Posts tagged walker percy

June 8th, 2012
Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies—my only talent—smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961), Vintage International, 1998, p. 228, quoted with characteristic precision by Ms.Odradek.
Reblogged from Ms. Odradek
June 7th, 2012
Sometimes I see a thing so moving I know I’m not supposed to linger. See it and leave. If you stay too long, you wear out the wordless shock. Love it and trust it and leave.

Don DeLilloUnderworld. Nothing could be more fatal to this love than the Internet’s compulsive mediation of experience; it requires that we not content ourselves with mere private trust, with internal and decaying moments; instead, we are asked to transform everything into data artifacts, monetizable post-types, feeds or streams inside of branded spaces.

But it is not the Internet per se but media in general that make us uneasy about our private domain of experience. In his 1961 novel The Moviegoer, Walker Percy discusses the evisceration of reality by representations with a weird prescience. Most comically, he notes the transformative power that celebrity has; its mere proximity can rehabilitate our shabby, quotidian days, dissipate our malaise.

Elsewhere, he writes:

Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.

The substantiation of reality by ersatz commercial realities is old news, but it’s interesting to note that the problem Percy detected halfway through the 20th century was not addressed by a return to reality or recriminatory changes to how we conceive of technology. Rather, we developed distributed fame: from network broadcasts to the broadly-cast nets of the platform makers who want us all in buckets, represented as objects, graphed with lines along which can be placed the occasional advertisement, like billboards on a highway. Ads are the cost of experiencing and relating now, just as they were once the cost of traveling.

The nightmare scramble to archive, collect, capture is a meaningless frenzy, a rain-dance, a protest against a power which takes no note of us. Death means that you will be forced to leave, so better to have loved and trusted your experience than to have spent your life trying to turn it into something real, transactable, postable, permanent. All memory remains short-term memory. "The manner dies with the matter," after all, and "the world dies with the individual": even the parts photographed, backed-up, saved in the cloud.

February 24th, 2012

Ways Not to Write

I am a terrible descriptive writer in part because I am not perceptive about the world visually; in addition to being self-absorbed and inattentive, I have never acquired several important vocabularies which help one take note of what one sees. Like many men, I suppose, I’ve neglected color, and still round all blues to blue, from Cornflower to Pantone 292. I have no idea what the plants I see are, how large they’ll grow to be, whether they flower, how often flowers flower, what grasses are capable of, how many generations of men a given tree has endured.

I cannot describe a room, cannot express the spatial relation between an untidy sofa and a chair opposite it on which a man sits, reading a novel he expects relatively little of: a good story, a very mild hint of having seen into a cross-section of life which reveals, in its cutaway clarity, the mechanisms at work in us, in our loves, our capitulations. I cannot describe his pants —I know little about materials or textures, and might write the lovely word houndstooth, and think of my dogs’ teeth and how they might be made into fabric, and I might get lost thinking about the dead men in old offices sorting out textile matters, issues of standards and weights and threads and transportation…

…before I realize that, first, it is not houndstooth at all but corduroy, a material so common that my error is appalling despite being trivial, and second, that houndstooth was originally and perhaps remains typically a pattern made from wools, not cotton, so that Degas’ A Cotton Office in New Orleans was quite the wrong image to have come to mind.

But now I am lost: the particulars of a pair of pants are beyond my creative capacity because they are beyond my perceptive capacity: when I meet you, I am so worried about whether you can tell that I am a fraud that I never notice your pants at all! I remember my awkward turns of phrase, the awful habit I have of making every sentence part of a sitcom duet, but not the color of your eyes. It’s hideous to know that this is how it is for everyone (but it is to this fact that my attention is drawn, rather than to the details from whose configuration this fact is made evident). My memories are of the wrong things, the wrong details; I blame culture and technology for my mind, but I know I am exactly as I’ve chosen to be; as Simone Weil said:

We have to endure the discordance between imagination and fact. It is better to say ‘I am suffering’ than ‘this landscape is ugly.’

I say this to myself twenty times every day; does this mean that I am suffering? I don’t feel that I am; I feel that my suffering stopped long ago, and now I merely grapple with the form of the psyche it sculpted, the effect that form has on what I see, record, recall. And it is better to admit that ‘I’m paying attention to the wrong things’ than to claim that ‘the world has grown meaningless’ or that ‘my phone keeps me from noticing sunsets.’ It is not my phone and it is not Facebook that kept me from the sunset yesterday. It was the everydayness of life that Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling claims is what keeps us from “the search.” But this search seems strange to undertake when there is nowhere undiscovered, no meaning not mediated, no knowledge not within a larger system of knowledge, no boundary past which we do not spill in great crowds, no text immune to annotation, no event which is not subsumed by its live-posted trails of reactions in the cultural agar.

And this idea seems more important and interesting to me than the construction of a character’s pants or even the details of how s/he sees light, hears city sounds, flees love, which is why I cannot surpass the dull didacticism of those who write to express ideas. I love ideas because I fantasize about a skeleton key enlightenment, an idea whose profundity and breadth will transform all that is flat and dead in my life, recast my weaknesses and failures as strengths and victories. I want to be redeemed simply by reading a sentence.

