Ashford, Emerson and Galileo

Emerson's essay "Experience," through the eyes of Will Ashford

Gladly we would anchor, but the anchorage is quicksand. This onward trick of nature is too strong for us: Pero si muove. When, at night, I look at the moon and stars, I seem stationary, and they to hurry. Our love of the real draws us to permanence, but health of body consists in circulation, and sanity of mind in variety or facility of association.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Experience” (1844)

Above is an image from Will Ashford’s series “Recycled Words.” In explanation of his process he writes,

When I find a good candidate I explore every page. Like an archeologist I hunt for the words that speak to me with new meaning. Intuitively, one word at a time, they turn into a kind of haiku or philosophical poetry that I can call my own.

At some unpredictable point along the way, in my mind, the images start to invent themselves. Using colored vellums, graphite and or India ink to highlight or obscure my words; I create the image of that invention. Though I strive to make each document visually engaging I find it is the words that I value most.

Go here to see the rest of his work. I absolutely love the manner in he takes which what was already art  and recreates and redefines it, making it wholly his own.

As a complete aside, I’ll confess that one of the reasons that I was so drawn to this particular page of his body of work was because it contained the line “peru si muove,” or more commonly written as eppur si muove (“and yet it moves”). Despite the fact that the phrase is nearly grayed out in the final work, my eyes instantly found it. According to myth, this phrase was spoken by Galileo at some point after his trial by the Roman Inquisition, after having had to recant his heliocentric theory. The accounts vary, claiming he said it either at the trial itself, while under house arrest, or later on his death-bed. It may very well be the case that he didn’t even say it at all, but as with Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake,” it hardly matters.

I don’t know what it is about this particular phrase, but it has always, to me at least, represented a kind of both sadness and strength that I find difficult to put into words. On the one hand, it expresses a sadness about the state of the world and the ignorance of the masses. The earth does and will move, despite what everyone wants to believe. I suppose many scientists must still feel that way when faced with the blind ignorance of people who refuse to acknowledge basic scientific fact in favor of some unsubstantiated, and in many cases clearly refuted, belief system. It’s also the sadness that I feel when confronted with homophobia, racism, or any other kind of social injustice. Those ideas are driven by the same kind of ignorance that placed Galileo under house arrest so many centuries ago.

On the other hand, the phrase also symbolic of the resolve to continue to proportion one’s belief to the evidence, as Hume would say. Even more than that, it speaks to the strength to believe in something despite its unpopularity, or even the danger that one may bring to oneself by believing it. It invariably reminds me of the Scopes monkey trial, or Giordano Bruno at the stake; it also calls to mind those that risked their lives in the Underground Railroad, or during the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s.

I’ve often responded to the many conversations I’ve had with fundamentalists or bigots with a low “and yet it moves” muttered under my breath. Granted, they may have no idea what I’m talking about, but at times like that, what else is there to say?

JFK, the Umbrella Man, and Thomas Pynchon

A couple of days ago I wrote a post about revisiting once-read books, and all the dissonance that it can potentially cause. In that post, I referenced a conversation that I had with someone who had just read The Crying of Lot 49 for the first time, and who did not particularly enjoy it. He asked me what it was that I liked about the book, and the general theme of my rather long-winded answer was nostalgia. I liked the book because of what it meant to me at a certain point in my life. Ok, I’ve already written about that, so why bring it up again… and what, if anything, does that have to do with JFK? Well, as a result of that post came quite an interesting conversation.

In that post I mentioned that COL 49 is essentially a book about entropy. It’s very much about the process of sifting information from noise and preventing the “system” (in this case, Oedipa’s life) from falling to entropy. One of the criticisms that he had leveled against the novel dealt with the way Pynchon addressed and introduced topics such as Information Theory or Maxwell’s Demon, seemingly haphazardly and half-heartedly. Through the course of the conversation, however, we agreed that the work itself, in postmodern fashion, was a true “open work.” That these seemingly casual mentions were really carefully placed “tools” that the reader would need to become an active participant in the text.

Throughout the narrative Oedipa Maas, our fearless protagonist, is essentially acting as Maxwell’s Demon, trying to create order and sense as everything around her becomes chaotic. In her quest for the truth, she is actively sorting information and staving off entropy. In fact, in the final scene where she searches the crowd for the secret bidder, in deciding to continue her quest, she effectively claims a (temporary?) victory against entropy.

“Oedipa sat alone, toward the back of the room, looking at the napes of necks, trying to guess which one was her target, her enemy, perhaps her proof.”

