in perpetual flight;that each of them is limited by time, and that as time is infinitely divisible, each of them is infinitely divisible also; all that is actual in it being a single moment, gone while we try to apprehend it, of which it may ever be more truly said that it has ceased to be than that it is. To such a tremulous wisp constantly re-forming itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense in to, a relic more or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our life fines itself down. It is with this movement, with the passage and dissolution of impressions, images, sensations, that analysis leaves off --that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual, weaving and unweaving of ourselves.

"Philosophiren, says Novalis, ist dephlegmatisiren. vivificiren. The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation. Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, --for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the sense, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist's hands, or the face of one's friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch. What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy, of Comte, or of Hegel, or of our own. Philosophical theories or ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us. "Philosophy is the microscope of thought." The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of this experience, in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract theory we have not identified with ourselves, or of what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us.

One of the most beautiful passages of Rousseau is that in the sixth book of Confessions, where he describes the awakening in him of the literary sense. An undefinable taint of death had clung always about him, and now in early manhood he believed himself smitten by mortal disease. He asked himself how he might make as much as possible of the interval that remained; and he was not biassed by anything in his previous life when he decided that it must be by intellectual excitement, which he found just then in the clear, fresh writings of Voltaire. Well! we are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve --les hommes sont tous condamnés à mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passion, the wisest, at least among "the children of the world", in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us a quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which comes naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion --that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake."

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Width of a Circle

"In the corner of the morning in the past, /  I would sit and blame the master first and last."

---David Bowie, "The Width of a Circle," The Man Who Sold the World

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Creating God with One's Own Hands

I just had to very quickly introduce a friend to Zizek, highlighting his more absurd characteristics, so I found this article for her to read.  I am not sure what I should feel about it (I suspect the author is being somewhat uncharitable), but in reality mostly it just makes me think happy, loving thoughts about Krelian.  I suppose this should not surprise me; I have associated Zizek with Krelian more or less ever since I first heard about Zizek.  It's not even all that nonsensical an association.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Arrogant Post

This is the end of an essay I wrote last November - not really interested in sharing the essay, but I like this ending:

"You can be very talented and yet not able to do the impossible. But if you can't do the impossible, then you aren't really all that talented, are you?"