I love such ideas like people love money: in spite of myself, automatically, distractedly. I know that they’re a kind of intoxication; I know that they’re not reality, not the components of vital human experience, not the texture of life or the phenomenology of mind or the beating of the heart; they are competitive meta-maneuvers, dogs circling one another, mechanisms for partializing reality and believing that you stand above it.

We should of course "let facts create" us, and our writing, too, but to be open to my self or my work becoming any happenstance creation requires more courage than I have. I am attached to my self, which I am also eager to transfigure or escape. I think and write with what I imagine is a self-enhancing end in mind too often, but there is no end to inquiries and responses, to the invented universe of ideas: they continue in all directions, along all axes of scale. They subordinate entire civilizations; they concern infinitesimal quanta; they zoom between quarks and quasars; they are quaint and they are contrarian. One can reach the end of a description and think: “Just so.” But an idea demands to be applied ever more-broadly, across vectors of human activity. Ideas are like machines: submit your data to them, receive binary signals in response, operate your device on unprocessed reality and receive nifty schema, and on and on and on.

January 20th, 2012
The joy of bourbon drinking is not the pharmacological effect of the C2H5OH on the cortex but rather the instant of the whiskey being knocked back and the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime —aesthetic considerations to which the effect of the alcohol is, if not dispensable, at least secondary.

Walker Percy in “Bourbon, Neat,” quoted by Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Since I first read this essay, when I was perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old, I have remembered that invaluable phrase precisely and used it on occasion: "hot bosky bite."

For some time, I supposed —stupidly— that Percy had simply invented the word “bosky” in an effort to capture the way bourbon tastes and feels: two syllables, because it is a matter-of-fact sort of flavor, concise even when complex. But of course “bosky” is a real word, with a definition: “Having abundant bushes, shrubs, or trees.”

Good God! If you’ve ever been in a hot Southern state in the summer, out away from the roads and houses, in fields or little glades surrounded by plain, unprepossessing woods, and if you’ve tasted bourbon, you must recognize that this is inspired, precise lyricism; it is the result of brilliant observation and masterful, unaffected diction. The flatness of bland blue skies which cling close to buzzing, sun-bleached, lush yet crackling lands, the simultaneity of heat and verdancy: this is the best metaphor I know for the flavor of bourbon, which, I regret, is irreplaceable if one gives up drinking.

Note also the two forms of prose: the specialized vocabulary of the scientist as a foil to the poetics of the the real point, the evocation of place and season and atmosphere. The sort of lexical pyrotechnics for which many esteem David Foster Wallace predates him, of course, although in "Mister Squishy" I believe he brought it to an apotheosis of sorts (an anti-apotheosis: the dull triumph of inhumanly technical language, the seething of defeated, pathological subjectivity beneath it). But it is worth noting because Wallace’s real gifts, like Percy’s, have nothing to do with the niftiness of his interdisciplinary sentences; that is a matter of style, a style which either supports higher artistic aims or is lazy mannerism, as most writing in fact is.

February 12th, 2011

Words are polluted. Plots are polluted. In the best movie of last year, a disturbed young man played by Timothy Hutton consults a psychiatrist a couple of times, breaks down, hugs the psychiatrist, says “I love you,” and is cured. He also has a communication problem with his father. They both break down, hug, cry, say “I love you.” All is well. Lines of communication are opened. Love is the answer.


Who is going to protect words like “love,” guard against their devaluation?… There may be times when the greatest service a novelist can do his fellow man is to follow General Patton’s injunction: Attack, attack, attack. Attack the fake in the name of the real.

Walker Percy, one of my heroes, in “Novel Writing in an Apocalyptic Time.” This was cited in an interesting interview with Winston Riley about his Percy documentary, which itself was brought to my attention by SDS.

If one decides, through whatever arrogant or idle impetus, to write about the liberal arts or about culture —both of which tend to involve the sincerely-held opinions and solemn aspirations of others, their hearts and their egos, their weaknesses and their foibles, their tastes and their ideologies— one must weigh at times the value of honest criticism against the pain it might inflict.

I tend, for personal and philosophical reasons, to more highly value the feelings of others than any putatively truthful assertions I might want to make, for a few reasons:

  • I am desperate to be liked. This is likely the most important reason of all.
  • I doubt sincerely that my thoughts are sufficiently epistemologically valuable (or defensible!) to justify wounding even a stranger whose behavior I find repugnant, absurd, or imbecilic.
  • I care about people more than I care about positions or beliefs, which I tend to consider a subservient class of psychological phenomena. That is to say: I think people wear beliefs like clothes; they wear what they have grown to consider sensible or attractive; they wear what they feel flatters them; they wear what keeps them dry and warm in inclement winter. They believe their opinions, tastes, philosophies are who they are, but they are mistaken. (Aging is largely learning what one is not, it seems to me).
  • Criticism must serve some function to justify the pain it causes: it must, say, avert a disastrous course of action being deliberated by a group, or help thwart the rise of a barbarous politician. But this rarely occurs. Most criticism, even of the most erudite sort, is, as we all know, wasted breath: preached to one’s own choir, comically or indignantly cruel to those one doesn’t respect, unlikely to change the behavior of anyone not already in agreement.

On the other hand! There persists the idea that culture arises out of the scrum of colliding perspectives, and that it is therefore a moral duty to remonstrate against stupidity, performative emoting, deceitful art, destructively banal fiction, and so on. If one doesn’t speak up, one cannot lament the triumph of moral and imaginative vacuity.