Mirroring this, as the novel progresses, the reader is also fed constant strings of information, and in order to make sense of things, as much as is possible, we, too become a Maxwell’s Demon and sort. Like Oedipa, the reader must realize that the only way to survive entropy is to continually try to create meaning. The structure of the novel itself leaves us no choice.

One thing that became apparent was that the more layers that Oedipa peeled away, the further away she got from any clarity.  Questions did not lead to answers, they led to more questions, and information became drowned out in a deluge of noise.

Now here’s where JFK and the Umbrella Man come into play. Last week, on the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, the New York Times released a short documentary by Errol Morris titled “The Umbrella Man.” 

The documentary did not add fuel nor fire to any of the extant conspiracy theories that still surround JFK’s death, rather, it referenced that in historical research, there may be a level analogous to a “quantum dimension,” where normal rules simply do not apply, that once a certain level of detail is reached, the thread of meaning begins to dissipate.  In other words, that the historian may find him or herself in a position similar to that of Oedipa Maas, peeling away layers only to find more questions and more possibilities. In reference to why he made the movie, and what it was about the Kennedy assassination that drew him in, Morris writes,

What is it about this case that has led not to a solution, but to the endless proliferation of possible solutions?

At very start of the documentary, Josiah Thompson states,

“In December 1967, John Updike was writing [the] ‘Talk of the Town’ [column] for the New Yorker and he spent most of that ‘Talk of the Town’ column talking about the Umbrella Man. He said that his learning of the existence of the Umbrella Man made him speculate that in historical research there may be a dimension similar to the quantum dimension in physical reality. If you put any event under a microscope, you will find a whole dimension of completely weird, incredible things going on. It’s as if there’s the macro level of historical research, where things sort of obey natural laws and usual things happen and unusual things don’t happen, and then there’s this other level where everything is really weird.”

And all that, of course, is under the assumption that what the “umbrella man” claimed to be true was, in fact, true. This could go on and on, ad infinitum. It’s almost as if Pynchon wrote the story of the umbrella man himself.

In the New Yorker column that Thompson referenced, Updike wrote,

We wonder whether a genuine mystery is being concealed here or whether any similar scrutiny of a minute section of time and space would yield similar strangenesses—gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles in the surface of circumstance. Perhaps, as with the elements of matter, investigation passes a threshold of common sense and enters a sub-atomic realm where laws are mocked, where persons have the life-span of beta particles and the transparency of neutrinos, and where a rough kind of averaging out must substitute for absolute truth. The truth about those seconds in Dallas is especially elusive; the search for it seems to demonstrate how perilously empiricism verges on magic.

What the umbrella man seemed to illustrate was that the historian, and, well, anyone who pokes and prods at the world around them in attempt to understand and establish “truth” has to essentially become their own Nefastis Machine or Maxwell’s Demon, and begin the Sisyfusian tasks of sorting the information from the noise and holding entropy at bay. We, like Oedipa Maas, must all keep striving daily to create meaning.

Here’s a short excerpt from the Morris’ “Umbrella Man.” The video in its entirety can be found here. Well worth watching.

The Lost Art of Commonplacing

I recently finished reading the last of the “books about reading” that I had sitting on my coffee table.  This one was a collection of essays by Robert Darnton, the author of the essay on Old Regime pornography that I blogged about recently.   In this collection, titled The Case for Books, he writes about the role of the printed book and the research library in this ever-increasingly digital age.  He ultimately finds a place for both.

Of the essays, however, the one that has lingered in my mind these past couple of days is about the early modern European practice of commonplacing. It’s an essay titled “The Mystery of Reading” that was expanded from an article he had written for the The New York Review of Books titled “Extraordinary Commonplaces.” He writes,

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it . . . They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

A page from Milton's commonplace book.

I had completely forgotten about commonplacing until Darnton sparked my memory. I first learned about commonplace books in an undergraduate literature course on Milton. Our professor, an elegant and intelligent woman, introduced us to Milton’s commonplace book, and at that moment I decided that I was going to keep one.  That same afternoon I rushed to the university bookstore and picked up a beautiful leather-bound journal, and for the next 7 years or so I filled it with quotes from books, snippets of poetry, song lyrics, impressions from my own life.  I carried it with me as I went to countless Grateful Dead shows, and on all my travels both at home and abroad.  I copied passages from Shelley while I sat in my favorite little inn in Annecy, and from  Proust (yes, that was when I read Swann’s Way) while sitting next to a little stream in cabin in North Carolina.  It grew with my experiences and with every book I read.  To an outsider it would have seemed like a disjointed and motley grouping of authors, musicians and poets (William Blake and Aldous Huxley, Tom Robbins and Voltaire, Steely Dan and Sartre), but to my eyes it was a clearer reflection of me then a simple journal would have been.  It was may attempt to “make sense” of my world using the very tools that gave me my perspective, my books (and my music).