I think Percy puts the argument in favor of criticism quite well: "Who is going to protect words like ‘love’"? But one must recognize that he means one should be prepared to tell someone who believes in their love -the love they depict, assert, or experience- that it is not real, that they are abusing the language, that they are damaging the very idea of love with their foolishness! This will hurt them but is unlikely to persuade them. And it may be that one is merely giving in to the universal temptation to feel superior to others, anyway.

How is one to tell when it is appropriate to "attack, attack, attack," as a writer or a person? How can one distinguish between worthy targets and those one ought to leave alone? Is attacking ever justified? Or is it statistically so irrelevant whether one shouts one’s judgment into the "Total Noise" that the discomfort or anguish one might provoke outweighs any benefit?

Percy says: "Attack the fake in the name of the real." But the most pernicious sort of phoniness, and the most common, is that type which is unrecognizable to the person perpetrating it. Rarely do we know when we are fake; all of us have something of the performer in us; and all of us are so easily hurt. And does “the real” require or deserve our defense? If we abandon it, will it be subsumed by inanity, vanity, and falsehood? Is it the case that we mere advance our own fakery at the expense of others’ anyway?

I suspect my inability to answer any of these questions -despite writing about them often, as I did tangentially when I commented on Sarah Zhang’s post- has to do with deeper irresolutions about the value of human creations, from artworks to cultures to governments, relative to the subjective experience of the individual. One must believe, of course, that there are abstractions worth protecting, and therefore abstractions worth hurting others for, in order to criticize; and the endless repetitiveness of cultural history seems to devalue such abstractions as surely as bad art and cliche devalue words.

May 26th, 2010
Look in the mirror, and don’t be tempted to equate transient domination with either intrinsic superiority or prospects for extended survival.

Stephen Jay Gould, quoted as a creative prompt for me by superheroic Raynor Ganan, who once wrote something that has stayed with me, and among my drafts for further discussion, for more than a year now:

True or false: evolution is a brute force hack.

I think that’s a brilliant question. The tension between it and Gould’s admonishment is both historical and philosophical: historical because Gould, like Sagan and Percy, lived when it was imminently reasonable to ponder the end of man in a nuclear holocaust, when ordinary people -and not solely the religious- felt that armageddon could soon be upon us.

It no longer seems imminent, but it remains immanent: it is not simply Chekovian to observe that the weapon introduced into history will be used and used again, and of course nuclear arms are just one way among many that our species might be eradicated, all our works returned to thoughtless nature. One might dispassionately or bitterly or eagerly contemplate the destruction of cities and civilizations, but it is sobering to reflect on the fact that absent humanity, there is no knowledge whatever of the universe: the isomorphic comprehension of the cosmos is ours alone, so far as we know, and the end of us is the end of conscious understanding.

Or is it? The tension is philosophical because when Raynor asks whether evolution is a brute force hack, he begs the question, likely deliberately: what system or problem is being hacked? What might be unlocked should a solution be found? And what determines whether a particular ‘hack’ -a genetic variation- is successful? What problem is being solved by evolutionary processes, if any at all?

There is an implied teleology in our commonsensical reduction of evolution: we conflate natural selection with a qualitative superiority beyond mere reproductive fitness and feel that life is pursuing some end, but what? What is the teleological aim of mutation, fitness, life, death? (Note than an evolutionary biologist might consider these questions meaningless, unfalsifiable, or extraneous, and so they might be).

David Deutsch argues that we are comprehension machines: that our DNA is a kind of encoded knowledge of “what works,” and what works is the essence of science. Organisms reflect the structure of the physical world back in their own structure; we are mirrors for the universe and the laws of physics, and our specialness as a species is that we know this and have accelerated our mirroring through scientific methodology and technology. Every creature, to thrive in its world, comes to represent a programmatic understanding of its environment; we do so consciously, and therefore at great speed and with novel accuracy.

Is this an intrinsic superiority? It extends the mirror in which the universe beholds itself far beyond our typical environment; it increases the rate at which comprehension is developed by many, many orders of magnitude; it seems likely to permit the expansion of the species into space, to diversify our biosphere, increase our distributed redundancy, improve our chances of survival in the event of cosmic or human disaster, and thereby further ensure that our genetic and cognitive virtualization of the universe is preserved.

While ours might be a transient domination, we are likelier to endure past "the last ding-dong of doom" than any species before us, and we remain the only known instance of the universe consciously understanding itself. This scarcely combats our many destructive tendencies, but the durability, portability, translatability, and extensibility of humans -computation and comprehension machines who can self-program and refashion the material world- is worth considering when we look in the mirror.

(Related).

May 15th, 2010
Propellers for Umbrellas, whose photography I adore endlessly, wrote something very beautiful which reminded me of Walker Percy’s interest in the suburbs:
 
 
Parque de Fina
I am not sure it is possible to unlove the Suburbs. They are so widely and rightly despised that if you do love them, your attraction becomes a mad, guarded thing, perhaps not secret but probably a little shifty-eyed. They are a sprawling silence, smelling like excess poolwater and featureless concrete, and it is easy to get lost there, where the map is a kind of circuit made of straight lines; you come upon the same place again and again but always on a different street. They hoard gas stations and space and safety, and you’re right to run from them, to stumble into some city knowing nothing about buying groceries every evening, or busing with the wetly sallow oyster ladies, the drunken eyeliner ladies, the ladies down the hall. I have done this. I will do it again, always a little forgetfully.
But if you have learned to love them in your own horrible way, as I have, you may send tiny prayers to netless basketball games in driveways, or to the browning lines of 1980’s rvs, or to all the horticultural absurdity. If there is one thing I love most about suburbs it is the cruelty with which people treat their juniper and spruce, a uniformity which somehow still surprises and amuses me. I dig these stupid poodle trees like I dig dingbats and striped awnings and Eichler homes, but I’ve rarely seen something so exciting as this. 
One thing I will always refute is that suburbs lack culture and creativity. This man - with his big boat of a car, his kids and grandkids who live nearby, and his loafers - has his own art. Part of it is to explain what he does in a round whisper, with white at the corners of his mouth, about his banana trees and his tarot root and keeping a hollow space in the hedge, but mostly about his wife, whose name is clipped into it. The duck and the micky mouse and whatever other shapes emerge, the wind-chimes, the small plaque on which he’s painted Parque de Fina - these are a kind of sculpture.
If you are passionate about something - if you love sound, or smoking hookah in the park,  or your wife - and if you can take that passion and build from it something which improves the lives of others, even if you do it quietly between Highway 101 and Middlefield road, I want to thank you.  Who is to say this man would not have a heavily sourced wikipedia page if he weren’t happily married, or had settled in some more desperately vibrant part of the world? What mattered to me was that he was proud and fond, and had translated his love into something that could inspire a twenty-year-old with the twenty-year-old’s customary habit of disdain. He did it in suburbs.
Really, I suspect these things of happening everywhere.

Then the extraordinary Superfluidity, in response to this post on cliche, noted something of interest in a remarkable essay which exemplifies his brilliant, synthetic ideas on the literature of antiquity:
It has always seemed to me that our objection to cliché is not something inherent in the cliché itself, but rests instead in our perception of it. That is to say, if we refuse to allow ourselves to experience the cliché as a whole, and step back to see it for its parts, and absorb the cumulative wisdom which lies behind its creation, there is something valuable still to be had.
There is beauty in the suburb and poetry in the banal, they note: it is our task to find it, as they do in photography or rather static, long dead literature, literature which Nietzsche says changes on because we do, because our relation to it does. This is an excellent example of why they are among my favorite thinkers and creators, and I cannot recommend them more highly.

Propellers for Umbrellas, whose photography I adore endlessly, wrote something very beautiful which reminded me of Walker Percy’s interest in the suburbs:

Parque de Fina

I am not sure it is possible to unlove the Suburbs. They are so widely and rightly despised that if you do love them, your attraction becomes a mad, guarded thing, perhaps not secret but probably a little shifty-eyed. They are a sprawling silence, smelling like excess poolwater and featureless concrete, and it is easy to get lost there, where the map is a kind of circuit made of straight lines; you come upon the same place again and again but always on a different street. They hoard gas stations and space and safety, and you’re right to run from them, to stumble into some city knowing nothing about buying groceries every evening, or busing with the wetly sallow oyster ladies, the drunken eyeliner ladies, the ladies down the hall. I have done this. I will do it again, always a little forgetfully.

But if you have learned to love them in your own horrible way, as I have, you may send tiny prayers to netless basketball games in driveways, or to the browning lines of 1980’s rvs, or to all the horticultural absurdity. If there is one thing I love most about suburbs it is the cruelty with which people treat their juniper and spruce, a uniformity which somehow still surprises and amuses me. I dig these stupid poodle trees like I dig dingbats and striped awnings and Eichler homes, but I’ve rarely seen something so exciting as this. 

One thing I will always refute is that suburbs lack culture and creativity. This man - with his big boat of a car, his kids and grandkids who live nearby, and his loafers - has his own art. Part of it is to explain what he does in a round whisper, with white at the corners of his mouth, about his banana trees and his tarot root and keeping a hollow space in the hedge, but mostly about his wife, whose name is clipped into it. The duck and the micky mouse and whatever other shapes emerge, the wind-chimes, the small plaque on which he’s painted Parque de Fina - these are a kind of sculpture.

If you are passionate about something - if you love sound, or smoking hookah in the park,  or your wife - and if you can take that passion and build from it something which improves the lives of others, even if you do it quietly between Highway 101 and Middlefield road, I want to thank you.  Who is to say this man would not have a heavily sourced wikipedia page if he weren’t happily married, or had settled in some more desperately vibrant part of the world? What mattered to me was that he was proud and fond, and had translated his love into something that could inspire a twenty-year-old with the twenty-year-old’s customary habit of disdain. He did it in suburbs.

Really, I suspect these things of happening everywhere.

Then the extraordinary Superfluidity, in response to this post on cliche, noted something of interest in a remarkable essay which exemplifies his brilliant, synthetic ideas on the literature of antiquity:

It has always seemed to me that our objection to cliché is not something inherent in the cliché itself, but rests instead in our perception of it. That is to say, if we refuse to allow ourselves to experience the cliché as a whole, and step back to see it for its parts, and absorb the cumulative wisdom which lies behind its creation, there is something valuable still to be had.