All the keepers of commonplace books . . . read their way through life, picking up fragments of experience and fitting them into patterns.  The underlying affinities that held those patterns together represented an attempt to get a grip on life, to make sense of it…

I nearly tore my home apart looking for it last night.  I still haven’t been able to find it. Although its pages (and inside covers, and margins) were filled over a decade ago, I never have even considered throwing it away, and the thought that it might be lost just breaks my heart.  I think I may stop at another bookstore on my way home and get another leather-bound journal, and start keeping another commonplace book.  We readers should bring back the lost art of commonplacing.



Happy Birthday Carl Sagan

Happy Birthday, Dr. Sagan. You are missed.

I remember the first time I heard Carl Sagan.  It was 1980, I was 8 years old, and I was absolutely riveted by what I was watching on the television.  Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, was on PBS, and at the moment I decided (an idea that stuck with me through my first year or two of college), that I wanted to be an astronomer.  I had always loved science, but this… this felt, even in my 8-year-old mind, as if I was somehow being given the key to understanding everything.

Since then I have followed Sagan and read his many, many books… all with that the same wide-eyed wonder of the child that used to sit, transfixed, in front of the tv.  He was the first to awaken my curiosity of science (a curiosity that I have never lost), and the first to make me feel that it was okay to be skeptical (being raised Roman Catholic, that was a big deal).

He would be 77 years old today, and in honor of his birthday, I wanted to post an excerpt from a presentation he gave after seeing a photo taken by Voyager I, of our planet appearing as a small speck of light in a sunbeam. Words that, in typical Sagan fashion, fill us both with wonder and perspective.  Enjoy.

Reflections on a Mote of Dust
We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity–in all this vastness–there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us.

It’s been said that Astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

— Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

A wonderful video of this, along with some beautiful words in honor of Dr. Sagan can be found here, on one of my favorite blogs, Bad Astronomy.

Thank you, Sky Maps, for the text reposted above.

Forbidden Fruit or Food for Thought?

I’ve been writing a lot lately about the nature and importance reading (and non-reading), the role of the reader, and the significance of the printed word.  Regardless of the genre, a good book can provide infinite food for thought, and it can certainly be said that reading is good for thinking.  But how about pornography?

I just finished reading an essay by Robert Darnton titled “Philosophical Sex: Pornography in Old Regime France.” I approached this essay with excitement because it combined some of my favorite subjects; French Intellectual History, Enlightenment philosophy, forbidden knowledge, and well… sex.  It did not disappoint, and in fact, it ended up being about more than I originally expected.  I have a good understanding of the use of pornography in pre-Revolutionary France as a vehicle for attacking social inequality, the Catholic Church, and the Absolutist monarchy of the Bourbons.  What took me by pleasant surprise was his underlying thesis that “like most forbidden fruit, [pornography] has served as food for thought.”  In short, that sex (and reading about sex) is good for thinking.

From Therese philosophe (1748)Darnton argues that in ancien regime pornography, carnal knowledge often lead to the opening of the mind, to philosophical knowledge. In fact, eighteenth century publishers referred to any book that was seditious or pornographic in nature as “philosophical books,” and they were often linked to freethinking.   These texts were good for thought both because they were social criticism, and because through them, the reader would be exposed to and guided though various philosophical complexities (in , for example, in Thérèse philosophe, the main character’s introduction to sexuality was paired with Cartesian dualism). In L’Academie des dames (1658), Octavie “gains intellectual maturity as soon as she loses her virginity,” and in the case Thérèse philosophe, it is only after her sexual awakening that she was able to become a philosophe in her own right, discussing physics, metaphysics, and ethics between bouts of physical pleasure. The Enlightenment desire to know (even illicit or dangerous knowledge), their reliance on the senses, and their emphasis on the importance of experience lent itself easily to sexual metaphor.

Darnton goes beyond the specific texts, however, and makes a broader argument that pornography and sexuality, by their very nature, are good for thinking.  He states that

sex is not simply a subject but also a tool, used to pry the top off things and explore their inner works. . . . it helps make sense of things.