There is beauty in the suburb and poetry in the banal, they note: it is our task to find it, as they do in photography or rather static, long dead literature, literature which Nietzsche says changes on because we do, because our relation to it does. This is an excellent example of why they are among my favorite thinkers and creators, and I cannot recommend them more highly.

May 10th, 2010

An observation about disguises: the New Orleans French Quarter has long attracted artists and writers and homosexuals for the good and understandable reasons given above: Latinity, quaintness, moderate exoticness, Mardi Gras, the usual para-Catholic aura- and the easiest way to get out of Mississippi and Ohio. But it is also a para-creative aura. Just as the denizens of the Vieux Carre live in the penumbra of the cathedral, they also live in the penumbra of art. Surprisingly little first-class art has come out of the French Quarter, even though it rather self-consciously imitates the décor of the Left Bank, habitat of many great artists years ago. This life style, as it is called, reminds one of the urban cowboy who secretly believes that if he dresses and walks like a cowboy, he may be a cowboy…

A prediction: What with artist types and writer types and homosexuals (who must be applauded for their good taste in cities: New Orleans, San Francisco, Key West) taking over such places as the French Quarter, and business types and lawyer types going cowboy, I predict that working artists and writers will revert to the vacated places. In fact, they’re already turning up in ordinary houses and ordinary streets long since abandoned by the Hemingways and Agees. Soon they’ll be wearing ordinary shirts and pants and Thom McAn shoes, not altogether unconsciously, but as a kind of exercise in the ordinary.

Walker Percy on the tactics of identity in a time of mediated self-consciousness, from Lost in the Cosmos. Today is the 20th anniversary of his death. I’ve posted many extraordinary excerpts of his writing before.
April 19th, 2010
The postmarks that precede each letter are perhaps the most vivid indication of the manic-depression that gripped Greene for most of his life; his whereabouts vary almost from letter to letter… Greene whipsawed around the world like a man pursued. His early trips were aimless, though he was increasingly drawn to regions of conflict and suffering for narrative material as well as a kind of existential succor; Greene sought what his detractors have described as a morbid, almost decadent form of serenity, a sort he thought could be achieved only amid actual circumstantial horrors that matched or surpassed — and thereby stayed — those of an unquiet mind. In a 1940 letter to Anthony Powell he describes blitzed London as ‘extraordinarily pleasant these days with all the new open spaces.’

Michelle Orange on Graham Greene’s letters, quoted by the excellent Winesburg, Ohio.

Greene roams the world in search of something he can find only inside himself: his sought serenity cannot come from an environment any more than love can come from some lusted-after corpus, although in either case the persistence of the illusion usually overcomes human strength. But it is not a new person, a new occupation, a new avocation, a new home that makes us happy; it is the hopeful enthusiasm we muster when encountering what we perceive as “new”; it is distraction from ourselves in novelty of whatever sort, a distraction that will diminish as novelty experienced becomes dull, ordinary. (A particularly diabolical trick: our minds instinctually labor to transform the novel into the typical –it is the whole purpose of consciousness- so that our mental essence consists of depriving ourselves of what we seek).

This is a kind of Kierkegaardian diagnosis of desperation: move to a new city; find a new lover; adopt a new pastime; buy a new trinket; etc., and when one has in stumbling serial succession moved far enough along, one can vary the rotations with reenactments: move to a new city again, as the novelty has returned; find another new lover. A faulty memory, a habit of forgetting, makes this easier, restores potency to various desires we’d feel less intensely if we recollected their presence in our past: an argument for alcohol’s appeal.

This is the source of the strangely thematic –one might say literary- quality our lives have, as though we all have cycles –overlapping here, concentric there, moving in and out of phase- according to which we must reenact the same patterns endlessly. In others, we see this clearly: their “new” schemes seem to us as the same old flights; their enthusiasms for new lovers, new stages of life seem transparently deluded. It is true for us, too, but mercifully harder for us to perceive.

A materially rich life allows us to string together enough of these enthusiasms that perhaps we can avoid reckoning. Greene found temporary solace, at least, amidst catastrophe, a phenomenon described by Walker Percy as well. Discussing the depressed malaise of tedious, typical, comfortable lives, Percy observed two techniques for revivification:

If such a person, a person like me feeling lapsed at four o’clock in the afternoon, should begin reading a novel about a personal feeling lapsed at four o’clock in the afternoon, a strange thing happens. Things increased in value. Possibilities open. This may be the main function of art in this peculiar age: to reverse the devaluation. What the artist or writer does is not depict a beautiful tree –this only depresses you more than ever- no, he depicts the commonplaceness of an everyday tree. Depicting this commonplace allows the reader to penetrate the commonplace. The only other ways the husk of the commonplace can be penetrated is through the occurrence of natural disasters or the imminence of one’s own death.

This was one great gift of modern literature: the liberation of readers from tedium not through myth but through an explosion of tedium, an immersion in tedium, such that the possibilities of beauty and life held within it seem suddenly apparent. Perhaps we have now grown accustomed to this, too, such that the immersive description of tedium, the lapse from heroism and myth, the literary study of the quotidian, no longer liberates: it is no longer “new,” and without novelty has become experiential data in the long serial sequence we flee. Films attacking somnolent suburbia seem especially suspect; they have become the cliches they think they savage. Perhaps the entire idea of a counterculture, of rebellion, is now thusly deflated.

This leaves, along with those techniques which always work thanks to their biological nature -such as sex and drugs-, disaster, sought not only by Greene but by all of us who thrill at the emotion brought forth by earthquakes and plane crashes, who tearfully survey the broken bodies of brown victims a world away or our peers downtown.

Is it the exteriorization of suffering, the appearance around us of the sorts of deprivation, degradation, and despair we know inside ourselves, that consoles us? Why should it? Why are the despondent more likely to find solace within despondency than within some happier circumstance? Why would a depressed man feel free within war but suicidal at a birthday party or a picnic? Why should a lost woman savor the rain but lament a sunny day, resent the blue sky, detest the sound of children playing outside?

Reblogged from winesburg, ohio
March 10th, 2010
Faulkner, never one to do things halfway, made extravagant use of standard modes of reentry in New Orleans, not merely geographical and perhaps sexual modes, not merely alcohol, but also a regular repertory of disguises. In the Vieux Carre he made appearances as a wounded veteran with swagger stick and a bogus steel plate in his head, a hard drinking pre-hippie vagrant Left-Bank type –and wrote Mosquitoes, a not very good novel. It took the ultimate reentry, the return –he had to go home- to write The Sound and the Fury. Even then, he had to “be” a farmer on the side. Later he made the grandest Southern reentry of all, as a Virginia horseman.

Walker Percy in Lost in the Cosmos, discussing what he called reentry: the difficulty we face in returning to ordinary reality after transcendent experiences. That transcendence is not sustainable is one of the catastrophes of human consciousness: one evolutionary function of the mind is to attend with heightened awareness to what is novel while codifying our reactions to it so it no longer remains so but becomes, rather, rote, unconscious. This aids in survival, but diminishes all experiences over time so that no joy, no lust, no drug, no thrill remains as vivid as when first experienced.

(Note: this, too, involves the machinery of memory; whether and how memories of an event are made tells us as much as our perceptions do of how we experienced it).

This is a problem for us all, and the awkwardness of moving between euphoria, transformation, and joy and the tedium of reality, with its traffic, gas pains, and wrinkled shirts explains why popular media usually chooses one or the other realm and stays there. Percy catalogs with special amusement, however, some of the methods artists in particular must use to achieve transcendence —abstraction from immanent, banal reality— and then navigate their return from it. The entire section recalls Kierkegaard’s discussion of the aesthete’s reliance on rotation and repetition in lieu of deeper metaphysical or moral commitment, which is fitting.

It’s also quite funny to think of Faulkner in such terms. See here for an illustration of the transcendence-reentry problems facing Kafka and the casual music listener.

November 10th, 2009
She’s the girl of our dreams, Americans! …Prodigal she is with her own perfection, lip tucked, pencil scratching her head. She holds herself too cheap, leaves her gold lying around like bobby pins.
Walker Percy in Love in the Ruins quoted by Cosmopsis. I love this novel; I love it more even than The Moviegoer, which is probably better.
Reblogged from COSMOPSIS
October 26th, 2009
Perhaps the biggest question of all is whether the process of inquiry that has revealed so much about the universe since the time of Galileo and Kepler is nearing the end of the line. “I worry whether we’ve come to the limits of empirical science,” says Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University. Specifically, Krauss wonders if it will require knowledge of other universes, such as those posed by Carroll, to understand why our universe is the way it is. If such knowledge is impossible to access, it may spell the end for deepening our understanding any further.

Petichou linked to an article on some of the preoccupations of contemporary physicists, and I was struck by the paragraph above; Krauss’ is a curious concern.

It is often noted that one of the defining qualities of our universe is its comprehensibility, but it might just as well be said that comprehension is a defining quality of mind. This symmetry between the knowable universe and the knowing mind reflects an important quality of the latter: it does not merely observe, record, and inductively detect intelligible connections.

Rather: it encompasses, interiorizes, virtualizes, and explains holistically. That is to say that the mind is an organ which can contain within itself accurate models of all phenomena in the form of explanations. These models are akin to virtualizations: we can recreate within our minds even what we cannot observe, and we can do so such that those recreations are astonishingly isomorphic to their real counterparts.

This is the metaphorical basis for cognition: we construct metaphorical models (theories, ideas, terms) which retain the logical properties and relations of their subjects so that we are not dependent on accessibility for knowledge. We cannot, for example, see the Big Bang; the perplexing flow of time prevents it. Yet we can model it with incredibly acuity, and our virtualizing computational minds allow us to extract from those models conclusions which predict and explain the behavior of the physical universe.

Nothing about the multiverse would be different, regardless of its observational accessibility. I am surprised to read Krauss’ epistemological anxiety, since it would be an event unprecedented in the history of physical reality were we to encounter something fundamentally incomprehensible. I imagine David Deutsch, in particular, would object that such a development would be unlikely given the evolution of mind within physical reality, an evolution which has allowed the former to contain the latter with profound accuracy.

(In this sense, mind –including its externalized components, such as computer networks- may be the only element of reality which can in theory contain reality, although Walker Percy claimed that mind cannot, as a semiotic matter, contain itself: hence the success of the sciences and the failures of modern selfhood).