He maintains that pornography helps people think in abstractions, that since the nature of social norms, cultural taboos, and sexual practices are constantly shifting, thinking about them and discussing them helps us think in terms of ambiguities. Moreover, reading historical pornography, according to Darnton, also offers us a chance to exercise our intellect because it puts us in a position to take an “ethnographic journey” through the customs of the past.

We live in a culture where pornography has lost its philosophical “edge,”  and where so much as discussing pornography or sex is viewed quite negatively.  Feminists attack pornographers (often correctly) for propagating images of women as powerless, unthinking sex objects, and modern pornography may very well be “antithetical to thinking,” but it wasn’t always that way, and it doesn’t have to be so now.  Instead of closing off pornography in some hidden room in our cultural libraries, viewed as illicit and taboo with no socially or culturally redeeming qualities, I think we would find that an open discussion about it can render it useful.  Maybe as a way of understanding the shifting nature of our sexuality, or as a means of adding to our arguments and understanding about gender and power, or maybe as a way to deepen our understanding of our culture. By understanding what attracts, what repulses, what excites, and what disgusts us, we can gain a better understanding of both our selves and our times.

In short, sex was, and can still be, good for thought.

Umberto Eco? Forget it!

In just six days I finally get my hands on a book that I have been waiting to read for over a year.  Umberto Eco‘s The Prague Cemetery will arrive at my door next Tuesday, and I feel like a child waiting for Christmas morning.  When this book was released last year in its original Italian, I attempted to work my way through it, to no avail.  My Italian is not nearly good enough to be able to appreciate the sheer beauty of Eco’s writing and the subtleties of his ideas.  I tried in Spanish, and although my Spanish is decidedly far better than my Italian, it was just not good enough.  So I waited, and pre-ordered, and then waited some more.

Now let me explain about my love (obsession?) with Umberto Eco.  I first encountered him during my freshmen year of college in an English Comp. class.  I was assigned The Name of the Rose.  I don’t recall the essay I wrote (for which I received an A, that I do recollect), nor do I remember much more about the class or the professor, but I do remember finding myself so completely lost in the world that he created and the words that he used to create it, that I instantly fell in love.  I began to obsessively read and reread everything that I could get my hands on that he had written. I read Foucault’s Pendulum (to this day, my favorite), Baudolino, The Island of the Day Before, and before long I was reading his non-fiction, knee-deep in semiotics, literary interpretation, and once again, his beautiful, beautiful words.  For the last 20 years I have revisited Eco often, and always on the look-out for something new (I even celebrated his release of On Beauty with a relatively pricey bottle of champagne).

So here I am again, less then one week away from his new book.  Impatient.  Excited.  And finding myself abandoning my other readings (even Peter Gay, another intellectual rock star), to immerse myself in Eco.  For the moment, in his essays.  Namely, “An Ars Oblivionalis? Forget it!,” a serious essay he penned in 1966 after not-so-serious conversation over a  few glasses of wine with his friends and colleagues.

Whetting my appetite for new Eco with an old favorite.

They attempted to construct non-existent (and impossible) new academic disciplines, of which ars oblivionaris, or the art of forgetting, was among these “impossible sciences.”  The essay begins with Eco’s usual warmth and humor, and rapidly becomes quite a scholarly article on the impossibility of voluntary forgetting, since, as Eco explains, memory is grounded in semiotics, and semiotics produces presences not absences.  He concludes that perhaps the only way to “produce oblivion” is via addition. Instead of attempting to remove a memory, confuse it.  He writes,

“There are no voluntary devices for forgetting, but there are devices for remembering badly…. One forgets not by cancellation but by superimposition, not by producing absence but by multiplying presences.”

I think it was Cicero who once quoted Themistocles as saying “What I don’t want to remember, I remember; yet what I want to forget, I cannot forget” (Nam memini etiam quae nolo, oblivisci non possum quae volo).   This common desire to occasionally and voluntarily sip from the River Lethe makes this essay strike a personal chord. Let’s face it, we all have things we would rather forget.  But its not only the subject matter.  As is the norm with Eco, his ideas and the expression of his intellect make any subject that he decides to tackle instantly consuming.  His joy of language and of intellect is contagious, and reading his work invariably brightens my day.

Next on the Eco reading list, an interview with Eco regarding lists (yes, lists), and Baudolino, where “lying about the future produces history.”