June 13th, 2009
We could tolerate their odd sexual behavior, but they were also sentimental and cruel -or rather sentimental, therefore cruel. One goes with the other. They are mainly interested in self-esteem… They do not know themselves or what to do with themselves.

Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos, in which he proposes a thought experiment involving aliens interacting with humans from which the above comes: an alien’s description of human consciousness.

I adore Lost in the Cosmos, but what struck me about this passage was that it echoes something Hemingway wrote in a Nick Adams short story called “Fathers and Sons,” which I posted some time ago:

"…he was sentimental, and, like most sentimental people, he was both cruel and abused."

This consensus association of sentimentality and cruelty is precisely the sort of insight for which one must rely on literature, and it reminds me of many in my life, and indeed of myself, and I wonder: why should this be so? What determines this connection? Of what coin are sentimentality and cruelty the two sides? Excessive regard for the feelings of the self? Is it that both reflect the abandonment of social protocols in favor of the freely-expressed emotions of the petulant, volatile inner self, now fawning and now frothing, now extolling and now excoriating, now sweet and now savage?

Our society tends towards easy sentimentality; does it also tend towards emotional cruelty?

March 15th, 2009
Were we to describe the so-called “Copernican Revolution” in brief, we might put it this way: predictive power grew ever more irresistible.

William T. Vollmann, Uncentering the Earth. Vollmann notes that what made the groping progression away from geocentrism (and other errors in astronomy) inevitable was less that they were not explanatory -they were, and worked with our metaphysics at the time!- but that they were not predictive.

Walker Percy felt this was a major element of the paradigmatic shift to what he called “scientism” in the West: as technology has become the most important concern of our civilization, the predictive capacity of any system of knowledge has become how we judge that system’s value. Technology needs theories that can predict how it can relate to and dominate the natural world: so what tells us what will happen is more important than anything else told.

Science has supremely powerful predictive capacities; it has very powerful explanatory capacities, although those explanations must necessarily be developed in inhuman language; it has virtually no capacity for generating human meaning. That is: it is observational, predictive, explanatory only in the ways dictated by the natural world’s contours.

Culture (religion, art, politics) has less powerful predictive capabilities (most believers will admit that its predictions are either eschatological or vague: this will happen to you at the end of time; this will happen after death; but nothing about what will happen to you if you inhale this or that bacteria or travel at a speed approaching that of light; and its predictions do not expand and refine themselves). Culture is better at providing morality and meaning, however, because it can exist apart from the natural world in the world of the mind and heart and in the language of human experience.

I note this only because I found Vollmann’s condensation fascinating: here is the point in which our obsession with understanding and predicting phenomena -with mastering the natural world and the future- begins to supersede our adherence to value systems of another sort.

"Predictive power grew ever more irresistible…” sounds almost Faustian. And perhaps it is.

January 4th, 2009
[This concludes the long autobiographical photo-posts of the last few days; I apologize if they’ve been boring!].
In The Moviegoer, Walker Percy describes the transformative power of celebrity with a vignette about young Yankee honeymooners idly -and with increasing malaise- strolling the French Quarter of New Orleans before running into the movie star William Holden:
"They are not really happy. He is afraid that their honeymoon is too conventional, that they are just another honeymoon couple. No doubt he figured it would be fun to drive down the Shenandoah Valley to New Orleans and escape the honeymooners at Niagara Falls and Saratoga. Now fifteen hundred miles from home they find themselves surrounded by couples from Memphis and Chicago. He is anxious; he is threatened from every side. Each stranger he passes is a reproach to him, every doorway a threat. What is wrong? he wonders. She is unhappy but for a different reason, because he is unhappy and she knows it but doesn’t know why.
Now they spot Holden… The boy perks up for a second, but seeing Holden doesn’t really help him. On the contrary. He can only contrast Holden’s resplendent reality with his own shadowy and precarious existence.”
But Holden needs a match for a light and the boy casually provides it, with blase nonchalance, earning a pat from Holden and something much more:
"He has won title to his own existence, as plenary an existence now as Holden’s, by refusing to be stampeded like [the other tourists]. He is a citizen like Holden; two men of the world they are. All at once the world is open to him…"
So far as I know, The Moviegoer was one of the earliest explorations of how fame and mediated imagination, in the form of Hollywood films, both contribute to and heal existential torpor, reducing the vitality of ordinary life but offering a more vital life you might purchase tickets to. I bring it up because the phenomenon fictionalized above was enacted for me on New Year’s Eve in New Orleans, a photoset of which can be found here.
For me, Will, and S., the evening was that rare thing: a night of exaggerated, sometimes desperate expectations of debauchery that nevertheless succeeds in being fun. But I had friends whose demands of the evening were more concrete than mine: while I was pleased to photograph various absurdities and enjoy gallons of Diet Coke, an acquaintance from Houston demanded with increasing frenzy that we get him…
…where? To some place of critical human density where girls would accept his advances because all flesh was indistinguishable? Where the noise and darkness and alcohol would make physical intimacy the default arrangement between the sexes? Where he’d find -through glazed unseeing eyes and a blacked-out mind- something that would fulfill him?
I don’t know, but as we illegally set off fireworks in the Garden District at Eric’s annual party -from a house as quintessentially New Orleans as any you’ll find- my drunk out-of-town friend was livid. He wanted to get to the French Quarter, and immediately.
So I pointed out to him that Jennifer Coolidge, the actress from Best in Show and various other movies, was with us; she’s a friend of Eric’s and -unlike my drunk friend- was thrilled to be shooting off fireworks in the heart of the city.
Immediately, he was transformed. Nothing was dull or delayed anymore. He went to her, slurred whatever he thought appropriate at her, demanded that I photograph them (in this way not matching the coolness of the character in The Moviegoer), and finally shut up about the Quarter, where we went anyway afterward, before wrapping up the night at F&M’s.
It was fascinating to see it: in her glow, such as it was, he no longer felt that his time was wasted; he felt alive and engaged and thrilled simply because he was near her, though he knew almost none of her films and has no interest in movies. But I suppose I am the same way about other phenomena: a giant waterfall, heavy snows, art, etc. And it isn’t different.
He and I both rely on things external to ourselves to feel that time is meaningful; without elevating distractions, we worry that life is not only elsewhere but is evading us, sharing its riches with others, and we desperately hurry to the next landmark, the next vista, the next celebrity.
Combatting this phenomenon is too hard for a resolution, so instead I hope merely to note it and dislike it neither in myself nor in others.

[This concludes the long autobiographical photo-posts of the last few days; I apologize if they’ve been boring!].

In The Moviegoer, Walker Percy describes the transformative power of celebrity with a vignette about young Yankee honeymooners idly -and with increasing malaise- strolling the French Quarter of New Orleans before running into the movie star William Holden:

"They are not really happy. He is afraid that their honeymoon is too conventional, that they are just another honeymoon couple. No doubt he figured it would be fun to drive down the Shenandoah Valley to New Orleans and escape the honeymooners at Niagara Falls and Saratoga. Now fifteen hundred miles from home they find themselves surrounded by couples from Memphis and Chicago. He is anxious; he is threatened from every side. Each stranger he passes is a reproach to him, every doorway a threat. What is wrong? he wonders. She is unhappy but for a different reason, because he is unhappy and she knows it but doesn’t know why.
Now they spot Holden… The boy perks up for a second, but seeing Holden doesn’t really help him. On the contrary. He can only contrast Holden’s resplendent reality with his own shadowy and precarious existence.”

But Holden needs a match for a light and the boy casually provides it, with blase nonchalance, earning a pat from Holden and something much more:

"He has won title to his own existence, as plenary an existence now as Holden’s, by refusing to be stampeded like [the other tourists]. He is a citizen like Holden; two men of the world they are. All at once the world is open to him…"

So far as I know, The Moviegoer was one of the earliest explorations of how fame and mediated imagination, in the form of Hollywood films, both contribute to and heal existential torpor, reducing the vitality of ordinary life but offering a more vital life you might purchase tickets to. I bring it up because the phenomenon fictionalized above was enacted for me on New Year’s Eve in New Orleans, a photoset of which can be found here.

For me, Will, and S., the evening was that rare thing: a night of exaggerated, sometimes desperate expectations of debauchery that nevertheless succeeds in being fun. But I had friends whose demands of the evening were more concrete than mine: while I was pleased to photograph various absurdities and enjoy gallons of Diet Coke, an acquaintance from Houston demanded with increasing frenzy that we get him…

…where? To some place of critical human density where girls would accept his advances because all flesh was indistinguishable? Where the noise and darkness and alcohol would make physical intimacy the default arrangement between the sexes? Where he’d find -through glazed unseeing eyes and a blacked-out mind- something that would fulfill him?

I don’t know, but as we illegally set off fireworks in the Garden District at Eric’s annual party -from a house as quintessentially New Orleans as any you’ll find- my drunk out-of-town friend was livid. He wanted to get to the French Quarter, and immediately.

So I pointed out to him that Jennifer Coolidge, the actress from Best in Show and various other movies, was with us; she’s a friend of Eric’s and -unlike my drunk friend- was thrilled to be shooting off fireworks in the heart of the city.

Immediately, he was transformed. Nothing was dull or delayed anymore. He went to her, slurred whatever he thought appropriate at her, demanded that I photograph them (in this way not matching the coolness of the character in The Moviegoer), and finally shut up about the Quarter, where we went anyway afterward, before wrapping up the night at F&M’s.

It was fascinating to see it: in her glow, such as it was, he no longer felt that his time was wasted; he felt alive and engaged and thrilled simply because he was near her, though he knew almost none of her films and has no interest in movies. But I suppose I am the same way about other phenomena: a giant waterfall, heavy snows, art, etc. And it isn’t different.

He and I both rely on things external to ourselves to feel that time is meaningful; without elevating distractions, we worry that life is not only elsewhere but is evading us, sharing its riches with others, and we desperately hurry to the next landmark, the next vista, the next celebrity.

Combatting this phenomenon is too hard for a resolution, so instead I hope merely to note it and dislike it neither in myself nor in others.

Loading tweets...

Twitter

Photography

Hello! My name is Mills Baker. I write about art, culture, love, philosophy, memory, history, and more. Here are some relatively better posts. This site has been featured on Tumblr Tuesday and is listed in the Spotlight, but it pines for its youth as a coloring book. (Header lettering by the amazing Chirp).